There are a huge number of individuals with mental illnesses who have successful, fulfilling careers, despite the setbacks of their illnesses. In this episode, we’re joined by Erika Nielsen, a professional cellist, who shares the story of her diagnosis, the changes she had to make in her life, what it was like “coming out” as having bipolar disorder, and much more.
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About Our Guest
Erika Nielsen is a Canadian cellist, writer, and artist based in Toronto. Erika has a multi-faceted career as a chamber musician, collaborative artist, orchestral player and educator, with a musicianship that spans from Baroque and Classical traditions to contemporary and popular genres. She has performed with artists such as Kanye West and Johnny Reid, and is a graduate of The Glenn Gould School and Queen’s University.
Erika is the author of new bestselling memoir and self-care manual SOUND MIND: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure (Trigger Publishing, 2019) which is #1 on Amazon in its category. She is also a visual artist; a blog contributor to BPhope.com and Psychology Today, and is also the author of wellness and mental health blog soundmindbook.com. A passionate educator, she maintains a busy private studio and is on faculty at National Music Camp of Canada. Erika lives in Toronto with her husband. You can find her at celloerika.com, and on Instagram and Twitter @celloerika #cellistartistwriter
CELLIST SHOW TRANSCRIPT
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health – with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show Podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m here with my fellow host Vincent M. Wales and today Vince and I will be talking to Erika Nielsen who is the author of Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure. She is a professional cellist and a writer who lives in Toronto which is in Canada. Erika welcome to the show.
Erika Nielsen: Thank you so much Gabe and Vin. It’s such an honor to be here.
Gabe Howard: Well we are glad to have you, thank you.
Vincent M. Wales: We’re glad to have you. So, Erika, first I want to say that, holy cow, I envy you for being a professional musician. That had been a dream of mine is as a young man and didn’t quite hit it.
Erika Nielsen: You know I think that’s like the common story for so many people but you know so, and then some of us we’re able to stick with it and that’s what I do for a living.
Vincent M. Wales: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Well it’s very cool.
Vincent M. Wales: And so you were in your late 20s when you were diagnosed as bipolar, correct?
Erika Nielsen: So I was diagnosed in my late 20s and it seems to be a pretty common story for those with bipolar disorder to be diagnosed in their late 20s.
Vincent M. Wales: So I assume that by the time you were diagnosed you were well into your musical career? Is that right?
Erika Nielsen: Yes I was. So in Sound Mind, which is a unique book in that it’s both a part memoir and a part self care manual. The first section tells my story about growing up in a musical household, becoming a professional musician, a professional cellist, and along the way I share the symptoms I had that led to my diagnosis of Type 1 bipolar disorder. In the second section of sound mind, I outline all of the habits I had to change, the self care steps and the tools I used to achieve stability.
Gabe Howard: Well that is really very cool. You know obviously we don’t want you to read the book on the show because we only have you know 20 some minutes. But what were some of the symptoms that that led to your diagnosis?
Erika Nielsen: Well a bipolar disorder often first present as major depression in for example teenagers. I think I can look back and even see symptoms within my childhood in terms of not sleeping well, and a kind of aggression that I would that I would hold in. I had tumultuous teen depression. On the outside I was cheerful and bubbly and artistic and outgoing but behind closed doors my self-worth felt like zero. I was very very depressed I felt wretched and worthless and that I didn’t deserve my talent or my privileges. I very sadly culminated in a suicide attempt and I was suicidal for a long time and at the time the people around me, my family, my community, would tell me oh yep you’re perfectly normal. Normal ups and downs, this is what teenagers experience and I believed. But you know I had this haunting suspicion for years I mean a decade leading up to my into my real diagnosis that there was something more going on. I just I just knew in my heart like you know it’s not normal to want to take your own life. It’s not normal to be this depressed. Now I’m telling you the symptoms I noticed when I was growing up were depressive symptoms that’s all I notice. So fast forward for my teen years, throughout my 20s I had always seen a therapist because again I suspected that the symptoms I experienced as a teenager with depression there was something more to it. It wasn’t quite right. So I saw a therapist throughout my 20s thinking I was just taking care of my childhood issues and getting ready for a normal adulthood. And you know and then I got married at age 27 and a month after my wedding I was just totally high as a kite. You know my career was locked in. I was starting a new chapter you know I kept trying to come clean my house and I would, and I decided you know what I am going to find out once and for all what those teen depressions were all about. I’m going to go to the doctor. I’m going to get myself a professional diagnosis and a psychiatric analysis and they’re going to pat me on the back. Tell me what my family and everyone had told me for years that I’m completely normal or I have a very boring condition like mild social anxiety or 21st century syndrome. And I’m going to walk out of there feeling amazing. Well spoiler alert, that’s not what happened when I got that psychiatric assessment.
