(Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.)
Sometime around the year 2000 or 2001, I began to feel waves of something a lot like grief, and a lot like fear, around my work life.
At that time, I was working as a psychotherapist, a trauma therapist specifically, and if I am to speak plainly, without preamble or apology, I was good at what I did. For many years, I had worked specifically with survivors of childhood and adult sexual abuse and sexual assault, and for a number of years beginning in the mid 1990s, I worked with surviving friends and family members of homicide and vehicular homicide. I know that I made a difference for a lot of people, and though it was demanding and often stressful work, it was also deeply satisfying, standing hand in hand with another human being, at their heart's center, looking for what their life's experience meant to them.
In describing the nature of that work, I often remember the time a Pagan friend asked me if I didn't feel sometimes distant and detached from the gods during the intervals between Pagan gatherings and the large, dramatic rituals that punctuate our years. I realized that I did not, and that there was something in the skinless intimacy and empathy of a psychotherapy session that made me feel close to the gods, to Spirit, all the time, on an everyday basis. Just sitting with people in their grief and their pain, and being open to it and to them, was actually deeply sustaining to me as a human being. By holding them as humbly and fully as I could, I was somehow finding my way, day after day, to a spring of tenderness that watered us both.
And that was wonderful. I have enormous gratitude for having had the privilege of sharing that with so many men and women over the years.
This is not to deny that the work could also be very hard. I remember times when I would leave a group or a family session, especially early in my work as a homicide bereavement therapist, where I would feel as used up and limp as a soiled and wrung-out dishrag. And I remember how I was always careful to leave at least thirty minutes between client appointments, so that I could, if I needed to, go outside to a green, leafy spot, to literally lie down flat on the ground and let the pain and tension of a hard session drain out of my body and into the earth. There were certainly times it hurt to hear the secrets of a human heart, and more times it hurt to remain open to understanding the depth of fear and despair such a heart can hold.
Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of my friends, when I eventually shared the information that I thought I needed to stop being a therapist, nodded sagely and mouthed comforting words about "burnout," that scourge of the professional healer.
But I wasn't burned out.
At the time, I didn't have a language for what I was experiencing... but I knew burnout. Every therapist knows burnout--we play along its edges all the while, and I was not so dishonest with myself that I would pretend I had not slipped over the lip of that canyon if I had. While there was stress in what I was experiencing, it wasn't stress that made me lay down being a psychotherapist--it was distress: a particular kind of distress.
It was, I now believe, a stop, in the Quaker sense. The waves of feeling--of grief and fear--that rose up for me around my work as a therapist were the closing of a door. I wasn't supposed to be a therapist anymore; I was supposed to do something else.
What I'm saying sounds a bit melodramatic and self-important when I say it straight out. Still, it's what I have come to believe is true: God (whether I know what I mean by that term or not) wanted me to do something else now. It was time for me to let go of being a psychotherapist.
Now, being a psychotherapist is not like being a dishwasher or even an account executive. There are jobs and there are... identities. To be good at being a psychotherapist, you have to let the imperatives of listening and caring seep down into you--you have to find within you what the job demands, and let it flower. Psychotherapy is one of a number of tasks humans do that are whole-person identities, not just 9 to 5 wage-earners. It's like being a parent, or a writer, or an artist--it's who you are, not just what you are.
And being a psychotherapist is also a source of prestige in our society, too. Love 'em or hate 'em, psychotherapists are the wisdom figures of our culture. People look up to psychotherapists, even if it's just to lob rotten tomatoes at us.
So, when I began to experience this strong and growing feeling of sadness around my profession, and I began to feel pangs of loss that were my first clue that I wasn't going to be, as I'd always imagined, a psychotherapist for the rest of my life, it wasn't a lot of fun to admit that to myself. Stopping being a therapist meant letting go of a lot of things other people admired. It meant that, while who I am as a person would not be less, I might very well be seen as less. And I had never, in all the years since entering graduate school, been anything but a psychotherapist. I didn't know what else to be. I didn't know how else to earn money, but I also didn't have any idea, suddenly, what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Hence, the fear.
I remember calling my dear friend Laura, to talk with her about the increasing sense I had that I had to find something else to do for a living, and how I had no idea what that would be.
