I’m finally getting to that age where I’m doing things that have been years in the making. And for the most part, that feels amazing. But sometimes all I can think about it is how much sooner I could have met my goals, if I didn’t get in my own way for so long.
Eight years ago, I started grad school. I couldn’t believe my good luck – I was doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life – learning how to help people using the arts – and I had procured enough loans to do so. The three year program was the most grueling psychological boot camp anyone could imagine. Basically, we did everything that we would ever ask our clients to do, plunged to the depths of our souls, and learned all the theoretical underpinnings for “why”.
It nearly undid me.
But I had a wonderful therapist, inspiring fellow students, and a supportive community and family, so I came through it a drastically better person. Seriously. Many people close to me marvelled at what a better listener I was, and what a calm presence I had now.
It got me wondering, was I really such an asshole before? And the answer was, truly, yes. I was an uptight, angry person – intense and interesting, to be sure, but really, pretty volatile and closed off. So, getting my Masters in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Expressive Arts Therapy did so much more than give me letters after my name. It initiated me into the life of a healer, and the first person I worked on healing was myself.
Due to the years of non-profit work I had done before grad school, I didn’t have a hard time finding a job at an agency to get my hours for liscensure. In California, you need to accrue 3,000 eligible hours before you can take the liscensing exams. The process is way more complicated than it needs to be, but for the most part, I didn’t mind. I was happy to pay my dues in the profession, and I loved my job, at a center for homeless and low income families. Working with the parents and children the agency served was a huge gift in my life.
Shortly after having my own child, I passed the 3,000 hour mark, nearly 3 years after graduation. But right around that time, things at my agency changed drastically, and I got caught up in a lot of beaurocratic shifts that made my day-to-day existence at the non-profit really difficult. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say I didn’t last long there after I was moved away from my supportive, caring boss at the time. The way it all went down left me bitter, and needing time to lick my wounds and wrap my head around what just happened. I was also adjusting to being a new mom – my daughter had just turned one, and I found myself, surprisingly, a work-from-home mother without childcare.
So, I figured I’d get my feet under me a bit, then start the process of gathering the incredible amounts of documentation the Board of Behavioral Sciences requires to even qualify to take the exam. But as the months turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the months into years, I felt a calcification of my rage. WHY was it so difficult to gain legitimacy, just to help people? Why did I need to take extra courses, when I already had my damn Masters degree? Did I really need to raise hundreds of dollars for fees, when I already couldn’t pay my school loans?
I decided I didn’t need to do it. As much as I loved my previous work as a therapist, I loved being a freelance writer/children’s spirituality director/stay-at-home-mom even more. Screw the BBS, I was going rogue! Plus, all my friends who were therapists seemed so tired. I was tired, too, but not because my client was suicidal that week, because of my own life. Did I need that extra mess? No, I decided, I did not.
But a little voice piped up in my head. Okay, a big, deep, gravelly voice, the kind you only want in a dark alley with you if you know it is there to save you from the night, not deliver you into it. My father. “Don’t be a quitter.” This was his mantra. The word “can’t” was banned from our household. He didn’t want me to quit anything, no matter how much it turned out I detested it. It got to the point that I didn’t try new extracurriculars, because if I wanted to stop, my father would give me so much grief that I’d never live it down.
At the time, I hated this. I just wanted to be able to stop participating in tap/cheerleading/acting when I felt done. He was not empathetic, even a little bit, to this struggle. He didn’t care about the school politics involved, the stuff I wanted to do instead, the fact that all the cute boys were now in bands and I wanted to spend all my time at shows. He was trying to teach me to stick with things, I see that now. And it worked.
Sometime last year, I sat down with my friend Amanda, who has been through this whole process and is licensed, and made a big, detailed list of all the things I needed to do to send in my hours. Things like “write out a self-addressed stamped envelope” sat right next to more difficult ones, like “track down an old supervisor you haven’t talked to in years and ask him to resign paperwork he definitely already signed, because your fool head lost it”. And then that list sat, on a shelf, for months and months.
The idea of moving forward with this process hung over me like a cloud. A cloud of angry pitbulls. Anytime anyone asked me where I was with it, they were liable to get their hand chewed off by one of those dogs, or at least get a mean stare from their beady eyes. My ambivalence stayed with me, a shadow I couldn’t shake.
The tipping point was really talking to several people about it who were totally not invested in the therapeutic community at all. These were people a bit older and wiser than me, and they all had their personal “Waterloo” of beaurocratic red tape that they never pushed through. Each one had a story of almost getting their teaching certificate, or their Masters in development, or their Law degree. I heard over and over again, “I did all the work. I came so close. But I was just done at the end. I couldn’t do the final hurdles. And I wish I had just pushed through.”
The reason they regretted not finishing wasn’t because they wished they had a different life now. It was because getting the degree, certification or license would have opened up opportunities for them that they could have explored. So I started to think about my Marriage and Family Therapy licensure process differently – instead of a definite future that I wasn’t sure I wanted, I saw it as a door to unknown possibilities down the road. Okay, maybe I don’t want to change my life drastically right now to do this work. But I probably will, in the future. My hours were about to start expiring. I needed to decide.
I recently read that we overestimate the amount we can accomplish in a short period of time, and underestimate what we can do over a long period of time. So I made miniscule goals for myself, and started crossing things off that list, sort of behind my own back, if that makes sense. “No big deal, nothing to see here. I’m not deciding my future forever, I’m just making copies of my W-2s.” I proceeded in this manor, week by week, until today. I looked over the huge stack of paperwork one more time, sealed the envelope, and this afternoon, before picking Olive up for preschool, I’ll mail it off, which will start a whole other journey of ambivalence and frustration, as I attempt to study for the mind-fuck that the exams are. (You actually have to pick the least incorrect answer. Ugh.)
However, since it’s taken me two years to get here, I’m pretty dang proud of myself. And I feel a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m doing this, moving forward, despite still having a lot of ambivalence about it. Jungian thought teaches that the “transcendant function” is when you can hold the tension between opposites, and a third thing arises. So, living in the excrutiating tension of wanting to meet this goal, and having lost all ambition to get me there, is what I’m trying to do. I’m seeking to rise.
And a third thing IS arising. I’m learning what I’m made of. I’m seeing my own grit, crawling my way through this red tape, even though I’m doing it cursing and spitting, reluctantly dragging my limbs along. I’m not going to run triumphantly past this finish line. I’m pretty sure I’m going to limp, drooling and wild-eyed, like a toddler having a mile-long tantrum. But now I know I’m going to get there. My dad was right. I really can do anything I put my mind to, even if I really, really don’t want to. And I can finally say with assurance: I’m not a quitter.