Born in Israel and based in Brooklyn, Shira Erlichman is a nationally acclaimed poet, singer-songwriter, and visual artist. Passionate and prolific, Erlichman is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has shared stages with TuNe-YaRdS, Mirah, Coco Rosie, and Andrea Gibson. She has been awarded two residences: the James Merrill Fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and the Millay Colony Residency. She is finishing up her first book, Odes to Lithium. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed Reader, BUST Magazine, and Winter Tangerine Review, among others. Her album, Subtle Creature, was released in August 2016. Of her work, poet Ocean Vuong says, "Shira shows me that the mind's sanity is relative, but its beauty is total." In this interview, Erlichman shares her journey navigating Bipolar Disorder with brutal and intricate honesty.
Art as a Home Base
I’ve been making art since I was three, even younger. Playing the tiny keyboard, making pictures. That was the language I spoke. My name means song and poem, so my parents were kind of psychics and knew what they were doing in that regard.
I was an athlete for most of my life, too. There was a physical component to me that felt very artistic, and I actually felt very deeply creative and artistic through sports. It was essentially being a jock and an artist. They were both equal. I was playing soccer all the time. I was in many bands. Music, writing, and visual art. It was what made me feel the most connected, the most alive, the most empathic, the most myself. It’s like saying, “From what age were you breathing?” All the time. That’s how I feel about art. It was all the time, I’m making it.
I was lucky enough that my parents never put any qualifier. They never made me feel any way about making art or following art, which is kind of rare. They just encouraged it. They were real with me, like, “If you decide to go down this path, it can be really tricky,” and I would always kind of brush aside—now I’m like, “Oh my God, my Aba was right.”
To me, the art is a home base. It’s not a different planet before the breakdown and then another planet. It’s just always something I can return to. Art is definitely like an old friend. If you see them after a long time, things have changed, but there’s that core rest you can have with them. Recognition.
High Functional, High Producing
I come from Israel and I’ve experienced some war—the Gulf War. Now, in my 30’s, I’m able to look back and see in my childhood some things that perhaps were linked to PTSD. The smelling of gas masks when I’m sitting in my 5th grade classroom—that’s strange and kind of warrants a red flag. I was very insomniac at age 10, which, again, is it normal for a child to have that much trouble sleeping?
So when I look back, there are tiny flickers, but what made it harder when I had my diagnosis and breakdown was that I was a super high functional, high producing child and teenager and, actually, very well-adjusted. I had these grey periods, but I always compared myself to people who seemed to be really struggling. I was dating someone who seemed to be really struggling, cutting and doing all kinds of things I could distance myself from. There wasn’t really the capacity or language to say, “What is going on?” It was a lot of distancing. I wouldn’t say it was one of those cases where a kid has been dealing since they were 10 with depression or anxiety.
I was in my senior year of college. I’d taken a year off. I had already done a little bit of touring at that point, performing across the East coast. I was studying writing at Hampshire College. I had done things. I had traveled. I’d done a lot of independent things that make one feel very capable.
Quivering the Illness
The way it happened—it’s really interesting. Where does it begin, and where does it occur? Where is the manifestation, and where are the symptoms before? For me, I would definitely say about half a year before, there were some major shifts. It’s like a spider web: if you tug on one thread, the rest shake.
If I tug on one element, like my relationship at the time, who I was with, or if I tug on my spiritual practice at the time, I can see the way it relates down the line to quivering the illness. The way I think about it is there are plenty of people who can have some of the stressors I had, but didn’t have the predisposition to mental illness. It wouldn’t have caressed it and made it bloom.
I went back to Israel with my family to visit for the first time since 3rd grade. I wouldn’t have thought of that as stressful or as a psychic and physical shake-up. But now, I’m like, wow. I went back to my old house. There are a lot of memories. There’s a lot of trauma in Israel I experienced.
I was in a relationship at the time. I loved the person, but didn’t know how to get out of it kindly. There was nothing spooky or ill about it. But a lot of the inner tumult, having no therapist, having no one to talk to, maintaining the illusion it would be fine between us, and then also fearing what would happen—the tension of that.
And then, one of the biggest components—in the midst of it all, I started to get really involved spiritually. I used to meditate a lot. But it was taking me somewhere different. It was taking me towards literature less grounded in reality. I have a lot of respect for a lot of traditions that go outside the scope of our perceived reality, and it’s not to shun. I’m actually still interested in that.
But where I was heading, I really needed people to be like, “Why do you believe this? How do you believe this?” When you are leaning towards mania, having those types of beliefs can be really flammable. There was a lot of gasoline being poured from a spiritual perspective.
A Tide Coming In
It happened in the fall of 2006. That summer, I also had a bike accident. I fell in traffic and broke my toe. It really did shake me up in a life or death way, in a way I didn’t really integrate. I shook it off. That has been my personality in the past. When you play sports, you shake it off and keep going. That summer was when my mom says, “I saw, and I should’ve said something”—I got really isolated. I was really into meditation in a way that my feet weren’t really on the ground. My head was kind of floating upward.
I’d become vegan. I’d been vegetarian for a long time, but I wasn’t being vegan in a way that was healthy or nutritious. There were a lot of physical components that shifted in that time. Because I’d broken my toe, I was moving very slowly, so the physical component of not being able to get my energy out. I like to move my body. For me, with depression, it gets very linked.
I think it was a tide coming in. Depression started to come, raise itself above my head, and create this isolated fog. Then the mania came on. I started to really lose grip. Speaking to ghosts, having the thought that I was speaking to ghosts. Not sleeping.
The thing that is so strange to me is that it was so wide-lensed. Everyone thinks, “Oh, you go crazy, like the movies. You’re just suddenly crazy.” But there was such a domino effect. One little thing—it’s almost like 70 dominoes lined up in one track that all lead to one conclusion. By the time fall came around, it crescendoed. I was really out of touch with reality. Before that, again, very functional. I almost think the scariest cases are when you’re functional, and no one really knows. “Oh, she’s just talking about ghosts,” not knowing, “Oh, she’s actually in danger, and we need to support her.” Losing that home base and sense of ground.
