Being diagnosed with a mental illness doesn’t mean your life is over… By Austin Mardon
Expectations – we all have them.
We have expectations about how our lives will be; about how our children’s lives will be. As children we dream about being astronauts or firemen; I know I did. I came from a family of academics. My father was a professor, and his father was a professor too. One of my grandmother’s was among the first female graduates from Cornel University. I didn’t spend my free time practicing with a hockey stick hoping to one day play for the Oilers. I spent my play time in the library. My family expected me to become a professor too. Anything less was a failure.
My wife was a jock. She played every sport available to girls, and then some. She took singing lessons and music lessons on a variety of instruments. Those lessons were not to prepare her for professional sports or a career on the stage; they were instead intended to keep her as busy as possible. She had always been very bright, but so precocious that she was very difficult to keep up with. Her parents’ expectations were for her to become a doctor or a lawyer. The expectations of her family meant that anything less than the top of her class, or first place, was failure.
I became ill with schizophrenia while in graduate school. My wife was a young attorney when she became disabled. By this time, I was supposed to be a full professor and my wife a full partner, or even a judge. The one thing most people never expect is to become disabled in their prime. Both our families’ expectations were crushed; our expectations were crushed. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone tell my wife what a shame it is that she wasted her education. For some people, not meeting expectations means a life wasted.
I don’t believe that. I don’t believe any life is wasted. All life is precious and entitled to equal dignity. The problem with expectations is that it is rare that we ever reach them. Life is too unpredictable. Humans are too unpredictable. We can have goals and dreams and plans for our lives, or the lives of our children, but sometimes life happens to us while we are making other plans.
I’m asked to talk to the parents of those who have been recently diagnosed with a serious mental illness. When a mother learns her child has schizophrenia, all of her hopes for the future of her child go out the window. Mothers plan for their children to go to college, have a career, get married and have children of their own. They fear their future will be filled with taking care of a disabled adult child for the rest of their lives. I try to help them understand that while the expectations they had may no longer come to pass, this does not mean that their son or daughter can’t have a full, productive life.
When we married, my wife told me that all she expected of me was to be as happy and healthy as I was capable of. With many mental illnesses, all we can expect is stability, not a complete recovery or cure. That doesn’t mean a wasted life, it means a changed life. It means the search for a new meaning to our lives. That’s one of the best things in life though, the search. We are all travelers. The key is to focus on the trip and not the destination.
Austin Mardon has authored 242 peer reviewed publications and several dozen books. He was the first person with schizophrenia to be awarded the Order of Canada and the Medal of Honor by the Canadian Medical Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.austinmardon.org.