Sarah Jickling’s voice is childish innocence laced with pain; lollipops and whimsy with a razor-sharp edge. But despite the darkness running underneath the sweet surface, there’s an inherent joy in it too – a hope that seems determined to bubble over the edges and scatter some glitter into the black void beneath.
The Burnaby singer-songwriter will be taking to the stage for a special International Women’s Day event at the Cultch this Thursday, March 8.
LUMINESCENCE: Chanteuse to the Power of Three features Jickling alongside Christa Couture and Kristina Shelden in an event produced by UBC’s Wingspan Dis/Ability Arts, Culture and Public Pedagogy. Each of the three brings her own story of triumph over physical and mental adversity. Couture is a cancer survivor and amputee; Shelden suffered a spinal cord injury.
And Jickling? Jickling is a self-described “neurotic songstress” who has become an advocate for mental health awareness, using her music to chronicle her personal journey with anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Armed with a ukulele, a piano and partner Greg McLeod on violin and trombone, Jickling will use the stage to share her music and her story about the complicated journey that began, for her, some 20 years ago.
AN ALIEN CHILD
“I can’t remember life without it.”
“It,” for Jickling, is anxiety. She was about six when she first started experiencing panic attacks. She didn’t have the words for them then; she only knew that sometimes, the world wasn’t the way it should be. Sometimes it was like she was experiencing the world in slow motion. She told people she must have a brain tumour.
“I didn’t really have the vocabulary to explain panic attacks, and of course my parents didn’t know,” the now-26-year-old recalls. “I would also dissociate. I would think that I was an alien and everyone else on the planet was a different species than I was.”
"I would think that I was an alien and everyone else on the planet was a different species than I was.”
When she tried to explain those ideas, the adults around her would simply think she was an imaginative child.
Which, in itself, was true. Even then, she was a poet. Before she could spell enough words to write them down for herself, she would dictate poems for her mother to record.
Those two parts of her – the anxiety, and the creativity – would become inextricably entwined as she grew up.
FROM HERE TO 'CRAZY'
She was, she figures, more “together” to outsiders than she was to herself. She was in a band with her friend in high school, finding unexpected attention for what she remembers as “cute” songs (“my lyrics were about boys and kittens and Harry Potter,” is how she described them in a post on her website).
“It was a strange way for me to connect with people, because I was very shy,” she says. “I always say I have off-stage fright.”
She kept writing and making music. People didn’t know other things about her. Things like the fact that she didn’t sleep for days at a time – not sleeping was a problem that had plagued her since childhood – and that she’d cry on the floor at night. She had periods of depression, even suicidal thoughts. But she didn’t talk to counsellors, or anyone else really.
“I thought it was maybe how everybody felt, or it wasn’t really that bad,” she remembers.
It wasn’t till she started university that the anxiety grew beyond her control. She dropped out very shortly after starting and was living with major mood swings, alternating from hypomanic highs to depressive lows.
By her late teens and early 20s, her life was spiralling out of control. One friend told her to get to a doctor, saying she couldn’t be friends with Sarah the way she was and that Sarah needed professional help.
“I heard a lot that I was crazy, but that doesn’t have a lot of meaning behind it,” Jickling says.
Eventually, she did seek help, and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I said nope, that’s not me, that doctor is wrong,” Jickling recalls.
Jickling notes that one of the big challenges with bipolar disorder is the long waitlists for care – by the time you get through the six-month waitlist for help, you’ve cycled out of depression and into hypomania and you’re convinced the world is yours for the taking.
Jickling had to be diagnosed three times with bipolar disorder – at 19, at 21 and at 23 - before she finally started on her road to recovery.
THE ARTIST AND THE ILLNESS
Treatment, for Jickling, has meant a multi-pronged approach: medication, therapy and a variety of creative pursuits, including dance and – of course - music. As she faced her illness head-on, Jickling found herself drawn to write songs about the journey.