Gabe Howard: You know it’s interesting what you said that the depression you realized was abnormal but it sounds like you didn’t notice the mania at all and that’s very common. Mania feels good. You know speaking as a fellow person who lives with bipolar disorder it’s like I feel great. Yeah. I’m gonna run to the doctor because I feel great that that doesn’t.
Erika Nielsen: I know I know. Like I had no idea what mania was. I think that’s a really common story. I thought I was just me and what being awesome me was. It meant I felt amazing most the time and I’d like the creative ideas because I’m a musician I’m an artist. I like to write that’s who I am. I don’t really sleep all that well. Closing my eyes and feeling like I’m watching TV channels flicker and with background music that’s what sleeping feels like to me. I don’t know any different and am I hypersexual? Absolutely! I’m there off of this and that guy. And so my symptoms of mania they were presented to me as symptoms and it was complete news to me. It was the shock of my life when the psychiatrist suggested that at least a few periods of my life were actually manic episodes and not just me being me.
Vincent M. Wales: How did you react to that? What did you say to the doctors? No, no, it was just me?
Erika Nielsen: I was in complete disbelief denial without even knowing it. I already had stigma towards mental illness the day that I was diagnosed with a mental illness. My stigma came up. The image that came to mind was vagrant people on the street, teens yelling at each other, homeless people. It was really really I’m ashamed to say what I thought bipolar was and I had to do a lot of research to learn about this condition that I was told I had. It took me a long time to come to terms with what bipolar disorder was and learning about it.
Gabe Howard: It’s a lot to take in for anybody.
Erika Nielsen: All of a sudden I went from being a wildly successful professional cellist and teacher and artist and I thought my life was rocking. I was a newlywed and all of a sudden I became a person with a mental illness. Overnight.
Vincent M. Wales: That has to be shocking. Yes. Getting back to the musical aspect of your life. A lot of creative people, whether it’s in music or writing or what have you, have been known to or at least were believed to have been mentally ill in some capacity. Do you feel there’s any connection with your creativity and your mental illness?
Erika Nielsen: I want to answer that in kind of two ways. As I mentioned before so when I was first diagnosed and learning about mania I assumed that my mania was the essence of what made me who I was as an artist. And that mania was solely responsible for my creative spirit and my flights of ideas. I was resistant to taking medication because I remembered feeling flattened when back in my teens I had taken some SSRI for depression and that made me feel really really flat. And I assumed that that would happen to me again if I treated bipolar disorder. But when I understood the severity of my manic episodes I was more interested in achieving stability. So after a few years of patient trial and error and finding the right medication combination I just discovered, here’s the drum roll, when I am having manic symptoms I feel more creative and like my most amazing self in the spinning wheel of fabulousness that I experience 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 well or complete them. I’m too frenetic to complete the task they start and I do not accomplish more. And with very few exceptions I’m not a better version of myself. It just feels that way and I came up with this sentence that I think really sums up mania and the illusion that it is: mania masquerades as creativity in the same way that lust masquerades as true lasting love. It’s the chemical reaction within our brain and it’s a subjective illusion.
Vincent M. Wales: That’s fantastic.
Erika Nielsen: I realized I am just as creative when I am stable because that is who I am. I am a creative artistic colorful person and now that I’ve treated my condition I am able to actually complete the tasks and ideas that I start and I can follow my projects to fruition.
