Haters to the left.
Anxiety Erica is an amazing mental health blogger from San Diego. People often brush off anxiety disorder, especially those who suffer from it, but it is often the most debilitating disorder I deal with on a day to day basis. Erica asked me some really unique and thoughtful questions, and I think this interview is really worth reading.
This is the epilogue to the album “When I Get Better,” which was written a few years ago during my bipolar recovery, treatment, journey, or whatever you want to call it. The last words on the album are “if I get better,” and some people have taken that as a cliff hanger ending. Did I get better, or am I going to keep writing songs about how depressed I am for the rest of my life? The answer is complicated, just like everything to do with mental illness. But for those of you looking for the light at the end of the mood disorder tunnel, the short answer is yes. I got better and I keep getting better. That’s the reason you can listen to my album, because I got “better” enough to get to a recording studio, record the album, organize the release, and do all the boring but necessary things that come along with releasing a record. If I was still as sick as I was when I wrote the song “When I Get Better,” none of this would have been possible. Of course, I had help from some amazing people and I could not have done it without them. But when I wrote most of the songs on this album, I could barely make it out of the house. I was still getting used to Seroquel and I slept fifteen hours a day. At the very least, you have to be awake to make an album. Unless you are a really famous person with an alcohol addiction, and maybe even then.
Getting better when you have multiple mental illnesses is a horribly slow and painful process. I personally believe that you should treat bipolar disorder with medication. I am not going to spend time right now debunking the myth that psychiatric medication is a conspiracy by big pharma to keep people sick. I’ll save that for my next blog post. The truth is it took me two years of constantly changing medication to find the right concoction of pills to keep me sane, but now that I feel stable, I am so glad I stuck with it. Over those two years, I tried to keep making music (actually I tried to go to music school) but changing medication every two to three weeks can make a girl tired, hungry, dizzy, nauseated, and/or unexplainably angry, so most of what I tried to do during that time didn’t go anywhere. I did manage to pull off some successful music tribute/charity nights at a venue across the street from my house. Now that I look back, the fact that I did anything during that time shocks me. My weeks were filled with doctors appointments and visits to the suicide prevention centre. Each mood stabilizer that didn’t work was another blow to my vision of “getting better.” The more meds I tried, the less I believed they would work. But I knew that I had spent the past five years trying the alternative methods, and they didn’t work either. Name a medication and I’ve probably tried it. I was being treated for both bipolar disorder AND anxiety disorder, and funnily enough anxiety medication can make bipolar worse and vice versa. Or maybe that’s not funny at all. It felt like torture, but I do not regret any of it. I am sitting here today without scabs on my arms and legs, my medication is on the kitchen counter and yet I haven’t overdosed on it, and I have so far eaten breakfast AND lunch. I have now been on the same five meds for a year, and I feel okay. This is progress. This is what “getting better” looks like.
It’s not just a few pills that helped me find a better place in my life. I perform with a traveling show called Reach Out Psychosis that educates high schools students about mental health, and I always tell them that three things worked for me: medication, finding a great therapist and learning to dance. During my one of my first ever performances with the group, a student asked what kind of dance I learned during our Q&A period at the end of the show. I was so tired that I couldn’t think of a lie, and I told a gym full of teenagers that I pole dance. The reaction from the teenage boys was…I can’t even think about it! But it’s the truth. Exercising until you feel like dying and making a fool of yourself while you do it absolutely changed my life. I started with Zumba. The first day I showed up at the Trout Lake Community Centre I had blood running down my arms, but I wore a tank top anyways because I thought I’d never come back so why both hiding my illness. But of course I came back, again and again and again. And then I tried pole dancing, and then erotic dancing in those giant heels (I’m already five eleven) and then hanging upside down and free falling in aerial arts (like Cirque du Soleil, only I’m terrible at it). I have never left a dance class feeling worse that when I got there. Not once.
A friend once said I was so lucky that all of the things I wished for in the lyrics of “When I Get Better” came true. She’s right: the boy that I love came back. But we don’t go “dancing all the time,” mainly because it’s expensive and I have to take my pills at eleven pm. I sometimes forget to “take my pills” AND “pay my bills,” because I’m still a musician living with a mental illness. In the song, I wish that I could be the one taking care of him, that he would never have to worry again about me or my crazy brain. But at this point, he is taking care of me, and he probably worries about me all the time. As for being lucky, I am now learning to say that it’s not just luck that I’m getting well again. It’s hard fucking work and I am still working on it every day. I’m giving myself a gold star for surviving all this, because it wasn’t easy. And the fact that you are reading this means you are surviving too, so gold stars all around. There is no easy was to survive mental illness. There is no simple answer to the question “Did you get better?”
