This is one of my favorite responses I got when I asked you guys for writing prompts: The Quakers like to say, “Proceed as the Way opens.” It would be meaningful to hear you reflect on an experience in your life when the “Way” seemed to be opening—or the world’s welcome into a new manner of being.
When I think about that quote, I think about the twists and turns of my career. While I’ve known I wanted to be a therapist since ninth grade (I could hardly believe someone would pay me to sit and listen to other peoples’ stories!), all the events that actually brought me here were completely unexpected.
After months of careful research my senior year of college, I chose to apply to five grad schools. Three were on the west coast, one was on the east coast, and one was in Chicago. I felt very confident in my choices as I floated around campus delivering thorough submission instructions to each of the professors who would write my letters of recommendation.
But the following morning I literally woke up from a dream, panicked, with this thought pounding in my head: I am making a huge mistake if I don’t apply to Northern Illinois.
It was so random, but I couldn’t get the thought or the panic out of my mind. I barely understood what I was doing as I knocked on my professors’ doors later that week and sheepishly requested one more letter. I still had no intention of actually going there—I was going to move to California, dammit—even as I found myself driving to the interview one snowy day in February.
Long story short: it’s where I went, and it’s absolutely where I was meant to go. It was so much more than a therapy education; it was a distinctly magical time in my life. Interestingly, most people in my cohort also had a story of how they almost hadn’t ended up there there—one didn’t see her acceptance email until long after the decision deadline had passed, someone else had accepted a spot at another school before having a last-minute change of heart. I truly believe there are forces that intervene to make sure we don’t miss out on certain opportunities.
One of the most transformative experiences I had there was my second-year internship at an outpatient behavioral health hospital. I’ve purposely forgotten the interview and placement process—12 internship slots for 12 students meant awkwardly competing against your own friends—but I do remember realizing, on my first day there, that I’d had no idea what I’d signed up for. I’d somehow failed to realize that 99% of my job would be leading group therapy—a thought that absolutely mortified me.
But how lucky I would later feel to have landed somewhere that gave me so much to learn! Group therapy turned out to be a beautiful process to observe and to lead, and it helped me build confidence in all the ways I needed. I also learned an incredible amount about substance abuse treatment—a field I had never been exposed to or imagined working in—since half the patients were there specifically for addictions. By the end, it was hard to believe I ever could have graduated a therapy program without the specific knowledge and experience I gained from that particular internship.
As I was preparing to graduate, Doug was applying to grad schools of his own. Our plan was to move wherever he got the best offer. “We can go anywhere except Iowa,” I announced one evening after browsing job listings in every city on his list. It was the only place that turned up zero therapy jobs.
Well, we all know how that went.
That August, as I was pulling out of my parents’ driveway with my car packed full of everything I needed to start a new life in Iowa, I had a thought and stopped the car. I ran back inside and grabbed a bag of my writing samples from a marketing internship I had in college. “Just in case I can’t find work as a therapist!” I called to my parents as I bounded back out the door.
For the first several months, I worked a series of horrific jobs that shall never again be mentioned. Despite my constant job searches, I just couldn’t find a position that would put me on the path to licensure.
The most annoying thing about being a new therapist is that you have to obtain a certain number of supervision hours (hours spent discussing your cases with a qualified therapist) before you can receive your full license. So you either need to find a job that provides those hours for free, or pay for them yourself. Most private therapists will charge their actual therapy rate— $130 per hour. I needed 200 hours.
In January, I finally landed work as a child therapist at an agency that would provide those hours. It wasn’t my ideal job, but since it was the only one I’d come across that provided free supervision, I figured I could suck it up for a few years.
Unfortunately, this agency mistreated its employees in many ways. I was miserable from day one, in an all-consuming type of way that was impossible to turn off when I left work.
Each day I as I drove home, I calculated how much time was left before I could get my license and quit. At the very slow rate this agency doled out supervision, it would take at least 3.5 years (and trust me, I was willing to round up at every opportunity). That was bad enough, but the other cloud looming over me was this: if I stayed with the agency long enough to get licensed, they would then require me to stay an additional two years post-licensure—or else make me pay them back for all the supervision I’d received, at a rate of $100 per hour.
I couldn’t even let myself think about those two additional years; I did not include them in my calculations. I just chose to believe that when the time came, I’d find a way out of it. I’d change my name if I had to. I’d cut and dye my hair, burn my credit cards, and move to a cabin in the Ozarks à la Gone Girl until my supervisor was dead and the policy forgotten.
How long do you think I lasted here before I cracked?
If you guessed two months, you are correct.
