By Alex Eidman

Eric Dawkins, 18, stands outside The Sapphire Lounge, on the Lower East Side, getting ready to perform at their monthly open mic night. Dawkins spent much of the last five years in a residential treatment center for kids with psychiatric issues, and says he music helped him express himself when he was away from home. Photo by Dominique Lemoine.

When he was 6 years old, Eric Dawkins walked to a convenience store near his home in the Bronx. When he walked out, he said he saw his cousin, a local drug dealer, sprawled out on the ground, shot to death.

“It’s like a moment when you wanna think you’re dreaming, but you’re not,” Dawkins said. “Growing up, I saw a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to see.”

In school, he was hyper and aggressive, dropping books on kids’ heads and lighting matches in class. At nine, he was hospitalized for one his outbursts, and he said his seizures often landed him in the emergency room.

Dawkins was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and bipolar disorder when he was 9. It got bad enough that at 13 his mom sent him to the August Aichhorn Center in Manhattan, a New York State run non-profit that serves as a long-term psychiatric facility for teenagers.

Dawkins says he lost many people close to him during his time at August Aichhorn. When he was 14, he said his favorite staff member, Maribel Rosado, whom Dawkins said was a mother-figure to him, died of a sudden heart attack. Before he got out, his 5-year-old niece, his aunt and his mother all passed away.

Dawkins said his sadness was overshadowed by his guilt.

“I was mad at myself,” he said. “My family was going through a lot at this time. Because of my decisions, I wasn’t able to support or comfort them.”

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Dawkins found a mentor and friend in Michael Yan, who was an aspiring rapper and singer. Dawkins said Yan encouraged him to explore his creative side and the two became inseparable.

“He’s like a brother, more than a brother,” Dawkins said. “That man took me under his wing and always stood up for me.”

Dawkins started writing lyrics everyday, and collaborated on songs with Yan, who helped teach him structure and flow. They formed a music duo, and performed around the city with Voices UnBroken, a group that helps underprivileged young people get involved in the arts.

Even with a new hobby to focus on, Dawkins struggled to cope with personal losses. At 16, after the death of a close family friend, Dawkins ran away from August Aichhorn. He said he ended up in Rikers Island for a week before the center came to claim him.

He said he was released from August Aichhorn on July 23rd, 2012, his 18th birthday, but his freedom was short-lived. Within a month, he was arrested for stealing clothes out of a car.

Dawkins’ said his lawyer managed to keep him out of jail, and he was sentenced to six years of probation. However, he missed his mandatory community service and said he has outstanding warrants.

“Sometimes I think about turning myself in. I’d probably do ten days in Rikers,” Dawkins said. “But after getting a taste of that place, I just can’t handle it right now.”

Today Dawkins lives on friends’ couches and still has bipolar-related seizures that sometimes land him in the hospital. He spends most days writing music, in the studio at The Door and at open mics around the city. His main goal is becoming a successful hip-hop artist. Dawkins said his mind is focused on the present, for better or worse.

“I’m just living,” Dawkins. “You can think about the future, but sometimes you just have to walk and when you get to that point, you get to that point.”