Gabe Howard: And isn’t that really the key? I know what you mean about getting all of those great ideas at 3:00 in the morning about thinking of a billion ways to solve all of my problems, your problems, the world’s problems. I have even thrown in some of Vince’s problems but I have absolutely no ability to take it from idea to fruition. It’s you know let’s talk about being a cellist for a moment. Would you say that it was difficult to practice when you were a manic? Because I imagine I’m just I’m just going by a stereotype here to be a professional cellist you probably practiced hours a day.
Erika Nielsen: Oh yeah absolutely hours a day and no doubt bipolar affected my playing as a musician.
Gabe Howard: Yeah I can’t imagine sitting still for hours a day to accomplish anything during both major depression and or a major hypomanic or manic episode so that in and of itself should prove to all of our listeners that yeah, yeah, mania is not awesome. We’re going to step away to hear from our sponsor and we’ll be right back.
Narrator 2: This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp.com, secure, convenient and affordable online counselling. All counselors are licensed, accredited professionals. Anything you share is confidential. Schedule secure video or phone sessions, plus chat and text with your therapist whenever you feel it’s needed. A month of online therapy often costs less than a single traditional face-to-face session. Go to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral and experience seven days of free therapy to see if online counselling is right for you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Vincent M. Wales: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Erika Nielsen, author of Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure.
Erika Nielsen: When I was living with untreated bipolar disorder before I knew I had it I suffered from major performance anxiety, destructive and ruminating thoughts, mostly about my worthiness and ability. I was experiencing auditory hallucinations and blacking out. I was experiencing problems focusing, suicidal thoughts, and extreme impatience and irritability. I’d be practicing along intensely focused on what I was doing and there’s a scene in my book where my spouse comes over and he basically whispers I poured your tea and I go What do you what are you doing here? I am pretty much just lose it. This irritability was constant for me and then sleeping poorly made all of the above symptom even worse. And vice versa so I thought all of this was just a part of being a performer and an artist and having an artistic personality or I thought it was a sign that if I got performance anxiety maybe I didn’t deserve to be a musician or maybe I shouldn’t be a musician. I didn’t even realize how exhausting it was to live in my brain until I finally got my diagnosis and found the right treatment. And interestingly, as we know, people with bipolar disorder often also suffer from comorbid disorders like major anxiety or ADHD, and I suffered from both of those. So I was working extremely hard all the time to cope with and hide my symptoms so I’m incredibly relieved that I found an accurate diagnosis and amazingly treating my bipolar also treated the symptoms that affected my playing. And now I can perform better than I ever thought possible. I can perform with more focus and ease than ever and allow my true abilities to shine. I still feel nervousness and excitement when I perform. But now it’s in proportion and manageable and I can sometimes even use it to my advantage. My thoughts are now organized and non-toxic. It’s almost like someone turned the volume dial down 40 percent to a tolerable level. So I’m no longer scattered. I can focus and little things don’t distract or bother me anymore. Gabe, you were talking about you know thinking about the 5 million ways to solve all the world’s problems at 3:00 in the morning and that’s dialing it all down to maybe thinking of three ways to solve the world’s problems and then being able to execute it.
Gabe Howard: Right. Exactly. Exactly. There’s a quote that I really love and it has absolutely nothing to do with bipolar disorder but I’ve applied it because you know that’s what I do. And it’s never let perfection get in the way of progress.
Erika Nielsen: I love that quote again.
Gabe Howard: Yeah. And it’s one of the things that I always had a really really hard time with. Once I got treated, once I found coping mechanisms, and once I got better. Yeah. When I look at them objectively when I look at plans that I have are they perfect? No but they’re in the world. Every article that I have ever written, it’s not perfect. I go back and read them and I find a comma that’s out of place or I’m like you know I wish I would have been a little articulate over here or I read the comments section I was like you’re right, I should just on and on and on and on and on. But because I was able to get treated all of these articles are out in the world to be discussed and to gain value and whatever that value is is up to the reader. And that’s what I’ve learned as well. Before I got treatment they were all in my head just up there.
Erika Nielsen: Yep. Right. Not getting out there and not seeing any readers. That’s Gabe. That’s one of my absolute favorite quotes. I also reframe it to be perfection is the enemy of great.
