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Reconciling Loss and Hope When Schizoaffective Disorder Changed My Life Plans

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I remember being in elementary school and hearing I could do anything and be anyone I wanted to be if I put my mind to it. I think a lot of us often hear something similar when we’re children. Is it true, though? Can we do anything with just sheer will if we try hard enough? Although I think it’s something that can be inspiring, I’m not sure I have seen that idea play out in my own life, and I think others may have also experienced the loss of a dream. When you become an adult, there may be choices and circumstances out of your control that can alter your ability to go after your dreams you may have had when you were younger.

As a kid, I dreamed of playing soccer in college. I played from ages 5 to 17. I played spring and fall soccer and traveled and played in tournaments all summer long. I was a good player, I was dedicated, and I dreamed of the day I could play in college. However, that never happened. I was unable to play my senior year in high school, and that dream was one I had to let go of.

A few years later, in my early 20s, I got married. What I thought was going to last the rest of my life only lasted for a few years before I got a divorce. The idea of being a wife and having children started slipping away. What I anticipated for my life was not what it was turning out to be. During this time, was also diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and told it might be really difficult to get pregnant. The doctor told me it wouldn’t be impossible, but it would probably be very difficult, and it may never happen at all. The dream I had of being married to my ex-husband and us having children together — this idea of having one big happy family with lots of kids running around — faded away.

I think many of us have experienced dreams that will never happen. It is not that we failed — life can be unpredictable, and what we imagine isn’t always what happens. Grieving our losses can be hard, grieving what we thought we wanted can be hard too, and grieving the dreams we had may be very difficult. I know many of us with mental illness had dreams before we were diagnosed that we may have not been able to see happen. The losses associated with mental illness are not fully understood by society, and they cannot be fully understood by us either. Mental illness can come into our lives and disrupt everything, leaving us confused, disillusioned, and at a complete loss. The nature of mental illness can also mean the severity of the illness can increase or go up and down in severity, leaving us not knowing what the future holds and therefore potentially unsure about how to proceed in life.

It has been a few years since the onset of my schizoaffective disorder, and the illness quickly took over my life. I had lived most of my life hiding my symptoms, but they got progressively more apparent over time. In my mid-20s, everything got really out of hand, and I could not deny the wreck I felt like I was in. It was becoming really difficult to hide my illness. I went from working 40 to 60 hours a week to working a different job for less than 10 hours a week to eventually not working at all. I was able to get on disability, but my dream of holding down a full-time job was gone. I have grieved the loss of my ability to work full-time and the sense of identity I found in my work. I have had to grieve all of the jobs I thought I wanted that would require me to work full-time. As I explained above, my grief after being diagnosed with a severe mental illness is ambiguous, and I don’t even know the full impact my diagnosis will have over time. What I do know is that I did not picture my life to be forever changed by mental illness.

Now that I have been honest with the reality of what it can be like being unable to fulfill the dreams we may have had before a diagnosis and have given some examples from my own life, I want to offer two ideas that have helped me cope with this type of loss. By leaning into those losses and not denying reality, I think many of us can find hope in our illnesses.

The first thing is reconciling loss and hope. The disappointment from loss and maintaining hope are not mutually exclusive. The loss you may encounter does not have to crush and take away your hope. You can accept loss and still continue to dream. It is actually a beautiful thing to face a loss and still hope for the future. That is when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It might feel painful, but we can shift how we process our disappointment from loss to see the big picture of overarching hope that can stay constant regardless of our circumstances.

The second idea is changing your perspective of your dreams and being open to the future. When a dream seems to be falling apart, and life is nothing like you imagined, it is hard to see anything good coming from your pain and grief, but being open to changing your perspective can help you. Out of pain, new dreams can grow, and if you dare to imagine hope for the future, then you may be able to embrace new perspectives and dreams. In all of this, the pain, disappointment, anger, frustration, and hopelessness can bring a clearer and more profound sense of purpose to your life.

My last story I will share is what happened after my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Shortly after I was diagnosed, I was unable to continue at a job I thought was my dream job, I wanted this job to be my career, and I wanted it to be my full identity. I felt the disappointment and loss of the job, but I also felt like a failure, and any sense of purpose I had felt was gone. With the loss of my ability to work full-time, I was scared for my future, and I felt no hope or good could from this loss, but as I began to lean into the pain and grieve my loss, I discovered that it was going to be my pathway to hope. What came out of my immense struggle with mental illness was a newfound purpose. I started college, pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in behavioral health science. I will graduate later this year and then start my Masters degree program in clinical mental health counseling. I have been given opportunities to be a voice for those with mental illness in a variety of ways, both in my state and on The Mighty. Out of crushed dreams came new ones, and I can dare to dream and have resilience through any disappointments that come my way.

Whatever circumstances you are facing, no matter the pain, the losses, the disappointments, or the overwhelming grief and hopelessness you might feel, your life still holds value, and you have a purpose. Life may not look like you imagined, but whether you face illness, the loss of a dream, divorce, job loss, infertility, loss of a loved one, or grief, in your pain, you may still find hope. Despite your lost dreams, you can dare to continue to dream, and it may be out of your pain that these new dreams can come forth. You may find purpose amid the loss. I’m not downplaying the pain you might feel or how crushing it can be to grieve losses in our lives, but I believe there is good in the world for us. I believe all of us have purpose and mental illness and lost dreams does not mean there isn’t hope. It doesn’t mean your life is over — maybe your life is just beginning.

Getty image by Westend61.

Originally published: February 17, 2022
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