How challenging/scary is it to bring your own life and struggles so vividly into your own music?
It is not challenging or scary to bring my struggles into my music, so much as it is helpful and meaningful. The challenging and scary part is living through the bipolar, the anxiety, and the depression. One of my biggest inspirations, the late Carrie Fisher, summed this up in a much more clever way than I ever could. She said, “There’s a part of me that gets surprised when people think I’m brave to talk about what I’ve gone through. I was brave to last through it.”
Can you talk a bit about “When I Sing” – in particular, how has music empowered you to articulate things that maybe are hard to say?
The song “When I Sing” was written, like all my songs, as a way of processing something. This particular song was written in a time when people were leaving me because my bipolar disorder was “too much” for them. At that point, I had been struggling with anxiety disorder for my entire life and with bipolar disorder for around five years. I felt like giving up. I am not a religious person at all, but I think we all reach a point where we wish we could pull a Carrie Underwood and say “Jesus (or insert your personal favourite god) take the wheel.” It was then that I realized that although I was never going to have the comfort of believing in a religion, I could find comfort in writing songs and sharing them with people. If religion is something that provides people with a purpose and a community, then music is my religion. Writing songs about my struggles connects me with other people who have had similar challenges, and these people give me purpose. There have been days where I have decided to keep going only because I can’t be the girl who tells other people there is a light at the end of the tunnel and then gives in to her own darkness.
“I’m Not Broken” reminds me so much of conversations I’ve had over the years with friends who claimed they were fine when they clearly were not. It doesn’t seem to me, though, that we have a culture that accepts anything less than perfection, especially when it comes to mental health. What can we do to make it safer for people to admit when they perhaps aren’t so fine?
It’s funny because the song “I’m Not Broken” was written maybe four years before all the others, and it somehow made it’s way onto this record. I wrote the song thinking that I didn’t need help, and less than a year later I found myself crying myself to sleep everything night, muttering “I’m broken, I’m broken.”
I think the key is to remember that we all need help. We all hold ourselves up to impossible standards. We think it’s embarrassing to be anything other than self-sufficient and happy, but that’s not how human beings work. None of us are really broken, and no one should be treated like a broken object that is useless until it’s fixed. It’s that “useless” feeling that inspired me to write this song when I was nineteen. Still, the idea that needing help implies weakness has got to go. I think that every single person on earth should see a counsellor at least once a year. If we could think of our mental health like our dental health and visit mental health professionals like we do dentists, the world would be a much better place!
Your mental health zine, “It’s Okay,” offers a lot of great tips for accepting ourselves as we are. In listening to “This Time” in tandem with reading the zine, I’m wondering: at what point does someone perhaps have to say, “I might not be so okay, I might need help with this…”?
The zine is inspired by Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is an amazing therapy for people with overwhelming emotions or Borderline Personality Disorder. The concept behind most of the zine is called radical acceptance. The goal of radical acceptance is to illuminate secondary suffering. Most of the time when we feel depressed, anxious, or any other negative emotion, we reject those feelings immediately. We want to feel happy and confident, like we think everyone else does. So then we get secondary suffering, which is feeling depressed about feeling depressed, or feeling angry about feeling angry. These are emotional traps that anyone can get stuck in.
My advice is: if anxiety, depression, substance abuse or whatever else is getting in the way of you having a job, a relationship, or place to live, go see a psychiatrist. Know that you probably have some chemical imbalance in your brain that is making your life harder than it has to be, and that there are ways to treat it. But beyond that, hating yourself for your actions or your emotions only makes things worse. Accepting things as they are doesn’t mean that whatever’s going on is good. It just means it’s happening, like it or not. It’s often the first step to getting help.
The song that ends the album, “When I Get Better,” explores hopes and dreams in the context of a relationship. You wrote a piece for The Mighty that unpacks not only how difficult mental illness is for the person who has it, but also the people around it. As you have indeed “gotten better,” how has that impacted the relationships in your life, and the role those relationships play in your recovery?