Gabe Howard: Yes. Yes. I love that. I love that a lot. I want to switch gears for a moment and one of the examples that I always use in every speech that I give about living with bipolar disorder is you know I take medication for bipolar disorder and I tell people that you know it’s there are side effects. There’s most commonly sexual side effects. There’s other types of side effects and I say, you know I had to find the right medication that worked for me and I always say for example one of my medications gives me a slight tremor but hey I’m not a professional musician so I don’t care. Well I’m now talking to somebody who lives with bipolar disorder who is a professional musician. Was this difficult for you? Because a slight tremor is very common in many of the bipolar medications.
Erika Nielsen: That’s a great question, Gabe. As I mentioned it took me two years to find the right medication that works for me. The right cocktail as some people call it. And for some people, they’re still on that path and it’s taken them even longer so it took me two years and I’m not the medication I take is not free of side effects but it has side effects that I can live with as a professional musician. I’m very fortunate that I do not have a tremor and it allows me to get the rest I need. I can sleep sometimes upwards of nine to 10 hours. And as a freelancer I recognize I’m extremely fortunate that I can schedule my activities around my need for the sleep that my medication gives me. I say gives me, I don’t say my medication makes me sleep for too long, my medication gives me the sleep that I need to repair my brain and I recognize that other people have a nine to five job. They need to be up at seven. They need to be in their office by eight thirty. I don’t have to do that so I can. For example, I don’t schedule any private lessons or rehearsals before 10:00 in the morning just so I have time to take my time in the morning and be at my freshest and I often perform late in the concerts that I play. So for example last week I was performing a concert of the music of Prince’s Purple Rain. And this week it was a baroque concert with music for harpsichord and Elton John’s Greatest Hits. Well, all those concerts ran very late so I made sure to not schedule anything first thing in the morning so that I could get the rest that I need to help treat my condition.
Gabe Howard: Very cool.
Vincent M. Wales: Let me just jump back to stigma. You said that when you were diagnosed you just had this automatic stigma that popped up. How did that change and when did it change?
Erika Nielsen: When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about the condition and I recommend this for anyone who is diagnosed with any mental health condition or mental illness. Learn as much as you possibly can about it. It sounds obvious but I think there’s still a lot of people out there that just go to the doctor and seek treatment without really learning about what’s going on for them. I read a kind of how to guide written by doctors and I also read personal accounts, books about people who live with bipolar disorder. One of my favorite is actually a graphic memoir. Its illustrations written by a cartoonist written by Ellen Forney called Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me and reading that book was so monumental in making me feel like I wasn’t alone because I think feeling isolation is really really dangerous and is really really hard.
Gabe Howard: Yeah it feels so lonely.
Erika Nielsen: Yes. So as I mentioned I when I was first slammed with this diagnosis my own stigmas came up around it. And as I learned more about the condition and I learned about famous figures who suffered from it especially other artists and writers and musicians and I learned how common it was so the more knowledge I armed myself with the more my own stigmas melted away and stigma is so tough. My heart is just so full of compassion now for others who have mental health conditions like mine. I saw someone the other week on the subway and he was clearly psychotic. He was having a really rough day and I just I just felt for him. I kind of smiled and nodded and I said I hope you take good care. I know how many of us there are out there. I know stigma is still prevalent. You know while we’re starting to have conversations about depression, anxiety, and self care and it’s becoming conversational I think the two biggies bipolar and schizophrenia a lot of people aren’t ready to touch yet. And I’m hoping to help change that. I also want to talk a little bit about other stigmas towards self care, rest, getting sleep you need. I came from a workaholic environment. And when I was taking a moment of rest or break any moment like that I meant made me feel like I was being lazy and self-indulgent and not productive. And I made myself physically sick with gastric reflux disease and digestive issues and I wreaked havoc on my mental health from being a workaholic. And now that I’ve had to treat my chronic stress and chronic workaholism to treat my bipolar disorder I had to rethink my whole schedule and the whole way I approach my work life and I got to tell you guys, Gabe and Vin, I am so over chronic frantic busyness. And what I’ve discovered is it’s still possible. I have a very full schedule but I’ve put changes in place to make sure I’m not racing from one thing to the next which just exacerbates my condition. There’s also a huge stigma out there against getting adequate sleep and prioritizing sleep. We also all know someone who brags about how little sleep they get. Or they think they can function on just a few hours like sleeping more somehow means you’re not being productive. I completely disagree. I can get so much more done now that I’m fully rested my brain can actually repair and heal itself. So the opposite is absolutely true. The more rested I am the more productive I am in my waking hours.
