I have decided to go back to therapy after really taking stock of the last three years. The previous three years led me to take stock of the previous twenty-five years. While I have prided myself on being reliable, I have also been prone to some wacky and unpredictable behavior. This did not start three years ago, but it certainly came to the forefront. I’m going back to therapy because, to be blunt, I’m sick and tired of feeling unstable. Some of these patterns go back to kidhood, others were trauma responses from my previous work. The things that triggered me the last three years have always activated me, however, I was unaware I was activated at all.
For background, I was a therapist for 15 years. I worked with convicted sex offenders of various ages for twelve years. Then I worked in a walk-in crisis clinic for three or so years. After that, I had a tasty hot case of burnout, the likes of which can only come from working in the mental health field. My point here is I have seen some things and I had a certain heavily armored demeanor I chose to maintain. Underneath all that armor is what turned me back to therapy. Armor is used to cover vulnerable areas. No matter your demeanor or background, whatever kind of hard guy you are, you still need therapy. Go to therapy.
My particular area of crisis was unmanaged ADHD and a gross underestimation of how it impacted my behavioral patterns both as a child and an adult. Not having any specific strategies to manage it influenced both my internal and external worlds. I experience a nearly non-stop inner dialogue that exists for the sole purpose of releasing strong endorphins for my underfed, dopamine-craving brain. This means I spent a lot of time in my own head thinking angry thoughts and being emotionally aroused for nothing at all. I am in a state of constant emotional readiness…for things that almost never happen.
I have a constant barrage of imaginary scenarios going through my head. Unless I am actively talking with someone, my head may be elsewhere. This can be very frustrating because this lapse in attention is rarely deliberate. Typically, these imaginary scenarios involve me getting angry, arguing, or getting the last word. Quite often it is all three. Another reason I am explaining this is I start therapy on Monday and I need practice explaining my batshit inner dialogue to my new therapist. Bats in the belfry, rats in the cellar, use whichever analogy you like, my inner process is cumbersome, circuitous, and taxing. My default is underground angry.
I start therapy on Monday and I need practice explaining my batshit inner dialogue to my new therapist…
During this period I also experienced what is known in astrology circles as a Chiron return. I have more than a passing interest in astrology and this was a very difficult transition. Those of you interested in the details of this aspect can google a more detailed explanation than I will give here, but here is how I experienced parts of this: Chiron return happens around age 50 and deals with any large-scale unaddressed, unhealed, patterns you may have. We all have them. It is highly likely you are blind to them. These unaddressed areas will cut the legs right out from under you. You will deal with these patterns or they will deal with you.
There is a scene in the movie Goodfellas (the second-best gangster movie of all time, The Godfather being the best, IMHO) wherein Ray Liotta’s character, through a series of questionable decisions, has become a liability to his cronies. He goes into detail how he knows they will come at him, with smiles and outstretched arms. They are his best friends after all. This scene is reminiscent of my experience with Chiron return.
These are the underground patterns we don’t realize we have and so we don’t recognize them when they are in play. I freely admit I need extra help making sense of some of mine. This also a point-blank endorsement for all men to go to therapy. I am both a provider and consumer of these goods. That is my endorsement. I will be posting more of my experiences and discoveries regarding therapy. I am, after all, my own favorite test subject. Ultimately all of this was worth it despite the difficulty.
This shit is hard. I’ve been doing it for almost 52 years. I want new ways of doing things because it is not workable to continue this way. Again, I post this as an example to other men to go to therapy. If you wonder if you need therapy, you likely do. We reach a certain age and we realize we need a different way of doing things. We seek change because we realize how we have impacted others and we realize we could have done better.
Stay tuned, having me on the client side of the therapy couch should be illuminating for both you and me…
I had this conversation with my Dad the other day about ADHD. I told him I had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist at age 34 and didn’t think much of it at the time. This was likely some sort of ADHD response as well. I explained to him what ADHD was and how I have the inattentive variety. I also told him that inattentive ADHD was probably not even a diagnosis when I was in grade school, in the mid to late 1970’s. This is how I kept it under the radar and wasn’t diagnosed until much later.
This is significant because as I got older my Dad would help me with my homework, usually math homework. This led to a lot of strife and conflict because I typically struggled with math, which I believe is fairly common among kids with ADHD. We argued a lot because I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand. I knew I needed help with my math homework, but I also dreaded the after-dinner review of my homework because my recollection was I usually got it wrong.
These scenarios continued until high school. In high school I got extra help from either the teacher or a tutor. However, the constant strife impacted my relationship with my Dad for some time to come. It became one more thing to be angry about. The anger became my armor and I used that to protect myself from the fact that my approach to school was a bit flawed.
