So I Turned Myself To Face Me…

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When I became serious about starting my own coaching practice during the summer of 2020, it was after I had been undergoing serious personal transitions since I left my therapist position in early 2018. This started a crazy, upside-down, emotionally wrenching time for me.

I had been a therapist for 15 years at this point, but I knew I could not continue on that path any longer.

During my career as a therapist, I worked with convicted sex offenders for 12 years and then for 3 years as a crisis counselor at a mental health walk-in clinic. I still have difficulty processing which one of these was more challenging. The day-to-day of working with felony sex offenders had left me jaded by many accounts. I was able to work with that population because parts of me no longer had feeling. The wires were disconnected. I could digest the content of a police report detailing a sexual assault quite easily and formulate a treatment strategy from there. I no longer had many feelings about the abuses I read about and discussed every day. I understood these details intellectually, but I had divorced myself from the emotions connected to these acts long ago.

By contrast, working in a crisis clinic was a different experience altogether. As a clinician in a crisis clinic, you are waiting for someone to come in on the worst day of their life. There are differing levels of crisis, of course, and some used the clinic as a preemptive resource, which I always supported and applauded. Many others came to the clinic during their worst, and our job was to stabilize them sufficiently for outpatient treatment. Many others needed what we called a “higher level of care.” This means their issues were very serious and they would need more than a five day stay at a crisis unit to stabilize. It was our job to triage this and see they got to where they needed to go.

This was a fun change for me initially. But program changes made after I had been there six months tilted everything on it’s head. Due to program shifts and management issues, I was selected to work a twelve-hour overnight shift. I can verify, just like the phrase says, nothing good ever happens after 2am. I was on that shift for seven months and didn’t know which way was up during my off hours. The human body typically does not sleep well during the daylight hours and I never really adjusted. It also added to the burnout that I never really dealt with after I transferred from my position working with sex offenders.

While I thoroughly enjoyed helping people, the system I was working within had more than a few flaws. In addition to the intensity of the diagnoses I had to deal with, there were also the byzantine systems of insurance companies to navigate and a mental health system that routinely eats it’s own. Dealing with clients who have serious mental health challenges is difficult enough, combining it with multiple layers of bureaucracy is a recipe for disaster and burnout. Let me be clear: I loved being a therapist, but I had grown to hate the systems therapists and clients had to navigate daily.

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This situation is what set the table for my transition. By this time I was in my late 40’s and experienced enough to know I couldn’t continue on this path without getting fired, arrested, or both. There was one particular situation that brought this home for me, but I do not feel it necessary to detail it here. Suffice to say I walked away when I had to, safely. It also occurs to me at this time I had been divorced just over one year. More transition.

As I write this, I see I had a lot of transition going on at one time. I was also in a position where I had to leave fast, before I could find another job. I frankly was not in a great place to begin working for anyone at the time and I needed a genuine break from the mental health business.

The unnerving part of this situation was I knew couldn’t stay where I was for my own mental health, but I had no idea where to go or what to do next. I was beginning a very difficult transition and I truly had no idea how difficult it would be. Whether you classify this as middle age or fall back on some other belief system such as psychology or astrology, not having a mission or purpose was sheer torture for me. I didn’t know what to do next. Going to graduate school at age 31 in 2001 opened up a huge new world for me that I readily took to. My perspective 15 years later was markedly different. Older and smarter? Yes. But I was also older and really quite jaded and cynical, as well as more than a little bit lost.

What followed after that was a series of jobs that tested me in ways I never could have anticipated. Let me preface this part with a bit of an introduction and explanation. I was diagnosed with adult ADHD at age 34. I have the inattentive variety of ADHD. At the time I thought it was informative, but I also completely underestimated how ADHD had impacted me, both as a kid and as an adult. When I was first diagnosed, I had just completed graduate school, I was about to get married, and I had started a fantastic new career. My life was great, how bad could my ADHD be?

Without reviewing every single situation where my ADHD made itself known during a 15 year career, suffice to say it was painfully obvious. This was especially evident during multiple deadlines and after my caseload grew beyond a certain point. During these periods, I was typically angry all the time because I had a very hard time catching up. Repeat cycle. Upon reflection, I found working for smaller teams with lower caseload numbers worked much better for me. I was about the people, not the system.

