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A Letter to My Pre-Bipolar Self

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Dear 17-year-old Em,

I know that high school has not been easy on you. Although your peers would never know it because you are a great actress, always with your big cheerleader smile, I know that when you go home, you cry a lot. I also know that many days, depression and anxiety get the better of you, and that you've even begun having suicidal thoughts. I know it interferes with your academics, your relationships, and your life. This is NOT YOUR FAULT.

In a few months, your world will be turned upside down. I know that you are excited to start Emory University, and that you worked hard to be accepted there. But it won't last. The day after your 18th birthday, you will wake up with symptoms of what will later be diagnosed as Bipolar II disorder. It will be a mis-diagnosis, as you will later realize that you also experience delusions and hallucinations, also known as psychosis.

Regardless of the diagnosis, it will not be easy for you to accept this by any means. But be kind to yourself. Bipolar disorder is not a personality flaw. You are not "damaged goods," as you will think in the beginning. And, thinking this way will lead you to destructive behaviors, and also, sadly, will cause you to get involved in an emotionally abusive relationship. Yet your self-worth has NOTHING to do with the fact that the chemistry in your brain is not balanced during this time of your life. You are beautiful on the inside (and not bad on the outside, either), strong, and a truly kind and loving person. These are the things that "faulty" brain chemistry cannot change. And, it is your character that will ultimately pull you through this experience, largely unscathed.

I say this, but hold onto your seat, because the process to get you to recovery is going to be long and very difficult. It will take nearly a decade. You will experience the horrors of the psychiatric hospital 13 times, be picked up by police who won't treat you nicely or fairly, be injected with medications and kept in the hospital against your will. In your quest to find treatment, you will also talk to therapists and doctors who are not invested in you or your care, who are looking to make a quick buck, and who don't believe in you or that you can get better. Please don't be deterred by this. You will eventually find the treatment that you need.

Ultimately, your own people skills and advocacy skills will carry you through. It will first help you to tell the social worker who interviews you to lock you away for a good long time in Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital exactly what she needs to hear so that you don't wind up there. It will also help you to find Sherrie, the therapist who saves your life, and who helps you to find yourself again in the wake of the tempest that is bipolar.

Sherrie may seem hard on you at times, but she is giving you exactly what you need -- she knows how to pat you on the head and kick you in the ass at the same time. It's an art, and Sherrie knows how to dance that dance like no one you have ever known. She gets you, and she will teach you skills to manage your intense emotions and interpersonal situations. These skills will carry you throughout your life. Don't forget to use them.

Ultimately, mom's prophecy that "one day you are going to help so many people because of this experience" is dead right. You will not only recover fully, but will also go on to help others, first with your life coaching practice, and then by working at a prominent hospital in NYC training mental health professionals on how to work with young people with psychosis. It will be your mission and your life's work, and you will go on to do your doctoral work in this field.

But the most important piece of advice I can give you now at 17 is to not forget to be authentically you, and to embrace all parts of yourself, even the "messy parts" that you perceive as flawed. One day, they will be your biggest asset.

I love you always,
Em

I got the idea for this letter from Pete Sampras. Thanks for the inspiration!

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.