So, where do I begin?
In my extended hiatus, I had a lot of folks reach out to me. Many of these readers are young people who want to be therapists or enter a similar helping profession and are on the precipice of a seemingly life-altering transition. They are reaching out to me for wisdom that can provide them the answers that won’t come from any sort of well-researched investigation. People really want to know: “Are you happy and do you feel fulfilled by what you do?”
When I made the decision to pursue my master’s degree in mental health counseling, I made it solely from a place of extreme self-awareness coupled with profound ignorance about the life-altering decision I was making. I knew it was in my DNA to develop people, to see the infinite good and potential and to doggedly champion that into some good for others and the world (oh hey, ENFJ over here). I’m a big thinker, infinite idealist and after coming off the high from years of therapy that really did some good – I was motivated to provide that high to others. I wanted to impact others the way my counselor had impacted me.
It was in 2009 and I couldn’t get a job. Period. No one was hiring and the economy was terrible. I had specialized my skills specifically to print newspapers. In the four-year span of my degree, people stopped reading papers and really began adopting online journalism. No one wanted to pay for quality writing. You can read equitable material for free everywhere. Look at me, I have a blog. I am a columnist of my own making.
I was working in a preschool making $10/hour and I felt like I was wasting my life away. I had potential I was squandering, dammit.
So, in frustration, I began researching counseling programs one evening after I spent 75 percent of my day covered in poop or actively cleaning it up. It just so happens, UCF’s Counselor Education program is consistently ranked one of the best in the country. I was living with my parents. This is not where I envisioned I would be at this point in my life. I applied. I interviewed. I was accepted.
It was the best decision I ever made because it facilitated all of my best life decisions afterward. I met some of the kindest, coolest, most enlightened individuals who really just wanted to help people, just like I did. That’s a great group of people to be around if you want to grow.
My master’s degree was like The Karate Kid, but with tiny lessons about what adds up to the end result of being a good person. Instead of painting the fence, I learned active listening skills. Instead of waxing the car, I practiced reflecting meaning and reframing. I learned about what heals people, what motivates people and how my own unique point-of-view and passions could be channeled into something good. I also met my husband (spoiler alert, I got married) living in Orlando and some of my nearest and dearest friends would not be in my life had I not moved to go to grad school.
I guess I really like learning about and getting very good at things you can’t measure. Everything I know I do well, is still a subjective undertaking. Sure, I can spell and I can string words together to form a sentence, but you can’t do anything to that sentence that is going to spit out a number to measure what a great writer I am in comparison to others in my field. With clients, you can measure their successes/recoveries/etc, but that has a lot to do with where they are at in their journey to mental health – especially with chronic mental health issues, clients ebb and flow in their improvements. As a counselor, you must accept that you can’t control progress and frankly, you are one raindrop on the surface of a lake during a rainstorm. Your impact may be profound, but it will not be the only thing that matters. That’s why counselors get ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘burnout’. You go in wanting to be the Sean Maguire to your client’s Will Hunting and you mostly end up feeling like you’re some minor character in Girl, Interrupted.
I moved to Seattle and started my private practice. I had done my internship in a residential drug treatment facility and as much as I loved that work, I knew it wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t working with people who were heavily invested in growing, evolving and sustaining improvements. Many of the people in state-sponsored drug treatment have been in the system for years and are fully involved in the addictive cycle. They need things like housing, jobs and food before they can consider pulling themselves away from the only thing that distracts them from their lack of resources. But, you can’t get a job, buy food, or pay rent when any money you have goes to your addiction = The Addictive Cycle. I knew the little helper in me would lose her drive to save the world.
Private practice is a beast and is for the relentless self-promoters (nothing wrong with that – it’s called being entrepreneurial), but I am not that person. I want to set-it-and-forget-it in regards to the icky things like rent, fees for service, scheduling, blahblahblah. I’m not an administrator. I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t directly contribute to a client’s success. It was all noise to me and I was a terrible entrepreneur. It was like buying that pair of shoes you’ve been lusting after only to find out that they are super uncomfortable to wear for longer than five seconds.
I needed to make a sustainable living and this was not that route. Even after 2.5 years of my master’s degree, I was required by law to attain another 3,000 hours of supervised counseling before I could be eligible to sit for my licensure exam. If I had gone the route of accepting $15/hour to work in an agency, I would be getting free supervision in exchange for making an insufficient amount of money to live on in Seattle (in my personal opinion for my standard of living). However, opting out of that meant paying a licensed counselor $100/week to basically make sure I didn’t push someone towards suicide or get in over my head. I was at the bottom of a very steep mountain with no well-trodden paths. I didn’t want it bad enough to have to work that hard.
Our country’s public mental health system and infrastructure are managed much like our public education system is structured. Create a lot of barriers to the profession, demand a high-level of education, pay those people poorly, provide inadequate resources and hope that people just stick it out because they are passionate about what they do. It’s insulting, it’s backwards and I don’t want to hear about another damn mass shooting and all the ‘mental health needs to be considered’ bullshit without anyone, with any political authority or power, doing anything about it (yes, there are quality people out there who are making a difference here and I shouldn’t speak in absolutes, but I’m doing it anyway because I’m angry about it).
I left the idea of being a licensed counselor behind. It was one of the most emotional, terrifying and angsty moments of my life. I spent many nights wallowing because I once again felt like I had totally screwed up my life and any chance I had at being successful or fulfilled by my work.
The story has a happy ending though. I’ll tell you more about that later. I promise I’ll be back before another three years pass.