None of this wisdom was in the front of my mind when I began my transition. I hardly ever thought about ADHD. The first position I took on this journey was as a trainer in a gym. I had always wanted to work in a gym and this was a perfect time to look into that. I had become used to working in an office where most of the materials I needed were generally stationary and easy to find. I went to an environment where in addition to teaching fitness classes, I needed to enroll new clients into the gym billing system. This was done on a laptop that moved all over the gym. I didn’t think that working in a different place in the same building throughout the day would be a problem for me, but it was. Combine that with a billing system that was temperamental and not intuitive, I had a lot of extra stress I hadn’t counted on.

A few other things I hadn’t counted on: I really liked the people I was working with, but they were mostly half my age. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it spun my work experience on it’s head. I had gone from being experienced and senior in my field to quite the opposite in a substantially different environment. I had become very comfortable with my “seen it all, done it all,” position as a therapist. To say I was scrambling internally for an emotional life raft is accurate. I was scrambling for a kind of security that no longer existed. Superficially, I liked the job as trainer/coach OK, but didn’t know if I wanted to do that forever. The struggles and uncertainties I experienced beat my confidence up in a way I had not felt in over twenty years. The gym I was working for abruptly laid off half of their staff after I had been there six months. While I needed a job, I didn’t complain. I said my goodbyes and that was that.

Something else I learned about transition during this time: Uncertainty can sometimes push us back in the direction we just left. I have always treated myself like my own laboratory experiment, which is why I am writing this now… I applied for another job in the mental health industry while trying to figure if I wanted to start my own business. I was far from certain about that at this time. I felt a little beat up.

I took a job as a mental health tech primarily because I wanted to continue using my skills at running treatment groups so they didn’t atrophy. Mental health tech is a general term for staff that interact with clients on a daily basis and support the therapists and case managers. I was hired to run the first group of the morning at an agency that specialized in live-in alcohol and drug treatment. Initially I enjoyed running the morning groups, but the best part of my day was over for me by 9am. I toyed with the idea of becoming a certified addictions counselor, but my heart wasn’t in it. I would have been going right back into the same structures I had chosen to leave behind. I also noticed early on I didn’t have the patience to handle grumpy clients in detox. Upper management was late in doing my 90 day review and I said enough. I left.

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Let me take a moment to detail this part of the mental health industry a bit more. The mental health industry does not necessarily look out for the well being of it’s employees just because they are in the business of helping people. Like most businesses in the U.S., the emphasis on employee well-being varies greatly from agency to agency. Some companies will look out for their employees, others will not. In reference to the position I mentioned in the paragraph above, I deliberately took a pay cut for a position that did not require a master’s degree and they hired me for $13.25 an hour. Terrible pay, but I was in transition. After I left there, I took a job at a grow house trimming marijuana plants for $13.00. My point in mentioning this is I got paid twenty-five cents less an hour at an unskilled labor job with about 10% of the responsibility of my previous position. The mental heath industry needs to seriously re-evaluate this.

Much of the mental health industry grossly underpays their front line staff. This is one of the industry’s most serious problems. When I was a therapist, good mental health staff made my job 100% easier. These are the staff who do the real dirty work, sometimes quite literally putting themselves in physical danger to work with very difficult populations. There is no excuse for them to be so egregiously underpaid, particularly when these positions typically require a college degree. If you want to address chronic staff shortages and burnout, pay more. Do better, mental health industry, do better. Start now. I will put my soapbox back in the cabinet now.

Transition can get crazy. At the age of 50, I was in the marijuana industry trimming plants. My plan was to take a job where I could clock in and clock out, with minimum stress and no headaches. This is where ADHD bit me in the ass again. For this position, you needed to get a given number of plants done in a day. The gist of it was, I needed to be thorough and fast. ADHD gave me the ability to do one or the other, but not both at the same time. I alternated between monotony and stressed out. This position was OK, but not a great fit. The upside was I met a wide variety of really cool people I would not have met otherwise. The individuals I worked with were generally great. This experience also reminded me of one of the adages I swore by when I was a therapist: People are people. No one is better than another and we are all trying to make lives for ourselves and our families out in the world. OK, for real, I’m gonna put the soapbox away for the rest of this post.

I will address the rest of my transition right up to the pandemic in the next part. Stick around.

#transitions #ADHD #mentalhealth #coaching

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