ABBOTSFORD —He was born into a sport where, during solitary jump-shooting drills, finding a stretch of perfection was not entirely impossible.
Yet when held to a standard that existed only in his mind, it became an act which on too many days proved agonizingly unattainable.
“As early as 12, I would probably spend an extra hour at the end of a workout just to get my last shot to feel absolutely perfect,” begins Bradley Braich, 17, explaining how to him, the act of shooting a basketball has always been a double-edged sword of both joyful endeavour and ritualistic task. “It had to be an absolutely perfect swish. It had to feel just right coming off my hand.
“There would be times when it would feel perfect so I’d walk away and take off my shoes,” he continues. “But then I would get so anxiety-ridden. My brain would tell me it wasn’t perfect, so I would put my shoes on and go back and start shooting again. I thought at the time that it was all just good, normal hard work. You know, just wanting to be good. But I know now that it wasn’t normal.”
You may say it’s all just about a game.
Yet in hindsight, it was about so much more.
It was, in fact, the first signs of an extremely serious level of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the often misunderstood mental disorder which Braich was officially diagnosed with this past summer, along with depression, an anxiety disorder and a noise sensitivity condition known as misophonia.
So swiftly and so silently did the elixir of ailments sweep through Braich, and so mercilessly did it fill his mind and body with feelings of absolute dread that it had him convinced he would never get his old life back.
One of the most popular and respected members of Yale’s student body, he withdrew socially, finding retreat at his family home.
One of the most dynamic B.C. high school scorers of his generation, he stunned many over the summer when he sent out messages via social media that he was quitting basketball for good.
And most harrowingly, on four occasions over the summer and into the early fall, while grasping for hope against all hope, he attempted to take his own life.
“When I told my friends what it was that I took, they didn’t believe me,” Braich says of one of his suicide attempts. “They told me that I should be dead because of what I took. And I was like ‘I’m here.’”
And now, perhaps like no other high school student-athlete in B.C. history has ever done, he is telling his story so that the countless others suffering in silence can know they are not alone.
Courageously, and without a shred of shame, he speaks his unvarnished truth.
“I don’t want people to try and take their lives to get the help that they need,” says Braich when asked why he reached out to Varsity Letters to tell his story with such purpose. “If you’re struggling, you should be able to go somewhere and tell somebody, and they should take you seriously at that point. I could have died trying.
“I think that by me explaining my life and showing that anybody can go through this, even the star basketball player, it will help people,” he continues, “because after the struggles that I have been through, I don’t want anyone to have to go through that. But I have definitely climbed a tier since then. I don’t get to the point where I even consider it now. The struggle is still there, but I know it’s not the answer.”
TEAM BRAICH ANSWERS THE CALL
Few families can boast of basketball bloodlines like the Braichs.
Bradley’s dad Bobby, along with his uncles Herman, Jim, Kenny and Erwin all played for Mission Secondary at various stages, from the 1970s into the 1980s, and all but Erwin played at the B.C. championship tournament.
Jim passed in 2009 and Herman in 2012, and through the Braich Family Trust Scholarships, post-secondary aid is made available under the governance of the BCHSBBA in their names to two deserving athletes each season.
As well, Bradley’s older brother Riley, two years his senior, helped lead Yale to the 2015 B.C. Quad A title and is currently weighing options as to which school he will attend to resume a university career which began this fall with the Fraser Valley Cascades.
It’s a lineage that led him on a logical path to the hardwood, and it’s also one which, through his struggles over the past eight months, has allowed him to see a bigger picture with an extremely mature perspective.
“In a way it’s a blessing,” he begins. “People know who you are from the start. You’re a Braich and you play basketball. But in another sense the pressure was there from Day 1 and it got to me because for a long time it ruined my relationship with my brother. We were both so competitive with each other.”
Bradley, however, makes it crystal clear that it has been his family — mom April, dad Bobby, sisters Rachel and Natalie and brother Riley — that have been his unwavering compass through the storm.
“My dad, my mom and my uncle (Kenny), they’ve all helped me realize that this is nothing to be ashamed of,” Braich says. “They compare it to a physical illness. It’s like somebody with diabetes. I know some people keep physical illnesses to themselves, too, but the way I look at it, me taking medicine for my brain is no different than a diabetic taking insulin for their pancreas.”
And that’s the dialogue he wants to start, that there is no shame in mental illness.