"Well..." she began, clearly at a loss. "It's too bad--how you're feeling. But... you have to get over it. You have to! You have to earn a living, Cat."
True. (Probably.) But not enough.
But there are careers out there where "earning a living" is not sufficient justification for holding the job, and psychotherapist is one of them. I knew I was becoming less than I had been, in at least some ways: I was beginning to confuse the funny uncles and the abusive stepfathers, the Klonapin-takers with the Xaanex-prescribed.
It didn't feel like burnout. But that didn't mean I could ignore it, or start "phoning it in" in a line of work that is all about being present. Instead, I had to let being a psychotherapist go, along with all the sense of certainty and all the things I loved about standing so close inside the human heart each day.
I would guess that ministers who lose their calling (or find themselves called away from their pulpits, which I bet does happen a lot more than we have language for) might feel the same way.
But you have to be honest about it. There's no way to do certain jobs if you do not do them with full integrity. And sometimes things that are very good just come to an end.
It was scary. But it wasn't like I actually had a choice.
Fortunately, around that time, my daughter was bringing home her friends, a band of the most charismatic, interesting, intelligent middle-school girls in the world. I realized I liked teenagers--a lot. Not as psychotherapy clients. (I'd been there, done that, and I have to say, teenagers were just ghastly to work with for me; something about that skinless intimacy and the developmental stage of adolescence are, I think, just not a good fit.) But as people, in their natural habitat, laughing and exclaiming and emoting among their friends.
I have also always loved books.
Is there a profession that combines love of books with love of teenagers? (Hm. Let me think...)
I knew that I did not want to teach English the way it had been taught to me--could not, in fact, imagine how I could teach English in that way and still be me--but around that time, Peter, who was in the process of becoming a teacher himself, brought home a book, Nanci Atwell's groundbreaking In the Middle, and (as the Quakers say) Way Opened.
The details of finding a teacher training program, winding down my private practice, and finding a compatible student-teaching assignment were absorbing to live, but are beside the point just now.
What is my point?
God/Spirit spoke. She said, "let go," and I didn't want to, but I did.
I didn't want to; I didn't have any conception of that time of any kind of God or Presence beyond the Pagan gods of woods and earth and sky I knew already; I didn't have any prior experience doing the things I eventually found to do, and I found it hard to develop the skills I needed to do them. The whole process hurt and was full of sorrow.
But it was right.
How do I know it was right? I just do.
It is not that Quakers hear the Voice of Spirit giving them leadings and stops that is the unique thing. It is that they have a language for describing it, and a tradition of honoring the discernment of spiritual promptings even in the absence of rational understanding of the reasons behind them.
I really like that. I like being able to name that overwhelming experience that took my life, shook it briskly, and set me down somewhere else.
The experience, though, is primary. Especially because working as a therapist meant working with the kind of open heart and integrity that marks spiritual depth, there was no way to be true to who I was without becoming Someone New. There was no way to deny the stop, with or without a word for it, with or without a sense of where it would eventually (hopefully) lead... nothing to do but let go, and trust God.
I do not know why I was supposed to stop being a psychotherapist. Maybe I'll be one again some day. But I still don't have a clear sense of why I had to lay it down; I just know that I did. Not because I was burned out, not because some stories had begun to seem very familiar, and I needed to work hard to remain fresh listening to each new client. I don't know why it was time to end. I just know that it was.
But I still don't know why I am supposed to be doing this now, not therapy. I like teaching, I like the house I can afford on a teacher's salary (and never could have afforded as a psychotherapist, many of whose clients were poor and un- or under-insured). But I have a sense that the question raised by my stop--"Why?" Has not yet been answered.
Is it because I am supposed to live here, in my so-loved woods? Is it because I will one day be led to teach somewhere in particular, like Ramallah or elsewhere in the world? Is it so I will one day have a pension, and be free to write or do something that will matter then? Or is it because, while it is less dramatic, what I am doing in the classroom is itself just what Spirit has in mind? Is it--I don't know.
I just don't know. And yet, I am content to let this part of my life unfold. It does feel like I'm headed in the right direction--it just doesn't feel like I'm at a destination yet.
I guess I'll just keep walking.