The most important thing for me to express is that it really was one foot on Earth and one foot on this other place. One foot on Earth meant I went to classes. I was leading a class for my senior thesis. People would come to it. I was in charge. I had a lot of things I was responsible for. Then at the same time, it became when you slip into that world. I guess, disparagingly, it’s called “woo-woo.” This woo-woo world of, “Just feel your way through things.” There gets to be a flexibility of thought that isn’t really questioned and is dangerous for someone with a predisposition such as mine.
I had some people around me that were feeding the buds of delusion, blooming them into flowers. Watering them. Someone else might’ve been like, “I don’t understand what you’re saying, and I’m not going to pretend.” I was talking to a psychic. I have tapes probably in my closet at my family’s place that are full, recorded conversations before I was ill that I haven’t listened to. I haven’t been brave enough, haven’t wanted to be triggered enough, to go back there and hear my voice as someone trying to make sense of the world and her experiences through this pedagogy. It didn’t hold water.
The Pause That Comes With Agency
For me, the experience was—and it’s happened many times since then—that I get hooked on a story line, and, because of my illness, I didn’t have a space. There wasn’t a pause that one has when you have agency. There wasn’t the agency to be like, “Is this true? Should I follow through on this?” It means if you had the thought right now, “I have to get up and get some sugar in my coffee,” not only would you get up and do it, but there’d be a spiritual meaning attached to it. There’d be a kind of reverence and intensity on everything.
Speaking with ghosts meant that I was actually seeing aura blurs, like red, and yellow, and green. Some scientists would say, when you’re not eating and not sleeping, that’s a form of torture. You can actually hallucinate. I was having hallucinations. I would have aural ones. One time it was a choir. One time it was a kid laughing. I’ve talked to doctors and been like, “Is it schizophrenia?” And they’re like, “Well, when you take drugs, is that schizophrenia? And you have a high, and hear things and see things?” That’s not schizophrenia, but you’re tapping into something your brain is capable of doing or skewing.
For me, an important component is there is a very tight narrative. Every single breakdown has had an almost Nancy Drew-type mystery to be solved, something that needs to be done, and there’s an urgency, an intensity. It’s not just a random ghost. It’s like my grandmother’s ghost, and it means something for my family, and I should hurry and tell them. For me, that makes sense as an artist, to be a writer and have that kind of leaning, that it would manifest that way.
So I was living in this space of intensity and reverence, which I think artists get. That’s why they’re revered, especially sick artists. “We don’t want you change from this really wild, sick, crazy place, van Gogh, Plath, because we like it. It’s something that we can’t touch.” But at the same time, it’s exhausting, and ultimately not sustaining, and very dangerous. I was in situations I could’ve actually died. It’s because of where the delusions were leading me, and the people I was speaking to, and the lack of rationale, or of pause. I like to think of it as a pause.
A Quaking Fear That Couldn't Be Stopped
A lot of it is in pieces the way that trauma can fragment the mind’s memory, so whole pieces of your life, my life, months, are almost in a jigsaw puzzle on the floor. I recognize the shape, but I don’t know where everything goes. My family tells me I came home for fall break, right around October. Up to that, it was like, whoa, already I was losing ground, but my family couldn’t really get a sense of it.
My mom says when I came home, I was just talking and talking. Just nonstop talking, which is a symptom of mania—about so many things. I don’t even remember. Like, “I’m a prophet.” But also, I seemed grounded. It was very confusing, I think, for family to see the brain change and behave in this way.
I wasn’t sleeping, but in that realm, in that space, there’s no checks and balance. It almost feels like when you stay up really late, and you can’t tell the difference between day and night in high school. It felt like that for a long, long time. And it felt the norm, to have four hours of sleep. It was in my mission, in my energy, the way that everything was feeling, the urgency, like, “Of course I’m getting up at 3 AM to take wild notes about something and then go back to bed for two hours, and then get up again.” It just was so normal.
It did culminate. Essentially I got to this point where it spiraled. All of the narratives, there became a quaking fear that just couldn’t be stopped. I became very afraid for what all my narratives were saying, meaning, doing. I felt scattered.
The narrative that ended up coming to the forefront was that I was going to die. If everything else had been true before, like, “Oh, I should pick up this feather because it’s pretty and will mean something,” and then I’d do it—to have the compulsion towards believing I was going to die? You can imagine. If you’re stuck in a building and things are on fire, literally, and you think you’re going to die. Stretch that out for a day’s worth of time. It’s exhausting on the system. And I believed it.
I was screaming and becoming afraid. Just weeping, inconsolably. My dad rubbing my back. It was like the infrastructure of everything that had been built of this spiritual place I’d been was crumbling, narrative-wise and then just physically. You can only take so much. If we think of it as torture, that was the point where I break, and I tell on myself.
My parents brought me to a hospital. I was successful in the things that I was setting out to do, so they were just really shell-shocked. I honestly don’t remember much. It was just total storm. Rocking. And then suddenly, there’s this stillness, and I’m being sent to a mental hospital. I was sitting in a holding area with a nurse who was younger than me and being like, “It’s suddenly quiet.” And I’m left with—“This is insanity.”
"Stillness in Four Movements"
An excerpt from Stillness in Four Movements, by Shira Erlichman (courtesy of the artist); read the full version here
I just was like, “This is chaos, and something isn’t adding up.” Either I’m insane, or all my narratives are true and I need to follow them through, or else I’m going to die. I remember the young nurse sitting with me doing tic-tac-toe, me being like, “I really don’t think I’m going to recover from whatever this is.” She was like, “You absolutely are. Trust me.” And whether she was bullshitting me—she was probably like 19. I was 22. She was like, “I see so many people come through here. You’re going to be fine.”
But then moments later, I’m in a mental hospital, snapping back into that world, thinking, “Oh, this is part of my senior thesis, that I’m in this mental hospital.” The delusions, they go underwater very deep. You almost forget they’re there. And then they’re suddenly around your neck. It was very strange.