“This is totally courageous of him,” says Yale teacher and senior boys basketball program manager Ali Tessarolo, whom Braich has leaned on for encouragement throughout his struggle.
“To be the type of kid that Bradley is in our school, where every kid looks up to him…” continues Tessarolo, who only learned the full extent of Braich’s battle this past summer. “There is not a kid in our school who wouldn’t know who Bradley Braich is if you said his name.
“So for him now to say ‘I am Bradley Braich. I am a student at Yale. I am an athlete. But I am also struggling with mental illness.’ For a high school student to say that? You’re putting a label on yourself, that you have these issues that are going on. I am so proud of him for coming out and making his story known, to say that he struggles with mental illness and OCD but that a lot of other people do, too.”
PUTTING A FACE ON OCD
Ask Bradley Braich to describe a life lived with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the response is both scholarly and emotion-tinged.
“It’s honestly like you have two brains,” he begins. “There is one that says ‘This is stupid, why are you doing this?’ And then there is the other that tells you to do things that are totally irrational.”
“I used to believe that numbers were significant,” Braich continues, “so I would turn the shower on and off eight times. If I didn’t do it eight times, I thought something bad would happen, like I’d get sick or not be good at basketball.”
OCD is misunderstood to the point where it has morphed, in many instances, into a catch-all phrase for anyone with even the slightest inclination to re-check a stove-top or save an old box of magazines.
Yet at its full-blown worst, as experienced by Braich, it brought his daily life to a grinding halt.
“My social life went way down, and I just stayed at home in bed,” relates Braich. “It just took over my life.”
From all reports, it’s a condition that isn’t likely to just disappear.
“From what I am told, I’ll always have it, but I am working to get to the point where I can deal with it better and maintain proper function. It scares me, but I have no other choice.”
And that is the fighter in Braich speaking.
Through the efforts of his family, help has been sought at every level, and earlier this month, after a five-month wait, Braich was able to spend eight specialized hours at Children’s Hospital speaking with professionals at its OCD clinic.
“I am honestly very proud of myself,” says Braich, who through the entire struggle maintained a sterling report card in the classroom and returned to the basketball court as a force of nature in the scoring and rebounding department this season on a sort-handed Yale Lions team.
“I would never have imagined myself at this place now,” he continues. “I was hopeless. I thought this was never going to get better. But it has gotten better. I have more space in my head. I know it’s just step one and I have many more tiers to climb to get back to where I can be successful, have a happy life and start a family.”
FOR THE RECORD, IT’S BROTHERLY LOVE
There were moments over the summer when Bobby Braich, praying for the survival of his son, fought back tears at the sight of his older son Riley giving strength to Bradley in his hospital room at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
“For us it was just seeing our sense of family,” explains Bobby. “The focal point wasn’t about anything other than pure survival. I saw Riley and Bradley talking together in the hospital and it was tear-jerking to watch that bond grow because now they are closer than they have ever been.”
And Bradley is the first to admit that he took the rivalry too far.
“One time, when I was in Grade 8 and he was in Grade 10, I pushed him from behind and he hurt his back,” Bradley says sheepishly. “He couldn’t play all summer because of it.”
The times have changed.
“We’re definitely closer than we have ever been,” adds Bradley. “I know he has my back 100 per cent and that he truly cares about me. Before, we were so in competition that we didn’t realize that we could help each other more than anyone else in the family.”
That bond proved true.
On the night of Jan. 15, in the same Sardis Secondary gym in which both Riley and another former Yale great, Jauquin Bennett-Boire, had each scored a Lions’ single-game record 63 points, Bradley laced them up and eclipsed them both with 66 points.
“We had a few laughs about it afterwards,” Bradley said of both he and Riley, the latter on hand to watch his co-record fall. “But I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as fun to do as you would expect. I had so much anxiety building up that day and my OCD was going crazy. I had so many rituals going on.”
He washed his hands six times in the hour before the game. He made sure that he stretched every single muscle in his body.
“If I touched something with my left hand, I had to touch it with my right,” he added, “and during the game, if I took a drink with my right hand, then I would have to take another with my left.”
REALIZING HIS TRUE PURPOSE
Tragedy hit Yale Secondary earlier this school year.
Students arrived on the morning of Nov. 1 to learn that a young person had committed suicide the night before near the school grounds.
The news hit Braich, who was at a very sensitive period of his recovery, very hard.
“When I got to school Yale was the saddest place I had ever seen,” he says. “People were crying. I started bawling my eyes out.”
