Skip to main navigation Skip to content


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

Featured Artists

Shira Erlichman
Shira Erlichman

Shira Erlichman is a writer, visual artist, and musician whose poetry has been featured in PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series, The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times, and The New York Times, among other major publications.

Born in Israel in 1984, Erlichman moved to Massachusetts at age 6. She earned her BA at Hampshire College and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 20s. The condition informs much of her poetry, notably her acclaimed collection Odes to Lithium (2019).

Known for her confessional poems that explore mental illness, self-acceptance, and the possibilities of language, her accolades include an Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, a Silver Medal for the Nautilus Award, and the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center.

As a musician, Erlichman has performed across the United States and released five albums and two EPs, most recently Subtle Creatures (2017). She wrote and illustrated Be/Hold: a friendship book (2019), a work for children.


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.

Shira Erlichman: 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.

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.

Erlichman: 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.

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.

(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)

Get in, George Eliot. 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.

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.

(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)

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.

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 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.

Erlichman: 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.

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.

(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)

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.

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.

Erlichman: 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.

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.

Erlichman: 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.

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.

Erlichman: 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?

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.

(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)

I’m not going to say it
again: buckle up, put a daffodil behind my ear, touch
my shoulder from the backseat, 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 K. The baffling intelligence
of starling and uteri—front seat. I’m only five feet tall,
too many strangers pick 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.

Erlichman: 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.

(Excerpt from Shira Erlichman’s “Somewhere Real”)

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.

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.

Erlichman: 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.

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.