Being wracked with guilt seems to be a perennial part of cat ownership, which doesn't make it any less awful when it happens to you.
I stood by the door a lot. For years, I watched my sister kiss my parents goodbye on her way out to see her boyfriend, to see her friends or to party, under the guise of seeing friends.
Brianna is my twin, but I always felt like the little sister. She was born five minutes earlier, eleven ounces heavier, and with a confidence that shone, even as a toddler. We have videos of my parents chastising her for stealing toys from me, taunting me before catching the camera in her periphery. Even without teeth, she had a thousand-watt smile. The toy was soon forgotten.
I was never so self-assured. Since middle school, I’ve had an eating disorder. I just didn’t know what to call it then, because we were athletes. Runners and cross-country skiers. I had lots of reasons to be thin. Lots of reasons to run for hours on end. Lots of reasons to stay home, and wait by the door.
But when Brianna rounded out and I pushed puberty off until five years later, it became obvious that something was off. I was always “the skinny twin,” and I liked it.
At home, our differences were subtle. Brianna listened to Top 40 music and fought with my parents. I listened to Oasis and The Cure and fought with my parents.
At school, she was popular, athletic. I can’t remember her ever being alone. There was always a boyfriend or a co-conspirator waiting in the wings. And she was always blonde. I remember how her hair colour irked me.
Meanwhile, I carried an armful of books around at lunchtime so no one would bother me about “forgetting” my lunch. I went to the washroom when I felt awkward. Rearranged my buttoned-up-to-there collar and harshly-dyed brown bangs.
Our mutual athleticism brought us together for hours of training each week. Long runs, gym sessions and hill practices were equal parts conditioning and my own special kind of hell. Brianna could be my biggest fan, but she had a mean streak. There were days when I’d have a bad practice, either because she was (admittedly) faster, or because I was existing on less than 500 calories a day. She would tell me I’d never meet my goal of making the provincial team. On the cool-down, she’d yell at me to hurry up, and heckle me from the top of the hill. Many times she told me the only reason I had any friends was because of her.
We both knew I was suffering, and we acted out. She was suffering, too, I guess. We were teenagers. But neither of us knew how to help the other.
When I was bedridden for weeks after a bout of pneumonia (in the middle of summer. Hello, parents, something was wrong.) I couldn’t compete at the big championship track meet. Brianna gave me a play-by-play over the phone. Together, we dissected the times, establishing that of course I would have won my race.
After she came back from the meet, she bought me a T-shirt (size xxs –- which pleased me, and horrified her) and when she gave it to me, we both cried. She was worried about me, and I was worried about me, too.
Eventually, I got better. I went to university across the country while she stayed close enough to home to visit on weekends.
I was tired of being “Brianna’s twin.” She graduated a year before I did from high school. I stayed back to run an extra year, and to figure out what I wanted to do afterward. I interned at the cable news station. Then I told my parents I would apply to journalism schools close to home. Instead, I applied to a liberal arts school two provinces over, and ventured out for the first time truly on my own.
(Except when I met cute guys. I am very, very ashamed to say I played the twin card exactly three times. It worked.)
Brianna was on her way to being a teacher and I eventually graduated with a BA and majored in journalism. In school, I channeled my twin. I was louder than I wanted to be, and I even had a blonde phase. I stood on a sidewalk and asked people random questions for an assignment. The rejection when they ignored me was crippling. But I got over it. Pretty much everything about journalism school scared me. But every week, I called Bri, and we vented.
During these conversations, there was a lot of bickering, but no mud-slinging in our usual style. We were coming from such different places, it was easy to root for the other. I started to embrace my relationship with her, for maybe the first time. I saw her for the smart, successful woman she was growing into. Honours every year, a varsity athlete, and my god, she was beautiful (guys were still falling all over her.)
What I couldn’t see was myself, reflected. In my third year at university, the old demons started chasing me. I lost 15 pounds that year (on a runner’s frame) and became prone to weeping fits. I stayed in my apartment, shut out my friends, and did my work. I always did my work. Few people could tell I was suffering.
But Brianna kept calling. Eventually, I told her I needed her help. We cried together over the phone and she helped me seek counseling. This time, we put a name to my issue. In high school, I was always “sick.” But now, I knew I was battling depression, and various types of disordered eating that I would have to deal with for the rest of my life.
I took the tiniest comfort in Brianna’s phone calls. My parents had never openly spoken about my issues. I felt diminished by that for years. But Brianna helped me put a voice to the silent screams I had kept inside as a teenager and later, as a young adult.
With her help, I started advocating on campus for increased access to counseling for students. I attended mental health conferences, and created a video PSA for my university.
And then Brianna apologized. I was home for the summer, before heading back to school for my final year. She was just about to finish teacher’s college. Something had changed inside her that past school year. She was going to church a little bit, and she was making friends with people she never would have even glanced at in high school (people I would be best friends with, no doubt).
I was working on gaining back the weight I had lost in my relapse and it was hard. I hated looking in the mirror. One day, I told her that.
“Bridget, I wish you saw what I see,” she told me. And then she told me she was sorry for everything in high school. Her words, her attacks, her disapproval of who I was and what I did. She said she wished she could take it back.
I didn’t even realize she remembered it. I had moved on.
But to hear her validate my sadness and struggle was powerful. I saw Brianna in a new light.
Now, she’s a kick-ass second grade teacher. Brianna loves her students almost as if they were her own children, and she cares about their learning.
“Every child is a miracle, Bridget,” she reminds me. I try to reconcile this stranger with the image I have of “Brianna, before.”
I’ve moved even further away from my family for a full-time job in journalism. Everything still scares me. And I do the work anyway.
Brianna came out to visit last month, with my mother. She knows I’m lonely, living in a very small community where I connect with very few people. She worries about my self-esteem and my eating habits.
She tells me I’m the coolest girl she knows. That she wishes she could be as independent and self-assured. She doesn’t laugh at my buttoned-up collars anymore, or my glasses.
She’s my greatest supporter and extreme opposite. Pretty much a shining example of female friendship. But had we not been twins, I’d have graduated high school and never spoken to her again.
When she left this time, I cried. But not before I took her for a tour of my office. She took selfies in front of the network branding. I was mortified, even though I work alone.
She’ll probably share this widely on social media and again, I’ll be mortified. But I’m lucky. Everyone should have a twin, or at least a champion who sees you as you ought to be seen –- even if it took 24 years to get here.