With the release of “When I Get Better,” Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Sarah Jickling is boldly stepping out – not only as a solo artist (she formerly fronted the “Oh Wells”) but as a mental health advocate. Jickling draws from her own struggles with anxiety and bipolar disorder in this absorbing collection of songs; she successfully balances telling her own unique story with making the songs universal enough that we all can relate to their themes.
Highlights of the album include “When I Sing,” a moving ode to the power of music not only to communicate but to transform, and “This Time,” a meditation on just how difficult – and consuming – the struggle with mental health issues can be in one’s life.
Sarah was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about her new album and her work in mental health advocacy.
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!
Photo credit: Nelson Moullic