How poetry helps us understand mental illness

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Poet Shira Erlichman. Photo by Bao Ngo

Poet Shira Erlichman. Photo by Bao Ngo

At the bottom of the sea, just off the coast of Maryland, New York City subway cars have become a new habitat for coral and fish.

Poet Shira Erlichman was spellbound when she read about the project: to dispose of old, broken-down subway cars by sinking them to the bottom of the ocean, providing a new surface for coral reef to grow.

Photos documenting the process seem to show pollution on a large scale, the result of industrial excess. But eventually they will help the ecosystem survive. For Erlichman, the project was a way to discuss taking Lithium for mental illness.

“I’ve been told a million reasons why I should not take medication. All of that stigma is very real,” she said.

People who have mental illness challenge society’s typical narrative about what is “natural” or healthy, she said.

“[People] have this idea that there’s something that’s natural and unnatural,” she said. “There’s a world concept of purity. And I find that when people who have mental illness speak for themselves, we really muddy that up. People don’t want to think that their identities have something to do with their brains misfiring.”

Erlichman has addressed mental illness before in music and in visual art, she said. When she first got sick, “writing came last of the three avenues that I love because it is so intimate, and it’s so difficult,” she said. “When I paint, it’s not painful, it’s soothing. When I make music, it’s so deeply immersive, it’s not painful. But writing is a mirror and it asks a lot of us.”

Erlichman is currently working on a book of odes to Lithium. The poems complicate preconceptions around medication by discussing the full spectrum of her relationship with it, she said.

“Poetry is the closest we can get to being insides someone’s head, and so with mental illness, that’s a perfect avenue,” she said. “I think intimacy is what is missing with most things that are stigmatized. We only have the caricatures. If you can create intimacy … then you have this ticket to understanding and empathy.”

You can read one of Erlichman’s poems, or hear her read it, below.

Ode to Lithium #140: Natural

Each subway car will be left on the ocean floor, to be assimilated into the ecosystem.
Over time, every surface will be covered in life, creating an artificial coral reef.

— “Stunning Photos Showing NYC Subway Cars Being Dumped Into the Ocean” ­– Viralforest

Today I don’t want to take you
so I imagine you a subway car
push youllllllllllover my edge
to rust at my sea floor.
Ferment & flower, metallic

traveler. I’ve been thrown
off my axis lllllllllllllso-
rrow’s my monogamous
love. Once I shunned you
wanting to be “natural” ­-

tea tree milk, sprouted
cashews, bark deodorant
“natural.” Stopped taking you
& soon was lost in snow
stroking branches for hours for

hours walked jagged llllcircles
muttering sudden secrets revealed
by ice lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllwept.
Against my will I swallow two
busted down caterpillars

let you llllllllllsink to the bottom.
“It’s not personal,” I tell myself.
Even the sea needslllllllllleven
the seallllllllllneeds, the sea
needs, even the sea.

Shira Erlichman is a writer, musician, & visual artist. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been featured in BuzzFeed Reader, The Offing, BUST Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, & Winter Tangerine Review, among others. She was awarded the Millay Colony Residency & a James Merrill Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. As a musician she’s shared stages with TuNe-YaRdS, Mirah, & CocoRosie. Her album “Subtle Creature” will be released in August 2016. She resides in Brooklyn.

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