Sound mind: my bipolar journey from chaos to composure

A passionate, wholehearted performer known for her “vibrant cello playing” (The Whole Note), Dora-nominated cellist Erika Nielsen has a multi-faceted career as a chamber musician, collaborative artist, orchestral player, and educator. She is also the author of the multiple-award-winning and #1 bestselling memoir and wellness guide, Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure (Trigger Publishing, 2019), which won both a 2019 Nautilus Book Award (Gold) and a 2019 Canada Book Award, and was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Sound Mind has also reached #1 on Amazon in the Manic Depression category. Erika is a creative contributor to Psychology Today magazine and bphope.com, and is also the author of wellness and mental health blog soundmindbook.com. A passionate educator, she is on faculty at National Music Camp of Canada, the Miles Nadal JCC Suzuki Music Program, maintains a busy private studio, and has been a visual artist her entire life.

My name is Erika Nielsen, and I’m a multi-genre cellist and educator, based in Toronto. I am also an author and writer, and have been a visual artist my entire life.

Like many artists, I’ve had to pursue my art while living with a mental health condition, and part of my recovery involved writing a book that adds to the collective discussion we’re finally having as a society about the stigmas surrounding mental health.

My memoir and wellness guide, Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure had its release in 2019 with Trigger Publishing UK, and has since been a #1 bestseller and the recipient of three awards. As its subtitle suggests, Sound Mind explores my journey “from chaos to composure” after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 27, just as I was hitting my stride as a professional cellist and music educator.

Despite some early signs of fairly serious emotional turmoil during my teens and early twenties, this diagnosis came as a total shock to me.

I had just married my sweetheart of eight years, and my career was thriving. I was hustling seven days a week, teaching and auditioning for orchestras, performing with a 25-piece Motown band, and recording with a quartet of opera-crossover sopranos. I was high as a kite on all the possibilities of this new chapter of my life and feeling more positive and energetic than ever — only to wander into a doctor’s office, looking for answers about my lifelong struggles with depression, and be told by three different psychiatrists that what I really had was bipolar.

I was incredulous. Sure, I had been a “colourful” teenager and young adult, and yes, I had always been prone to dramatic, ecstatic highs and crushing low moods, but it never occurred to me that I was anything other than a vibrant, creative person who struggled with occasional depression, like so many of the artists I had read about, from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf to Robert Schumann. My high moods had always seemed like a source of creative magic. In Woolf’s words, they were the “lava” from which I was sure I derived my best creative ideas. It was therefore unbelievable to me that they could be considered symptoms of a serious mental health condition.

It took me a long time to realize that the doctors were right — that the spinning wheel of fabulousness I associated with my high moods had long been a source of chaos in my life and art, not a source of creative power. In the seven years since my diagnosis, I have accepted treatment and overhauled every aspect of my life, from sleep and nutrition to time-management and self-care. I finally found the right combination of medications, and I follow a strict schedule for eating, sleeping, working, and taking care of myself and loved ones, as well as my own spiritual practice of playing the cello and pursuing artistic projects. As a result, I can now proudly say that my condition is under good control, and that I’m a happier, more productive, and more creative musician, artist, and person than I have ever been. The first half of Sound Mind tells my story in the form of a memoir, while the second half offers a roadmap to recovery that outlines the steps I’ve taken to walk myself back to a place of stability.

For anyone who isn’t already familiar with bipolar, it might help to pause here and tell you a little bit about the disorder, and how I experience it.

Bipolar disorder is marked by alternating periods of mania and depression. Within this, there are variations and types depending on symptoms.

Since I have type I, I am more prone to manic episodes than to depression, whereas someone with type II is more prone to depression, and tends to experience a less severe form of mania called hypomania.

Unlike garden-variety happiness, manic episodes tend to present as bouts of frenzied, elated energy, known as euphoric mania. They can also take the form of racing thoughts, agitation, and extreme irritability, known as dysphoric mania. Symptoms can last for days to weeks, and can leave a trail of destruction, including behaviors like impulsive spending or infidelity. Manic episodes start as fun-loving hypomania, but can escalate into full-blown mania, and can include frightening symptoms such as delusions and psychosis.

When I experience a manic episode, I have grandiose thoughts, consider myself a magical genius, and basically operate at warp speed, while everything around me seems to sparkle with glitter, rainbows, and unicorns. If left untreated, and my hypomania escalates to mania, I experience delusions and psychosis that lead me to hear voices, music, and believe that I have magical powers and the ability to communicate with spirits (that I don’t actually believe in). That’s when things get really scary.

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Part of the work of treating any mental illness involves going over your past, ideally with a trained therapist, to help you heal past trauma and see if you can gain insights from your family life, and your childhood behaviour and beliefs. In my case, it has helped to look closely at my early attitudes and relationships toward practicing and performance.

I fell in love with the cello as a toddler while watching Yo-Yo Ma perform on Sesame Street, and by the end of grade school I knew I wanted to be a professional cellist. I adored my first teacher, but my wish to please him led me into a complicated relationship with practicing. When it was obvious that I wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t impressed. I would feel ashamed and misinterpret his disappointment to mean that I was bad. I also didn’t want to disappoint my musician mother.

I started practicing harder just to save my own skin in my lessons. My dedication paid off, and exciting performance opportunities began coming my way, allowing me to get into a university music program. And by age 19, I was performing in a backing string ensemble for Kanye West. Since then I have earned a graduate degree from the Glenn Gould School, and carved out a multi-faceted music career.

