It’s Not What I Imagined…

I am going to just put it out there. The election tally did not end the way I imagined, and the result has rocked my world. I am joined by about half of America, and for the other half things have unfolded as they hoped. But virtually all the polls got it wrong – even Nate Silver got it wrong.

This isn’t about party politics for me – as the saying goes, some of my best friends are Democrats, and some of my best friends are Republicans. This is about dashed expectations and loss. Certain values I hold dear took a beating when I thought they would prevail. I voted with my daughter, Julia, and son, Ben – their first election filled with the excitement and optimism that comes with having a voice by having a vote. We were giddy with hope for what we imagined the future could be as we took selfies in front of the “Vote Here” sign.

As the saying goes, if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans.

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In the course of the past few days, I have asked myself, Could I have done more? Should I have done more? What is in my control? What do I need to understand? Asking “Why” leads to an infinite loop for no matter how far we get, we can always ask why again? So I can rail against reality or I can ask what next? What can I accept? What can I not accept? What does it mean to accept?

These are the same questions we ask ourselves when our worlds are rocked in much more private ways – like when someone we love develops a mental illness.

1.

No one imagines or dreams of developing mental illness. Although there has been a lot of talk about our president-elect’s mental health, that’s not the point. What I am saying is that for me this election outcome is not what I wanted or expected. And that is true when a loved one suffers from a serious mental disorder. When we lose ourselves in the gaze of a gurgling baby and imagine that he or she might become a scholar, a healer, a teacher, a musician – we don’t imagine that he or she will grow up to develop a mental illness. But that is what happens for some.

2.

The unimagined development of mental illness tends to be a private journey that can be very lonely. Unlike the election, we don’t have half the country standing by us when someone we love develops a mental illness. In fact, when it comes to mental illness, many people lose their voice and feel very alone. Those who suffer with serious mental illness are often not able to advocate effectively for themselves in the throes of their illness. And in the case of psychosis, some are never able to make sense of the world in the same way again.

3.

Not getting what we expected is a loss and an opportunity. Let’s face it, when things don’t turn out the way we expect, and in particular, when we are forced to face the adversity of mental illness, we are also forced to rethink what we thought we knew. We are forced to challenge the assumptions we didn’t even know we held. And then we have the opportunity to grow and forge on. Having that imagined future go up in flames means that we have to write the real story – and that’s the opportunity.

4.

“The world breaks everyone, and after some are strong at the broken places” is the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The truth is that the vast majority of people with mental health problems recover. And in the course of recovery, we become stronger at the broken places – whether we are the one with mental illness, the caregiver, the friend, or the professional called in to help. We all have the opportunity to learn something along the way.

5.

So when our expectations are rocked, strength comes from learning to accept what we cannot change and continuing to fight for the values we hold dear and the rights we want to be core to our society. As Hillary said in her concession speech, we should never grow weary fighting for what we believe in.
There are many ways to measure the health of a society: Gross domestic product, life expectancy, literacy rates or employment rates. In Bhutan, they measure gross national happiness. What if we measured our society on how well we care for the most vulnerable, including those who are vulnerable due to mental illness?

Let us all rededicate ourselves to advancing the values that inspire us and the values that represent the world we imagine. And let us celebrate that we live in a society where we all can continue to fight for the values we hold dear – and maybe even become stronger in the broken places.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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