A few months before my bipolar diagnosis, during an especially wet pacific northwest summer, I got re-baptized.
My first baptism was performed by my father with a batch of my siblings in our neighbor’s hot tub. It was a whole church affair. We’d cleaned our house top to bottom, there were paper plates and potato salad, and I was wearing a new blue dress. I loved when the church looked at me, I loved how they told me I was sweet and good, I loved when my dad congratulated me on representing the family well. He knew who I really was, of course, my home-self who was rebellious and sarcastic and self-obsessed and lazy, but that’s what Jesus was for. So I let him push me underwater and pray for my sins to be forgiven and that I’d learn to walk in obedience.
I wanted to wash that off me.
It was a white, soppy midsummer. Even when the rain stopped, my hair curled the minute I stepped outside. Every morning I walked past little wet, shivery front yards with pale hydrangeas, lupines, rhododendrons struggling to color up under a sky hard and sunless as marble. Every morning I tracked mud across the floor of the bus, every morning I arrived to work with a pink nose and a triangle of frizz around my head.
While my little nanny charge was scribbling through his math homework, I was drinking pots of coffee and reading On the Road and the Beats. They made my blood thirsty. I was shaking all over with the desire to run. I was getting hungry, so hungry. I wanted to shave my head, have kinky sex, smoke weed, stay up all night drinking with strangers. I filled notebooks with all the reasons I had to stay good. There’s Living Water for the mad thirst that comes burning up when I read these books, I wrote, and it’s alive, and it’s real, and it’s already at my lips.
But I wasn’t staying good. In that dizzied half-drunk state, and probably a little manic, I downloaded Tinder to swipe through women. Just to see. Not because I was gay. But there was this girl with lavender hair, and I just wanted to meet her, just for fun, not like a real date, not because I was gay, because I absolutely wasn’t gay.
As I walked the few blocks to the bus on my way to meet her, I began to pray out of habit. I’m sorry, I said. I just can’t fight anymore. I’m so tired. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, it was hard to swallow. Then I felt God nudge my chin to look up. And there, walking toward me, a beautiful lesbian couple held hands as an actual literal rainbow arched behind them. I stared until they gave me weird looks.
I almost felt him smile.
But then I was holding the door open for a woman, and I was looking at her lavender hair, and shame rushed back in. Sweet child soul come back, I wrote that night, desperation rising in my throat. Like a weaned child with its mother, lean against the Spirit.
The cracks in my good Christian identity were starting to show.
A few weeks before my re-baptism, my friend Anna picked me up in her big red Tundra at 3am so we could arrive at the beach in time for the sunrise. She had a dream to burn. Ever since she was a kid she’d dreamed of becoming a police officer, and for over a decade she’d focused her tremendous resources of self-discipline and charisma on that goal. But now she had a new dream, and it was time to let this old one go.
I had this terrible feeling I was going to give up writing.
I wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old as a way to process my grandmother’s death, but I was hooked after the first compliment from a grown up. It became my whole identity. No matter how I was failing in my life, as long as I could write something beautiful, I still mattered. It was a way to be seen, and it was a way to disappear. When I hit flow, it’s like I don’t exist, there’s just the words willing themselves into existence.
Being a Writer felt a lot like standing by that hot tub as my dad dispatched a small sermon. I looked out at all the grown ups smiling at me and felt safe. I was doing the Right Thing, I was good, I was wise, I mattered. I was playing the role that they’d written for me, and I was good at it, so good that I started to believe that was the only way I could exist in the world.
Anna and I walked up the beach and built a fire just as the sun came out of the ocean behind us. We tore out bits of notebook paper to write on. I wrote vague things like “fear” or “pride.” The fire had almost burned to coals when I finally burst out: “I have to give up writing.”
“I know,” she said.
I started to cry. Not from sadness, not at first, but from absolute utter relief.
On the morning of my re-baptism, I stood in front of a different church in another new blue dress. But I wasn’t looking at the smiling congregation, I was looking at a row of familiar faces who all loved me to pieces. They’d seen my hurts, and they respected me with them, not despite them. I wasn’t a family flag. I was a person responsible for her own choices, and loved independently of those choices.
Then, in cold trough of water out under the sun — it was hot that day, and dry, and bright — I went underwater, and I came back up.
I wanted my re-baptism to wash away all my doubts about God. I wanted it to heal those widening cracks in my Christian identity. I wanted it to turn me back into the sweet Christian girl who sang songs about Jesus with her eyes closed on Sunday mornings. I wanted to never think about girls again. I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted to know I was doing the Right Thing.
Instead, it was the first step toward letting all those things go.
Image: Tomasz Baranowski