Gabe Howard: I love that you have just listed like five of the top ten Psych Central Show Podcasts that Vince and I have done. We talk about sleep hygiene all the time we talk about this idea that people have with self care being somehow you know bad sleep being lazy on and on. You just you really covered a lot of myths that the the people who are “mentally healthy” in society just believe and if you’d believe it we’d all should be working 16 hour days getting four hours of sleep a night never doing anything for ourselves and being at somebody else’s beck and call 24/7 all for minimum wage. And that sounds nuts when you say it that way but you’re right people believe these things in the abstract.
Erika Nielsen: Oh I know.
Gabe Howard: It’s fascinating to me so thank you.
Erika Nielsen: It’s totally fascinating to me too. And something really cool is as I have come out with my condition with my book all about it which includes the self care steps that I took towards stability. A lot of friends and family have been reading the book and they’re noticing that the self care steps I took are useful for them or for their friends who have anxiety or for the other friend who has schizophrenia. These self care that we need as people with mental health conditions, everybody can benefit from following them.
Gabe Howard: I know imagine that. Imagine that everybody has a brain that everybody should take care of. Wow. I wonder if other people know about this.
Erika Nielsen: I mean North American workaholism is I think is making us all sick.
Gabe Howard: I completely agree.
Vincent M. Wales: I agree, too. One of the things that you didn’t specifically mention, at least I don’t think you did is that it’s hard to go through this all on your own. We do need a support network so I know you’re married. Tell me about the role your spouse has played in supporting you throughout all this.
Erika Nielsen: I’d love to. I’ve got to say to those who are newly diagnosed I think finding support is essential. Not everybody has a supportive spouse like I do and I’ll get to that in a second. But finding that support network even if and I know many people with an undiagnosed mental health condition may have even pushed away some or all of your close support network. I know I found tremendous peer support in the support groups I joined when I was first diagnosed and I still regularly seek peer support from the Toronto bipolar disorder meetup group. I talk about support groups in my book Sound Mind and something that’s great to remember is that even if I don’t feel like going to my support group, I know that I might be a support for someone else. And we actually need each other. So my spouse is absolutely my rock. He is, you could say opposites attract. You know I’m a bubbly outgoing person and he’s always been kind of quieter and more reserved and we balance each other out that way. I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have a supportive partner when I am experiencing symptoms. He can help me by sort of mirroring back me what it is he is noticing. So if I’m experiencing a mood episode usually I’m pretty good at knowing what’s going on but sometimes he can really see it too and he can relate that to me. I’m noticing that today you’ve repotted all of our plants and you’ve been listening to this Brian Wilson record on repeat about eight times in a row while talking non-stop. Have you noticed that? And I can say, yes I’ve noticed that. And then together we can take action and to treat my symptoms that they come up. He’s supports me and that he’s on board as my team mate and we treat my bipolar as a team and when it’s go time, when I’m really unwell, we’re in it together and I know how lucky I am to have someone who’s willing to do that.
Gabe Howard: That’s great. So tell us where can we find your book.
Erika Nielsen: You can find my book, for American listeners, it’s available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble for Canadian listeners it’s on Amazon.ca, Indigo or Chapter.
Gabe Howard: Awesome. Do you have a website that people can find just you personally? I believe you have a blog, yes?
Erika Nielsen: Yes. So my blog is SoundMindBook.com and articles there have also been published for bphope.com and soon will be also published for Psychology Today magazine. And if you want to know a bit more about me as a professional cellist and educator you can check out, one word, CelloErika.com and I can be found under the handle @CelloErika on Instagram and Twitter.
Gabe Howard: Well thank you again Erika for being here and thank you everyone else for tuning in. We really appreciate it. And remember you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counselling anytime anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everybody next week.
Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show. PsychCentral.com is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at GabeHoward.com. Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at VincentMWales.com. If you have feedback about the show, please email [email protected].
About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at www.vincentmwales.com and www.dynamistress.com.
Podcast: Being a Professional Musician with Bipolar Disorder