“It’s kind of like your mental illness gets turned up with a volume knob and it’s all you can hear,” she says. “It becomes the subject of your songs.”
Through a number of years, she says, she connected her mental illness and her music; she had an image of the stereotypical “crazy artist” in her head and feared that if she got rid of the illness, she might also lose the music.
“I connected this sort of chaotic life and chaotic brain with the ability to write songs,” she said. “My recovery has been knowing that I am an artist, with or without mental illness.”
The recovery journey became the album she released independently in the summer of 2017, When I Get Better.
LIFE AS AN ADVOCATE
For an album that began from an intensely personal place, When I Get Better has propelled Jickling into an intensely public life.
She released the album with a zine illustrated by a high school friend, Amelia Butcher (a friend whom Jickling credits as being “the person who stuck by me” – the one who brought Jickling food when she wasn’t eating; the one who called the police when she thought Jickling had overdosed). The zine, called It’s OK – a handbook for human beings, is a tongue-in-cheek look at acceptance and coping.
After its release, Jickling was invited to speak on CBC and other platforms, and she found herself becoming an advocate for people with mental illness and for mental health awareness in general.
Jickling now performs with ReachOut Psychosis, a touring show presented by HereToHelp and the B.C. Schizophrenia Society that travels to B.C. high schools to help educate students and teachers about psychosis.
“The biggest thing that music has given me is a voice and a platform to connect with people,” Jickling says.
She uses her platform to share the things that she needed to hear, knowing that her experiences will reach someone else who needs them.
“The idea I was struggling with is, ‘Is there a better?’ It was coming to terms with, this life’s up and down, just like everybody’s life. There’s no moment when you arrive at ‘better.’”
“Often I’m writing something that I need to tell myself, things that have taken me a long time to understand,” she says. Like, for instance, the title track to When I Get Better. “The idea I was struggling with is, ‘Is there a better?’ It was coming to terms with, this life’s up and down, just like everybody’s life. There’s no moment when you arrive at ‘better.’”
It isn’t easy. Jickling points out the music industry is difficult already, being fraught with competition and rejection, never mind throwing mental illness into the mix.
“Success has been something that I’ve had to struggle with,” she admits. “I’ve decided that success for me means I’m touching other people’s lives and making a difference in other people’s lives.”
Every time she gets feedback from someone who thanks her, who relates to her experiences and tells her that message is what they needed to hear – that’s what keeps Jickling persevering. On days when nothing is working, when Jickling wants to go back to old habits – to self-harming, or to allowing panic attacks to keep her inside the house for days on end – those are the days she keeps on going because of her music and her advocacy work.
“Every day I tell people that I am there for them, so I cannot not be there for myself,” she says. ‘I’m going to listen to my own advice and take care of myself. I’m going to share my stories instead of pretending everything’s great.”
HOPE IN THE DARKNESS
Even when Jickling’s subject matter is dark, her music remains light-hearted and whimsical.
“That’s the stuff I like to listen to, stuff that makes me feel upbeat and happy,” she says. “I really want to lift people up with my music.”
What’s surprised her the most in this whole journey is, perhaps, the fact that she loves performing as much as she does.
“I suppose it’s rather surprising that I enjoy being on stage so much. I’m a quiet person, I’ve always been very shy,” she muses. “I feel so comfortable in situations where I’m able to tell my story and perform, in a way, but perform my truth.”
That, in a nutshell, is Jickling’s mission for her March 8 performance at the Cultch.
“I’m just going to be playing from my heart and telling my stories,” she says simply.
That, she knows, is what she’s here to do.
CHECK IT OUT
WHAT: LUMINESCENCE: Chanteuse to the Power of Three, a show featuring Christa Couture, Sarah Jickling and Kristina Shelden.
WHEN: Thursday, March 8. Doors open 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: The Cultch, 1895 Venables St., Vancouver
TICKETS: $10 to $30, buy through thecultch.com/tickets or call 604-251-1363.