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Stops. (And Openings.)

Part 3 of 3. 
(Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.) 

The most dramatic illustration of experiencing a stop, and what came of it, is the experience I had on September 11, 2001, the experience that made me a Quaker.  But I've written about that before, and it is so woven in with the story of how I grew a peace testimony that I think I'll set that aside for a moment, and travel just a little further back in time, to a different kind of a Stop--more personal, less dramatic, but one that is, I suspect, still unfolding.

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.


Anonymous said…
All wonderful journeys start with one step and continue until you stop stepping. I think life is about the journey, not the destination.

Thank you for sharring your story, I have heard parts of it before.
Hystery said…
Both of my parents made profound career changes when I was a teenager. My mother went from social work to education. My father left pulpit and psychotherapy practice to become a college professor.

After reading your beautiful post here, I thought of these changes in my teen years and realize anew what a gift that is to me. Seeing my folks respond to their calling in the world with a willingness to make such profound changes in their careers when it was required of them taught me early on that profession is merely the vehicle of one's calling. It is not the calling itself.

On the surface, perhaps, there is a great deal of difference between your careers as a therapist and English teacher, but really, it is the same service. It is the same calling. Like all good storytellers, you are a listener. You are afraid of neither dark Roots nor bright Light. People in tender stages of growth and healing are safe with you. They grow better when you are around. I think you have the power to glimpse divinity where others cannot, and so you are much needed in the world.
Karen said…
This piece speaks to me on many levels.

First, I never understood the process you went through for this transition. I remember when you first said that you were leaving the path of therapist, thinking "Oh no! But you are so good at it! And people need you." Sorry about not being very supportive there.

Little did I realize that you would be moving on to another kind of positive work, changing people's lives. Where you *belong*.

(Somehow, I think if you had become an assembly line worker in an auto manufacturing plant, that you would still be a wonderful caring influence in the lives you touch all around you!) You, Cat, are what you are.

While reading this, I realized that sometimes even when the Stop is a cosmic 2 x 4 to the head, as in my case, we still tend to pretend obliviousness. (Is that a word?)

I spent about 4 years as a chronic pain patient, going back and forth from physical therapy, surgery, back to work, back out on comp...I was an electrician. Perfectly happy with the sense of satisfaction from building something new, or getting something old to work. Physical labor, with a tangible accomplishment. I loved it! I wanted it to last - really good pay with awesome benefits helped, too. :-)

Then, after being put out on disability, I spent a couple of years on the couch, depressed and in pain all the time, on too many meds...lost. Not listening.

Now, having just graduated, getting ready to be licensed as a doctor of Oriental medicine - in no pain - I realize it sounds corny to say that it took until my 40's to find my life's work, but here I am. Where I belong. Finally.

I guess this sort of thing happens often. I wonder if anyone just gives in without a fight, or if we all have to kick and stamp our feet?

@ Glenn: Thank you for being my friend.

@ Hystery: You wrote, "profession is merely the vehicle of one's calling. It is not the calling itself."

I love that! And I think I need to be reminded of that. I know it is one of the pieces of wisdom early Quakers had solidly, that modern Americans have tended to forget--we are not our occupations, however well-suited to those occupations we may be. The path that is followed will lead all kinds of places, after all.

And I think of the ways Friends like John Woolman deliberately downsized their businesses, if they became successful in a way that threatened to swamp the balance of their lives, and to distract from the need to listen for and follow the leadings of Spirit. Smart guy, that John Woolman.

And, oh, yeah. I heard you there, Hystery, naming a gift I might carry. And I'm grateful to your sharp eyes, and I'll see if I can find that gift too, and see that it is well-used in our world.

Thank you.

@ Karen: You have always been one of the most grounded, most real and generously and fully _present_ women I know. I loved your stories around being an electrician--I often think of your description of your work in the World Trade Center, and of how the events of September 11 looked to someone who had helped rebuild those towers the first time they were attacked...

Hell, I think often of every story I remember you telling. And, while I loved the image I had of you in earlier parts of your life, I love too that your life has had such richness of change over time. I am so looking forward to seeing you face to face this October, and hearing your story of transformation from your own lips!

You are one of the many reasons I love having a spiritual community; you are one of the many anchors my life in Pagan community has had. (Hystery, I wish I could bottle what it is like to have a friend like Karen for a decade. This is what community means to me!)

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. I am feeling really, really blessed today in my friends.
Jay said…

I loved this whole series. I do have a question for you. Many years ago, I thought I was following a prompting of Spirit and embarked on a career change. As part of that process, I checked in with Spirit mulitple times and felt like I was receiving a green light It turned out to be a big error.

It was hard on my faith for a year or so afterwards. Even now that I have come to terms with my mistake, it is a sore point for me spiritually.

I have not come away from that experience with a sense of rightness, just regret. I don't really have a sense of what happened. I've listened to Spirit previously with good results, though perhaps it was failure of discernment on my part. And I wonder if sometimes Spirit can just be wrong.

Regardless, it has made it hard for me to feel comfortable to follow promptings and they are not something that I am actively seeking at this point in my life.

I was wondering if, within either the Quaker or Pagan context, this issue has come up and if you have any thoughts on this kind of issue.
Joanna Hoyt said…
This is the part of living faithfully that really scares me: stopping. I'm okay with taking new things on, even fairly daunting new things, and with the other things that have to fall away to make space for what's new. But to stop, before I know what else I am called to do or why...I can see that it might be necessary, I hope I'd have faith and courage like yours, such that I'd actually stop.

I've spent the last nine years doing work that i felt (still feel, at this point) clearly led to. When people asked me how long I planned to keep it up I used to answer "Permanently." My mother, who came along with me following a similar call, said "Until God picks me up by the scruff of the neck and drops me someplace else." I know that's the better answer.

Thanks for telling this story.
Michael said…
"...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...."


You have given a name to an emptiness I didn't realize I've been feeling for over ten years, ever since to left my own counseling career because the state government had willfully demolished out prison mental health program.

I've not wanted to be vulnerable to other people's needs and feelings since then...

...but I'm not getting that feeding.

What to do?

Michael said…

This stirs a necessary discomfort in me.

It reminds me that in the whole ten years I've been a librarian, I have never felt that heart- and bone-deep satisfaction, that I was doing what I was meant to do. Not in the way I did as a counselor.

I have to make myself do what I do now...not because it is diffcult for because I fear it, but because it doesn't feed me as counseling did.

Is my baseline sense of emptiness more than my grief of my parents drastic aging?

Thanks for writing this post. Perhaps it is a STOP for me.

@ Michael:
If this is meant to be a stop, well, I hope you get clarity on it and find a way to go where you're meant to be.

If not, perhaps you will find a way to meet that hunger for the intimate being with of counseling in some new way: I'm aware, for instance, that there is an invisible ministry of reconciliation happening all the time in Quaker meetings, around listening and being with. It's not the same thing as counseling, but it does come with some of the same rewards and richness...


I _want_ you to be happy. Maybe not in the birthday-party-with-balloons way, but in the satisfied and well-used way...

Michael said…
Thanks, Cat.

I have had the golden bees buzzing in my ear that perhaps I am supposed to offer to clerk my meeting.

Don't know yet.


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