We are all limited, some more than others. Sometimes we know our limits; sometimes others around us see them more clearly than we do. Mental health professionals may match our limits with a psychiatric diagnosis. Sometimes limits are also matched with other diagnoses, like cancer or Parkinson’s Disease. When a limit is diagnosed, it can easily become our focus. To what extent can we still dream of a successful life beyond our limits? To what extent can we be healed, even if we can’t be cured?
Think of a dream-to-diagnosis ratio or equation, which is similar to an imagination-to-reality ratio. A well lived life should have a ratio that is greater than one; a life buoyed by dreams and a vision for the future fueled by imagination. Although we need to be aware of the reality of a diagnosis, the power of the dream and of one’s imagination must not be overwhelmed.
Last night my wife Lis told me a story about a young man, Colin O’Brady. He is the fiancé of our good friend’s daughter, Jenna. On a post-college vacation trip, Colin was accidentally burned over 22% of his body, mostly on his legs. He was told that he might never walk again.
For some moments, his despair was overwhelming, but he did not accept this limitation. There are now multiple stories about how he went on to to win a triathlon within 18 months of his accident. He now holds the record for summiting the world’s seven highest peaks and also trekking to the North and South poles, all in less than half a year!
He can be seen in this TEDxPortland talk “Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything | Colin O’Brady" Granted, we are not all likely to reach similar heights, but how far can we go?
This reminds me about when I met a young man during his 50th hospitalization for schizophrenia some years ago. In that first meeting, he told me about his dream of becoming a successful wood-worker. He took the first, and hardest step and joined a therapeutic community and, while there, successfully learned how to pursue his dreams. He learned to manage his symptoms and has achieved multiple successes, including selling his woodwork creations and avoiding mental health states that lead to psychiatric hospitalization.
A diagnosis of mental illness should not stop hopes and dreams. The capacity to dream and imagine a better future should always be kept alive. Too frequently, someone with mental illness may think they need to go someplace and get 'fixed’ before they can dream again. Having to be fixed implies brokenness; when in reality, we all have out limits. Even in the midst of despair, the dream must not be lost.
When you are seeking mental health care, it is always best to work with professionals who ask not just “What is your diagnosis?”… but with equal vigor, “What is your dream?” You are always much more than your diagnosis!