I’ll explain my process and how this evolved from junior high into high school. Out of the seven or eight classes we had in a day, I would pick which ones I could actually focus on, the ones I felt I had a chance of getting good grades in. These were usually English, social studies, writing, history, anything verbally oriented where I could write. I understand why I had so much difficulty with math. I’m not sure what happened with science, I always found it uninteresting. Typically, I would fall behind and stay behind. And physics? Nope. During my senior year in high school, I viewed physics as a combination of math and science which was like my two most despised enemies trying to double team me in a Texas cage match.
The obstacle is the world is not set up for us; we use our initiative to find ways to navigate it. Some of us are lucky enough to have jobs where we can do things our own way and we can incorporate ADHD into our work life. Some of us have to manage in positions where our gifts are not featured and our deficits are exposed on a daily basis. These are not the jobs for us.
While being constantly behind was stressful, it was also routine. It became another point of contention at home. There were plenty of other things to fight about at home, but that was a perennial that could always be counted on. I went into every school year at a deficit, knowing I was only going to apply myself to maybe 60% of the classes I was taking. My SAT’s were so imbalanced I had to do a summer school session before the college I wound up going to would fully accept me. Metaphor for life?
I explained this to my Dad so he could better understand me. I’m 51 and he’s 90 and neither of us are getting any younger. I wanted him to understand there were genuine scientific and psychological reasons for my behavior. This gave him pause because he didn’t know what ADHD was. He wondered what he could have done differently to help the situation, even allowing his job back then didn’t help. We were a military family and moved every two to three years. This in turn gave me pause because I didn’t know what to expect from this conversation.
Side Note: My brilliant partner of 13 years mentioned more than once this could be a very useful and healing conversation for both of us (I mention her more and more often in these blog posts, we should probably collaborate at some point…)
I explained it to him and he thanked me several times for doing so. He was completely receptive and appreciative I told him. I think this helped us both considerably. It helped me because I was heard and understood, which was really all I wanted. I had been sitting on this for a long time and I have only very recently started to truly recognize the impact of ADHD in my life. Strange thing, including my family in my situation was genuinely helpful.
I suppose part of the reason I told my Dad was also to let him know I was not a maladjusted child miscreant who just refused to listen. There is always a reason for oppositional behavior in kids, particularly if it is ongoing. The thing about ADHD is we either blame ourselves for our deficits or we blame others. I thought I chose the latter, but it was actually a somewhat destructive combination of the two. This would make progress difficult for me in my early adult years. The lopsided imbalances continued, just as they did throughout school.
One of the many takeaways here is most employers aren’t looking for employees who are focused on sixty or seventy percent of their assigned duties. I spent my twenties trying to fool people into hiring me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Where things really went sideways is when we both realized we weren’t getting what we wanted. What followed was a series of jobs I hated right up until I went to graduate school in 2001. That is 10 years of hating my professional life, yet not knowing why I just couldn’t find my niche.
My goal was to make some peace with my Dad and we were able to do so. My observation is ADHD can be so completely underground for a great number of people. It was important to me to explain this to my Dad in order to further shed light on some difficult times. Unrecognized or undiagnosed ADHD can wreak havoc in both personal and professional settings. If you or those close to you suspect you may have ADHD, make the effort and look into it. Knowing and awareness are the beginnings of managing ADHD. You can’t fix the issue until you identify the issue.
You can guess what this post will be about by the title. For everyone who decided to go for it, despite what experience has tried to show you, maybe I can be a beacon for you. Don’t put yourself in unwinnable situations just to prove you can measure up to some ambiguous standard. It doesn’t matter if you can measure up, you’re still doing something you hate. Do what you are good at, do what you love, find a way to do what you love. You may be judged, let them judge you. It does not matter. If you have a unique way of looking at things, keep looking that way. If you have a certain way of doing things, keep on being certain.
Maybe the world was not ready for us, but there are certainly a lot of us out there. We see and do things differently because we learn differently. We do it because that is how our brains work. That is how things go, we cannot escape our brains. My brain has a way of mapping things that seems to be somewhat irregular. I am capable of efficiency and I am also capable of inefficiency. It usually depends on the task at hand. But let me tell you something that I’m deadly serious about: nobody fucks up on purpose. Why would we?
We make mistakes, quite often a series of mistakes. I am speaking for myself when I say I need a certain amount of repetition to become competent at something. Throwing a series of things at me that are similar yet subtly different is confusing. Turning it into a game of “which one of these does not belong?” teaches me very little. Frankly, it teaches me not at all. Tell me how you need it done, I’ll find a way. When I was little, I used to want to be a good worker bee, that’s what they teach you in kindergarten, at least when I was in kindergarten. Neurodivergent probably wasn’t a word yet and ADHD may not have been a diagnosis yet either.
