I recently watched an Indiana University student commencement address delivered by an articulate young man who suffers from stuttering. He made the point that he will not be defined by his stutter, nor will he allow seeds of doubt to kill his dreams. It was incredibly impressive to hear a stutterer giving a graduation speech. He was magnificent.
That’s what I want to be: magnificent.
I, too, have challenges to overcome. Years ago I suffered a medical brain injury. I also have a mental illness. As is the case with stutterers, my challenges come from two sources: the disabilities themselves, and people’s responses to the disabilities.
Let me begin by telling you about the “normal” part of myself. I have been married to my college sweetheart for 36 years. I love teenagers and I never met a baby I didn’t like. I knit Christmas stockings, although I’m baffled as to why airport security never stops me when I’m carrying 14” pointy metal needles onto a plane.
I make what is quite possibly the best hot fudge sauce on the planet. I get motion sickness despite the fact that my father promised it would go away after puberty. Needless to say, I’m terrified of rollercoasters.
In other words, I’m pretty normal.
At 34 years old I suffered a medical brain injury due to hemorrhaging and oxygen deprivation during what was supposed to be a routine childbirth. The right frontal lobe of my brain was affected, causing the loss of some abilities to organize, focus and follow sequences, while leaving intact my ability to think. I also lost chunks of long-term memory. Worst of all, I can no longer absorb information through reading. I have not read a book in 23 years.
In the years following the brain injury, I developed symptoms of bipolar disorder, a mood disorder characterized by severe chemical fluctuations in the brain. At best, it is managed with medication and therapy, enabling one to lead a relatively normal life. At its worst, bipolar disorder can completely debilitate an individual, rendering the person incapable of normal functioning. Medical care is essential and hospitalizations are common.
Do I like living with a brain injury and mental illness? No. In fact I hate it. It offends me that factors beyond my control wield such powerful influences in my life. I hate the side effects of the medications. If you speak to anyone with a panic disorder or lupus or dyslexia or fibromyalgia – invisible disorders – they will likely tell you the same thing. Do they like the affliction? Not a chance. Will they allow themselves to be defined by it? No, because we are greater than our weaknesses. Besides, we’re made in God’s image, and as the song goes, God don’t make no junk.
The uncomfortable truth is that our difficulties shape who we are. They have certainly shaped me. In a million years I would never have volunteered for mental illness or brain injury, but living with them has made me more compassionate and less inclined to judge. My life has been forever changed by people who reached out to me during those awful years when the bipolar disorder raged untamed. I thank God for friends who did not judge me, did not tell me to suck it up and soldier on, did not accuse me of looking for an easy way out because I began medication.
No one would make such an accusation to the woman taking insulin for diabetes, or the man taking meds to ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But like stuttering, invisible illnesses are often viewed as a moral weakness that can be overcome if we’d just work a little harder.
Fortunately, most readers do not battle mental illness or brain injury. Nevertheless, each of us lives with private pain that tears at our world. Do we allow the pain to define us, or do we choose to believe that we are greater than our weaknesses?
The promise of God’s consolation comes in a letter to the Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s light shines the brightest when the vessel for his grace is our weakness.
God’s grace is sufficient for us. Maybe this is what I mean by being magnificent: a shining light for Christ despite the hardships we endure.
Join me in being magnificent.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.