A space has been created by this unflinching journalism, this unabashed Instagram memoir.
“Psych ward day 1// the side effects are hitting hard [barf emoji] [eye-roll emoji]”
–– Caption for soundless video of a young woman in her inpatient hospital room in Kenya. She wears a medical mask, points the camera at herself in the mirror, flashes a peace sign. Instagram user [redacted], 1,604 followers.
“Dude thats a nice ass psych ward. We had no mirrors or closets, we were definitely not allowed bags in our room and DEFINITELY not our phones. I hope you get well soon, stay strong luv xx”
–– comment #14
Bipolar Disorder and Priorities.
“you’re so strong and so wonderfully made! im so proud of you for getting the help you need i know this is hard work and its so inspiring to see! i am sending you so much love and light, i am so hopeful that you feel supported and cared for right now!”
–– comment #13
Psych ward day 1// the side effects are hitting hard [barf emoji] [eye-roll emoji].
Psych ward day 1// the side effects are hitting hard . . .
you’re so strong and so wonderfully made! im so proud of you for getting the help you need i know this is hard work and its so inspiring to see! i am sending you so much love and light, i am so hopeful that you feel supported and cared for right now!
Psych ward day 1you’re so strong and so wonderfully made!
“I’m literally about to go to a treatment center in the next few hours. Wish me luck. [fingers-crossed emoji]
–– comment #8
There are three likes on this comment. A “like” means “I agree,” “I see you and affirm you,” “I support this.” The year 2006 was, literally, a time of no “likes.” To have had one proverbial like––that would have been beyond my wildest dreams. I wouldn’t have needed three. Not even two. Just one “like,” unashamed and unshaming––a kinship not built around the edges of my hospitalization secret but forged from its direct admission. This would have changed my world. “Wish me luck,” the user says. Just like that. They ask for it. They are open enough to invite blessing. In my hand, my phone is a portal. “Good luck,” I say into the night air. But then I go beyond my private voice in my private apartment: I press the tiny heart beside her words. I like it.
“All the best! Lots of love from [redacted] Psych Ward”
–– comment #9
I holler and stamp my feet. Angel looks up, “Hmm?” I can’t explain how light fills the non-bones of a jellyfish, or how animal a flower looks blooming on fast-forward, or what it does to the spirit to touch a redwood older than you, so this feeling? I can’t explain. I just laugh. Remember in game shows when the host would give you the first two options and then, kabam, they’d unveil door number three? Door number one: suffer your mental illness alone. Door number two: maybe, maybe there’s kinship out there, but you’ll have to secretly seek it out. This is door number three. Not only is there kinship, but it is rebelliously alive despite, and broadcasting from all ends of the earth, twenty-four hours a day. It is currently in a hospital typing, unabashed; it is exclamation pointed. The fever dream that I could have had companionship around my hospitalization––it’s why I laugh and laugh now. Oh, bless door number three, that I could have had currently hospitalized companions at the touch of no-button, just a glowing screen in my palm, hello, you’ve found me, you’re here at the ready, blessing and loving me. A door beyond my wildest doors.
“Stay strong [username redacted] [muscle-arm emoji] [red heart emoji] we believe in you”
–– comment #10
Which isn’t to say that over the last fourteen years I haven’t been in community with other mentally ill people. For nearly a year I attended a DBSA (Depression Bipolar Support Alliance) group in my small college town. Fifteen or so of us, some regulars, some drop-ins, would meet every Wednesday evening in an emptied office building off Main Street. Unlike my experiences of group therapy where a therapist holds the space and guides the conversation, DBSA is peer-led and so, for me, deeply radical. We could talk about anything, illness-specific or not. We could choose to not talk. Family of those living with illness were welcome, as they also needed support.
Inclusivity, patience, and nonjudgement were hallmarks of the space. J., a middle-aged, no-nonsense, potbellied sweetheart who lived with Depression his entire life, was our facilitator and fellow struggler. At twenty-five, I was younger than everyone in the group by at least a decade, sometimes two or three. My first meeting rocked my preconceptions. There was a car mechanic, a veteran, an elderly couple. We listened well, and complained, and bickered. It was messy, and imperfect, and freeing. I wouldn’t miss a Wednesday meeting for anything.
Simultaneously, I also began attending a weekly Buddhist meditation sitting group in, of all places, a nursing home where one of our members lived. Here, too, I was younger than everyone by two to five decades. The seven of us meditated together on plastic pull-out chairs and participated in a sharing circle where you could speak, uninterrupted and without responses, if called to. While the mind and its intricacies were given prime real estate in our sitting practice and sharings, mental illness often felt like taboo territory. Group members frequently spoke of instances of anger, insecurity, and revelation, but when it came time for me to speak, I had no idea how to tiptoe even to the edge of where my mind had been, how to gaze over its precipice and describe the rapid slap of waves disintegrating the shore.
Both spaces were by nature places of seclusion. There was a code of privacy and confidentiality, acknowledged aloud. As spaces to grapple openly, witness and support others’ healing processes, and actively reflect on the mysteries of the human mind, they served me tremendously. In a time when my own family failed to know how to protect me, where I felt left to my own devices because of the ravages of my illness, I had found two sanghas.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes a sangha as “a place to practice for the transformation and thehealing of self and society. You take refuge in the sangha so that you can restore your strength,your understanding, your compassion, your confidence. And then in turn you can use thatstrength, understanding and compassion to rebuild your family and society . . . to restorecommunication and harmony. This can only be done as a community—not as an individual, butas a sangha.”