That was probably the beginning of my wanting to stand out from the crowd because apparently I was doing it anyway. In the 3rd grade, after I had made some kind of mess, one of my classmates said “you always gotta be different.” Not by choice. Back then I wish I could have blended in, but that wasn’t much of an option. I feel like I stood out for the mistakes I made. Always having to be the new kid and having ADHD made for some interesting school situations. Maybe I wouldn’t be so math avoidant if we had stayed in one place. I was an army brat, we moved frequently. We’ll never know. I’m cool with balancing a checkbook, but that’s about it. Alternatively, no one much balances their checkbooks anymore…
I have to stop trying to fit in. Because I never will. It’s square peg in round hole time. It’s never going to work. From here I really do have to make my business work. It has to be more than a blog and a website. It has to be a viable structure that can meet the needs of the clients I want to work with. I will likely need another part time job soon, and it will need to pay a certain amount so I can cover my end. It will also have to be flexible enough to cover accommodate my ADHD.
Allow me to speak on my ADHD, my specific version and experience of it. I have the inattentive variety, which is very quiet and, frankly, really unnoticeable. I know because I spent years hiding it. If any of you all want to play a fun game, try hiding something you don’t even know you have. The mental gymnastics are fantastic, truly. I mention that because I wasn’t diagnosed until age 34. I promptly dismissed my diagnosis. How bad could it be? I had just finished graduate school, had just started a new career as a therapist and was about to get married. How bad can this be if I have accomplished this much? I threw some meds at it and tried to forget about it.
Here is how I got good grades, basically for the first time in my life, in graduate school: I didn’t work, I just studied, went to class, worked out, and that’s it. I survived off student loans and I was poor, but I had good grades. I had time to write good term papers because I didn’t have anything else going on. This worked for graduate school, but very rarely in life do we only have one thing going on, especially as we age. But I have learned for me simplicity is the key to success and overly convoluted systems that branch out in a multitude of directions don’t work for me.
Looking back, there were a ton of signs it was worse than I thought but I didn’t label it as related to ADHD. I was just bad at filing paperwork and notes on time. I was great on the front end, loved running groups, loved working with clients, but getting mentally settled enough to have my notes and monthly reports done on time became very challenging. My case load doubled in less than a month at one point (it went from big to bigger) and I was deep in the weeds. This compounded my stress. I had one or two supervisors try to help, but that childhood pattern of hiding it was too ingrained. I was placed on a “professional development plan” which I regarded as insulting and threatening. I signed it then turned in my notice the next day. No place to go, no place to land, but I had to get out of there. I cleaned my mess up to the best of my ability and left.
I have learned if I don’t control the flow and the pace, it can become a recipe for disaster. I can do things quickly, but I have to know how the pieces and the parts fit together. For that I need a reasonable amount of time to learn it and a fair amount of repetition. I wish I could get it all in one take, but I’m not that guy. I’m 51 now and I have noticed I spend a lot of time figuring out how to do shit. And with our current work from home status, I can’t just lean over and ask somebody for help.
My tolerance for these situations has lessened with age and has placed me in difficult spots. I have come to the conclusion I am grossly overdue for formal intervention in regards to my ADHD diagnosis. I need a therapist or coach specific to this. I’m seeing now how this undiagnosed condition made many difficult childhood experiences even more difficult. My beautiful and wonderful partner of 13 years has remarked that I have told her almost nothing of my childhood. I’ll admit after 13 years of being together, that is more than a little irregular, weird even. The reason I haven’t spoken about it is because I buried it. I stuffed it. I did that because I was ashamed of it. She is absolutely brilliant at embracing the strength and beauty that comes from true vulnerability, and I love her for it. I am not so good at it, so I will be learning from her.
I write things like this with the hope it will help someone else. The last three years of my life have been a frequently gut-churning lesson in why I do things the way I do. As much as I value and speak about self-knowledge, I have some enormous gaps in my own. I haven’t posted anything since December for reasons I’ll explain later, reasons that are connected to some of this post. These last few months may be the catalyst for me becoming an ADHD Coach, it is something I have been pondering. I hope this post reaches who it is supposed to reach and offers some sort of aid to those of you who need it. Be well.
One of the many things I have realized this year is that I don’t believe I’ve ever truly experienced grief. Or I’ve never allowed myself to experience grief. I truly feel this is hard for me to say accurately. I didn’t experience grief when my mother died in 1998 because we had a terrible relationship. I know I didn’t experience it then because I didn’t feel it. The normal mile markers for grief don’t apply to me…
Certain wires aren’t connected for me. My dog passed from old age just about one year ago. Unfortunately, this was expected because she was 16 years old and in deteriorating health. I have two different examples of death, one a surprise the other expected…still, no grief. Every male client I encouraged to cry in my office would likely view me as broken in this particular instance. Writing all this out brings me to a similar conclusion. I don’t mind being “broken” in this particular way. I am able to view this personal peculiarity from a slightly more objective and dispassionate standpoint than most.