When I finally realized that I’m in a mental hospital, and that it’s not that I’m in the spiritual world, it’s that I’m in the physical world dealing with my physical being and all the chaos of it—that was the wake-up call.
I have been to it in different gradients. The first gradient was in that hospital. At the time, I refused medication. It’s a complicated feeling for me, because I ended up suffering so much because I refused. That night I was basically catatonic, which means I couldn't move. My thoughts and my being were so wrapped in fear. It was bad. I was really gone.
It essentially became that I said no, this happened, and then they were like, “We’re drugging her.” I probably couldn’t tell you all the names of the things they put me on. I could barely lift my eyelids. It was like being hit by a bus of dope.
At the same time, the way many things are both horrible and necessary, it put me in a state of stillness, like that waiting room with that nurse, where I couldn’t escape my body, my being. It felt like a shark fin was wrapped in my head, nose to fin, like there was this creature sitting in my head and underwater. The shark was trying to shake free, but it was in too tight a space.
Because I was in that weighted, drugged up place, it necessitated that I think about what happened and why I was here. It was like when people say a rock bottom and intervention of sorts for folks that have some kind of addiction. I hit a place where there was no longer any other explanation. I couldn’t reach for anything. I couldn’t do it.
I was going to be in that hospital for two weeks. That’s how long it ended up. My belief is that those spaces should be truly restorative, quiet, healing spaces. For me, they haven’t been.
But on a very surface level, just the quiet of it and the isolation, and the reality check of it. I’m in a mental hospital. I’m not here because I’m sane.
Stigma and Shame: Who is Shira?
That was when I was 22, and I’m 31 now. Since then, because of how intense stigma is, and culture and the way it all plays in, I found ways to talk myself out of being sick, to talk myself out of medication, multiple times.
It was embarrassing. That’s the way I felt. I had walked naked in my college campus apple orchard on a regular day, and then gotten on the phone and talked with my girlfriend. It was my feet being in two worlds, doing things totally dangerous and illicit but then having these totally normal, “Let’s go out for lunch and hang out” days. It was hard to reconcile who I was. I had a whole thing of, “I don’t know, then.” If I’m just the whims of my neurochemical process, I was like, what does that mean? If I would just do all these things because of some kind of snapping in my system?
What is my core being? Who am I? How could I have done these things? What does it mean about me? Can I really just be at the whim of the brain? I don’t even know what I exactly believed at that time, but definitely not that the brain was just a machine, and a fallible one, and a vulnerable one. I was really someone based in willpower, that you could just get things done. Soccer player, student. Like, let’s get things done, people. Then to think that the thing saying, “Let’s get things done” could end up being too burdened, overwhelmed, and ill to function, and would then malfunction—I didn’t even know how to reckon with that.
The embarrassment and shame—now, I don’t feel those as much. There are tiny moments, but because I’ve been talking about it so much and hearing other people talk about it, it sort of feels like extra. They’re not as useful. I just want to cut it off at the root in my life, so we can really get to the things that matter. Walking around naked in the apple orchard, that was a symptom of what was happening. It’s not who Shira is. I can have strength in that now, but I wasn’t sure in that hospital at that time. I was like, who is Shira?
Art as Life Raft
I had a good support system with my family, my mom and dad. I did that year at home. I didn’t go back to school. My mom literally spoon-fed me. My dad literally tucked me into bed. I was 22, and they were treating me in the way I had to be treated, with the kindness of a three-year-old. I think that support system and the therapy, all these things that they were also financially and time-wise capable of providing—and my mom in particular just really wanted me to have space to not feel stigma because of her own past with her mom, and I think was very open with me.
I made a lot of art, almost the second I got out of the hospital. I did a lot of visual art and painted self-portraits. And then turned to music and recorded an album called Elephant Waltz. It was just me in my bedroom with Audacity [the music program] and a bunch of little toys, just playing.
And my parents were very much the way they had always been with me, just hands-off, “Let her do her art, and that’s good for her. It’s beautiful.” My parents were really kind in immersing me in things that I loved. That’s just a very basic thing to do for someone who is sick. I had outlets. If you don’t have outlets like that and you have shame and embarrassment and sadness, it’s going to cave in. I had all these ways to fling it out at the world and look at it.
I think it’s really important for us as folks who deal with these kind of existential illnesses, in a way. It really shakes your faith in your center. So to be able to just make something external, and to see it—for me, that’s the way I’ve always seen myself. It’s a reflection, art, in many ways, not because it looks like me, but because it shows me me. Those outlets gave me a way to reckon with questions that could have absolutely swallowed me whole, and at some points, did.
My art at the time reflects a lot of playfulness. A lot of that album is toy pianos, children’s toys: accordions, tiny trumpets I had just gathered over the years. A lot of it, from the inside, is, “I just want texture. I want to hear noises I like. I want to touch colors I like. I want the sensuality of making to be engaged and yummy.” As a little kid, I remember putting tracing paper over Little Mermaid books and tracing her. There’s something truly yummy. It’s meditative. It’s like the quiet, embodied practice of just being immersed in lines and color and sound. Sound really takes me into a place so beautifully, outside and inside myself. It’s a little infinity loop. I can leave and come back in this really whole way. I think that was a life raft. Now, I can see it, but it was natural. It was just what I reached for. You’re in the water. I’m like, “That’s my life raft,” so I reached for it.
I definitely feel like once I make a good case for something, I follow through on it. It’s just part of the way I am with many things. Once I saw, “Okay, this is bullshit.” I even cut myself off from a relationship where a person, just a friend, had really been feeding my neuroses and my delusions. It’s not that I even fault her. I had to cut off from that feeding. I cut off from friends who were stigmatizers. Now I have a lot more room to have both feet on the ground and my shoulders settled and not be shaken by other people’s beliefs, but that took many more breakdowns. It took many more coming up from the depths.
The struggle is in the moment of being slapped, and then there’s the sting. But once the sting wears off, at least for me, I want to know the truth. And I trust myself enough, and I have the stability around me enough, to be able to move forward.
"I have a lot I want to do."
