I want to finish up my series of posts on how I came to decide to commit to my chosen career, which even as I write that, reads odd. After all, the idea of choice and decision implies commitment. But not in my case, apparently.
The other installments of this missive can be found here, here and here. I should probably start and explain that yes, this picture is not taken from flickr or istockphoto but is, instead, a picture of my actual chair in my actual office. It’s not the coolest chair around (in my very humble opinion, the coolest chairs are Eames style chairs with leather ottomans), but for now, it suffices and I can curl up in it which sometimes feel the best thing to do. I’ve even fallen asleep in this chair.
In any event, I left off in my last installment mentioning I had spent a lot of time in psychotherapy and that my own therapist had mentioned that maybe I should consider this as a career. I think on one level I always knew I’d get to grad school when I was ready. By the time I was 42, I was pretty ready. By then my son was 15 and my job was fairly stable and it just was time. I spent a month or so taking the tours of the local freestanding graduate schools and decided upon a program that seemed to combine the academic with the practical. One thing they had was one-way mirror observance and training and they started on this right away. I mean – why waste time just studying it in books? I think the decision was, on balance, probably a good one, but it turned out not to be as academically inclined as I might have liked. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, but when I was in school and spending pretty big money on all of this, I wanted to be challenged a bit more than I was.
Oh well. Really what it takes to be a good therapist is probably not all that academic – and this is borne out by lots of folks who say they went to see the guy who wrote the book or taught the course and they were “cold” or “preoccupied” or even “downright lousy” therapists. But, on the other hand, just having a sense of it in your bones or intuition isn’t enough, either. (Although you’d never know that by the number of people who call themselves “counselors” “therapists” or “coaches” with minimal or no amount of education or training and no oversight by governmental bodies (e.g., licensing) which means they can do anything they want and consumer be damned. Good luck in suing them for malpractice.)
But that’s another rant for another time.
I do think the blend of formal education, internship (hands-on training) and going through the licensure process all contribute to becoming a good therapist, but these have to be added to the individual’s traits like warmth, empathy, curiosity, humor, and intuition. And that really important trait of being able to help without letting it hurt the healer (in other words, having good boundaries and your own personal life). I spent my whole last post talking about my all important hospice volunteer work which helped teach me that I had this last trait.
I was always a life-long learner type, so the idea of keeping my nose in a book for the rest of my life didn’t phase me, and I’ve always had an innate curiosity of people and their motives. I have a quirky sense of humor which tends toward being dry but is also fairly gentle, not sarcastic. Being able to see something humorous in life has been very helpful in being a therapist – after all, we’re all in this together and nobody gets out of it alive. I think and others have said that I am easy to talk to and non-judgmental, and I have the ability to just listen and not just jump in and offer lots of pat answers. And I’ve always been pretty intuitive (at one time in my younger life I had a lot of psychic events which I now attribute to intuition, not psychic ability).
Becoming a good therapist takes a lot of time and work. I’m still in the beginning stages of this and I’ve been at it a total of ten years, from when I started graduate school to now. I did my 3000 hours of internship, and I’ve had all sorts of experiences – from clients who threw things at each other, and stomped out of the session, to people who showed up in psychotic states and couldn’t sit in the room, but insisted I do therapy with them on the sidewalk (I took a chair outside), to people forced into therapy by the court system who were more interested in scamming me than using their time to actually gain insight into their situations, which is one place my intuition has come in handy.
I’ve had actors, prostitutes and ex-cons, lawyers, clerks, and nurses, and other therapists as clients. Some of my clients have been markedly manic and others horribly, suicidally depressed. More than a few have had traits of Boderline Personality Disorder and a few were probably candidates for Antisocial PD. Almost every child I have seen in therapy has been in a situation where it was the parents who needed to be there more than the kid and, as a result of this, I decided to not do direct work with children only. I do see family constellations, though, such as parent-child, but, if possible, I prefer to work with the parents only, either individually or with their spouse, since that is usually where the family distress begins.
Over time I found myself drawn towards creative adults such as actors, artists, writers, musicians and singers. Although I have never worked as an actor (not even community theater), I took drama in school and I played first chair flute in orchestra, so I do know something of the anxiety that comes from performing. My son is also a creative person, who performed in many plays throughout school, and is a writer, artist and videogame designer. So although I’m not an ex-actor, I feel I have always understood the personality type fairly well. Plus I like creative people – I understand their desire to give their gift to the world and make money at it, too. It’s a pretty natural fit for me.
And hey, I live and work in LA, so creative types are all around me. But . . . it hasn’t been the mosst lucrative work around, as many of my clients are struggling to find acting work and living hand-to-mouth on their wits and waiting tables. They do come to therapy and get a lot out of it, hopefully to the point, of becoming more successful, but at first they have no money. And I have been fairly conflicted about making money as a therapist. I’m not alone in this.
And in my case, I have always had the backdrop of my other career to fall back on. So for most of my actual working life as a therapist I have also maintained either a full- or part-time job as a paralegal. This didn’t even change last August when I was finally laid off from my last paralegal job. For the first few months I was consumed with getting some projects done at home and then the holidays with the idea that, once January 2009 rolled around that surely the seas would part and I’d find paralegal work again. It didn’t really occur to me to question this, since we needed me to work and this was a more consistent way to do it.
But guess what? January came and then February and March – and no work. I think I went on exactly one interview for a contract job which I didn’t get. And although I was still getting unemployment, that was running low, so I started re-thinking my assumption that I’d keep working as a paralegal while maintaining a practice. I mean, what was the real job and what was the side job?
I was like the person who has managed to put one foot on the ice floe while keeping the other foot on land, and the ice floe is moving slowly away from land. At first it’s imperceptible but over time, you’re straddling two worlds. I’m not sure that the “land” wasn’t my therapy practice, but it sure was hard to make the decision to be in one place.
You know how sometimes you find inspiration in odd places? Well, a few months back I had bought a drink at starbucks and actually read the quote on it (usually I just drink and toss).
Here’s the quote:
The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating — in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.
Now the person who is quoted, Anne Morriss, is just a person, a customer from New York who describes herself as an “organization builder, restless American citizen, optimist.” I have no idea what an “organization builder” is (heck, it could be anything), but the other two descriptions fit me fairly well, too. And it was in reading and absorbing what this quote meant that the last pieces fell into place. I had always hesitated being a full time therapist due to the money, but couldn’t really make more money as a therapist until I was willing to put all my emotional and mental energy into building the business and getting clients. So all my ‘rational hesitation’ began to seem silly – I was using my “I’m going to get another job!” thinking to keep my practice small and then I’d complain about the size of my practice and use it to justify why I needed to get another job. Meanwhile, the ice floe was floating further away and it was getting to be pretty difficult to straddle the open water.
So I jumped back to land (yes, I guess the land was my practice). And I now stand there and say when asked, “Oh me? I’m a psychotherapist. And you?”