Other people (friends, psychiatrists, understanding employers) have been invaluable in my recovery. I always like to think of the saying there’s an I in illness and a We in wellness. It’s a cheesy but memorable way to say that no one can do it on their own. The people who left me during my darkest times have not come back now that I’m healthier, and the people who stayed have become closer friends. I don’t blame anyone for backing out of a friendship or relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder, because it’s very difficult, especially if that person hasn’t been diagnosed or isn’t getting help. But the people who stuck with me through the whole thing are now my closest friends. It takes a certain kind of person to call 911 because you think your friend is in danger, watch them scream as they are taken away in an ambulance, and then sit by their side in the ER.
The subject of the song “When I Get Better,” a boyfriend and former guitarist of my previous band, ended up leaving me for a year, only to come back and be my biggest support. When he came back, he had decided he was going to stay no matter what. He now reminds me to take my pills, to drink water, to eat three times a day. He is a big part of why I am feeling much more stable. I completely understand why he left. Dating a rapid cycling, suicidal, bipolar musician is not everyone’s cup of tea. But he came back, and that’s what matters.
Your journey so far has brought you to a place where you’re not only a musician but an advocate. How do you see your journey evolving from here?
I love working with Reach Out Psychosis and teaching high school students about psychosis here in B.C. I get to play music and talk about mental health, and it feels like the job was made for me. I hope to do more work with young adults who are just starting university (I’m a three time university drop-out), as well as educate teachers how to look for signs and deal with students who are struggling. Of course, my big dream would be to get to a point where I am well enough to tour as Sarah Jickling and Her Good Bad Luck. I love performing. For now, I’m playing a few shows here and there where I can. We will see what happens!
Musician/professional crazy lady Sarah Jickling and superwoman visual artist Amelia Butcher have paired up to create a tongue-in-cheek self help zine that playfully explains radical acceptance and healthy coping! The zine comes with a download code on the back page for Sarah's new album, "When I Get Better."
My friend Madeline Taylor created an amazing podcast episode about judging people's intelligence by the way they speak. She interviewed a bunch of amazing humans and even included a little bit of a conversation she had with me. Do you get judged for the way you speak/sing/present yourself? Let me know on insta or twitter. Thank you Madeline for your hard work and f all the boyfriends who tell their girlfriends to stop saying like and that their voice in too high pitched or that they just "don't like female vocalists because of the way their voices sound!" (That last one was my first boyfriend. Gross.)
This is a call for all cute (or twee or adorkable or whatever the kids are saying these days) girls who make heartfelt music to join together and give a collective middle finger to everyone who says we are not “serious” musicians. Has anyone ever called your music “chick music?" Has anyone recommended you become a children’s performer, even though your songs featuring content for mature audiences only? I want to talk to you. Have you ever felt like you should maybe change your name to something sexy and talk in a low voice, or maybe not talk at all? Have you ever felt like there is no place for you in the music industry because you are too cute to be an alternative artists but too weird to be a main stream artist? I need to hear your stories. Please send them to me. My email address is email@example.com.
I have a theory. It’s a working theory, but here’s what I have so far. There are spaces for three types of women in music.
First, there’s the etherial folk goddess, who has a soft, sweet voice and plays the guitar or the violin or maybe something even more magical, like a harp. The etherial folk goddess is feminine in a way that seems effortless, and they always have the essence of a bride on Pinterest, in love with the world and quirky in a delightful way. Even if they’re just wearing a sweatshirt and its tuesday.
The next type is obvious: sexy pop boss. You may be immediately thinking of Beyonce. But I know sexy pop bosses in the indie scene too. This woman is sexy in a mysterious yet powerful way. You have no idea what she is really thinking, but she knows exactly what you are thinking. She has a big voice, and she may play various instruments mostly she performs bouncing around the stage without getting out of breath or breaking a sweat. She is conventionally beautiful and can wear really tight clothes without looking pregnant. Even when she is pregnant.
And of course, there is the rock badass. She is the kind of music who does not want to be called a female musician because she identifies first as a musician, and doesn’t even think of herself as a woman most of the time. She often plays distorted guitar, and guys feel obligated to tell you that she can actually shred. Can you believe it? A lady can shred. It’s a miracle. The rock badass doesn’t wear dresses.
If you fit into one of these three categories, there is space for you in the music industry. Of course, nobody fits these descriptions exactly. The theory is not perfect. But in order to be a “serious” musician, fitting one of these descriptions loosely really helps. People know what to do with these musicians. They know where to put them. And I love these musicians, but I cannot make myself become one. I cannot chop off parts of my personality and tape on new parts just to fit into a space. I’m over here, being cute and a girl, and I’m okay with that, but I’m lonely. If you know a cute girl musician, let me know. And also, take a minute to think about if anyone over the age of seventeen would admit to being their fan? And if they did admit it, would they say it’s a guilty pleasure? I don’t want to be someone’s guilty pleasure.