Although the language of sangha is explicit to life as a Buddhist, Nhat Hanh expands onthe definition, “the trees, water, air, birds, and so on can all be members of our sangha,” and addsthat this idea is not entirely new but can be found throughout the sutras and the Abhidharma,where “a pebble, a leaf and a dahlia are mentioned” in this respect. As a poet, this makesintrinsic sense to me. I know we are buoyed by the so-called inanimate. I too have beensupported, even saved, by a sprawling autumnal hillside or the chutzpah in a single red leaf.
I too have been supported, even saved, by a sprawling autumnal hillside or the chutzpah in a single red leaf.
What then of a phone? A photo-sharing app? A choir of emojis gathered around thecampfire of a meme? Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “Abandoned, alone, you get lost, you get carriedaway. So taking refuge in the sangha is a very deep practice, especially for those of us who feelvulnerable, shaky, agitated and unstable. You allow the sangha to transport you like a boat so thatyou can cross the ocean of sorrow.”
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing I’ve heard the renowned monk say is that it’s possible the next Buddha won’t take the form of an individual. Instead, “the next Buddha may bea sangha.”
“[Crown emoji] They give you your phone at yours? Up in New York it’s like@jail no fresh air no ciggs & nurses constantly walking in on you every 15/20 mins didn’t even have a table in the room just a rubber bed nailed to the floor”
–– comment #11
It’s evening in Brooklyn. Angel smiles at my laughter and reenters the catharsis of her phone. Her face is lit green. As a Black queer woman in America, who knows what distraction, or laughter, or kinship will bounce from the screen to soon find her eyes? Soon I’ll take 750 mL of Lithium, split into two dosages, one pinkish, one chalkish. I’ll note how late it’s gotten, 1 a.m., and wonder if it will affect my mood the following morning. I have a decade of such minute-by-minute charting under my belt. It’s taken fourteen years, but I’m finally married to my illness.
The moment I hit rock bottom (for the fourth time), I took real vows to my illness: I won’t underestimate you. I’ll spend every day listening to you and honoring your power. I know your power could kill me, so I’m not going to help you do that. It’s not romantic. It’s a blood pact. It’s acceptance mixed with accountability. It’s love.
The screen jitterbugs with typos and soul: “Up in New York it’s like@jail.”I nod, transfixed. I teach poetry for a living, and let’s be clear, this is poetry. “No fresh air no ciggs & nurses constantly walking in on you.” I remember a shadow opening my hospital room door every fifteen minutes each night on rounds, revving my insomnia with each sudden sliver of neon hallway light. To remember is a type of bob and weave. The memory creates a stir of panic in my blood as the walls of a hospital room close around me and the ambiguous darkness of a face opens my door, where nothing, not even my sleep, is private.
Yet here I am, safe in my Brooklyn apartment, the evidence of a privileged and loving life everywhere around me. To remember (etymology: “pass through the heart”) is a type of alchemy. My memory is spun to gold by comment #11. It is corroborated, uplifted. A space has been created by this unflinching journalism, this unabashed Instagram memoir. “Didn’t even have a table in the room just a rubber bed nailed to the floor.”My heart hurts for them. This wasn’t my experience. As if for the first time, I notice “[crown emoji].”
As if to say, this is how we speak to each other: You got to keep your phone? How crown. A victory in this war. I’m happy for you.
“I am so glad you have your phone with you. You can do this. [two red heart emojis]
–– comment #3
“You got this [prayer hands] you’ve come out the other side before and you can do it again [red heart emoji] sending love”
–– comment #6
“[four pink heart emojis]”
–– comment #16
“Hang in there girl! [red heart emoji]”
–– comment #14
“Looks way better than the psych wards I’ve been to. How’re you feeling today?”
–– comment #1
“You got this [red heart emoji] you’ll come out better and strong in the end [hibiscus flower]”
–– comment #8
Lord knows I’ve been guilty of distraction. The doomscroll. Hours wasted. But in my small hands I hold an ode. I scroll and scroll the residues of tenderness. It never ends. I consider every digital symbol on the screen. [Muscle arm], [red heart], [prayer hands], our century’s hieroglyphs. Little [hibiscus flower], which in the real world I’ve been told aids in digestion and helps with depression. [Fingers crossed], a gesture of hope for good luck.
I type my own. I want them to know I’m right there with them, praying the day along, the way only survivors can. I too once puked up the pills, [barf emoji]. I too [eye-roll emoji] at the seventh doctor to make assumptions and not understand despite all the maps I draw. Oh, phone. This rectangle is not a concept, mist in the fist. “You got this,”the phone glows, “you’ll come out better and strong in the end.” Another “you got this,” and another. The phone speaks in several tongues all at once; “you can do this!” and “hang in there girl!” shout their love from my hands.
“You ready for bed?” Angel asks.
I nod and plug the world into the wall to charge. Tomorrow, a young woman in Kenya will read my words. She is behind locked doors, trying to be well. She’ll see what I commented, what no one could tell me in 2006 in my small hell: “I’m here with you,” a love letter from across the world.
Shira Erlichman is a poet, musician, and visual artist. She was born in Israel and immigrated to the US when she was six. Her poems explore recovery—of language, of home, of mind—and value the "scattered wholeness" of healing. She earned her BA at Hampshire College and has been awarded the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center, the Visions of Wellbeing Focus Fellowship at AIR Serenbe, and a residency from the Millay Colony. Her debut poetry book is Odes to Lithium. She is also the author and illustrator of Be/Hold. She lives in Brooklyn where she teaches writing and creates.