MH@H Mental Health

Adapting Ambitions to Life with Mental Illness

Adapting ambitions to life with mental illness - graphic of charts showing future projections

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.

Moving forward

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?

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, Second Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s published by MH@H Books and available on Amazon and Google Play.

25 thoughts on “Adapting Ambitions to Life with Mental Illness”

  1. I’m over-educated and under-functioning.

    This sounds familiar to me. I don’t know how to make more feasible goals, though. I still want to have some kind of full-time/nearly full-time job that will make me financially independent, a place of my own and a wife and kids, but none of those things seem at all likely to happen any time in the short or medium term and would require some major unexpected changes to happen in the longer term.

  2. What you described is a good example of what I’ve experienced too. Especially when we were young, whe have no idea of what external factors will impact us. Unless we have a crystal ball!

    I’ll look for your book on Amazon. Perhaps you’d like to read my website listed below.

  3. I went to school in the hopes of becoming a journalist. Going to college wasn’t what I originally wanted but my family was very particular about what I should do with my future. I ended up leaving school when I had my oldest son because of post partem depression. I tried unsuccessfully for 7 years to get my degree and never finished. All I really wanted. To do was write. So that’s what I’m doing now. So my ambitions are along the same lines but a little different. I can’t be a journalist but I can write for myself which is good enough for now.

  4. You have been through an awful lot, especially the bullying from your peers. People can be so cruel.
    Before I even realized and was diagnosed with a mental illness of any kind, I noticed that some days were harder tha others in my workplace. I loved my job, and I was damn good at it. However there were times when I would go up to my boss and tell him my anxiety was taking full reign over me. I was rushed to the hospital several times because of it. The only difference was that I had people truly understand what I was going through, and accepted me for just being off. I was so grateful for them keeping me on that was until the doors to the company were closed back in May 2014.
    I look back on those days and wish I wish that place was still running. I think I still would have been able to succeed at my job even though I have a mental illness. Then again, there are those days that are still very rough for me. I don’t know if I’ll everbe back to working again. Only time will tell.

  5. Congrats on your upcoming book! Nonfiction often sells much better than fiction, so that is a point in your favor! I too struggle with trying to accomplish things and feel like I have a purpose, while also dealing with all my mental and physical issues. It is a hard balance.

  6. Damn those bullies!! Meg wants a piece of them.

    I think it’s so great that you’ve been writing!! Yes, yes, yes to the writing!! It’s like a weird salvation, because you can choose your hours and do it from home, among other benefits. You have a lot of healthcare knowledge to share with the world!! And a lot of life-experience tales!!

    You know, it’s a weird question what my ambitions were, because I never had any. I went to college and chose my major (music, then changing to psychology) just out of the need for a major. I never had any career ambitions. It hit too close to home during my last semester of college, when I became suddenly terrified.

    Much to my credit, though, I knew I could continue in academia with the psychology angle. Louisville has many fine upper-level psychology programs available. But I also knew I’d only be doing it to hide from life, so I forced myself to just get my BA degree and quit schooling and face life. (Not that that went well. Disastrous, really.)

    I wish someone back then had told me about self-employment opportunities and/or creative ventures like writing. It would have saved a lot of heartache. But my parents were always like, “Get a job! Get a job!” And I was just terrified. Thank goodness those days are behind me!!

    I admire you, Ashley, because you’re still functioning in the workplace!! AND you’re writing, so it’s a win-win! YAY!!

  7. Ohhh I can’t wait for your book!!! ♥️ But I do feel you in everything that you said. When I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to be a singer/actress, doctor or a teacher. I had a passion in music, but was eventually taken away when I was in middle school because my music teacher knew that I didn’t need to practice to play my clarinet well. He told me that I was “no good” and I was left to leave music to stick with swimming…I was decent in swimming, but music was always in the back of my mind. I love song writing and I wish I knew how to play the drums and guitar (even though I’ve played it a few times). More like, I wish I had more time to focus on music rather than working myself to death as a manager at a retail store. I graduated with a psychology degree in December of 2017, but I was rejected for the graduate program. I wanted to study medicine, but they literally told me I wasn’t smart enough… :/ Oh life.

  8. Ugh, yes. I’ve wanted to run a working think tank for a long time but that thinking part can be a challenge when I’m swamped by PTSD symptoms. Definitely doing a smaller version of that…and just generally smaller than what I’d like to be doing.

  9. Life changes and if we don’t change with it we can become stuck on an idealisation that is no longer possible.

    I have learnt over the years that sometimes the only reliable person is myself, the problem I then have is knowing what I want. Like you, I have never been competitive in the workplace but have always been driven to do my best. With the children I lost sight of what I wanted from life which was further compounded by cancer and depression.

    Writing is a great choice, your blog is among the most popular of ones I regularly read, you have a solid band of followers behind you and what you write is intelligent and informative without being condescending. If you can work sufficient hours as necessary to cover living expenses then the rest of the time you can focus on writing and building a new career.

    Believe in yourself xx <3

  10. I remember really clearly, about a year after I was in a bad car accident, sitting outside on the grass and saying goodbye to each of my dreams. They were things like having an actual dad (my dad’s brain was negatively affected by the accident), being able to do the monkey bars or cartwheels (things I loved when I was younger but couldn’t physically do), being able to do well in school (I was suffering because of a concussion and ptsd), etc. It was really sad. But, three and a half years later, a lot of that has changed! The physical things have gotten better with time, and the emotional ones have gotten better with therapy and reflecting and working on myself. Those dreams aren’t fully gone after all! 🙂 Working on “building a life worth living” in DBT has encouraged me to make things like those a priority.

  11. Reading this was like boom! She knows exactly how I feel. You’ve worded it better than I’ve tried to, but then I’m just this evening coming to the realization that my environment is for now unchanging & therefore I must adapt to exactly those internal process centred controls for growth. As a fitness instructor, who found all my confidence in the role while away in a Canada, several moves,visa issues & adrenal & back problems have both reaked havoc & shown me a balance I’m not quite ready to accept. Ambition is very much effected but perhaps there are others means to quite the noise authentically for more than a day at a time.

Leave a Reply