We gathered around the kitchen table for dinner, accompanied by the usual bickering, grumbling and hilarity. Our children ranged in age from 10-16 and they were really good kids. They just liked to argue. A lot.
My husband Peter did not not want to have the conversation I was about to begin. He feared that the children would blame themselves for my odd behavior. I insisted that they already blamed themselves, and besides, we're family. They deserved to know what was going on. If I was battling a physical illness, we wouldn't withhold the truth. Why should we withhold the truth in this case?
“This case” was my struggle with some amorphous mental illness. The previous year, I'd been incorrectly diagnosed with clinical depression after having suffered in silence for far too long. Unfortunately, I still didn't have a correct diagnosis. I was depressed, confused, irritable and ghastly thin. Most days, it was all I could do to get out of bed. Some days, I couldn't even do that.
As dinner drew to a close, I cleared my throat and began. I noted that I'd been crying a lot, listless, lying on the couch for days and not my normal self. The three older kids indicated that they had noticed. I filled them in on what I had done to seek treatment. I also told them honestly that, thus far, nothing had worked. I assured them that their dad and I would continue to seek an accurate diagnosis, then pursue effective treatment. In the meantime, we wanted them to know that none of this was their fault. We stressed that we loved them very much and that they were free to ask questions at any time.
The three older kids seemed somewhat familiar with mental illness. To my delight, they had none of the prejudices held by previous generations. To them, a mental illness was no different from diabetes — a medical condition that is serious but, in most cases, treatable.
The youngest child, however, was combative. “How can you be sad if there's nothing to be sad about?” she charged in frustration. “Why can't you just be happy?”
The older kids jumped down her throat. “It's an illness! She can't control it!” hollered the 15-year-old. “Torrie, Mom is sick. It's a sickness. That's all,” added the 16-year-old gently.
But the 10-year-old continued her rant, so I intervened and wrapped up the conversation. Later, I spoke privately with the older kids. I explained that Torrie's frustration had nothing to do with insensitivity or prejudice; it had everything to do with the fact that she had not yet reached puberty. “Once a kid is an adolescent,” I said, “the brain is able to deal with abstractions. I'm sure that in 18 months, Torrie will totally get it.” The kids were skeptical, but agreed not to battle their youngest sibling.
Six months later, I finally received a correct diagnosis. I was suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by uncontrolled mood swings thought to be caused by chemical fluctuations in the brain. Fortunately, bipolar disorder is usually treatable, so, with a lot of hard work and tremendous family support, I am fat and sassy again.
I'm making it sound easy. It was not. Actually, it was horrible — and our youngest was still combative.
It took about two years for my condition to stabilize, by which point our youngest was in middle school. One day, I took her aside and asked if she was embarrassed that her mom had a mental illness.
She didn't understand the question.
“Mom, you're sick. If you're sick, you're sick. Why would I be embarrassed?”
I wanted to kiss her, except that that would have embarrassed her far more than any mental illness.
Throughout my healing process, our parents and friends were incredible, bringing meals, touching base and reminding me how much I was loved.
The final step came when I began to feel God's gentle nudge to write about my struggle. “Are you out of your mind?” I asked God bluntly. “It was horrible enough to live through it. Why would I want to write about it?”
God sweetly persisted until I acknowledged that it was time for me to stop feeling ashamed. I didn't do anything wrong; I simply had an illness. And so, reluctantly, I wrote about it, and spoke about it, and owned it.
I hate having a mental illness; I think I'll always hate it. But in all things God works together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. I wish he'd picked a different purpose for me, but this is what I have. To God be the glory.
M. Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.