CULTURE & ARTS

Poet Shira Erlichman Beautifully Destigmatizes Mental Illness

"When I look out into the cultural landscape and the only time I see the mentally ill represented is when people are in distress, I can’t possibly see a reflection that gives me hope."

 

"I’ve been guinea ­pigged with literally dozens of drugs, some of which knocked me out so flat that I could barely lift a spoon," poet and singer-songwriter Shira Erlichman told The Huffington Post.

When she finally found one that would assist in clearing the fog that clouded her mental state -- a tendency towards depression that ran in her family for generations -- "clarity ensued."

She's beyond grateful, and wanted to include the drug in a series of odes she wrote for powerful yet unseen or unnoticed objects. She laments that drugs such as lithium weren't available to her grandmother's generation, but hopes destigmatizing them today will help those who would benefit from them.

Below, she discusses her poem, "Ode to Lithium #1," which she performed live above. 

What inspired your “Ode to Lithium” series?

It began with an exercise where I instructed myself to write a love poem to an everyday object that often goes unnoticed, one that even might be difficult to love. The idea was to stand in awe of this object, to see it as if for the first time. Inevitably where there is love there is also humility and so the poem is built entirely of questions.

It’s a statement, and a worthy feat, to bless the barely lovable. But within the specific context of mental illness, there is even more nuance to this feat. Love for l​ithium?​ Grenade. Not a word you’d casually drop at a party. A serious drug. Three wild syllables. Boogeyman to a cowering public. It just so happens to be the drug that works for me.

I’ve been guinea ­pigged with literally dozens of drugs, some of which knocked me out so flat that I could barely lift a spoon or shit; some changed my vision so I saw triple; some added fifteen pounds to my small frame. When I finally found lithium (See? Doesn’t this already sound like a love story?) it was as if my head was emptied of fog and an internal gentleness/clarity ensued.

For other patients that I know, lithium was a no ­no, a terrible lover, a horror. A friend of mine joked “Oh, lithium? No, hated that. Lithium is not my boo.” She cursed it, as if it were an unmentionable ex. This is important. I’d love to hear her hate mail to lithium. Or love­gush to Zoloft. Or whatever it is that’s true for her. It’s all vital to expanding the conversation. We need more than the media’s narrow portrayal. We need the personal, specific and real.

The poem was originally titled “Pill.” A mistake. As if I could write one, definitive poem about this drug I take twice a day and therefore interact with 730 times a year! Those 730 times are each round, particular moments! Those moments are poems! Not to mention all the moments my medication comes into play in daily life that has nothing to do with swallowing it. The more we describe an experience in one fell swoop, [or] “across the board,” the more we miss its particular topography, its humanness, its flawed shine.

The mentally ill, already so underserved, misrepresented and misunderstood, cannot afford this.


After about two years of sitting with the poem as “Pill,” the series snuck up on me. It was a revelation. Now there is "Ode to Lithium #9," #27, #107, #63, and so on. The odes unfold mostly as tiny prose pieces, revealing situations in which lithium and I bond. They are grounded in my daily life, though at times turn surreal. T​here is the time lithium and I first kissed,​ and the time my dead grandmother (who also suffered from mental illness) comes to my kitchen on a Sunday to watch me take my dose.

As the odes tumbled out I caught whiff of Pablo Neruda’s influence. In his late forties Neruda committed to writing an ode a week, ending up with 225 odes in all. He sought to bless it all, the simple as well as the complex, with rigor and patience and humor. I have always respected his expansive and undiscriminatory gratitude. I feel a defiance toward my first misconception, my wrong titling. To create a series insinuates that there is no one experience, one way to love; I am a person having a day­to­day, complex, shifting, beautiful, tenuous relationship with an element that is changing my life for the better. I hope to write 730.

Why do you think taking medicine for mental health purposes is stigmatized?

So many reasons. Culturally, do we really treat the brain like an actual organ ­like the lungs or the spleen? We don’t link our "Big Kahuna Selfhood" to these organs. We think of the “self” as brain ­territory. “I” is who I think and say and act I am. This “I” is essentially fixed, not a composite of working parts. Now if those parts malfunction, and what I say, do and act like disintegrates into organized chaos, we cannot stomach the existential thorn of it (“What is the Self then? What am I?”).

We like our brothers, sisters, mothers, friends as solid and defined, not murky or mayhem or sick. To take medicine for the lungs is to acknowledge that part of us is in need of fixing; but to take medicine for the brain is to have to face the possibility that “I” am not who I thought I was. Too, the word “mental” precursing “illness” can often trip people up and create stigma, insinuating that the illness is not physical.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem with this stigmatization?

Stigma creates a climate of silence, shame, and death. When I say death I mean death.

People suffer alone, until they can’t bear it, and then they break. Stigma perpetuates a cycle of private struggle and risk. When I look out into the cultural landscape and the only time I see the mentally ill represented is when people are in distress, I can’t possibly see a reflection that gives me hope. To not see examples of mentally ill people thriving is essentially to always feel death on the horizon. I know I’ve felt this way.

I’m just lucky to have made it this far, that to dream of a future actually feels luxurious. There are times I question being so open about having bipolar disorder, but then I remember what’s at stake. I don’t consider my own mental health just m​ine.​ My health and joy and struggle is interconnected with the greater community. My recovery belongs to everyone I love.

Your characterization of lithium is mostly positive, but you also compare the drug to a “wet cat.” Why the juxtaposition?

I love the idea of my medicine as someone beloved and small. An animal the house of my body domesticates, but also can’t. Someone precious, whose instincts are foreign to me. A friend who doesn’t speak, but truly knows me. Who will always return to me after the storm. Ragged, a sweetheart, and a little wild.

Your reading of the poem is steady, even, without much dramatic effect. Is there a reason for this choice?

Some reverence is ecstatic. This reverence is steady. It’s not puppy love. This is the praise that comes from getting to know someone over seven years. Regarding drama, it’s not the fevered gratitude of having just been rescued from drowning. It’s the private joy of re­entering the water years later, feeling the cool tide against your shins, the sun’s touch, the call of gulls overhead. It’s beyond the drama. No ambulance sirens or hospital walls. It’s the aftermath ­ when the cameras often disappear. This is the reverence of the exhale. The safety to pose questions, to wonder, to be.

What mood do you hope your poem will evoke?

Wonder. I once asked a psychiatrist “Why does lithium work?” and she straight up smiled, shrugged and said “We don’t know.” Not really. Not exactly. But it works. Isn’t that s​omething?​ Mystery. Some research has shown that naturally occurring lithium in drinking water has been associated with lower rates of suicide. As far back as the second century physicians recommended soaking in these natural waters as a treatment for mania. My heart backflips at this. Like, what? What does it say that we still don't know how or why. My body feels like a grateful little yes in a universe of questions.

Awe. I want my listener to feel a sense of awe that this ancient element can restore me, can keep me here on earth. The listener and I cannot be comrades in experience, but we can be comrades in awe. That is the beautiful thing about poetry.

Are there other poets who grapple with these themes who you admire?

Jeanann Verlee. Rachel McKibbens. Andrea Gibson. Tara Hardy. Lucille Clifton. Morgan Parker. Non­poetry related, my friend Peggy Gillespie was a part of putting together an incredible collection of portraits and interviews called “​Nothing to Hide: Mental Illness in the Family.”

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