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To My 15-Year-Old Self Just Diagnosed With Bipolar

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It would be great to escape into someone else’s brain. Shrink, “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” style, and burrow through their ear to hike among their gushy brain matter. Eventually, I’d find the Cineplex in their brain, grab some caramel popcorn and watch their life story unfold. Not the story of what actually happened, but the story they tell themselves about what happened.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

The particular film, of a 30-year-old man I know, has two scenes. One of him and his bride covering each other’s noses in buttercream icing and the second, 10 years later when a couple signatures made him feel like a failure. But the movie, and marriage, was so much more than that. It was two people who rooted themselves in a messy, distressing and beautiful life. Those 10 years of creating a safe space to fall apart, change and rebuild themselves wasn’t proof of failure. It was a testament to how two people created a home with no guarantees, but still showed up every day to do their best. That’s a huge success in my mind.

I’m watching my own story through the lens of 25 years of therapy and there’s a deep pain I’m never able to fully excavate. It’s like the dead flies you push into the corner of a windowsill when cleaning. You can’t pick them up, no matter how many times you stuff paper towels down there. I’m spending thousands and thousands of dollars on therapy when I just need someone to tell me these flies are part of the messy and uncomfortable human experience. It reflects how clean the rest of the window is. I work really hard to make them sparkle, but at some point, I have to call it a day.

My most predominant story, the one that insinuated itself into all parts of my life, was the belief I was broken because of bipolar disorder. I was born defective and could never be fixed. That I would never be fully functional. However, I’ve truly been working on this and the next step was to write a letter to my 15-year-old self about why I decided she was broken when diagnosed with bipolar. She deserved an explanation and apology.

Dear 15-year-old Brandi,

I’ve erased and retyped this letter so many times. I still don’t know if I have the words or wisdom to explain to you why I drowned you in shame and convinced you that you were horribly broken. I’ve been experiencing this grief that has no words or breath or reason. Just a gut feeling it was time to let go of this destructive and inaccurate story I’ve built my life around. It’s terrifying because the story made me feel safe, but it’s bulldozing through my joy. I got to the point where it didn’t really feel like a choice anymore. I can’t carry around this shame.

I’ve engraved you into my mind as a victim. Someone who had life happen to her, but that wasn’t the real story. The real story was how I helped create a safe place for at-risk youth to heal their own painful stories, opened a brewery, published a book, fell in love with my best friend and showed up every day to fight for a kick-ass life. That’s a pretty impressive list for someone who was only a victim. You were such an integral part of this story. You had this spark and grit I still carry around with me. I’m a scrappy fighter.

So, I guess this turned out more of a letter of gratitude than an apology. Maybe you don’t need my guilt, but my love and gratitude. And I do so dearly love you. I guess the bottom line is we’re broken and whole, loved and lonely, strong and exhausted. It’s messy and there’s no need for shame. I don’t think you could understand this at 15, but you gave me the balls to stay alive long enough to figure this out. I miss you.


40-year-old Brandi

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria

Originally published: March 24, 2021
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