Today I saw a quote on Twitter that read “it’s never too late to be what you might have been.” From a handle called “motivational quotes.” I don’t really find this quote motivational, and here’s why.
My life trajectory has been permanently altered by my mental health conditions, and that’s okay.
Before I got sick, I was supposed to be a doctor or lawyer or the first woman President or something. I was a bright kid, made straight As, worked hard, and was very, very good at hiding my pain. I had “potential,” which is a term I don’t really like anyway because human beings are valuable as they are and shouldn’t be valued based on what unknowable future they might have.
Then I reached adulthood. The stresses of the world were now too much for my pain to be buried. I became dependent on substances, developed an eating disorder, and became overwhelmed with depression, anxiety, and suicidality. I got diagnostic labels slapped on me from every direction and, suddenly, I wasn’t going to be who I was supposed to be.
But you know what? Instead, I started working in mental health advocacy. I found an academic path that I actually really love. I moved to a new state and connected with a community of peers. I met inspiring women like Amanda, Joann, Jennifer, and Aubrey who become role models and cheerleaders. I like this new trajectory. So what if it isn’t as glamorous as my supposed destiny?
Chronic illness diagnoses start a mourning process, and that’s okay.
Whether it’s an autoimmune, mental health, or other chronic condition, getting one of these diagnoses starts a mourning process. We all grow up with an image in mind of what will happen to us. When we learn that we are sick and we will probably always be sick, that image seems tarnished. I had to mourn the loss of that image. It was painful, heartbreaking, and filled with guilt, but I had to do it. I had to learn to value who I am now, not who I could be. I had to learn to appreciate what I have now, not what I could have if I worked hard enough. I had to learn to love me. Not potential me. Not ideal me. Just me.
Cramming a disability into a predetermined mold doesn’t really work, and that’s okay.
When I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time, the goal was always to get me “back to normal.” Normal meaning free of any and all traces of psychiatric disability. No more symptoms. All trauma healed. Be who I am supposed to be. When I figured out that “back to normal” wasn’t a real place for me, I was pushed instead into the box of “permanently disabled, get on welfare, move into a group home.” Well, I didn’t fit there either.
I’ve learned that, instead of trying to force me and my disabilities into a box, I should probably build a box myself that fit me just right. Maybe I can’t handle full-time college. That’s fine, I’ll take 9-10 hours a semester. Maybe I can’t manage ridiculous food service working hours. That’s fine, I can find work with reasonable, predictable hours. Maybe I’ll always have symptoms that interfere with my ability to concentrate or be productive. That’s fine, that’s what the Americans with Disabilities Act is for. I made my own box. It isn’t all or nothing.
Self-determination is more important than destiny.
What I’m saying in all of this is that empowerment, self-determination, and self-acceptance are far more important than achieving some idealized future version of myself. The idealized future version of Kate makes current Kate feel guilty, lazy, and damaged, none of which are healthy things for me to be weighed down by. I choose to focus instead on:
- Feeling strong and empowered to make decisions for myself
- Having the love and support I need to feel capable and competent
- Working hard toward my immediate goals so that the future is full of as many opportunities as possible
- Being kind to myself, recognizing my limitations, and praising my accomplishments
- Making the best use I can of what I have right now, because present me is most important
I’ve got one life. I’m just going to live it free of guilt about who I might have been.