S8 E8 | CLIP

Shira Erlichman: Be/Hold

Shira Erlichman’s bipolar disorder went undiagnosed for years. Naming it was just the start of her journey to self-acceptance.

AIRED: November 26, 2021 | 0:11:22

(bright orchestral music)

- [Jim] Shira Erlichman isn't afraid to ask

questions that may not have answers.

When she does, they often lead her back to

life's everyday mysteries.

But with practice, subjects she once avoided

now ignite her curiosity.

- I'm going to look at mortality.

I'm going to look at the brain.

I'm going to look at these things that I've been protecting

myself from, sheltering others from,

and instead I'm going to investigate it.

- [Jim] Even when what she finds in herself

is difficult to witness, Erlichman tries to accept

uncomfortable inner realities for what they are

with self-compassion.

- You just respect it,

you know, you say, I respect - this is the energy,

this is the language, this is what you're coming with,

part of me. I mean, you're not going to drive the car,

but you can be in the backseat and you can be talking about

however you feel like a toddler.

You know, I'm not going to like dah, dah, dah, dah, you.

And I'm not going to pretend you're not there. You're there.

- [Jim] But Erlichman's journey to self-acceptance has

taken years of reflection through music, visual art,

and poetry, and it's a journey she's still on.

- [Shira] Get in, George Elliot. I packed PB&Js.

I'm bringing that rainbow parachute we held hands under

as eight year olds.

Get in, right beside Autumn,

beside every manic pixie dream girl screenplay

written by a man,

beside "bad weather",

beside Allegra's pomegranate

split into five uneven offerings,

beside Allegra herself, she's a mother now, as I write this.

- [Jim] Erlichman was six when her family moved

from Israel to the United States.

During English lessons, she wrote poems with the fluency

that shocked her teachers.

But her parents weren't surprised.

They had, after all, named her Shira,

the Hebrew word for poem and song,

and had created a home full of music for

their children to explore.

Yet little Shira struggled with bouts of depression,

surrounded by a loving family,

but still a child of the Gulf war they had fled.

As she got older, she took comfort in creative pursuits,

keeping busy with writing and painting,

and band rehearsals with neighborhood friends.

- [Shira] Get in, television

and all the extinct hardware of the nineties.

Montel, Jerry, Ricki, get in. I'm driving.

Get in, exes. Tell me about life without me,

pick the music,

Thread a threat through my dumb brown hair,

something like 'you were always so'

then let the rain finish your sentence.

Get in rain, but don't hog the air.

I'm running away.

I'm tired of not being a monk.

- [Jim] At 22 years old,

the people around Erlichman had gotten used to her

doing things her own way.

By her senior year at Hampshire College in Massachusetts,

she had toured the East coast to perform her own music.

- [Shira] ♪...outside and show you off ♪

♪ A bicycle ride, get lost..

- [Jim] and taught writing even as she studied it.

It was a dizzying pace,

but Erlichman had plans for herself,

often leading with imagination and

insisting on her independence.

So when her first signs of mental illness began to show over

several months, her friends and family nearly missed it.

- And it was totally unprecedented.

It was like, what the heck is going on with Shira?

And that was probably about seven months of slow,

like a snowball of depression.

- [Jim] Looking back, there were signs that

she was unraveling in college.

Everyday obstacles became breaking points.

At the time, Erlichman was seen as somebody

who is still in control,

but she needed help that those closest to her

didn't know how to give.

- [Shira] Get in, "You're So Vain," and

five o'clock shadows and how hard it is

to not talk to my brother.

We went a whole year and a half. Get in, year and a half.

Get in therapist with the good haircut and bad advice.

You too, Michael Jackson.

I'm so sorry you had to be Michael Jackson.

The kind of snow that only fell when I was young, get in.

Or maybe it's just how I saw it, get in.

I'm trying desperately not to sound cute,

which is, of course, adorable.

But, please.

Eleven siblings killed in the camps,

get in, next to my grandfather.

Pillheadedness, get in.

- [Jim] On a visit home during her

senior year of college, Erlichman's mother

noticed that she wasn't herself

and that she might be in trouble.

Her own mother's bipolar disorder went undiagnosed and

untreated two generations before, in Israel.

It resembled what her daughter was now experiencing.

- There's this whole range.

When someone says they're bipolar,

they could be falling into a whole different point on the

sphere of what that looks like.

So just speaking for myself, it looks like almost these

long stretches of unrecognized depression,

where it's just, I guess life just is gray.