A record exec once said I was “not artsy enough to be Grimes, not badass enough to be Halsey, and too cute to be Lorde.” What he really meant was too cute to be Grimes, too cute to be Halsey and too cute to be Lorde. If I was more artsy, I would be less cute. If I was more badass, I would be less cute. Of course, I’m grateful I’m not in the eighties. My mentor had a rejection letter that said “I won't be signing any more (girls) at this time.” So we are allowed to be women now, just certain types of women. And certainly not cute women. Remember when people used to say “girly girl” in elementary school and it was an insult? I’m still a girly girl. I identify first as a woman, and then as a musician. My voice is high and I smile all the time (because otherwise I look scared). I wear sparkles. I write pop music that is full of specific personal details, the complete opposite of mysterious! Do you identify with any of this? Please let me know.
I cannot wait to release my new album and start playing more shows. I wish I could just pull a Beyoncé and release it now, but that's not how the little indie music industry works. Just know that it's coming! Soon! Like, really soon.
When I was asked to book this latest Beyoncé Tribute night, I'm sure the promoter had no idea how important the album Lemonade is to me (hopefully he had an idea how important it is to black women, more on that later). Before Lemonade, I hadn't written a song in two years. The girl who couldn't stop writing, who wrote even before she knew how to hold a pencil by dictating stories to her mom, stopped writing for two years. And even then, the year before that had only yielded one song. Was this because I believed that my bipolar medication had damped my creativity, and that my hypomania and depression were necessary in order for me to write? So many people wanted me to believe this. There is a whole movement that believes this, called the Icarus Project. They believe that Madness with a capital m is a gift, and after the longest creative block I'd ever experienced, I was starting to think they were right.
Or maybe it was because I had decided to try a stint at music school, where I studied composition. School involved these long, awkward private lessons during which I would play part of a song, and then the instructor would tell me that I could do better. Better meant weirder, more outside the box. I know he was trying to push me out of my comfort zone, and I'm sure that teaching style works on lots of people. But it froze me. Every time I sat at the piano, I would try and play something, only to shoot it down immediately. I would hear his voice in my head. "It's been done. Move outside conventional keys, create something entirely new." Nothing was good enough. I would try to write for hours, as was requested by my teacher, and I would come up with nothing, at least nothing good. Eventually I dropped out of school, after writing one not-that-great song in nearly two semesters.
During this time, I not only stopped writing music, I also stopped listening to music. I doubted whether I had ever liked music. It was never enough to keep my attention for long enough, and it certainly never made me feel anything. I thought back to when I was a teenager, and remember how music made me feel a million things at once. I wished I was back in high school, listening to Regina Spektor and knowing exactly who I wanted to be. As I now know, as someone who works in high schools, no one should ever wish they were back in high school. High schools are terrible. Simply having this thought is a cry for help.
So, Lemonade. The album is a celebration of blackness, or hashtag black girl magic. You don't have to be a black girl to see how important it is, and to understand what is has done for so many women. It is such a powerful album, and for the first time in let's say three years, I listened to music and truly felt something. It wasn't even necessarily all feelings I wanted to feel. But I challenge anyone, or maybe any woman, to listen to Lemonade and not feel anything. Beyoncé has always been a mystical unicorn in the night, and this album is like turning the lights on, and seeing her for who she is: powerful, angry, sweet, sarcastic, in love, a daughter, a mother, a real life person, a black woman. And though a lot of the music isn't applicable to my life, it inspired me. It made me remember that writing is a healing process.
I've been writing songs about my bipolar disorder and my anxiety, and that has been healing, but that is only half the battle. I am the way I am because of my illnesses, but also because of things that happened to me that I never dare to talk about. Here's the thing: I can't ignore them anymore. I'm the furtherest thing from a mystical unicorn in the night, in fact I'm more of an over-sharer (if you hadn't noticed), but there are things about me, or things that happened to me, that I feel afraid to sing about. Lemonade reminded me that there is a way to sing about incredibly personal, heartbreaking things, without destroying marriages or spiralling out of control. I apologize for my extreme vagueness right now, but over the next year or few years, I hope to write my own album about grief, anger, and forgiveness. Only then can I share these things with you.