In the hospital, I refused medication. They doused me in it, gave me a cocktail to leave with. They were tweaking it as I was leaving the hospital and continuing to tweak it. I had terrible side effects. I don’t even remember all of them, but tremors, constipation, and just not feeling quite— When I think about it now, they weren’t quite treating my illness. They were treating psychotic break and depression. But for someone with Bipolar, as I would learn later, taking depression meds alone precipitates mania. At that point, because I’d had this psychotic element, it was balancing me, but in a way that wasn’t quite for Bipolar. I didn’t love it.
The therapy, in some ways, was limited. It was talk therapy. I’m grateful for that particular therapist, because it always feels good to unload in some regard. But we didn’t really go into some of the stuff that I think came up later that I needed. It was limited. I liked it at the time, but I really remember the outpatient, group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy. I still remember those things, and I still use them even when I’m not in crisis. There are tactics they gave me like, “Damn. Everyone should know this.” Whether you have an illness or not, it’s great to know how to calm your frontal lobe. It’s great to know which parts of your brain do what and how to engage with them, using math or using art. There were so many things they did that just felt like they were actually teaching a man to fish instead of sitting by the water all day, kind of looking at the water, giving him food.
I have a lot I want to do. I want to create a lot of things. I want to write books. I want to make music. At that point, I wanted to go back to school. I just felt like, on a functional level, I was okay with all these tweaking things, even if they were difficult. And they were. Some things, I was so tired, I couldn’t move. Once it was in an okay place, I wasn’t resistant. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t being robbed of my college years. I didn’t want to feel like I was up in a tower locked, the way some people had been in millennia, like, “You’re insane, so we have to keep you away, and you’ll just thrash about in a room, and that’s it.”
It’s one of things where I think a lot of people I talk to, now that I’m reading these Odes to Lithium poems, are like, “Oh, I don’t want to take medication because of the side effects.” And I was like, right, but the side effect of my brain off of these meds is that I walk naked through a field talking to trees. What side effect is worse?
That’s where I was then with medication, and I stayed on it for the rest of my senior year, and then I wanted to go off it. That had its own fate.
"I should be able to handle this now."
I went back to school, finished my senior year, finished a different thesis, was doing great. I really look at that time as super: I was in therapy, in school, on meds. I had an awesome community that was really loving and present. My parents were there for me for sure. Once I graduated, I decided to stay in the area. I was dating someone and lived with friends.
I had talked that summer before about going off of meds. There was a part of my mind that was like, “This seemed like it was just in me because I was doing all these things, getting into spirituality, going vegan, all those physical things, and I should be able to handle this now.”
In retrospect, I’m like, oh my God. But my therapist at the time was like, “Okay, I can see that. Why don’t we just tweak and go down?” I have a streak of capability and being very ferocious when it comes to doing things that I want to do. I think it didn’t quite register, and maybe there was some denial, too, on everybody’s part, like, “Okay, yeah. It was just this thing. It’s not really something we’re going to have to deal with for her whole life.” There’s the sentiment of, wow, you’ll have to deal with this for the rest of your life. It takes different stages for everybody, for me, them, to accept it.
I went off and had what I would describe as a yearlong mute depression, where I just couldn’t find it. I was like, what is making me feel—? It wasn’t enough to cause fireworks, but it was enough that I just felt almost—I think of artists going deep within and being in the washing machine, the spin cycle of questions and doubt. It had that feeling. That also was while I was graduating college and didn’t know what I was going to do, so there’s a lot that you can’t really tell apart the illness from just the circumstance. But it started to, again, spiral, and eventually led to another breakdown. That was different.
This time, I had all these physical manifestations. A lot of anxiety, my hand started hurting. I was getting all these neurological tests. The more I got into that world of getting tests, the more it hurt. I started wearing braces on my hands. Deep, deep restless anxiety. Again, almost along the lines of, “I’m going to die,” but it’s like, “Something’s wrong with me.” I was getting tests coming back and saying, “You’re fine,” but I was in so much physical pain. At one point, my hands—I was barely using them; they were all wrinkled up. It was terrible. It was this psychosomatic thing based on some beginning of literal pain, but then spiderwebbed into intense systemic, neurological—I remember just sitting there, like, “I’m in so much pain. I’m just sitting.”
I started having panic attacks. I went to a therapist. I’d actually been on tour with an amazing poetry troupe touring colleges and universities all over the country. Again, high functioning. No one would know. All the while buying books on depression, yoga for depression. Stigma had worked its way in. Shira, why aren’t you looking at your past? You have these things you could use. No, because that’s not me. I didn’t make the connection. I honestly think it was more I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to. It just didn’t click, though it seemed so obvious. I thought it was just depression and that there was another way to deal with it. This would be the second out of three times that this had happened, where it’s, “No, it’s not. I can deal with it,” and I’d go off meds again and do this to myself, because the stigma and the pull to be functional, whatever that is, was so strong.
They gave me depression meds. And like that, just boom—my whole body reacted to the depression meds, because I have Bipolar. I didn’t know what was happening. I would try to walk down the street, and then I would start running, and then I would stop, and then run. I just couldn’t control. With this break, it was medicine-precipitated, and I wasn’t delusional. I was just like, “What is happening to my physical body? I can’t control my body.”
There were ways that my parents, during that time—I was in crisis, and they could not respond in a way that was present for me. It ended up escalating. When I zoom out, I see that they didn’t have support. I didn’t have support. Structurally and societally, we lead people to their crisis with mental illness, because we don’t have structural supports in terms of stressful situations. I was at two, two, two, two, two—and then at eleven, it ended up being that I hospitalized myself.
It ended up being at 2 AM one night. I had gone to a hospital because I’d had all the panic attacks. I don’t remember exactly what happened with those doctors, but they gave me some kind of sleeping med that precipitated more mania. I woke up in a very, very, very traumatic state in the middle of the night, much like the catatonia, and tried to communicate to my parents. It became a vortex where they were so stressed that they were on fire, trying to put out the fire. And I closed the door to my bedroom and was like, “I have to figure out what I’m going to do. I have to figure it out.”
