In 1983, Mary Cregan gave birth to a baby girl full term who died shortly thereafter from an undetected heart condition. In “The Scar,” Cregan writes about the severe and unrelenting depression she experienced following this tragedy and her effort to understand what happened to her mind during this time. Even today as a successful writer, professor, and mother of a grown son, Cregan works to maintain control of her slides into depression and melancholy.
Cregan felt suicidal in the months after her baby’s death. Taken to a hospital in New York, she tried to commit suicide there. That resulted in a months-long admittance during which she underwent ECT (electroshock therapy) and medication to relieve her symptoms. During therapy, she began to understand the signs of depression she had but couldn't name during her youth. The stress of losing a child exacerbated something she now knows was biological and not something that was her “fault.” She was told for the first time about significant family histories of depression that were never revealed because of the stigma attached to not being able to “just get over it.”
“The Scar” is not just an intimate and brave telling of the author’s illness and recovery with the help of medications it’s also includes data about the history and treatment of mental illness. During her early illness, Cregan began studying past mental health practices in America. She writes about studies dating back to the 1800s by scientists who were dedicated to eradicating mental illness through medicine, surgical practices or psychoanalysis. Interestingly, it was the Quakers’ belief that mentally ill people should be treated with respect and kindness that began changing the way patients were treated in hospitals in the 1800s in New York.
When Cregan was hospitalized, it was still a decade before some of the more popular SSRI medications like Prozac and Lexapro were widely used. She credits these types of drugs that she continues to use today with keeping her in balance. Occasionally, she has to make changes or increase her dosage. She meets regularly with a doctor who helps her maintain the most joyful life she can. She stresses the importance of getting help from professional sources and not relying on just friends or family to help.
Cregan believes ECT is an effective method of stopping the cycles of depression. She believes the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which a patient receives ECT in a fictitious way with an unusual response afterward, negatively colors the treatment in the eyes of those who might benefit from the treatment.
Obviously, Cregan’s story is sad in parts. Mostly, though, I believe it gives hope and information to the millions who struggle with a mental illness.
The scientific data, written for the layman, along with a personal history of a common biological illness, is an important and hopeful piece of work for anyone who has experienced mental illness or knows someone who has. I suspect that this is everyone.
This book joins ranks with Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, “An Unquiet Mind,” and William Styron’s book “Darkness Visible” which both shed light on what it feels like to be bipolar or depressed.