I guess life is just heavy.

At times I woke up with a kind of heaviness on my chest.

And then the mania aspect of it is really deceptive

because, at times, it is this great source of energy.

For me, at least, there is this almost

unhandleable quality to it.

Like maybe I do have a straw into something powerful and

wild and at times even spiritual or ecstatic.

- [Jim] When she sought treatment,

Erlichman was initially misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs

that exacerbated her illness,

but a reaction to what didn't work led to her

finally receiving a medication that did: lithium.

Despite the relief it gave her,

she internalized the fear that even some of her doctors had

about her disease and its remedy.

Erlichman was ashamed that she needed it.

- I had family members that said,

please never say that you have bipolar.

There was a time where I was writing poems and saying

pill, pill, pill, but I would never say lithium.

- [Jim] It took one of her first loves, writing,

to help her discover the beginning of another.

One with her medication.

Erlichman began writing odes,

poems of praise to her treatment.

They helped transform fear and shame into acceptance.

- It's different than other medications

it's far more serious, far more severe.

Meanwhile, this is my boo.

This is my honey.

This is like a medication that's saving me

and treating me wonderfully,

but I'm ostracizing it because of culture's

boogeyman-ing of it

and just saying, wait, wait, wait, wait a second.

What are you? And then I found out,

you know, it's pure salt.

I'm like, well, that's fascinating.

Where do you get it? You get it from mines? Where?

So I looked at Bolivia and see these incredible -

it's called the world's largest mirror.

It's just this beautiful water with these

flamingos that are nearby.

And I'm thinking, okay, so wait, beauty is right here.

Beauty is in the salt.

There's no man-made thing here.

And I'm starting to get interested, curious.

And I, I'm forgetting stigma a little bit just to get

invested in this thing that I,

this intimate little friend that I take in every day.

And so as I started doing that,

the questions became more beautiful.

What is this thing, really? Elementally?

How does it nurture me?

- [Jim] These questions turned into poems.

Those poems became a book, 'Odes to Lithium'.

It was part of her life-saving practice to write,

and the process affirmed her experiences,

in a way no one else could,

by working to embrace the parts of herself

she once believed were unlovable.

- [Shira] I'm not going to say it again:

buckle up, put a daffodil behind my ear,

touch my shoulder from the back seat, write my will for me,

tell Mary Ann Evans I can hear her humming,

it's fine except it's driving me nuts.

I'm aware that I'm crying, get in,

sit next to khaf.

The baffling intelligence of

starling and uteri - front seat.

I'm only five feet tall,

too many strangers picked me up as a gag,

my recurring dream is that I choose this life again -

keep your hands inside the vehicle.

- As Erlichman began to change her mind about lithium,

her life changed too.

She found she had more to give.

She began teaching again, but this time with

insights about honesty and change

she had gained from her illness.

All the while her book was becoming

the company she once needed, for her readers.

Those who were entering and leaving mental hospitals,

in need of stories from someone who'd been through the same.

- If you go into

the burn, the pain, the struggle,

the vulnerability, the shame, whatever it is,

you're going to come out refreshed.

Now that's not easy to believe if you haven't done it.

But if you have gone into some of these achy places,

not to become happy, which is what

culture tries to say, right?

Like go into these vulnerable places and

then you'll be a superstar or like you'll, you'll be healed.

It's like, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Just to respect them, just to honor them,

just to touch them elementally, to be a full human being.

- [Shira] Lucille, get in. Dead family, get in.

I want to show you something:

I had no map when I started

And now here I am,

somewhere real called loving you, get in.

- [Jim] Now Shira Erlichman is

taking stock of all of her old shames,

making room for other people to accept

more of themselves along the ride.

- For me, everything changed when I could look and say,

let's just stop running, stop being like,

I don't really have mental illness or

I have mental illness, but I can kind of run it off.

I can kind of eat differently and run and that'll do it.

Sort of negotiating, it's like that part of grief

where you're bartering. You could do that for years.

There's just a difference when you sit in the truth of,

you know, am I okay with this?

If I have this, am I okay?

I often think of truth as just where I want to be.

And that's because for me, you know,

there's a nourishment in being in reality,

especially as someone who has lived in

deep distorted delusion.

- [Jim] Today, Shira Erlichman's curiosity about

the unknown grounds her.

And by accepting her life with bipolar disorder,

she's able to guide every part of herself

to the truth of her journey.

(exciting orchestral music)

- [Voiceover] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat music)


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