So I hospitalized myself, and actually didn’t speak to them for a while, for probably almost half a year, because it was such a catastrophic crescendo of all those events. I felt the stigma and the difficulty, and everything came to a head. In me as the person experiencing the illness in that moment, needing the most help, I had to make the decision to take care of myself in that way.
I think my anger gave me clarity. I felt very clear. I was like, “If I was bleeding right now, they would be helping me.” They would find a way to do something. They just didn’t know what to do and were saying things to me, and were at such a high escalation, literally yelling, which, for someone with mania, is physically painful. For me, being yelled at when things are too loud and I can’t breathe, that’s not helpful.
I literally shut the door and put my head against the wall to feel something cool, took a second, and was like, “The only option is to separate, to go to the hospital.” I didn’t want to go, but I grabbed a scarf and a tiny stone Buddha that a friend had given me a long time ago that was precious to me, and a book of Rumi poems, put them in a bag. I had my clothes and a jacket, and started driving to the hospital.
I heard an NPR special about a man outside of the boat that his friends were in, and the boat propellers ripped his legs apart. He was in the water, and everyone was horrified, and he was dead clear. He was like, “You guys, put the children on the back of the boat, cover their eyes. Someone needs to help me get on the boat. Someone needs to make a tourniquet.” He was very clear.
It’s not always like that. And for a few seconds, he described total chaos internally, but in the same way, in that moment, I had a lot of empathy for myself. I was like, “I’m sick.” And because there were no delusions, I wasn’t like, “I’m going to die,” or “My grandmother is speaking to me.” It was just, something’s fucked up, and I’m not getting what I need, and I need to get what I need. And these people love me so much, but they’re not giving me what I need right now. Hospitalizing myself was an impossible decision. I was so angry and so hurt. It’s double-edged, again, the things that are horrible are also necessary. It gave me the push to, unfortunately, be like, “I’m going to make these decisions when I’m in this totally different animal, totally different space.”
On a Different Mission
In the hospital, I was navigating six days with doctors that I found abusive, some of them, just feeling like this system is not correct. That’s actually when I was given Lithium for the first time, and I felt—that was huge. I literally felt a physical, just, “Whoa. This works.” I don’t feel like “It works, but.” It just works. I was just like, “Wow.” I think I was clear that it was Bipolar because of the way that the medication had worked—there was just no grey.
"Ode to Lithium #9"
Our first kiss wasn’t behind the high school. Not in the movie theater’s back row. Not after the first breakdown. It went like this: Me, released from the hospitaljail with a fresh prescription, one bag packed, staying at a friend’s house, with no exit plan or exist plan. Walking the length of a concrete road, I turned & asked: Has it been cloudy for days — & the sun just came out? She said: No, Shira. It’s been sunny all week. So then. It was your sudden mouth. Your broom that swept the sky of its minor chord. There’s no metaphor here. When I looked up, I saw the sun.
Ode to Lithium #9, by Shira Erlichman (courtesy of the artist)
When I’m looking at that, it’s like the more we take out some of the “woo” elements of things, the more you can just look at this being and be like, what is actually happening? What’s happening in you? Not “What does it mean about you?” which you wouldn’t do with cancer, necessarily.
I was on a different mission. I was like, “I’m not here to socialize. I’m just here to figure out what I need, get the medication, figure out my next steps, and leave.” There were people that were trying to talk to me in the hospital. I would literally just not even speak back to them, just pretend I was crazier than I was. I would play the games with the doctors. I knew how to get out of there quicker. I felt more equipped to use the system to get what I needed out of it, and leave. I stayed with a friend. It was all second by second, day by day.
Fear and Limitations: “How little support there is to do the right thing”
My parents, when I went to the hospital that night, were in the waiting room and asked to come see me, and I said no. I’m very close to my family. I love them, and they had been very supportive of me. And actually, in that moment, the best thing for me was to be like, “Absolutely not.” The best thing for me, even though this hurts me, is to say no and figure this out with this attendant right now. I was compartmentalizing so intensely the pain I felt, the anger at feeling like I had to do this alone, without my parents, the things they had said and done, and the anger I had towards them and their limitations—and fear. Now, I can see it as fear.
Whenever I speak about this, it’s very important for me to say that my parents paid for that hospitalization. I think that’s very imperative when we think about who slips through the cracks. Even when I didn’t have physical support from my parents, I had financial support. Even then, outpatient, they were paying for that, even though we were not speaking. They wanted to be speaking. They were calling me. My mom drove me from the mental hospital when I was released to my friend’s house, so I could stay with her for a week. We didn’t speak the whole time. She just drove me there. I stepped out and went.
It was being able to rely on, but also knowing that something, familial-wise, had been fissured and needed space in order for me to get what I needed. She describes it as the single hardest time. I think it had an impact, just trying to be there for me—she would send me cards. Asked me if it was okay, and I said yes, and she would send me cards.
It’s been really helpful, and a major point of growth, for me to look at every single personal experience of everybody involved as both in their own individual capacity, but then how little support, fundamentally, there is for people to do the right thing. What the hell, there is no first-aid kit for mental illness. There are first-aid kits for other things: “Stroke: these are the things to look for in the face, in the arm.” I’ve had friends whose family members have gone through a break, and only because they were friends with me when I went through mine did they know what to do.
I made a lot of choices about where I wanted to live and how I was going to make money. I’d just come off a tour, so I had money. I immediately started nannying. I moved to another town to have some space, about two and a half hours away. I was in a relationship, living in the same house, but with other roommates. At that point, I had just moved into their living room.
It was an adjustment period. I found a therapist, which was so fundamental and amazing at that point in my life. Talk therapy. It takes some time. I find one that does not work, and then one that is a good fit. I’m on medication. I made myself leave the house a lot. I remember one day, I was looking on Meetups, and I went to laughter yoga, or whatever. It was just people laughing in a room, and I was like, “This is so ridiculous, but I’m just doing this.” It was very slow going.
My therapist called it a freeze. I was just frozen. I had been in so much trauma that even my physicality was very closed. I wasn’t loose, capable of being flexible. I had to protect myself in many ways.