I know of a few things that could cause me terrible grief. But they have not come to pass and they may never happen. I could choose to mourn a few events that have occurred in my life. But even this is not automatic. I would have to think hard about this, honestly. Still not feeling too much of anything. It’s like trying to match definitions to words rather than truly experiencing the words.
I could mourn the fact that friends I was so close to twenty-some years ago have very little in common with me now. I could mourn the busted relationship with my mother, but it was always busted. I would have to turn this on it’s head a bit. My beautiful and insightful partner would likely tell me to mourn the lack of a mother relationship vs the “mother person” herself. I’m positive she would say a variation of this. This also makes far more sense to me. I can take a stab at that maybe…
My dog passing in January 2020 was sad, but again she was suffering so this was a thing that happened when it was supposed to. I miss her, but not feeling grief so much. I’m relieved she is no longer suffering. I wonder how I was able to deaden myself so effectively? So far, this entire page is me fumbling in the dark room looking for the light switch so I can find my grief. I haven’t found it yet. It may not be in here…It’s just a big empty room that grief never occupied. I have come to the conclusion that I have some disconnected wires.
The last 2 years have been tough. The last year especially. I recently wrote I am not the same as I was 9 months ago. I’m not anywhere near where I was two years ago. I can vaguely recognize that man, but he didn’t do things the way I want to do them now. Should I grieve for the angry motherfucker I used to be? All the rage from the unrecognized ADHD seems pretty clear now. It was a mystery to me despite the diagnosis. The ADHD was pulling my strings the whole time and I didn’t see it until two years ago. I could mourn the fact that I’m not exactly who I thought I was. My anger, sensitivities to various things, the way I learn, all influenced by unacknowledged ADHD.
It was mildly terrifying when I realized my brain was unable to track information like most others. I was 49 when this really hit home. I had arranged my professional and educational life in such a way I could avoid my cognitive blind spots. As the hero of my own story, I was protesting against unnecessary paperwork and administrative details. It wasn’t that my brain couldn’t track it easily in a timely manner. It wasn’t that certain tasks still seared me like a red hot poker from years of frustration in the classroom. I didn’t set out to be unorganized or different. I didn’t set out to lose notes on open book tests so I could fail them and then find the notes 20 minutes after class ended. That kid was always going to have trouble in grade school. High school was somewhat better, but the maladaptive patterns were already ingrained. Then there was how ADHD impacted my athletic endeavors growing up. The anxiety that comes from double and triple checking everything because I can’t always tell if I’m doing it right can be overpowering. I had to tell myself a certain story and the only eyes I can see with are my own.
None of that was what I thought it was. You’re smart, you’re gifted, you’re lazy, you’re always bored. You thought I had an attitude. I thought you were going to break my balls about the same old things. Why would I want to learn anything from you? I forgot how terrifying it used to be for me to learn new things. For a while everything new in school felt like a prescription for failure. While I don’t feel that way generally, a curious set of circumstances reconjured all of those negative feelings over the past two years. I had the pleasure of reliving some of my most unpleasant feelings from grade school as I was turning 50.
What now? Still haven’t quite found the grief yet, but oh well. I am so much wiser now due to my exposure and vulnerability. I never would have said, thought. or conceived of such a thing two years ago. Exposure used to be what happens when you make a big mistake. Exposure means you got caught sleeping. Except that isn’t really accurate for me any more. I can’t be that guy anymore because I see through the facade. I also see why that facade was necessary. What about the concept of vulnerability? Vulnerability is what you work your ass off to eliminate. Except that it’s not. That is not it’s intended purpose.
This is quite a turnaround. However, I’ve checked all my pockets, including my jeans in the laundry, and I still can’t find grief. I walked away from the familiar because it was ruining me and I wound up in an emotional blender. Now I am out of the blender and I feel and see things from a considerably different perspective. I feel and move differently in the world now. I am just discovering and using this new skin. Was I ever hypersensitive? Maybe. But that’s not an easy way to be and the outside world made me pay for that as soon as I left the house. Back then I don’t think anyone realized that was an ADHD symptom. More to the point, I don’t believe anyone cared.
I still have not located the grief I set out to find. I have more semi-objective observations that come from thinking and observing behavior, but not grief. The feelings themselves still elude me. I understand it is in my best interest to experience this, but it appears it isn’t quite time yet. We poison ourselves to escape our feelings. We have been taught they are obstacles and impediments. But they are neither of those things. They are warnings and indicators of specific results and they must be heeded. I will get there, I have just become too adept at hiding those feelings. Wish me luck and thanks for reading. I will tell you how it goes.
