This is many, many pages into my story. Someday perhaps, all will be laid clear. But today: Chapter 11 is what my heart is telling me to write.
I finished my Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling today. I took my last, final exam, turned in my 63 page portfolio, finished some case notes on the last clients I saw, then shut my computer and walked to the church to say hello to Jesus. There will be no presidential fanfare, hats tossed into the air, big parties or any of the typical pomp and circumstance. No flight to Kentucky because the ceremony is cancelled. Nothing at all really. Rather, it’s a quiet and surreal feeling. My children are gone for the weekend so I will celebrate with some leftover tacos and feel elegant because I happen to have a fresh avocado on hand. There’s a bottle of prosecco in my fridge too… not sure how long that’s been there, but hey, it feels appropriate. I think I’ll watch something utterly stupid tonight on my computer just because I can’t remember what a Saturday night is supposed to feel like with no schoolwork weighing on my mind. But it is a very, very strange feeling overall. It doesn’t feel like a celebration or great achievement. And honestly, the images moving in and through me are mildly grim: something like steam smoldering over a battlefield of dead orcs and one bleeding carcass of a woman, clutching her Miraculous Medal and uttering benedictions of gratitude that she is still breathing. “… for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is His name.” How appropriate that it is the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday…
Perhaps this sounds piously melodramatic to read. That’s okay; I encourage you to validate your skepticism and put it to the test. My aim is simply to “write hard and clear about what hurts.”
I have shared before a wee bit about how I came into this program two years ago. My husband was done with the marriage and we were embroiled in trial and I needed a plan. My lawyer at the time was not impressed with my suggestion about becoming a professional philosopher. Apparently, this wouldn’t provide a steady income. Bother. So, I stumbled over to the cousin of philosophy: Counseling, and have found something of a vocation here. More sane people would do this program over the course of three years. But… the clock is ticking on my spousal support and I’ve got debts coming out my ears, so I crushed through it at a blistering pace, maximizing my credit load every semester and taking no breaks, in order to finish it in two years.
As anyone can imagine, completing graduate school as a mother is challenging. I finished my bachelors degree when I was pregnant with my third child and it was tough then. But now, as a mother of seven… “difficult” took on new meaning. And beyond that, there is the fact that grad-school as a solo-parent mother of seven— without the support of a spouse— is excruciating. And finally, if you can imagine: trying to do this as a solo-parent, mother of seven, with the antagonistic and hostile presence of an ex-spouse… while representing yourself in legal battles… now there is something beyond words. Truly. I feel like all the superlatives I know are feeble here.
So here I am, resheathing my sword and wiping my brow and noting the new letters behind my name with a peculiar sort of detachment. It wasn’t some act of heroism or inspiring grit that got me here. God knows I cried and resisted and fumbled my way through the whole thing. But it was just the next, right thing to do. Some questions answered:
Was the schoolwork hard? No. It was time consuming to a large degree, given the demands on my life. But I’ve always had more of an aptitude for academics than I have for real-world skills. Finding time and focus was the challenge.
Do you like being a counselor? “Like” is not the right word at all. I would “like” to get paid to read books and tell other people what books to read. I would “like” to listen to cello music and run in the rain and ride horses for a living. But “like” being a counselor? It’s not the right question to ask. I needed a way to provide for seven children. Period. That I am able to monetize something for which I have an aptitude and in which I can use my gifts is wonderful. I find doing therapy to be very meaningful. And right. After the first couple months were spent resolving my imposter syndrome, I found the clinical portion of what I was learning to be intuitive and fulfilling. The feedback received from my clients was extremely affirming. I know that there remains much to learn that will only come with more time and experience in the field, but I also know that I brought with me a wealth of real-world experience into this role. The challenges I have faced are all across the spectrum and it’s been a marvelous thing to allow that to shape me as a counselor and inform some of the work I do. What has been unexpected is the tremendous emotional toll that comes with being a therapist. The physical and mental exhaustion I feel at the end of a day of sessions dwarves any level of exertion I’ve ever previously known. In counseling, I offer the gift of my whole mind, heart and experience to others in a completely one-way relationship. And even if this is meaningful and fulfilling, it does have a real cost.
What has been the most difficult thing about these grad school years? There are many things.
- Peeling the arms of a toddler boy and a toddler girl from around my neck as they cry and scream for me not to leave them with a babysitter. Feeling awful and angry and guilty all at once.
- Crying on my way to work and trying to decide if explaining that my trainwreck of a face was due to “allergies” would be an acceptable lie to tell.
- Cancelling a full day of clients to sit in a courthouse trying to get my ex-husband to help pay for childcare costs.
- Cancelling on clients because my childcare fell through.
- Cancelling on clients because a child of mine was sick.
- Having to defend myself against false allegations of child abuse as a shameful attempt is being made to try and take my children away from me.
- Being fairly out of touch on the schoolwork struggles my children are experiencing because of the lack of time to invest in their work.
- Having to miss children’s extracurricular events because I had class.
- Having to spend my family’s rare moments of downtime with my nose in my computer or in a textbook.
- Having to find energy to be a present mother to seven children, after a full day of listening to the trauma and drama of many other people all day long.
One of the interesting things that’s come from all this is the unlearning I’ve had to do—untangling all the maladaptive thinking patterns I’ve had and reengaging difficult situations I experienced with newer, more complete understandings. Listening more and better, with my ears, eyes and heart. Now, as one who has gone through many forms of abuse, grief, and trauma, both publicly and privately, I feel like I’m finally becoming fully human. Here, at age 38, and it feels like I’m just now beginning in many ways. When you add in the formal training on science and psychology… now there is something pretty staggering! How I view others has changed. How I view myself has changed. How I engage my children, my loved ones and my spirituality has changed. I feel a remarkable amount of freedom in having a pretty sober sense of awareness. I feel both self-possessed and confident in the very acknowledgement of being a work in progress!
What is the most important thing you’ve learned? That I am the author of my own story. That feelings won’t last forever. That it takes courage to be self-aware. That being humble is liberating. And that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Viktor Frankl).
What’s next for you? I am unsure. I am trying to move to be closer to my family of origin but there may be some difficult situations (COVID-19) and people (singular) that complicate this matter. As soon as I get my transcript, I’ll send in my application to the Department of Health to begin practicing with an Associate’s license. I’ve been applying for jobs and I have an offer and other leads… but for now, I have a few weeks of “not-knowingness” where I’m going to surrender all things to my good and loving Father, curl up with some fiction and tea, and play some board games with my children.
I have mastered survival mode. Now it is time to live…