It took many months. I started speaking with my family in March or April, and I’d moved in October. In that time, really, I was just trying to understand how the family and the illness, how all of that goes together. What were some dynamics that weren’t good in our family, and what were some that I could rely on, that I could depend on? What were conversations I would need to have in order to feel like we had really understood what happened? I wasn’t speaking really to my brother at the time either, which was a source of pain. We’re very close.
Really taking space in order to understand. It’s strange to think the experiences that we have aren’t always red flags for us. I really felt like I was past it, and then to have it all happen again? And to have my family mixed up in it and feel like they weren’t there for me. Yeah, I was angry, and trying to figure out how to just get my feet on the ground again. I found things to keep myself busy, but it was taking space to really do that.
Making a lot of music, again. The album that would soon become Lamps was out of that whole time.
My brother had returned the guitar he borrowed from me. It was in this really weird tuning, and I actually really liked it. I took that guitar and began playing in something called Triple Drop D, which is all very low end. When you strike the low chords, if you hold the guitar, it rumbles your body.
The whole premise of that album is low rumbling. In a lot of esoteric wisdom, the low is your grounding, where your belly is, your gut. I think of myself, sitting on a mattress on a floor, in this new bedroom, in this house, holding a guitar very close to me. I don’t think it’s any kind of wonder that I enjoyed the presence of this low—it’s almost like getting a hug, that kind of low rumbling.
It’s a relationship with sound more than the structure of a song, or the content even. It really does feel like a friend. It’s a creature, an instrument, that makes an intonation back at you that you interact with. It’s like an animal.
That album was made over the time where I wasn’t speaking to my family to when I started to, so some of the songs are lighter. There are songs of anger, but there are also songs on there that more, I think, alone—not lonely. There’s songs about missing my brother. There’s definitely things that are heavier. With the music, definitely being able to submerge myself in that was like breathing. It was just like, I need this.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
My mom had suggested group therapy. I was running into a lot of walls with people I loved and loved me that didn’t experience mental illness. I started that, and that transformed my experience of myself and my illness.
It was DBSA. It has groups all over the country, peer-to-peer. There’s no therapist in the room. This was with just folks that suffer mental illness. It just rocked my world. At first I felt, “Who are these people? Why am I here?” And then I would just look forward to it every week and found such a commonality of language. People will read this interview. Some will say, “This is the Bipolar,” and some people will say, “This is a Bipolar experience.”
There were four different people who had attempted suicide, which I’d never had real inclination toward in my illness or experience. I also hadn’t had many friends who would really be open about it, so to hear different people talk about it, different ages, different races, different genders—I was like, “I don’t know shit about suicide.” And I’m somebody who is within the capacity and realm of actually ending up there because of my illness. It’s a huge facet of the conversation. Hearing people talk from their own experiences, and be so funny and so alive and real, and undefined by the able gaze—it’s really a learning point for me. Just amazing.
Healing: “Through tenuous terrain, they were still earthy.”
By the summer, I had been in regular conversations with my mom, which were very healing and some of the most honest conversations I’d had up to that point with her. I had repaired things to some extent with my brother, and to some extent with my father. They all had come to visit on their own volition, and that was really meaningful, having them come to where I had kind of set up a different life, just being with them. It was very hard.
I didn’t even realize this as much, but how important family is to me and to my family is not a stability some people have. Even through tenuous terrain, they were still earthy. They weren’t all over the place satellites who left me to my abyss. They just were limited and didn’t have the tools, and I felt that and needed my space from it. It took a while. We’re still healing from it. But it did feel like there some really concrete conversations and some visits that cemented it.
I would move again in August. But in May, I had another break, because they changed my medicine. I was having concerns about Lithium long-term, so they changed the medicine. The new medicine, one of the side effects was if you get a rash, you could be getting Stevens-Johnson disease. It’s very rare and life-threatening. I saw something appear on my skin when I took this new medication. Turns out it was not, but I think because it was skin, they were like, “We have to change you back to Lithium.” In that period, because Lithium has to titrate, I started to experience delusions, sleeplessness. But I had one foot more firmly in my structure: therapist, friends—we were able to catch it. But it was still very catastrophic physically.
I felt so gifted by my meditation practice. There was a part of me watching myself not be okay. I wasn’t just in it, drowning. I was like, “This is weird that I’m talking to trees,” even though I was so literally in it, talking to trees.
Honestly, to have a therapist to say, “Shira, okay. Some of the things you’re saying—I’m not really understanding what you’re saying and why you’re so afraid and anxious. We have to be honest about it.” That helped me. I didn’t have that at other points in time, the second time, the first time. Having that, and then having the capacity to reach out to my parents and say, “I’m very clear. This is what’s happening. I’m calling off of work. I’m in crisis. I’m okay. I have a therapist. I’m delusional. And I’m here.” That’s a gift, to be able to say all those things. Those things made it different. Also, again, just knowing the medication, I could go right back on, and it automatically did its magic. There was that stability.
My dad actually came and took care of me. He poured beef stew in a pot, and we would watch movies. But I had to take time off work. It’s a more complex story, but it ended up being that because I wouldn’t disclose the information of why I needed medical leave, I lost those jobs. They didn’t have me back.
I felt so supported by my family, in the illness. It was such a healing time to have my dad come and feed me, take care of me, give me good advice—be my dad. He slept on my floor on a sleeping bag. It was healing.
Moving to New York: "Let's rise to the occasion."
When I think about moving to New York, there are a couple tenets, one of them being that my ground had been shaken with what I wanted to do, which was probably a good thing, because as an artist, I was reaching a sort of plateau in Northampton. I was not challenging myself.
Then there was an invitation to host a book release of a friend in New York. I went on my own, a month after being sick. It was just like, “Do it. Go do it.” I met this person I started dating long distance, who I’m still dating now, five years later. It just happened to be this cocktail of “I don’t have a job anymore. I love where I live, but I feel I’m outgrowing it in a capacity artistically. And I met this great person and she happens to live in New York. And I loved New York when I visited.” Like, let’s rise to the occasion of what’s happening here.
