In her debut collection of poetry, Odes to Lithium, Shira Erlichman maps her journey through a bipolar diagnosis, seeking treatment, and dealing with stigma. It is a collection of poetry that is stark with vulnerability and the question of how we treat those with mental illnesses. What struck me the most about this collection is its compassion and resilience; not only does it move away from the narrative of treating those with bipolar like ticking time bombs, it engages with care by framing Lithium (a drug known for its adverse effects) as a friend, a father, a caretaker. Many creatives still have reservations and fears around medication as they believe that it will dampen the creative flow, turn off the magic, or make them less able to connect with the emotion they are trying to convey. This misconception is dismantled in Erlichman’s poetry; she’s sharp and precise while illustrating the often untethered emotion that comes with mania or psychosis. It would seem impossible to approach these topics with tenderness and intelligence in a world that condemns such symptoms, but she does so. Erlichman herself is a queer writer, and these poems set out to queer the narrative around mental illness by framing the experience with exquisite odes, moving away from shame and shadow.
This collection approaches our humanity with divine surrealism and truth. Where labels and diagnoses find us drifting apart, Erlichman looks for the commonality in our experiences from going to the doctor to speaking to your plumber. In a poem in which the speaker imagines an intimate conversation with Bjork from the bathtub, Erlichman writes: “she slides my mental hospital evaluation papers into the water, so they dissipate into tiny paper fish. this is her song. I am a mossy stone remembering its past life as a bird. she names every doctor who never met my eye. it is not political, it is a curse.” Even people who haven’t had experience in a mental hospital have known the sting of being ignored or not taken seriously by a medical professional. The action of the papers turning into “tiny paper fish” enables them a freedom that they did not have as evaluation papers, as evidence of a forced stay in a facility. Even the presence of Bjork, an artist known for her eccentrism and bizarre fashion and voice, brings a magical air to a poem about something as grave as struggling through mental illness.
The book itself is divided into four parts: Knife Flower, Cockroach, Baby & I, and The Monk. Sections of the book are divided by illustrations of humans, cockroaches, and knives done by Shira herself. There is a poem that corresponds with each section whether through title or theme. Having the collection dedicated into four parts allows the reader to chart a progression of the speakers’ relationship with her disorder and with Lithium, as well as the people she interacts with. One theme that carries through the collection is dealing with other people’s disbelief. A poem titled “Rose” starts with a proclamation by someone else that they don’t believe the speaker is bipolar because she does not look bipolar. The speakers asks “do you know what it’s like to believe a nonbeliever?” as this person’s attempt at a compliment almost convinces the speaker she does not have bipolar disorder. This disbelief is also confronted in “Mind Over Matter,” a poem that confronts this common phrase as it pertains to mental illness. This disbelief comes in the form of people not believing the speaker has bipolar disorder, people with her in inpatient believing they don’t belong there, or strangers believing the speaker and people like her do not have a right to life. Through each section we see the speaker becoming more grounded in her reality and moving away from the disbelief and shame that it comes with.
Stylistically, many of the poems take on a more prose-poem structure, expanding across the page in stanzas that either feel quick and succinct or ones that allow the language to breathe. These longer stanzas often can serve as a way for the text to copy the symptoms and side effects of bipolar disorder. The more fast-paced, wider stanzas can feel like the fast-talking of mania whereas the slow drip of the poem “Cliff,” its long o’s in words like “folded” and “floor” seem to mimic the comedown from that phase.
Salt reoccurs across the poems as Lithium is itself an element. It appears again as the salt of a father shoveling the sidewalk, the salt of the sea. As a metaphor and poetic device salt can be used in a number of ways. Salt makes the water it inhabits undrinkable and can result in severe dehydration and death in humans. Salt is also a preserver and can extend the life of many perishable goods. In most of the poems, salt takes on the form of preserver and caretaker, literally preserving the life of the speaker time and time again. In other poems, this salt is the cause of side effects like kidney damage and memory loss. It gives and it takes. Lithium alternates between caretaker and menace as it causes her to leave glass bottles in the freezer to explode. In “How the Jellyfish Prospered”, the speaker questions “Thanks to this double-edged salt,/by the time I’m fifty, will I remember/ anything at all?”
In the poem “Side Effects,” Erlichman chronicles the side effects of Lithium in that same prose-poem structure. She writes “the side effect of it is good is it is bad. The side effect of it is bad is crossing your legs in the psychiatrist’s office, talking about side effects. The side effect of side effects is living your life” No matter the side effects that plague or haunt life, the speaker must go on living. It also posits that there is life on the other side of diagnosis and treatment. Even though we may think of side effects as the slight, negative reactions that come from the greater action of medicating oneself, the speaker uses the space of this poem to highlight a loving relationship that would not have been possible without the aid of medication.
The side effect of overwhelmingly blue dreams is a girlfriend who listens. The side effect of this particular girlfriend is black soap that sits staining the side of the tub. The side effect of stains is her name in your cheek like a cool marble.
Being on Lithium gives Erlichman the ability to realize her truest self; a form where she can connect with others in a way that is full and loving. The relationship depicted here is not necessarily because of Lithium but it is strengthened by this drug’s ability to restore equilibrium.
The side effects listed in the poem are contained within a parenthetical, which for me calls to mind the often rushed, small print barrage of side effects that we hear at the end of commercials for medications. Read without the text in the parentheses, the poem reads “the side effect of Lithium is a poem, ” serving as evidence that being on medication does not kill creativity, but on the contrary, can often enhance it.
