Recently a friend's 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To help with the transition I asked if I could write the young lady a letter. The mother requested I be less direct, asking me to write a letter to my 8-year-old self when my life changed overnight, something she could share with her kid. Here is what I got.
It is Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1983. You are 8 years old and looking out the living room window waiting for a little yellow school bus to take you to "special" class. You don't know why this is happening, and you don't understand being shipped away to a new school. You are frightened and scared and know the kids on the little yellow school bus are not normal. To you they are retarded and have mental diseases, and although you want to normal, you are not and are about to join them. On the bus you will be beaten by a fifth grader, and the bus driver will play John Cougar Mellencamp's "American Fool" cassette over and over again. When you get to school you will have no friends, the music teacher will call you stupid, and your friends from your old school will forget to invite you to their birthday parties. You won't be able to listen to Mellencamp for 20 years without getting upset. I would like to say it gets better. It doesn't.
You have a cocktail of learning disabilities, or that is what you've been hearing. The term "dyslexic" has come up the most, and you read so slowly your fourth grade teacher advises your parents to hold you back. You will feel disrespected and lonely, the loneliest when you are around people. Middle school is terrible, and high school is worse. All of this pushes you to be rebellious, primarily stealing comic books from your brother, or saying something snarky at the dinner table. You will immerse yourselves in movies to escape reality. From your brother's comic book collection you will read about freaks and geeks called The X-Men, a bunch of losers in "special" school just like you. Comic books are how you will teach yourself to read. When you graduated from high school you will cry because it was a day you thought would never come. In college you will see a movie called "Good Will Hunting" in which the title character tells a shrink his father would offer a choice of a belt, a stick, and a wrench when it is time to beat him. "That's easy. The belt," the shrink says. "I always picked the wrench... because fuck him, that's why," Good Will responds. This will become your motto in almost every single solitary aspect of your life.
But, much like the X-Men, what appears to be a disability is your advantage. You will learn at an early age that life can be difficult, but that doesn't mean you give up. You will figure out ways to work around your disability, skills that led you down many paths. You will be forced to be inventive in your problem solving. An incredibly high percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Your disability forces you to become a good listener and be unafraid to take chances. People that can't read well tend to build a great sense of listening. We also tend to build a great sense of being able to deal and cope with failure, which is part of life. You have a spider bite, not kryptonite.
Your "fuck him, that's why" attitude will lead to you become a writer and English professor. The fifth grader who beats you on the little yellow school bus will become friends with you on something called "Facebook" and send you a private message that you are the only writer he likes reading, and at your university you will become known for working with the special need students. A girl named Rebecca will take your class as a freshman. She has a conga line of problems, she does not speak often, and looks at the floor, and in her first week she will come to your office and write you a note that she has no friends and has attempted suicide 19 times. She will have to give an oral presentation in your office, as she is too scared to give it in front of the class. In her second year she will take another class with you, come to your office to write you more notes, but this time she will do her oral presentation in front of the class over her "Comic Book" assignment, a paper you have students write using only pictures. In her third year she will call out to you across the campus lawn so you can meet her boyfriend, and one week before she graduates she will come to your office and write two more sentences for you: "Thank you for always listening to me. Thank you for being my friend." For a brief moment you will feel like she is your daughter, and when she leaves your office you will cry, much in the way you are crying as you wait for the little yellow school bus.
You will never be good at reading, but you will be good at reading the things that matter, and the lessons you learn on the bus will go beyond you. In only a few years you will be able to listen to Mellencamp without flinching and see the X-Men in their very own movie, but at this moment don't fight back when the bullies hit you. You will be Facebook friends with them some day. It won't get better, but you will. Take that with you.
That's all I got.
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.