There was that sense of “I have the ground underneath.” I’m not moving again on my own, really. My mom really gave me the thumbs up. She was like, “I think it’s good. I think it’s good that you’re doing this.” Not, “Oh, no. I’m worried about you. You’re fragile,” but “You can do this. It’s just a bump.”
Angel is the person I met at that time. It was one of those rarer meetings. I just had a feeling about her. I just had that feeling. I can’t really explain. We had dated for about three months, and we were joking at how lesbian it was if I was going to move there, the U-Haul and all that. But it felt very thought out. We waited to live together for about two and a half years into our relationship when I lived in New York.
The parts of me that I can rely on, that are thoughtful and planning and considerate, came into play. I was definitely nervous, but the structures that I needed were all there. I felt I was being challenged and pushed in a way that was really healthy. It wasn’t beyond my capacity.
Grounded and Honest: "I don't want to be that statistic."
This last breakdown was where it was really clear it was the medication. I decided to titrate down off of Lithium, because I felt so stable, which is a very common story. The psychiatrist I was working with didn’t really give me all the facts about what that means. First of all, I started doing it by myself, which is another warning sign. I felt that I could.
Ode to Lithium #107: essentially it says, “When I don’t medicate, I always reach the same place,” which is a cliff. “Every day knived sharper and doused in electricity,” which, just on a physical level, is what it feels like. Slowly, over time, things get sharper and sharper. Colors get sharper. Sounds get sharper. And then they’re doused in electricity, which is a very physical thing. Suddenly I can’t keep up with the electrical currents that are taking place in my whole being.
"Ode to Lithium #107"
Ode to Lithium #107, by Shira Erlichman (courtesy of the artist)
That one was the most recent. It’s probably the hardest to talk about. It was a year ago. I had been stable for about four years. I had been a proponent and activist in my own small, small ways, not to the extent I’m writing about it now, but I had been open. Like, “Yeah, I have this thing, and you should know it about me. It’s not all of me, but it’s a part of me.”
There’s a self-deception that can happen because of stigma that I’m very aware of now in ways that I never was. Because I was so grounded and present last year, working on my latest album, feeling really fortified and amazing—this last experience was actually most like my first experience. It was deeply delusional.
I was really convinced I didn’t have it, again. I was really convinced all these other narratives were true, narratives I created because of the illness. So to step out of that after being immersed in it for about six months, it’s like, “Whoa, Shira. What?” I wasn’t really seriously seeing, even though I’d had all these experiences, how easily it would be to go back to square one. That is what illness is. That’s what a lifelong illness is. It’s not, “Oh, I had conditions that made me behave this way, and then I changed those conditions, and now I’m stronger and I won’t deal with them.”
I saw how much, even in 10 years—it’s not like meditation will really help me. It’s an illness. That’s what I’ve gathered from this one, in a way. There are parts of me that feel tempted, like, “I just don’t want to be on medication.” Because of this last experience and the intensity of the symptoms, the way it wrecked my life for this last year—it really interrupted it. I keep thinking, God, I’m 31 and I’ve had four major breakdowns. And actually, the statistics with Bipolar, I believe, is that the more you have had, the more you will have. I don’t want to be that statistic. I want to stop this. What’s the way I’m going to do that? By being as grounded as possible and really being honest about what is going on. Not about being falsely optimistic, and not about being deluded by stigma and what I’m supposed to be like.
Therapy, Self-work, and Real Conversations
Therapy was huge. Therapy was huge. And the willingness of members of my family, at certain points. My mom, 100%. Now I’ve said to her she’s my biggest ally for sure. I always know she has my best interests in mind, even when she doesn’t understand me, or when I’m angry at her, whatever’s happening. She is somebody I can rely on. And honestly, the capacity of those I’m closest to—they’ve all gone through tremendous self-work and therapy. My therapy, but also their therapy, has allowed me to be able to be honest with them. I’m thinking of my mom and my brother and my girlfriend—all do a lot of self-work that is huge. It’s just huge. It makes me feel safer.
I would say therapy, being real about medications, having very real conversations with practitioners I felt failed by, which included this psychiatrist—and really remembering. I think what changed this time is I was like, “Wow. I’m going to suffer the most from this. I’m going to hurt other people, but I’m going to suffer the most. And if I don’t advocate for myself, no matter how others advocate for me, it’s just not going to reap the same knowledge and benefits.”
Something really shifted when I saw the ways I was hurting myself and hurting others because of whims. “Oh, I want to be on less medication.” And that whim is premised in stigma. Why, Shira? There were physical things: I changed the way I ate. I wanted to feel less groggy. I think that’s legitimate with medication, but it has to be considered in a full picture. It can’t just be like, “I’m groggy, so I’ll take down the medication.” I think I have a more nuanced approach, as opposed to just right, wrong, have to, don’t have to. Having stable people and stable love around me was helpful.
Stigma: "Girl, why are you beating yourself?"
It’s one of those things I didn’t even realize until this time. I would look back on something and be like, “Oh, that’s stigma.” And I didn’t know it was. At the time it was just me making a decision or thinking something was the better choice.
The lack of representation in popular media—that’s a very blanket statement. We know what it means. But when we really think about it, when we really feel into it, it is devastating. The only reference I have for the hospital I went to is an Angelina Jolie movie? It’s romanticized and sexualized, and hyper-artified. I don’t get to hear the stories of the people who are everyday that go there. I felt like an individual having an individual experience. I was, but I also wasn’t. Part of why I want to do an interview like this, or that I’ve been writing the poems I needed to read 10 years ago—is because I needed them 10 years ago.
There’s an insidiousness to lack of representation, and there’s an insidiousness to—I don’t quite have the language for it—but this sort of stereotypically spiritual, “Here, just have some flax seed milkshake, and then you’ll cure yourself of depression,” “You’re not really sick. What you are is this culture is sick, and you’re unbalanced within it”—all this stuff that, to me, is so harmful.