As many of us are experiencing trying times right now, I wanted to address the experience of burnout. My experience of this is pre-COVID and specific to mental health and human services. The levels of burnout described by first responders and medical personnel exceeds this and is of another level I have never experienced. I mean to shed some light on the more common experience of burnout in the workplace rather than the extraordinary levels seen right now among essential personnel.
The thing to remember about burnout is those around you will likely notice it before you do. Supervisors, particularly those in the mental health field, typically encourage their teams to talk about challenging cases and difficult feelings around them. I think what confounds many new to the industry is we don’t always know what to talk about. Supervisors can work with what we discuss with them, but what if it is unclear about what is concerning or troubling? What if we don’t know what is troubling and worthy of discussion?
Burnout rarely takes care of itself in my experience. Genuine rest and recharging is necessary and our “do everything” style of work does not always lend itself to that. I don’t think I was especially good at discussing triggering events with supervisors, I just a higher than average capacity for being around emotional trauma. This is by no means a boast on my part. I would wait until my trauma receptacle was overflowing and then some sort of explosion would occur to signal I needed a break. Don’t do what I did, there is a better way.
I remember not talking about warning signs because I didn’t know they were warning signs. Some warning signs are universal, such as repeated emotional outbursts that do not match the severity of a given situation. For example, If I had known near-constant angry thoughts were a warning sign for me, I would have talked about them much sooner. I thought that was just how I was wired and the thoughts would diminish after I left the office or over the weekend. Not so. Angry thoughts bordering on the intrusive is a gigantic red flag for me, one that I didn’t truly notice until I was many years into my career as a therapist. Feeling intense anger on a daily basis, whether it is intermittent or not, can lead to burnout. So if you happen upon me IRL and I am scowling and seem preoccupied, it is likely you have caught me doing just that.
Some of this may seem obvious, but obvious depends on how your individual operating system works. My operating system says drive on, keep going, I can’t help anyone if I go to pieces, etc. For others, it may be trouble sleeping or road raging (full disclosure: I’ve experienced plenty of both, sometimes concurrently.) For a variety of reasons, I grew up having angry thoughts and I believed we were supposed to use them as fuel. This is actually extremely unhealthy, but no one told me. How could they? I rarely spoke them out loud. This would catch up with me and I learned there was a healthier way.
I began to schedule breaks and adding an extra day to my weekends at the urging of a supervisor. The idea being I take a little extra time off at regular intervals whether I think I need it or not. This way I don’t hit critical mass, which is better for me, my family, my clients, and my coworkers. In short it’s better for everybody. The key detail with this method is don’t assume when your scheduled day off arrives that you don’t need it because you feel “ok.” You need it. Take it. Extending yourself further for “just one more week” will blow up in your face. This is especially true in mental health and human services circles. Take the break, trust me.
To heal a wound, you need to stop touching it. I’ll leave you with that bit of wisdom that found it’s way into my inbox recently. Be well, and take care of yourselves.
This resumes where Part 1 left off. I encourage everyone to read both parts for the sake of continuity.
I found a job as a coach with a stop smoking tobacco program and left my position in the marijuana industry. Training for this position began at the beginning of March. This job seemed like an adequate fit while I worked on my next move and I would have a chance to work with people in a helping capacity. Those of you with good memories for timelines probably know what’s coming next. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the parameters for this job changed quickly. The funding for this program was diverted to COVID-19 resources and the training team for new coaches was also diverted elsewhere. Essentially I was now a customer service rep rather than a coach due to program diversions and funding shortages. This was also a poor fit for me as I typically do not have the patience for customer service. I will give the company credit for keeping us on as long as they could, however. I kept this job until I was laid off at the beginning of May. I honestly did not mind getting laid off. There will be a postscript to this specific situation later.
Around this time I had been on the transitions roller coaster for about two years. I had come to the conclusion I was not going to be truly happy until I was working for myself. This conclusion was echoed by several people who knew me well. I had never done anything like starting my own business but I suddenly had free time to design and create literally whatever I wanted. I think we are raised to fear stillness and quiet because we are not striving, achieving, etc. We are conditioned to believe that external noise is a sign of productivity. This actually keeps us from listening for what we need for ourselves. Truth be told, there is no great time to start your own business, most people just decide to do it. After toying with this idea for a bit, I moved forward by building my own website.
This forced me to detail what kind of clients I wanted to work with and to formulate how I intended to help others with my skills and message. I had reached the point in my transition where I no longer wanted to spend my hours doing someone else’s thing. Doing someone else’s thing did not make the hours and aggravation worth it. I will gladly put up with challenges and aggravation if it is for my cause. Toiling for someone else is not worth it to me anymore. I’m not against talking a part time gig to keep things going, but my emphasis is on short term.