By March, I knew I needed to get out as soon as possible for my own mental health. But if I left the job, how would I ever find another way to get licensed? I lost sleep agonizing over this for weeks, until one morning when a revelation settled over me like a soft blanket of snow: I could just not be a therapist.
Usually I’m a big believer in doing things you don’t want to do in order to get where you want to be, but we all have our limits. If every day feels like a never-ending nightmare, that’s a pretty strong signal you’re on the wrong path. If you’re driving home one day and find yourself daydreaming about how much more fun it would be to work at Taco Bell, it’s time to make a change. Just as the “way” sometimes seems to open up and warmly welcome us in, there are other times we need to accept that certain doors are closing.
I thought back to the version of myself from half a year ago who had run back inside to grab her writing samples, determined to start a life here with her love no matter what that looked like.
I started pouring my energy into a new kind of job search. I applied to anything that had ‘writing’ listed in the posting. I applied to lots of things that didn’t. I applied to jobs with descriptions I did not understand.
I applied to only one therapy job—a position to be an inpatient substance abuse counselor at an agency that provided free supervision (!). They were the only place that offered me an interview. I snuck over in the middle of my workday feeling both hopeful (this could be my ticket out of hell!) and desperate (this might be my only shot at staying in the field).
Unfortunately, the interview kind of sucked. The guy who interviewed me seemed super nervous, which really threw me off. Things just weren’t clicking the way you want them to. But I still longed for the job the way a prisoner longs for sweet freedom.
I never heard back, so I called to check in.
“You didn’t get the job,” my interviewer said. “But would you like some feedback on your interview?”
I tried to quickly swallow the feeling that I’d been punched in the gut. “Sure,” I said, because I felt like I was supposed to.
“You answered all the questions well,” he said. “But you just seemed really nervous.”
I seemed nervous?! I wanted to shout back, but didn’t. I WAS NERVOUS BECAUSE YOU WERE NERVOUS!
All summer I kept working my shitty job, applying for everything under the sun and not hearing anything, and occasionally suppressing my misery long enough to blog about various mani/pedi techniques.
In August, I noticed a new posting for what appeared to be the exact same position I’d interviewed for. I figured their hire must have fallen through. I decided not to reapply. How embarrassing would it be to eagerly re-send my application to a job that had so recently rejected my desperate, nervous self?
An hour later, I reapplied anyway. Because what the hell did I have to lose? Certainly not my pride.
I was soon contacted, by a different person than before, to schedule an interview. It turned out this position was in the outpatient department, which was completely separate.
It’s hard to explain, but from the moment I shook my new interviewer’s hand, I knew I had the job. The vibe of the whole interview from start to finish was so on target that it felt almost fated.
I got my supervision and my license there in under two years; it felt like a natural progression toward an inevitable goal rather than a white-knuckled countdown to freedom. And I stayed two more years after that because I chose to, not because anyone was threatening to wreck my financial future.
The work was all substance abuse counseling, and a huge component of that was group therapy. Even though it was never what I’d pictured myself doing, I could easily look back and see how my path had been preparing me for this all along—particularly that internship. If not for that, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that I’d be qualified for this type of work and I probably would never have applied. Which means it’s quite likely I would not still be a therapist today.
That being said, substance abuse counseling never exactly became my dream. But I figured I’d stay for the rest of our time in Iowa, both because I was fairly content and also because—if you haven’t picked up on this yet—Iowa does not have, despite what our state slogan suggests, “fields of opportunities.”
It wasn’t until one Friday last May, when a therapist from my agency’s tiny mental health division announced she was leaving, that I allowed myself to really remember what it was I wanted to do—the type of work I always would have chosen if it had ever really felt like I had a choice. The following week, I was interviewing for that mental health position. Today, that’s my job.
Now, my work is eerily similar to what I’d always envisioned when I first set off on this journey: just me in my big ol’ office, meeting with all kinds of people with all kinds of problems who just want someone to talk to (as opposed to being court-ordered). And it’s really nice.
(Hey, 15-year-old J-Bo: you were right! It is kind of crazy we get paid for this.)
I sometimes think back to a conversation I had with the therapist I used to meet with for supervision. “So, what are your career goals?” he asked me one day.
“Uhh,” I stammered. Maybe it’s because I know how unpredictable life can be, or because I have no idea what state I’ll end up in, but when I fantasize about the future I think about travel and writing and my friends—not specific visions of my career. “I don’t think I have any,” I admitted, embarrassed.
“That’s okay,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes building a career isn’t about having plans. Sometimes it’s just about being prepared so that when a door opens, you’ll be ready to walk through it.”
Proceed as the way opens.
I agree. I’ve learned it’s the best (and maybe only?) way to build a life.