For several years, Megan Bussen has been the cheerful presence behind the counter at C&G’s Smoking Barbecue in the bustling multi-culti mini-mart at 48th & Nicollet. But until recently, many of her customers were unaware that the redheaded woman who serves up their savory catfish, ribs, fries and sandwiches with a smile and a shot of positivity has been to hell and back.
Last year, Bussen self-published her memoir, “Regarding Megan Marie: Conquering Depression and Acquiring the Skill of Happiness” (Orange Dragonfly Publishing), and she usually has a copy on hand at C&G’s to pass along to anyone she thinks might need it. The book chronicles Bussen’s journey back from two suicide attempts, and her harrowing and highly readable tale is nothing short of a riveting testament to the human spirit.
“I’ve been telling my story at Toastmaster speech competitions,” she said last Friday, as her friend and C&G’s owner Greg Alford cut brisket in the back kitchen for a wedding to be catered Saturday. “I basically start out by saying it’s hope, faith, belief, strength and courage that gets you there, wherever you want to be. Then I talk about my psychotic break in 2010 and how I hit rock bottom at 44 and how I slowly got my way out of that.”
Rock bottom for Bussen was when she drank a bottle of antifreeze, ended up in the Hennepin County Medical Center emergency room and spent 52 days in a locked-down psychiatric ward. When she got out, Bussen started her long journey out of the darkness to becoming a respected mental health advocate and volunteer at HCMC, now known as Hennepin Healthcare. “Regarding Megan Marie” is a frank and richly detailed account of that journey and comes highly recommended to anyone dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts.
“In eight years, through steps and a lot of what they call ‘focus on the good journaling,’ I’ve been able to accomplish my story, which I never could imagine I would. It’s a hope story,” said Bussen, who also writes in the book about the lives and times of her big extended South Minneapolis family.
“They’ve all read it,” she said. “The part about our family is right on, but it’s kind of painful, too. They’re proud of me. They’re super-proud of me for stepping out and telling my story. But when I left (Hennepin Healthcare), I never thought I’d write a book. Did I even have a story? Did anyone even care? And I discovered, yes, it is a needed subject.”
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote attributed to the ancient Egyptian philosopher Philo, and, given her advice to everyone wondering how to treat people suffering from mental illness, it could also be Bussen’s.
“Who I really want to reach out to is the teenagers, because [teen suicide] has just gone through the roof,” she said. “What I would tell the teenagers, what I would want to hear is, ‘Dare to be different, don’t be a bully and look out for those kids who might be in a dark place and try and help them. Kindness. [Be] kind, kind, kind. Keep them close to you and check in with them.
“‘Take that five minutes, please, to sit down with a friend, co-worker, loved one, and not just ask them how they’re doing physically, but mentally.’ If there was more of an open talk situation, people wouldn’t have such a stigma against depression. It’s a disease, like any disease.”
Pop culture is perpetually rife with suicide stories and other various death wishes. At the moment, the genre is represented by the local Dark & Stormy Theater company’s production of “Night, Mother” and HBO’s tedious goth-athon “Sharp Objects.” Weekly headlines bring news of suicide, and suicide prevention efforts (hotline: 1-800-273-8255) have ramped up in the wake of suicides by Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chris Cornell and others.
“Even with these people who everyone thinks has everything — Kate Spade, Robin Williams — obviously they didn’t feel like they could tackle their problems by talking about it,” said Bussen. “So finances have nothing to do with it. It just proves that mental illness is totally real. I think my story could’ve been helpful [to Williams, et al], I really do. I got Cs in high school and college English. After Robin Williams committed suicide, a friend suggested I write my book. Granted, I am not really a writer, but somebody was with me on this book. It was my guardian angel, I believe. It was my New Year’s resolution. I didn’t pick up a pen until Jan. 1. I sat in my spare bedroom, and I just started to write. It took me a year and a half. Now it’s in both (Hennepin Healthcare) gift shops.”
These days, Bussen speaks regularly at the outpatient psychiatric program at Hennepin Healthcare and attends weekly meetings of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She also meets one-on-one with people in the same position she once was — alive but afraid of life, living and themselves. When they ask her what to expect after being discharged from the hospital, Bussen doesn’t sugarcoat it: “I tell them, ‘I’m gonna be honest with you. It’s not going to be easy. You’re not going to have people giving you hugs and giving you flowers, like you would if you have cancer, diabetes, heart disease. You’ll have people who judge you and say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Get back on your feet.’ There’s people who are just not going to get you, but that’s what NAMI is about.
“My Friday night NAMI group, it’s a big circle, and you introduce who you are and what your mental illness is and how your week went. A lot of these people have incredible fears. Fears of getting up in the morning, fears of facing the day, and I think the reason it works is because everyone in there has a common ground, which is mental illness, and we all understand each other, whereas a lot of outsiders will just never get it.”
A former dental hygienist, Bussen enjoys a full life, working at C&G’s, baking for fun and profit and volunteering at the hospital that saved her life. She’s sent copies of her book to Ellen DeGeneres and dreams of appearing on “The Ellen Show” to help destigmatize mental illness, and she’s currently gearing up for NAMI Walks Minnesota (Sept. 22, Minnehaha Park, 4801 S. Minnehaha Drive; namiwalks.org), all of which also helps to keep the demons at bay.
“I had two terrible weeks this winter, and in fact I went back to see a psychologist again,” she said. “This is like alcoholism. If I have two weeks of anxiety, I have to let them pass and forget about it. That’s a big problem with people with mental illness — they tend to want to ruminate and bring it back, bring it back, bring it back. They call it ‘ruminating,’ and I’ve learned that I can’t do that. I work so hard to keep those negative thoughts out and to let go of the things that are out of my control. Because my kids and I, we don’t have a very good relationship, but I have hope and faith that that will come.
“I still have my tough days. When I wrote this book, you know, OK, ‘conquering depression and acquiring the skill of happiness’ — it sounds like I’m back to normal, but that’s not true. It’s still there.”
Thankfully, others are learning from Bussen’s incredible journey, including the residents of the recently opened Crisis House in South Minneapolis, who receive copies of “Regarding Megan Marie” upon entering. What has the author/survivor learned from the writing of her book?
“I’ve learned happiness is a skill,” said Bussen. “I’ve learned how to love myself, which I don’t think I truly did; I thought I did. I learned spirituality comes from within, with myself — not just going to church, because that doesn’t give you that. But spirituality from within, which I carry with me every day.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].