Getting laid off seemed like a clear cut message to begin working on my own business. A huge challenge for me was setting up my own structure and prioritizing what to do week to week. My website became a home base to work from. I can always direct a potential client to my website. Here is what I am doing. That feels fantastic to me. I can emphatically state I am not the same person I was when this transition started. I have a foundation and a direction and I know I will thrive. Where I have trouble is when I’m directionless. Now I have a new career to build, new things to learn, new goals to create for myself. If I am doing this anyone can. I am not special in any way other than commitment and consistency. I coach because I want others to experience this feeling.
Building my website was challenging and brand new to me, but really not terribly difficult after I had made my mind up. It reintroduced me to thinking creatively from both a writing and a design perspective. I honestly hadn’t had much opportunity for either of those things while I was a therapist. I could write mental health evaluations and reports for the Court, but none of that was terribly creative, It was time to stretch some muscles I had not used for a very long time. I became reacquainted with how much I enjoy writing and how I genuinely like writing about things I care about.
Here is another wrinkle I encountered during my transition rollercoaster ride: Over the past two years I have had to come to terms with how much ADHD has influenced my actions and opinions, particularly in the workplace. I really wasn’t aware of my ADHD blind spots and sometimes this could make me exceedingly defensive. This was an odd part of my transition. On the one hand, I was glad to be more fully informed regarding ADHD, the truth is the truth after all. On the other hand this knowledge rocked me a bit because I felt like I didn’t know the limits of my control or when my own brain might sabotage me. This was unnerving to me because I couldn’t just charge in bravely to a situation and hope for the best. I had to recognize and then seriously evaluate whether certain situations were manageable for me, or likely to implode due to my neurodivergence. I had to be ruthlessly honest with myself and apply experience and discernment.
Transition can be wrenchingly hard and it can seem unending. I felt like I was walking through the proverbial desert with no guidance. And you know what? I absolutely was. I gave everything I had to my career as a therapist and giving everything can extract a price. Burnout is rough; being directionless can be even rougher. However, there is no way to short-cut that process, not when you realize genuine change is required. I had to make genuine change otherwise I would have exploded. Time away from community mental health has improved my perspective tremendously. In retrospect, I know I will never be able to care about a career that does not inspire genuine passion in me. My time as a therapist working with sex offenders did come with a cost, but I don’t regret it. That was part of my journey and I would not have been effective had I not jumped in with both feet. I regret nothing.
For those of you who subscribe to astrology, look up the aspect called a Chiron Return. While I know astrology is not for everyone, this term does describe my experience. The term midlife crisis also applies somewhat, except I didn’t buy the sports car or remarry a twenty-two year old. I was, however, miserable and lost for a bit. Telling someone to “embrace the suck” is catchy, but actually going through it is something you can only do by yourself and it will hurt. No matter who we are, we all have unresolved issues that can rear up and bite us in the ass when we least expect or can afford it. These will likely come up when we are initiating big changes. Please remember big changes can yield big results.
The post script I mentioned earlier pertains to the coaching job I got laid off from. They asked me back, guaranteeing I will be hired back on as a coach. I could use the cash injection and I will have time to develop my business into a viable full-time venture. Taking my experiences and viewpoints and tailoring them for others in order to help them seems like the best way to cap my transition experience. There are lots of worthy causes out there, but I want to front mine. What else am I here for? We’ll see how this goes. Stick around.
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.
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.
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.
My observation over the years has been many people learn compassion after experiencing a lack of it when they needed it, I have met a precious few who come by compassion naturally and some whose families taught them compassion because it was highly valued to them. These are the exceptions however, at least from my point of view. Compassion is another human quality, a higher quality if you will, that does not seem to be consistently observed or particularly revered. I think this topic has become more prevalent lately because so many people are struggling and are in need of compassion
I feel like I was taught my family to have compassion for others “like us.” For me, that meant other military families. There was an unspoken caveat, however, as if compassion was a rare resource that should be used sparingly so as not to waste it. Don’t use it on just anybody, ’cause then you won’t have any left when you need it for someone who deserves it (you know, people like us.) It was a weird dichotomy to grow up with. Everyone deserves compassion, but some people are more deserving than others. How are we supposed to choose? I learned in time that only showing compassion to those within your immediate group was not living up to the definition of compassion.
