What were your ambitions for yourself when you were a kid? Ballerina? Astronaut? President of the whole world? When we get a little older, reality intrudes on some of the fantasies, and we make some adjustments. Then maybe we get on track and things are chugging along just fine, and suddenly reality comes knocking again.
The undergrad years
I’ve never been a particularly competitive person, but I’ve always wanted to find things I enjoy and that I’m reasonably decent at and make the most of that. I knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to work in healthcare. When I got to university I did a degree in pharmacy, but was fairly certain all along that was just a stepping stone.
I had medicine in the back of my mind, but then in my final year of pharmacy school a close friend had started nursing school and really enjoyed it, and that sounded quite appealing. So I applied to both medicine and nursing, leaning more towards nursing because it would involve a lot fewer years in school. I bombed my med school interviews and didn’t get it in, so nursing it was.
Going to grad school
A few years into my nursing career I decided I wanted to do a masters degree, but initially I wasn’t sure if I should stick with nursing or switching things up and do something like a master’s in social work. A Canadian university had recently started up a Master of Psychiatric Nursing program by distance education, so I decided to go with that.
It’s not all that common for nurses to do graduate work, and those that do often end up going into management roles, which I had no interest in. The psychiatric nurse practitioner role hasn’t caught on in Canada yet, so that wasn’t an option. Even though I didn’t have any particular career goal in mind, I still wanted to do grad school. My illness and some hospitalizations posed some challenges along the way, but I defended my thesis at the end of 2014 and received my degree in 2015.
Life (and illness) gets in the way
There I was, with a fancy new degree, and things should have been looking up. Except life got in the way. The workplace bullying began, which resulted in me quitting my job. Then my depression struck with a vengeance. The aftereffects of the bullying significantly limited the potential job options open to me, and the effects of my illness have had a major impact on my capacity to work. Now I have 2 casual nursing jobs, neither of which is really the kind of work I want to do (and am skilled at). I’m over-educated and under-functioning.
Whatever ambitions I may have had before really aren’t relevant now. To try to hold on to some of those ideas seems more likely to be counterproductive than helpful. So expectations need to change. The ebb and flow of my various symptoms means that it makes more sense to come up with process-oriented things to work on rather than target specific endpoints that may or may not turn out to be reachable.
The decline in my level of functioning has been hard, though. I used to like doing public speaking about mental illness. After I stopped working full-time, I started volunteering doing suicide prevention talks to high school students. It’s something I would’ve liked to stick with, but it turned out that I just wasn’t well enough. I bailed on it in a fairly dramatic way, which was really unfortunate, but it was just too much. Coming to grips with what that meant about my illness was probably even harder than the disappointment of that particular activity being a big fail.
Right now my ambitions revolve around writing. Part of adapting to these changes in my life is recognizing that outside factors are a lot more unpredictable and unreliable than I once thought they were. As a result, the things that I choose to reach towards are mostly within my own sphere of control.
That sense of sphere of control has become very important to me. Being non-competitive, I never really worried about surpassing others, but things like career ambitions were dependent at least to some extent on others allowing certain things to happen. Depending on others in any way for my own internal sense of success doesn’t feel safe anymore. I suppose that limits to some extent what I am willing to reach for, but as long as I’m setting my process goals for myself I’m moving forward rather than stagnating.
Have your goals and ambitions changed over time? Has illness played a role?