I generally consider myself a pretty open person and in this blog I’d like to discuss what it means to me to be a therapist. I suppose the best place for me to start is with why I am so astounded at times at where I am.
I come from a middle class, working class family. I never knew my biological father. Rumor has it he was an addict or alcoholic, and likely a criminal. If I saw him in my practice and if what has been told to me about him is true, he may have been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder. At this point all I have to go on is what I’ve been told, and none of it is good. But then he wasn’t there to explain his side.
My mother remarried when I was 2, and my stepfather raised me as his own. In fact I didn’t know he wasn’t my father until I was twelve or thirteen. He was a truck driver, and worked most of my childhood with a big trucking company. He had dropped out of high school to join the navy, and his writing skills were below average. He had a very strong work ethic which he seems to have passed on to me. He was handy, fixing the cars and things around the house. I didn’t get that trait, as a friend recently pointed out. Often my father would tell me I had book smarts but no common sense. He did his best to make me handy around the house, but it never came naturally, and to this day I have some minimal handy skills, but sometimes make matters worse.
My mother was a housewife, back when this was common. Later in life, with the children all old enough to fend for themselves, she worked several different jobs including being a partner in a real estate practice. She also managed a pharmacy later.
The person I was closest to in my family was my grandfather, another working class blue-collar fellow. He was an alcoholic, and a man of few words. But he was very handy and very knowledgeable of different types of manual labor. In my elementary school years he worked on an oil barge, and often took me along to paint. We’d cruise up and down the Delaware River between oil refineries, working some, fishing some, and hanging out together. He also taught me how to shingle a roof (although I’d never attempt this now!).
I have two younger sisters, both who attended college. I was the first to enter college, and the last to finish. But I am getting a little ahead of myself. While in high school I decided I had had enough of school. Although I graduated on time, the last few years had been a struggle of my own making. I had become very rebellious and often skipped school, came late, left early, got suspended, or otherwise found ways to make passing any class requiring effort a challenge. On the third day of cap and gown practice I finally learned I had passed an exam in a class that would determine my graduation or not. My rebelliousness and wild lifestyle didn’t end with graduation.
After completing high school I worked in a chemical plant. I also worked in gas stations, did odd jobs like painting, some small demolition, and basically kept to the blue collar life I had been accustomed. When I was twenty-one I entered a cross roads in my life, and eventually emerged focused on no longer destroying myself with the life I had been leading. I entered college with the goal of being a counselor. I had been to counseling quite a bit by then, usually coerced in some way. When I emerged from this time I knew I wanted to make a career of counseling.
I started out as a glorified babysitter in a home for incorrigible youth. Because sitting around with the other staff didn’t appeal to me (they were all much older and, dare I say, lazy, bitter, and resentful) I spent a lot of time with the youth. This eventually earned me the position of activity director, a fulltime position with a starting salary of, wait for it….11,000 dollars a year. Forty hours a week for 11,000 dollars a year. Yes, it was 1985. Yes, I was 22. But we all know that is nothing in pay. Despite that it was one of the greatest jobs I ever had. I played sports with the kids, took them to the gym at the local college, movies, bowling, and on trips to the mountains and the Pine Barrens (an area of woods in southern New Jersey). At the time I was serious about a girl I met at college, and we were talking marriage. I left the field of human services, quit college, and returned to work that I knew paid more, manual labor.
I worked in warehouses, and eventually became the truck-driver for a company outside of Philadelphia. After my daughter was born I needed more money, and moved to a truck driving position in Philadelphia. After a few more years I was laid off from that company (my oldest son had now joined the family as well). At the time I was laid off I was making somewhere around 33,000 dollars yearly. I collected unemployment, and worked a little here and there for a friend as a mechanics assistant. I was blue collar. My friends were blue collar. I really didn’t know much else. So at the age of 29 I was at another crossroad. I was miserable in my work life. As much as I thought I’d like driving a truck, I didn’t. As much as I wanted to be handy and mechanical, I wasn’t. So I asked myself “what do I want to be now that I’m grown up”?
I came back to the same answer I did when I was going on 22: I want to be a counselor. I spent the next several months handing out a sparse resume dressed in a tie and jacket and hoping someone would hire me with the paltry three semesters of college and a year experience I had. Eventually, someone did. I was hired as a “life skills counselor” at an adolescent long-term substance abuse rehabilitation center. A life skills counselor is about the equivalent of a “mental health technician” today. It is entry level, and besides making sure they got to activities on time, (groups, meals, etc.), breaking up fights, breaking up attempted sexual encounters, and attempting to thwart runaway attempts, I got the chance to interact and listen to them and share some of my experience. The director who had hired me insisted if he gave me the job I go back to college. I did, to Community College of Philadelphia. I went part-time, and eventually got a certificate in drug and alcohol abuse counseling. This helped me meet some of the requirements to eventually become a Certified Addiction Counselor. This allowed me to become an addiction counselor, and I moved from being a life skills counselor to an outpatient addiction counselor at another facility. I continued and got my Associate of Applied Science in Mental Health / Social Services. After a year break from college and a transfer from one school to another because of a job change and my divorce, I entered Holy Family College (now University) to obtain my Bachelors of Arts degree in psychology.
By the time I finished my Bachelors degree, I had been a counselor doing individual and group therapy for six years. I moved to south Florida after a couple of more years, and continued as an outpatient counselor for addiction. I could stay in the field forever with just my Bachelors and the Certification. With much encouragement I went on to a graduate program and received my Masters of Science degree in counseling psychology in 2007.
Now maybe that is enough to explain why I love what I do so much. After all, I spent a good portion of my adult life devoted to learning and practicing psychology, and this after being molded for a blue-collar life and rejecting higher education. Now I am also blessed with teaching psychology at two colleges. But I’m not sure that is all there is to what it means to me to be a therapist.
I love psychology. I love trying to understand why we are the way we are. I love exploring and uncovering patterns in lives and in thinking. I love insight. I love helping someone recognize a pattern, devise a theory for why it is, and change it for the better. A student once interviewed me for her sister’s project. She asked why I love what I do. I replied “what better job is there than one where you help others on their path to self-actualization while working on your own?” I spend my days in intellectual discussion about life, about living.
Being a therapist has its downside. The pay isn’t comparable to other equal degrees. Many clients improve only minimally and some not at all despite any therapist’s best efforts in intervention. Some die by their own hand, whether through accidental overdose or suicide. There is much sadness in the stories of many people’s lives, and you become party to it and cannot ignore it or simply cheer them up.
There are rewards. For me some is ego, and I know that. When I stand in front of a class of more than fifty, whether in an auditorium with screens that lower from the ceiling or in the humblest of classrooms, and I talk about psychology, I feel like I have arrived in my life. When a client tells me how much I helped them, and turns their life from one of pain and fear into one of being happier, I feel like it can’t get any better. This week, despite my initial protest, the nine year-old daughter in this mother-daughter family I see insisted I take a gift of a stuffed animal she had. How could what I do be any better?
So that is what being a therapist means to me. I went from having my own issues, rejecting school, and embracing trying to fit into a blue-collar life to working my way through college, obtaining a Masters degree, and practicing and teaching what I love. Some might believe it was destiny, or my calling. I might look back on my life and believe my path led to this result. Or I might believe that the meaning I create from my life is just that, a life that I created and give meaning to. In the end what matters most is I am doing what I love, and I feel it provides my life with meaning, which provides my life with energy. Now I have to get back to studying.