I was scratching my head on this one for many years. My eyes were opened further at age thirty-three while I was a few months into my internship prior to becoming a therapist. I was assigned a case by my internship supervisor. Typically, these cases are cherry picked by the supervisor so as to not overwhelm the student therapist who has yet to graduate. I had been working with my fifteen year-old client for about two months before he disclosed to me he had been sexually assaulted. A week later he told me he had been sexually victimizing his younger brother. By this point I knew my client fairly well and understood how he had come to victimize his younger brother. I couldn’t turn my back on him. This was not a professional consideration. As an intern, I could have tapped out and told my supervisor, “sorry this is too much for me.” But I didn’t. I understood the kid and I felt for him.
For clarity and context, it is very common for victims of childhood sexual assault to assault others in an attempt to reclaim the power and autonomy that has been taken from them. While this is maladaptive and doesn’t work, it is a common pattern among sexual abuse victims. It also creates more victims. Our culture pities victims and is generally uncomfortable with them. However, our culture dislikes abusers even more. Crossing the line from victim to abuser typically isolates an individual even more than they were previously. This is even more true of an adolescent. Because I understood these dynamics, I couldn’t turn my back on this client. This was another big step in my learning compassion.
It is also a common sentiment in our culture to have zero compassion for anyone who commits sexual assault. Many subscribe to the “they should be shot on site” philosophy. They subscribe to this until their brother, son, father, uncle, cousin or best friend get convicted of sexual assault. Now it is not so simple. A common refrain is “he wasn’t like this when we were growing up.” You’re right, he probably wasn’t. He was likely a victim and couldn’t tell you. In an attempt to alleviate his own pain, he assaulted someone else. Now he is an abuser and you have to make a choice to be compassionate or turn your back on a family member. This may seem an extreme example, but it is an example I have seen play out countless times in the eleven years I worked with convicted sex offenders.
“Compassion fatigue” is interesting in that it refers to those in the helping professions running out of compassion because they have had to pour out so much to so many.
Let me also say I am not excusing sexual abuse or explaining it away. Personal choice and accountability are also key pieces to this that should never be discounted. I am also not saying that all victims of sexual assault become abusers, that is not accurate either. There are other scenarios that can lead to sexual abuse, but this particular scenario was monumental for me regarding compassion.
How do we come by compassion? How do we teach it? The old saying “There but for the grace of God, go I” seems relevant, but is it enough? We struggle to care about each other globally and nationally. Help is typically conditional and reliant on reciprocation rather than help for the sake of help. Sometimes people need help beyond what self-reliance and independence will cover. I have learned from both my partners and in my professional life that compassion is not a limited commodity. The phrase “compassion fatigue” is interesting in that it refers to those in the helping professions running out of compassion because they have had to pour out so much to so many. Could this be because no one else is showing compassion? Is it a case of “not my job?”
I have experienced compassion fatigue myself. I felt hardened and resentful to those who needed help for longer than a passing amount of my time. This is common among therapists and other helpers. A rebalancing was necessary for me to regain a sense of caring again. It took me about two years. Certain professions lend themselves to compassion more than others, but if we spread the compassion around more evenly within our daily lives there would be more to go around for everyone.
Many of us are looking for new ways to live due to our current circumstances (of which there are many.) Extending compassion towards those outside of our immediate circle could be an exemplary addition to our collective lifestyles. If you have ever needed help, you know what it feels like if it is not forthcoming. Making compassion a bigger part of our lives will highlight what we have in common with each other. The more we have in common with each other the less likely we will be to turn our backs on others when they need help. If we can balance our compassion with timely self-care, we will be creating a new environment where there is room for everyone.
What is a boundary? What are they and why do we have them? A common answer is “a physical barrier.” Very true. Now what purpose do they serve? The question is the same and so is the answer. They keep people outside a comfortable and appropriate space from you. Whether in front of your house or at the lunch table at work a boundary is a line that cannot be crossed without permission, if ever. Some people hold their boundaries in very close to themselves, some much less so.
Some people I know are routinely approached by total strangers while in line to pay for their groceries. These strangers would dump their life stories at the feet of another stranger without so much as a “hello, my name is…” When I was still working in community mental health, there would typically be 2-3 people who would raise their hands and say “Yep, that’s me.” They would also be unsure why this was happening and they were not always comfortable with these interactions. Something about their energy indicated they were not going to slam the door as soon as a stranger opened up to them. It was also common for many of these individuals to share they had difficulties with boundaries within their intimate relationships. Approaching total strangers with your life story could be, at the very least, unwanted and at worst triggering and traumatic depending on the content of the life story.
These group members tended to benefit most from the group because they were able to realize their boundaries needed to be worked on, according to what they were comfortable with. Some people are comfortable with strangers laying their life stories on them in random public places, but many are not. Where I have noticed people struggling is when boundaries are inconsistent or porous. Boundaries must be consistent otherwise they are merely suggestions or guidelines, both of which imply that adhering to them is optional rather than mandatory. Solid boundaries are necessary for healthy self-esteem and personal agency.