In “Unwished For,” Erlichman chronicles a common experience for people diagnosed with a mental illness: the discussion of whether or not they’ll have children. The speaker is at an ice cream shop where she sees a “blonde woman standing beside a mailbox, waiting patiently for news, husband reassuringly placing a hand on her shoulder.” It’s a fertility ad, seeking women 21 to 42 years old.
It’s not conscious, but somewhere inside a voice says: “Check.”
No criminal record. “Check.”
No history of mental illness.
The process of egg donation or surrogacy is a great way for young women and people with uteruses to help those who want to have children and make money on the side. However, the process is notoriously only accessible to young white women of a certain age, height, body type, and medical history — a medical history that does not include mental illness. Erlichman’s speaker imagines getting to confront the couple in the photo, invoking Frida Kahlo’s trolley accident to prove that just because a person is different doesn’t mean they are unworthy of making a child. The couple argues back, asserting that they don’t want their hypothetical child to suffer.
A deliberate word choice, as we as a culture often use the terminology “suffers from a mental illness”, “suffers from schizophrenia”, “suffers from bipolar disorder.” The focus on suffering deprives people with these diagnoses the complexity and fullness of those that do not have them. Everyone has their own private suffering whether they have a mental illness or not, they also have their joys and triumphs, as do people with bipolar disorder. The couple in the poster seeks to deny this very complexity from their supposed child and instead decides that children who may have bipolar disorder do not deserve to exist.
“Will the Norman Rockwell of our time paint me standing here before it? In my jean cutoffs, finishing what’s left of a soggy cone, drugs in my blood, unwished for by strangers.”
The poem ends with the speaker meditating on who gets to be remembered and how, and what it means to be alive and suffering rather than not being given the chance to do either.
In “Baby & I” the speaker has welcomed Greg the Plumber into her home, Greg who is flanked by his companions Baby & Honey. The speaker has left a book on bipolar disorder out on the table; Baby has spotted it and named himself bipolar in solidarity. The speaker adds
When I say Lithium it is a fact, like telling him what city I was born in & finding out he’s from there too. Baby grins./ When he laughs, he claps his hands together like he just/ came in from the cold. He could not be my brother, but he is/ my darling. I want to slice a peach for him, or at least fetch a glass of water so I do but as soon as I love him he is gone.
In the short interaction of saying yes, affirming she has bipolar disorder, and sharing their medications, Baby and the speaker have formed an intimate bond, one that only two people with the same diagnosis can know. When I think of my own bipolar disorder, sometimes I see the grinning wolf that appears at the end of the poem, other times I see a whole manuscript of my own poetry, temporary bliss, and vibrant sensation. Sometimes having bipolar disorder feels like being spoiled on too much of a good thing: the mania that comes in its buoyant bouts, only to be hit with the depressive slope that affords you no bracing before the plummet. Being bipolar is complex, but sometimes I am granted a little mercy when someone I know or don’t know at all says “me too.”
In this poem, the companionship exists not just because of a similar diagnosis, but also the introduction of medication: two people who are trying their best to be well. Baby approaches because he saw a book and presumed not only that the speaker had something in common with him, but that she was learning and bettering herself just as he is.
By breaking the stigma and shame of speaking about their mental illnesses, the two have touched on an intimacy that makes them no longer strangers. Baby becomes her “darling” and not just a plumber who is only in her home to perform a task. There is a love that exists between the two of them now that they have named each other.
In “Lightweight,” the speaker talks about being called a lightweight at a party. Most people with mental illnesses know that antimanic medications do not mix well with alcohol. The speaker muses: “they don’t know it’s not the wine/ somebody cares for me.” Here, Lithium is embodied as a person, a “dedicated father clearing the driveway/ except the driveway is the whole world.” Here, Lithium isn’t a sinister drug, it is a caretaker, someone who is acting out of love and for the safety of the body it inhabits.
The Lithium as Caretaker narrative is one that moves throughout this collection, as well as the humanization of people that have highly stigmatized diagnoses like bipolar disorder. There is so much love and joy in this collection, making every turn of the page moving. It is a book that I’m proud to own, one that has taught me to move away from my own shame and toward care. This book is not only for those with bipolar disorder but in a larger sense, it is for anyone that has been made to feel divorced from their humanity because of circumstances beyond their control. Erlichman writes with an exuberance that will resonate with anyone that has a mind that works outside of what is considered typical, with descriptions that implore the reader to think outside of what is comfortably sound. Stepping outside of the comfort stands to disrupt who we view as deserving of love and care, starting with ourselves. These poems are odes to Lithium but also odes to the triumph of the human mind and spirit, to friends and mothers and lovers. Each poem brings the reader closer to a reality that prioritizes empathy and the sharing of our hard, individual truths. At the end of one of the longer poems in the collection, “Pink Noise”, the speaker closes
the name for the shortcut humans make through shrubbery
that becomes preferred to the gravel road is ‘desire path.’
without blue print, we beat our path into the ground
until others can walk there
“What’s your dose?” the new psychiatrist asks.
dose, from Greek dosis, meaning gift
after a show an audience member says to me, “I just
wanted to introduce myself, I’m one of us.”
We beat a path so that those that come after us do not have to walk unaided and alone, so that those that are “one of us” can find the community they have been seeking. Reading this book enabled me to feel connected in ways I didn’t think were imaginable, and I hope that other readers with mental illnesses can feel that same sense of togetherness.