I have conversations. I’ve been both abused by the system of medication and found great relief in it, and know that it’s nuanced. People call me because they’re in a community of people trying to feed them flax seed and sage. I’m just like, “Girl, I also believe in saging your house. I do that shit. But you have to be nuanced. You have to be thoughtful about what you are really saying yes and no to.” What if I told you that the food you put in your body—that’s just as important, but it’s not the only thing?
The fact is, we’re all breathing in polluted air. We’re all suffering from traumatic culture. We all probably to some facet carry some kind of PTSD. It is a messed up culture we’re a part of, and we can’t hold people with mental illness as the barometers of, “Oh, something is wrong with you that is a reflection of our culture.” No, everybody is that. These people are just dealing with a certain type of predisposition.
I had a part of stigma whispering in my ear, not shouting, but whispering, “There is another way to do this. Maybe if you change your diet completely,” which I did. “Maybe if you exercise every day.” So I changed my diet. I exercised every day. I went down on my Lithium. And I was still on it, a teeny bit, when I had my break. It just shows. It’s like, “Girl, why are you beating yourself?” That’s the main thing I want sometimes to give people. You don’t have to take a chisel and stone and chisel hard at your being. You can rest. You can find what works for you and feel a lack of judgment there.
This idea of an artist that we love to see suffer. We need people who are like, “I’ve had four breakdowns. I’m going to continue making my work, and I’m going to prove that my work doesn’t come only from my breakdowns,” because it doesn’t. The best work doesn’t come from the breakdowns, and we need to absolutely destroy that narrative.
It’s lifelong. I have a part of me always saying, “Well, if you moved to Morocco, or maybe you were near salt flats, or you lived in the sun more, or you ate this food”—there’s a part of me that negotiates. And honestly, that’s a part of grief. I’m going to negotiate my way out of this thing that I wish wasn’t true.
It’s about letting that little voice be like a toddler and do its thing, and say, “Shira, Shira. I need this, I need that. You’re wrong. I’m in charge,” and being like, “Well, I’m driving. I’m the adult. I’m looking at the facts. And I want to live.” I don’t want to end up walking into traffic because something told me in my being that was the way to go to work that day, and then I’m dead. I just really don’t want to be that artist.
There have been temptations in my soul, too, to kind of just fall apart into that, because it’s a really intoxicating place to be. It’s exhausting and intoxicating. Some of the most incredible experiences I’ve had was while very, very, very high on whatever my body is concocting as mania. And when I’m low, there’s a glum presence and depth and blue and grey to the world that’s very textural that I can appreciate about depression.
There’s parts of it that I miss, I can kind of admit missing, but I know the consequence is so severe if I were going to play with it, the way that some artists and some people like to play with it. I’ve met them. They say, “I want it. I don’t want to medicate it.” I’m like, “Okay. Do you. And I wish you safety.” It’s the same thing with drugs. Folks that are like, “I want to do a ton of drugs.” Word. I wish you safety.
This Terarrium of Experience
I don’t know exactly how I think of it: as outside of me, or in me, or friend, or foe. I think I’m still working that out. I don’t know. It sort of feels like a fact of my makeup. It’s not negative or positive. It has negative consequences and positive realities. It’s true the summer before my first break I wrote 40 songs. I know that part of that was the uplift of a slow mania. Those songs, are they the product of something negative or positive? What are they? They’re just beautiful songs that were written in that time. It’s also true that that mania has produced terrible things.
It’s more about being a being in balance, being a being that can hold many, many things at once. I know the humility of being knocked down so intensely by my own beliefs. If someone came to me tomorrow and said, “Hey, your Lithium was all placebo”—is there a way I can enter that with both grief and fascination? I think that has given me a greater capacity as an empathic being thinking about gender, race, class, thinking about all kinds of issues. What is certain? And isn’t it amazing that at this point in human evolution, this is what was made? Shira was made, and she comes with these triggers and these pulleys, and these colors and loves and desires, and that’s kind of the shape of it.
It’s amazing. You have something with you, and I have something with me, where we have to reckon with this terrarium of experience, to such an extent that sometimes it puts our life on the line. What greater art is there than knowing how to work with that? My question is not, “What’s the art you make?” It’s the relationship you have with your materials and the world that creates the art. What’s my relationship to my struggles? To this illness? To the people around me?
And what great artists do is consistently adapt. I heard about this inmate who had art supplies, and then was cut off. So they put their jeans in hot water and took the dye from their jeans, and then painted with the blue water. They had blue. They made blue. They’re relating to the world and their limitations and their structure in a way that produces love and beauty, and they’re adapting.
"The person who makes something of it is me."
So much is the same as before the breakdowns. That’s what blows my mind. So much is the same. What I love is the same. What I can make is the same. What I can give is the same. I had a psychiatrist who was also interested in narrative and story. Before she prescribed anything, she said, “We’re just going to talk about your story. I think it’s important to know people’s stories before I think about medication at all, and that’s actually a fundamental part of you.” That blew me away.
Another thing she said was, “The things in your way are not you.” She was saying that as somebody who is a practitioner who studies the mind, which is a part of me. Talking to people who are entirely flammable because of a gasoline that is in them. So to say that to someone gives that pause, that space.
The stigma, the difficulties, even the physical annihilation of self, all those hurdles, they’re not what I am. Now I can say, being on this side of it, those aren’t me. Those aren’t me.
The person who makes something of it is me. Sometimes that’s stretched a little thin, and sometimes that’s very bold. Was it the person in the prison? No, it’s the person wringing the dye from jeans. That’s who they are. That’s how you know who they are. I can feel a fire in me when I am holding myself accountable to the ways I will step forward and create in the world, because it’s so easy to be like, “I’m in prison. There is nothing I can do.”
The beautiful thing about art is you can always create something to reflect where you are right now. You and I are having conversations based on tomes and postcards I sent to myself from the past to the future that were just what I need. I hope that, no matter the situation someone is in, they know they can put their hand on the cave wall, and make a print, and say, “I am here.”
Interview by Caitlin Shih
Caitlin Shih is just another millennial with a B.A. in English and a deep-seated interest in the human experience. She lives on Long Island, New York, and currently struggles with spending too much time out of her home and not enough time with her cat.