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After my initial psychotic episode at age 21, I was put on antipsychotics as a preventive measure. They prevented another psychotic episode while I was on them, but after my acute health crisis, I still just wasn’t completely myself. Because of the health crisis, I had to withdraw from college, recover, and then return after all my friends had already graduated. That was my first setback that separated me from my peers. Even once I got my degree, I was still underemployed and had difficulty entering a romantic relationship. As my 20s went by, I saw almost all my friends and cousins get married, start families, and build careers. However, I kept going back to the drawing board as nothing and no one seemed to pan out for me. I compared myself with others and struggled with jealousy and self-blame.

And worse, I knew something was wrong with me; I just couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was, nor could my loved ones. It was when I turned 30 that the worst happened: I had three major psychotic episodes in two years. I went from thinking my life was going nowhere in my 20s to thinking my life was over in my 30s. In my recovery and through my diagnosis with schizophrenia, I had to change my mindset on how I assess the value of my life and what success looks like for me. The only way to truly measure success in my life was through not comparing my life to others and not feeling entitled to a “normal” life to be happy.

My Life Is Not Linear, and That Is OK

Growing up, I thought every life followed the same formula for success, and I expected this same formula to happen for me. This formula involved going to college, starting a career, marrying someone a few years later, and then a few years later starting a family—all by a certain age. I had an oversimplified view of what a normal life looks like that was not that realistic. It is this formula that has a linear quality to it, and no part of this formula involves my life being on hold for 14 years with what was to me, at the time, an embarrassing, stigmatized mental health condition.

I was admitted for hospitalization for my last psychosis on my 33rd birthday. When I came home to my parent’s house a couple of weeks later to live while jobless and penniless, I realized that this glossy, picture-perfect life with this seamless linear quality to it would not happen for me. I felt entitled to a “normal” life, but that was not the hand of cards I was dealt. I had to accept that my life was different. I would eventually learn that my life would come together, just in less of a conventional way, and that is OK.

I Am Strong Enough Now to Be There for Others

A profound transition for me as I was recovering and responding well to medication was when I was doing so well that my friends could tell me about their lives and share things they were going through. I was becoming a stable enough person who could be there for others, and I found it so fulfilling. It feels like such an honor and privilege to me when I can be there for someone else, and it gave me a direction and inspiration for what success for me looks like. Success and meaning for me come from being a positive influence on anyone around me.

I was negative for a while and compared myself with others for so long, but it was pivotal when I was well enough to give back more into friendships and realize that I was not the only one suffering. Others hurt, too, and have to deal with things I will never have to go through. Realizing all of this put my mental health battle in context with people around me, and it helped me feel “normalized.” Life can be so difficult in so many ways, and I am not being singled out. I cannot accurately compare my life to other lives, because every life is different with its own challenges. I have to be thankful for what I do have.

I Am Creating My Own Success Story

This idea that your 20s are supposed to be the best time of your life and mine were a disaster had given me this idea that all was lost for me. But I just had to hang in there and wait for a better day. The truth is, I am happier, more fulfilled, and more at peace in my 40s than even before my mental illness started. I am living my best life now, and I am thankful for it. I got married at age 38, and I had my son at age 40.

Part of forging my own path is redefining what success looks like. For me, it can’t be simply keeping up with others and competing. Success for me is living a new life symptom-free of mental illness. Success for me is being a positive influence on those around me because for so long I felt like a burden and liability. Success to me is feeling good about myself, content with my life, and no longer ashamed of what I went through. Success to me is doing the best job I can as a wife, mother, and small-business owner while maintaining personal balance, boundaries, and wellness. Success to me is not dwelling on regret over my 20s and early 30s. I’m trying to embrace everything as part of the journey that led me to where I am now.

My life is not necessarily a typical one, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t take the life I’ve been given and run with it, making meaning out of the hardest times and enjoying every minute of it.

Original article featured in Psychology Today | January 4, 2024. Image Credit: ‘Focusing on the future and not looking back’ by Cottonbro Studio/Pexels