From theory to practice: On the inside looking inside from the outside

It was February 2006 when I gave serious thought to becoming a therapist for the third time.

The first time was in 1998, after I had been a professional reporter for all of one year. Perhaps it should have told me something that one year into my career, I was already daydreaming of things I’d rather be doing. At the time, I was working in a small town in northern Ohio, and there were no schools nearby where I could take the classes. So that run at being a therapist ended before it even began.

By 2002 I was living in Grand Rapids and – for many reasons – unhappy with the way my life was going. Again, I found myself yearning to do something else with my life, and again I was drawn to mental health. Despite being a professional gatherer of information, my work investigating the mental health field was shoddy. I assumed the only way forward was to become a doctoral level psychologist. Though daunting, that didn’t scare me off. But I wrongly believed I would have to start at the very beginning; I enrolled into a Psychology 101 class at the community college. I went to all of two nights’ worth of classes and gave up when a fellow student actually asked – and I’m not making this up – “what’s an animal?” I couldn’t bear to be among bulbs that burned so dimly.

The third time, it took. Again, I was at a point in my life where so many things were simply wrong. Inspiration came from an unexpected source – an ad for a for-profit university displayed on the sidebar of my email. I knew that for-profit schools weren’t the way for me to go, but I wondered, again, what public schools might have to offer. This time, my research was more thorough, and I realized I could be a therapist by following psychology, social work or counseling and getting a master’s degree instead of a doctorate. I found schools nearby where I could make it happen. And most importantly, I’d had a flash of insight that lit a fire under my feet.

In the early months of 2006, newspapers were still doing pretty well. Yes, there had been some shrinkage in the staffing levels of our newsroom, but they were slight and done through attrition and it wasn’t hard to believe they were also temporary. But something wasn’t sitting right, either. There was a nagging sense seated deep in my intuition, wherever in the body that’s located, that told me things weren’t nearly as good as they seemed. It was obvious people wanted information online, not on their doorstep. It was also obvious there wasn’t much money to be had online. Something had to give.

Stars aligned. All of a sudden, going back to school to study something different didn’t seem only possible but necessary. A half year later I took my first graduate-level class.

As the three-year master’s degree plan dragged on into years four and five, I would learn about theories and techniques, methodologies and current research trends. During my internship, I would put it all into practice, answering phones at a suicide hotline and acting as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. There, my training had a heavy bent toward humanistic and person-centered counseling. Empathy was venerated as one of the most desirable and useful traits a person could have.

It’s that background that has given me a layoff experience that I believe is different from most of my former co-workers. We all shared the experience of working in a doomed industry, but as far as I know, I was the only one who had training in counseling and emotional trauma. That gave me a unique perspective. While this disaster was happening to me just as it was to the others, I was also able to understand it analytically – to an extent. Armed with the knowledge and experience I’d gathered over the past five years, I believe I am approaching this time in my life in a profoundly different way than I would have done before.

Immediately, even before I heard the words “we’ve eliminated your position,” I became aware of a tsunami of emotions that quickly swamped me. I noted them like children might call out the different kinds of cars going by their house: There goes anger, there goes grief. Wow, there’s a lot of fear out here today. Has anyone seen denial yet? It was nearly amusing. I was keenly aware at every moment not only how I felt (miserable, mostly), but precisely what I felt (betrayed, ashamed, abandoned). And that was incredibly important.

By knowing exactly what I felt, I knew how to respond. That’s not to say I managed to do so deftly each time, but at least I had an inkling of what was going on. For example, the shame I felt walking back to my desk to gather my things was immense. I could feel every eyeball in the room trained in on me. Everyone knew what had just happened. But having identified the shame, I could at least try to counter it by telling myself that this same thing had happened to 18 other people there that day, and that if I was selected because I was somehow wrong, then so were they. But I knew them, and I knew they were not bad or lazy or untalented. The shame I felt was very real, but it was unwarranted.

Another example. Later that night, as Killian and I tried to make sense of my job loss and the three inches of water in the basement, I felt persecuted. To have two major calamities fall on me in the same day seemed too much to be coincidence. I felt I must have done something truly awful to have deserved that. That’s what the cognitive behavioral types call a cognitive distortion – personalization, to be specific. But whatever kind of spiritual power I believe in is not a spiteful one. Pipes break. Corporations run on greed. And nothing I have done has been so bad that I deserved to be punished with a day like that.

In the midst of all that agony, I was even able to pinpoint some of my strengths. When I was sitting across from the HR director and I waved away the box of Kleenex, that was my pride acting. At that moment, even as I acknowledged my own suffering, I refused to become an object of pity, as surely I would have been if I spent my last minutes in that building in tears. I took some comfort in that pride. Because as long as I still had some of that, I hadn’t lost everything.

Noting these emotions, whether they were passing or pervasive, went a long way toward my ability to function that day. While the size of the loss was enormous, I was able to keep from feeling totally overwhelmed most of the time. Was I perfect with it? Oh, heck no. There were times that night that I just collapsed into tears. And, really, that was to be expected. But I didn’t stay at those depths for long. The knowledge and experience I had gave me a sense of perspective I doubt I would have had otherwise.

Another thing I’ve kept in mind these past few days is “locus of control.” This concept describes the extent to which someone believes he or she has control over his or her life. Someone who believes everything happens to him, and that he is powerless to stop or change it, is said to have an external locus of control. On the other hand, someone who believes she is empowered to make the best decisions and take the best actions possible no matter what comes her way has an internal locus of control

The difference between having an internal or external locus of control is enormous. If you give in to thinking that you are helpless and hopeless, even the simplest thing can become impossible. Because why bother even trying if you truly believe that your effort is doomed to fail? On the one hand, this mode of thinking might seem easier, almost effortless: If someone else is responsible for where you are now, then someone else will be responsible for getting you out of your situation, too. But the ease is as deceptive as it is seductive. What happens if that rescuer fails to appear? That way lies despair.

Far more difficult and far better to locate that control within. True, life throws Duesies at you from time to time. I sure didn’t expect to lose my job when I woke up that morning. Other people didn’t expect to get cancer, or lose a spouse in a car accident, or have a storm tear apart their homes. It’s true that we can’t control everything. But we almost always can control how we respond to it. And in that ability to respond and make choices is strength and power.

I’ve had to remind myself of this often in the past days. In my younger years, I may have given in. I might have thrown up my hands and conceded defeat. I could have given up. But having done that before, I know where it leads. If I do that, I will be engulfed by depression in no time. And clawing your way back from that is truly a hard thing to do.

Instead, I try to think of all the possibilities that lie at my feet. Here is a chance to make changes I couldn’t easily make before. Here is the opportunity to launch full bore into my next career. Now is the time to finally do a thing I’ve wanted to do since 1998 – 13 years ago. It’s all on me to do it.

Does any of this make the feelings any less intense? Hardly. It’s just now five days since I was pushed into unemployment, and I’m still raw. That is natural. Of course it hurts. The emotions still wash over me, but they are more like simple waves anymore, not the overwhelming tsunami. But I won’t let myself give in to despair. I can’t.

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