Recently, I was in touch with a woman who is transitioning from being an engineer to becoming a therapist, and we’ve been exchanging emails on our respective paths. I thought I’d share a bit of mine, here.
My path to becoming a therapist was a slow, trial-and-error process. I’m 67 now and was 51 when I enrolled in Cambridge College’s program to become a mental health counselor.
I grew up a sort of kid scientist and my ambition was to become, literally, a rocket scientist, which by the time I started at Cornell University’s School of Engineering in 1969 had solidified into a plan to become an electrical engineer and seek a job at NASA after I graduated. But by then, I’d started to see that I had other talents and interests.
In my family, psychology, understanding feelings, and interest in art and literature were almost completely suppressed. (My father used to say, “You have to be crazy to go to a psychiatrist.”) I became a kid scientist and engineering student in part because these other aspects of my nature were discouraged. Science and math were valued as a way out of the relative poverty we lived in, and my family viewed most other career interests as superfluous or as something to be relegated to a hobby. The only artist in the family, my father’s sister Sally, lived 3000 miles away, near L.A.
By my senior year in high school, I’d managed to rise to first in my class and was one of only two to be accepted into an Ivy League school. But the seeds of another direction were already beginning to sprout.
Galvanized by a history teacher, Betty Summers, who taught us to read between the lines, a few of my friends and fellow yearbook staffers began to take a more thoughtful look at events going on in our suburban high school and in the world. The result was an “underground” magazine, Cynic, that nearly got us expelled.
The following summer was the summer of Woodstock. A friend from high school and I took a bus and then walked and hitchhiked, arriving just as Joan Baez was beginning her performance. In Woodstock, I found kindred spirits – not just the five I knew at home, but 500,000. In that first moment of looking out on a vast sea of people who seemed like me, something shifted.
By the time I arrived at Cornell, I no longer wanted to be a rocket scientist. I struggled through a year of physics and calculus but squeezed in creative writing, English Literature, and psychology classes, as well as marches on Washington, protests at draft boards, and other anti-war activities. The next year, I transferred out of engineering and Cornell to the University at Buffalo, which, at the time, had one of the most lively English departments in the country. There, I took as many psychology and literature courses as I could.
On a cross-country hitchhiking trip between my sophomore and junior years, I developed a curriculum to rebalance myself. Back in Buffalo, I wrote poetry, took photographs, studied journalism, volunteered at a free school and a mental institution, and took up carpentry, motorcycling, and as many other activities as I could to fill in what felt like major gaps in who I was.
By the end of my senior year, I was torn between a writing and a therapist career, but I felt that I would not be able to handle the emotions of a caseload of clients. I moved to Manhattan and pursued a writing career instead.
Although my time in NYC proved to be an artistic blossoming of that sprouted seed from high school, I was only marginally successful in publishing my work. The next branch in my circuitous path was returning to grad school in creative writing, first at Boston University, where I got a master’s degree, and then at the University at Albany, where I intended to get a PhD.
By the time I entered Albany, I was 40. I’d spent a year languishing in technical writing and was determined to have life begin again. The following year, I got my wish, but not in the way I’d expected. (Be careful what you wish for!)
Due to medical errors in a hospital there, I had a traumatic brush with death. During my lengthy recovery, I realized that although I still liked teaching and valued writing and literature, the best part of teaching for me was not lecturing to students, but office hours, where I could have a more personal connection. Most of the way through my English PhD, I turned a corner again and returned to school, this time to become a therapist. I had been through enough of my own difficulties by then to feel confident that whatever walked into my office would not overwhelm me.
Although I find the insurance aspect of the profession infuriating at times, I know that as a therapist I’m doing something of value, and that I’m helping more people in a week than I might have in a year as an English professor or in a lifetime as an electrical engineer. That’s enormously gratifying. And, the experience of diving deep into the complexities of being human has helped me circle back to writing and teaching, in the form of books, periodic talks, and workshops on psychological topics. The profession has also taken me to Santa Fe and, soon, to Hong Kong. Where it will take me next is an unknown, but I suspect it will be interesting.
I am also aware, every day, that in a more tolerant, more supportive, and more aware world, many of the mental illnesses of today would not exist.
This is an easy call with anxiety and depression, which are almost always primarily the result of societal issues or familial ones (which are, themselves, usually societal in origin). In a world where people are satisfied with their lives, there would not be an addiction epidemic. In a world that appreciated nonlinear learning, ADHD would be seen as a talent, not a disorder. People with what we call Borderline Personality Disorder would be recognized as the sensitive souls they are, narcissists could become real leaders, and schizophrenics would be the visionaries and oracles they once were.
Psychotherapy is, in a way, a band-aid and a salve. In the world I hope for, there would be no need for my profession. But, I don’t denigrate what I do. Band-aids protect a wound so it can heal, salves accelerate the healing process, and I feel privileged to be in a position to relieve some suffering, regardless of its cause. It’s how I push against the harm.
So, this is my path. A long way ’round.
I’d love to hear about your journeys in the comments.
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World at Cabot Street Books in Beverly, MA
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.com
The Art of Balance Cheat Sheet (free eBook)
The Art of Balance Meditation Cheat Sheet (new!)
The Art of Balance Addictions Cheat Sheet (new!)
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)