Regina’s Writings: You?

by M. Regina Cram

I first noticed it after the birth of one of our children. During delivery, I suffered a rare but devastating complication that robbed me of oxygen and left me with brain damage. Fortunately, I can think and reason, but I lost a great deal of neurological function.

Yet when I explain this to people, they often look skeptical. Many have blurted out, “You?” Apparently, I don’t look like someone with brain damage.

What does a person with brain damage look like?

Ten years later, I developed a confounding ailment. I was irritable, ghastly thin, listless, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep food in me. Doctors misdiagnosed me and prescribed useless drugs as I descended into darkness.

I finally received a startling diagnosis: I was suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental illness thought to be caused by chemical fluctuations in the brain. It took a long time to manage my condition and even longer before I was willing to talk about it. I felt ashamed.

Gradually, I disclosed my illness to family and a few close friends. Without exception, I was met with warmth, encouragement, prayer, and even humor. Those people were godsends.

In time, I worked up the nerve to write about my struggle with mental illness, publishing it in a newspaper column. I was tired of being ashamed.

After it became public, I noticed people gawking at me. Many blurted, “You?” Apparently, I don’t look like someone with a mental illness.

What does a person with mental illness look like?

One day, as I wrestled with my diagnosis, I bumped into an acquaintance. After a few pleasantries, she declared, “You have such a perfect family. You have the perfect life.”

Was she serious? Some days, we couldn’t cross the street without bickering. The birth complication had led to numerous health problems in addition to the brain damage, and don’t forget the mental illness. She was joking, right?

She was not joking. When she looked at my family, she saw only the outside, and to her, it appeared perfect. I could not convince her otherwise.

Yet another hurdle arose when I developed a problem with alcohol. I sought help and have been sober for a number of years. Once again, I was ashamed at the outset, viewing it as a moral failure. Once again, family and friends were my lifeline.

And once again, my news was met almost universally with, “You?” Apparently, I don’t look like a recovering alcoholic.

What does a recovering alcoholic look like?

What does a suicidal teen look like? What about an immigrant? A veteran battling PTSD? A man whose marriage is in shambles?

It’s impossible to tell from the outside what burdens lie within. We all have them. We all carry burdens. Inside every seemingly perfect life lies a vulnerable person in need of God’s healing.

Perfection awaits us in heaven. Until then, as flawed children of God, we are called to show Christ’s compassion as we accompany one another on the journey.

M. Regina Cram is a published author and parishioner of SS. Isidore and Maria Parish.