That evening, Braich was compelled to write some heartfelt words on a sign which he brought to the school grounds to honour a life lost.
“My message was about love and support and how I wish I could have done something,” he says. “I told my friends that this is real. That we need to do something about it right away.”
And thus, a few weeks later, Braich and a group of his close friends found themselves standing outside the local Costco, selling over 200 boxes Krispy Kreme donuts and raising $1,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Yet not for a second does Braich feel he is out of the woods.
Ask him about the totality of his struggle, and without surprise, he admits that his life has been forever changed.
“It’s honestly a question I ask myself every day,” Braich says when asked if he will pursue a university basketball career. “Can I handle playing basketball after high school? I really want to and it’s one of the main goals of my therapy, to get me to a place where I think basketball is enjoyable enough for me to want to play at the next level. It’s important. But if it gets to be too much, my mental health is more important to me.”
Does it feel good just to be able to say that?
“Yes,” he answers with a smile.
And if he does feel ready to play and he got the chance to suit up alongside older brother Riley?
“It would be really cool,” he begins. “I don’t think I have ever actually played on a team with him before. It could be something special.”
Yale head coach Euan Roberts just wants Bradley to keep making strides off the court, taking things a day at a time as he works towards full recovery.
And when he’s asked how great it would be to see the two brothers celebrating life together on the same team, he can’t help but crack a huge smile.
“They would be dynamic, especially if you had a post that could kick it out to either wing,” says Roberts, who has coached both of the brothers. “They’re both such great shooters and ball handlers. But the thing I love most about the Braich brothers is that they are both great rebounders. They both have a level of toughness and character and that would be a great one-two punch.”
But really, that’s all we need to say about basketball.
If you’ve gotten the idea that Bradley is as talented as they come in this B.C. Class of 2018, you are bang on.
In fact he started this week at the Fraser Valley AAAA championships by scoring 37 points in Yale’s 66-57 win over Surrey’s Panorama Ridge Thunder on Valentine’s Day.
Then on Friday, 104-81 loss to Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators, he scored another 48 points.
Despite the loss, Yale’s underdog post-season run towards the B.C. tournament continues Monday (6:30 p.m.) at Walnut Grove where the Lions face PoCo’s Terry Fox Ravens in a sudden-elimination battle.
Braich’s influence and breathtaking skill is so great during games that you can never truly count the Lions out of any contest.
Yet it’s the wordly perspective, delivered through the eyes of a 17-year-old being forced to deal with some huge, life-and-death issues, that carries the day.
“Top athlete, top scholar, super popular kid, tons of friends,” begins Tessarolo who answered her phone at any hour of the day or night to help Braich when his times were at their toughest. “He has everything going for him. And then he has this internal struggle.
“It makes everyone else in our school go ‘Well, if Bradley is going through this, then maybe it’s OK that I am. That if he’s getting help, then so can I. And if he is telling his story, then so can I.’”
Basketball, Braich prays, will continue to act as a safe harbour.
“The OCD still affects me on the court but I forget about every other problem I have when I am out there,” he says. “I realize that if OCD was not a part of my life that I would be completely in love with basketball. So I am not going to let OCD take it away from me.”
It’s important to just stay the course, but it looks like Braich is finally getting to a place where he can start to think about the future again.
“Through all of this, I realize that I just want to help people,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I want to become a psychiatrist. But I would like to work in the areas of OCD and depression. That would be my ultimate goal because I want to make a difference in people’s lives.”
This coming summer, at a time when he might have had a basketball camp to attend, he has carved out three weeks to attend an OCD camp.
“It’s strict exposure therapy,” he grits. “They will expose me to things that OCD doesn’t like and it will be brutal but it’s how you get better.”
And maybe, in the end, by taking some brave steps forward, Bradley Braich will be helping a lot of others get better.
“It’s like you’re thrown into a pool and you can’t swim but you have to find a way,” he says. “It’s going to hard and you’re going to feel like you’re drowning. But one in five people will go through a mental illness in their lifetime. That’s a big community.
“Obviously,” he adds, “it’s a negative to have a mental illness. But in a lot of ways it’s a positive because not only do you learn about yourself, you get to help others.”
Bobby Braich couldn’t be a prouder dad, and with that he offers this message to all parents.
“I hope you stand here facing your own son with the same pride I feel in my heart. That is my message to you. To see Bradley standing in February when he could have been dead in August? I don’t know what else a guy can say?”
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