But there were signs, especially in my teens, that something might be off in my emotional state.

To the rest of the world, I looked like a charming, passionate, and gregarious young person just coming into my own. But behind closed doors I was often anxious, insecure, tormented, wretched, and felt worthless.

As a teenager who not only played music but also created visual art and wrote copiously in journals, I sometimes felt every possible emotion at once: ecstasy and sorrow, euphoria and fury. It felt as though magical, transcendent powers were coursing through my veins, and I was certain that I was enchanted, gifted, and special. It was often too much to bear, being able to feel so much at once. Sometimes it would spew out of me in angry, irritable, outbursts where I lost all control. At other times I fought secret battles, exploding behind closed doors, where a threatening presence would overwhelm me. Thoughts of death and suicide would flood my spinning brain, and I became hopeless and paralyzed by guilt. My entire existence felt worthless. I was nothing but a masquerading imposter, undeserving of every one of my talents and privileges.

My mother was mostly in the dark about my misery and she would say things like ‘Yup! You’re normal. Totally normal. Normal ‘ups and downs’!’ This, too, shall pass!”

But I had a haunting suspicion that my experiences were something other than ‘normal,’ and that they may be here to stay.

For 12 more years I rode this roller coaster. Then, at age 27, in a frenzy of hypomania, I booked myself in to see a psychiatrist. I wanted to know: were my depressions actually ‘normal’ or was there a bigger explanation? The question had lingered for a decade. I toyed with the possibilities, all of them in my favour. Could my symptoms be a cute, artsy personality quirk? A sign of general anxiety? No matter what the outcome, I craved closure so I could move on with my next chapter in adulthood. I really expected the doctors to pat me on the back and send me on my way, telling me what my mother had always insisted: that I was ‘fine’, in perfect health, and completely normal.

As you already know, that’s not what happened. Overnight, I became a person with a major mental illness, and when I resisted, second and third opinions confirmed it.

From the beginning, my doctors were adamant that I needed medication. Before I understood the severity of my illness, I flatly rejected the idea of taking pills to change my brain chemistry. My exact words to the psychiatrists were: “Can’t I just sniff lavender and take more bubble baths?”

It took a terrible event within my family life, the death of my toddler half-brother from cancer, and a severe depression to get me to accept that I needed medication. I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t get dressed or shower, and for the first time ever, I canceled student lessons. My thoughts turned to walking into traffic. So, to save my own life, and despite my prejudice, my own stigma against medication, my fear of being flattened, my reluctance to admit that I was ‘broken,’ and my deep-seated fear of losing my creativity, I accepted the idea of treating my condition before my situation got worse. In November 2013, I allowed my psychiatrist to write me a prescription for lithium.

I now see it this way: some people need to take supplements for nutrient deficiencies. Some need anti-inflammatory drugs for pain. Some take a statin because they have an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. And, some, like me, need to take medication for chemical imbalances in their brain. It’s that simple. Mental health conditions are treatable conditions like any other, and we need to view them that way.

We’ve all seen the romanticized image of the artist who derives her brilliance from her madness. It’s been a powerful cultural trope, but experience has shown me otherwise.

Before I treated my bipolar disorder, I suffered from debilitating stage nerves, to the point of sometimes blanking out. Not anymore! Treating my bipolar has made it much easier to get onstage and do what I’m trained to do and love to do: play cello. But here’s the larger takeaway: With my symptoms under control, I am more creative and more productive as a musician, artist, and writer, not less so.

I understand now that when I am having manic symptoms, I feel like my most amazing self, but that isn’t really the case. I think I’m being more creative and expressive, but in reality, my thoughts are racing so fast I can’t articulate them clearly or harness them to action. With few exceptions, I am not a better version of myself when I’m manic. It just feels that way.

Even as I began to absorb the idea that my creativity wouldn’t just disappear along with my mania, it was still terrifying to think of “coming out” as a person with a mental illness. I feared that I would find people hesitant or unwilling to work with me if they knew.

Thankfully, I was wrong about that too. As I’ve opened up about the details of my journey, first through my blog and now in my book, I’ve been amazed at the love, support, and warmth that has come my way. Even more gratifying has been the increased openness and the rich connection I’ve enjoyed with others as they’ve shared their stories with me in turn. Together we are starting new conversations about whole health and the importance of our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.

These days I live with my bipolar, not by it or in spite of it. Getting to this point has been hard work: I learned that I can’t pour from an empty cup, and overhauled my workaholic schedule, adding a minimum of one day off per week and wedging a 15-minute buffer between every appointment. I looked at my stress, diet, and exercise, and I dramatically changed my sleep habits. I decluttered, and learned how to say no to things unless my first reaction was “hell, yes!” That’s an important one! I attended weekly psychiatrist appointments, continued my intensive psychotherapy, and participated in a bipolar group study. I reached out to bipolar peers, attended support groups, and spent nearly two years finding the right combination of meds that worked for me. One habit at a time, one step at a time, I was able to reclaim the life and career I was meant to have.

Fast-forward to today, I’m feeling better than ever. I’m still learning, and I still face the occasional bump in the road, but I’m managing, and I can proudly say that it’s possible to live an awesome life with bipolar. Making the choice to take charge of your whole health is one of the bravest things you can do for yourself, your community, and the people you love.

For more of the details about how I managed this transformation, I’ll refer you to my book, Sound Mind, and feel free to reach out to me through Instagram or Twitter @celloerika or my blog at soundmindbook.com or www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/chaos-composure