Beyoncé Tribute Night means much more to me this time around. That's why I fought to have all female front ladies. That's why I tried my hardest to involve women of colour. That's why I would like to have BLM involved in some way, shape or form. The night itself isn't going to be "Lemonade: The Musical." We are going to sing silly Beyoncé songs and sexy Beyoncé songs and Beyoncé songs that are really more Beyoncé singing a Sia song. But Lemonade happened. It changed people's lives, and it brought me out of my horrible, never ending writers block. This one is personal. This one is intersectional. And of course, this one will be fun.
I have finally entered CBC's searchlight competition for the first time. I have always been terrified to do this because a) no one likes their musician friends bugging them to vote for stuff, and b) I was a weirdo in high school and am therefor afraid of popularity contests. But if you like me, or my music, or my mental health advocacy, I'd greatly appreciate a vote from you. I'd like to thank each and everyone of you for the support you've showed me over the past year. My album is due to be released in June (I'm fully medicated now so you can trust me), and until then I'm going to be releasing my new podcast, more blog posts, and I may from time to time ask for a few more votes for CBC's Searchlight Competition... Just to keep things fun. If you don't feel like voting, maybe share this link with someone who has more time to dedicate to online voting. CLICK HERE TO VOTE! Love, Sarah.
Have you followed me on Spotify yet? I'll be releasing a bunch more songs this year. You can even add my songs to your "Everything will be fine eventually" playlist, or your "Getting ready for that thing you are scared of" playlist.
"Time After Time" is often associated with cheesy prom movies (Napoleon Dynamite anyone?)
But when I looked closer at the lyrics, I realized that they mirror my journey in learning to accept help without shame. Cyndi addresses feeling flawed, something that I relate to as a human being, especially as someone who suffers from mental illness. In "Time After Time," she talks about running and hiding but there’s someone out there, maybe the male voice in the song, who’s “wondering if [she’s] okay.” He is there, “time after time,” to support her. I also spent years trying to fix myself, by myself. I now rely on my partner (who played violin and sang in this cover) to support me and be there. And that's okay.
Why Cyndi Lauper? She is the original weird and quirky (everyone's favourite adjectives when describing me) pop star. She is also an amazing musician with songwriting chops that are underestimated. I remember when I was younger, my friend's mom wouldn't let us listen to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." She thought it was demeaning to women...she understood the song to mean "Girls Only Wanna Have Fun," and as a single mother running her own business, she took offence to this. Because of her opinion, I'd always felt uneasy about the song.
But as a new-found intersectional feminist, I started to question the idea that this song is sexist. Cyndi Lauper is a freaking feminist icon, so there had to be more to the story. I learned that Cyndi took an original song by Robert Hazard and flipped it on its head. The original is about a boy who spends so much time partying with girls that his parents are worried about him. He rejects the idea of totally controlling women and "[hiding] them away from the rest of the world" but still refers to his lovers as "my girls." The girls in his song are flat characters; all he knows about them is that they want to have fun.
Where Hazard's song is about a man doing what he wants to girls, Cyndi's rewrite is about girls doing what they want. In her song she wants "to be the one to walk in the sun." She belongs to no one: not her parents, not men, not her boss. To really understand the female empowerment and solidarity of this song, watch the video. It features women of all shapes, sizes, colours and walks of life dancing together. Girls just wanna have fun...together. Sisterhood and all that.
When I first started writing songs at sixteen, Cyndi Lauper wasn't a big inspiration. She was just some lady from the eighties who wrote sappy pop songs. But as I've grown as a songwriter and a human being, I've come to realize her value and her strength. She is a multi-instrumentalist who writes from the heart, and she’s not afraid to be herself. And while I can only kind of play a couple instruments, I challenge myself to put all of me into my lyrics, not just the parts I think people will like. Thank you, Cyndi, for everything you've done for women in music. And thank you guys for continuing to support me in my own journey.
P.S. The ticking clock you hear in the recording is actually sampled from Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean." What kind of Canadian would I be if I didn't include a little JB.
I never thought I'd see a cartoon version of me... my life is complete now! Interesting Vancouver is a life changing experience, and I highly recommend you buy your tickets now. When I look back to where I was last year when I spoke at this event, and how the event gave me the confidence to continue in my music career and my mental health advocacy, I am filled with gratitude. For those following along: my medication makes sense now, and even though I'm not "better", I'm pretty freaking good.