A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.”
How boundaries are communicated to others is also important. If boundaries are enforced too vigorously the situation could potentially result in some sort of aggression. Delivery is a key component, which brings me to communication styles. We have three main styles of communication: aggressive, passive, and assertive. There is a fourth style of communication that I will address later in part two, simply because it usually comes up in discussion.
It is my observation that most of us learn aggressive communication first. This is unfortunate. It comes at us from school, work, and many different types of media. It also comes at us within the home when we are very young. Simple examples of aggressive communication are yelling, name calling, and include body language, such as banging on tables or slamming doors. This is viewed as a win/lose situation because the aggressive communicator gets their needs met by stepping on the needs of whomever they are addressing. Passive communicators do not get their needs met because they lay down and do not advocate for themselves. An example of this is agreeing to something you feel is unfair or unreasonable, because you want to avoid confrontation. This is viewed as a lose/win because the passive communicator does not assert themselves.
Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others.
Our third communication style is assertive communication. Assertive communication gets it’s own paragraph because I feel its most important. Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others. I view this as win/win because everyone involved gets their needs met without taking from the needs of the other. This is tricky because we don’t teach this very well as a culture. If we are lucky enough to come from families who teach this early, we find the people we go to school with do not know how to communicate in this way, and much of the teaching from home goes by the wayside. A lot of us learn assertive communication later in life. A great many of us do not learn to communicate assertively until we are well into high school, or even later when we begin our first jobs and have to work closely with others. Assertive communication reflects The Golden Rule, i.e. treat others the way you would like to be treated.
Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication. If you don’t enjoy someone talking down to you, you won’t talk to others that way. Assertive communication and healthy boundaries work together in that one builds off of the other. They feed each other in a positive way. A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.” I believe this is true and no matter how assertive we are in our daily lives, occasions will arise wherein we will need to clearly define (or redefine) our boundaries to someone in a given situation. The ability to do this clearly without escalating into conflict is crucial.
This is done by clearly stating the issue and the boundary in question. For example, your room mate is eating your food (a lot of us have been there.) State clearly what the issue is. “You are eating my food.” Next, state a remedy: “I expect you to replace the food you ate within the next 24 hours.” Lastly, state what consequences will follow if your boundaries are not honored. “If my food is not replaced within 24 hours, I will put a chain and padlock on the refrigerator.” (This is an extreme example, but please continue to follow along.) The essential component here is that the consequences MUST follow consistently, exactly as described. If they are not, the boundaries are not boundaries and thus ineffective. This is the most difficult part of maintaining boundaries with most people. Sometimes boundaries are violated accidentally and it is an honest mistake. Sometimes they are violated deliberately and that is when enforcement becomes crucial. Unfortunately, we cannot count on everyone around us to observe common courtesy.
Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication.
Boundaries vary from location to location and are frequently situational. The boundaries we observe in the grocery store are different from the boundaries we observe in an elevator. We rely on our environment to dictate our boundaries. For example, the expected social boundaries in Japan differ from those in the United States. When unsure about what boundaries are appropriate for the setting you are in, observe what others around you are doing. This is sometimes known as “reading the room.” Another option is to simply ask. “Do you mind if I do this…?” This can go a long way in getting along with those around you.
Please keep in mind these are standard pre-Covid 19 boundaries. Dealing with a pandemic has forced us to modify our boundaries on global basis. This is another example of the environment dictating the boundaries. Remember, boundaries are a combination of clear communication and expected social norms. Boundaries are not suggestions or guidelines. If you feel your boundaries need improvement, an easy solution is to mimic the boundaries of someone you know and admire. You might like the way they handle themselves and emulating them is a great place to start. You could also practice improving your boundaries by scripting. Physically write out the scenario, as described above. Include the problem, the proposed solution, and the consequences if not followed. Best of luck in your practice!
One of the many things that became apparent early into the pandemic was many people were able to work from home efficiently and easily. I remember reading this news was met with some surprise across a wide variety of industries. Much of the surprise came from industries that were thought to be office based only. When push came to shove, however, a great many people found a way to work from home seamlessly. Many who were laid off during the first wave also found they were able to work from home if required when they were re-employed later.
We have a reliance on corporate structure in the U.S. even of we don’t personally work in an office. The chances are good we take advice or direction from someone who is in an office even if we are not. Is corporate structure and hierarchy still a workable structure for us? I have worked primarily in the mental health field for most of my thirties and forties. Before that a had about six years in the television industry and a smattering of sales jobs here and there. Both industries have their share of bloat and bureaucracy. To be fair, I have not worked in TV since the 1990’s and I imagine it has changed somewhat. Mental Health I know better, and it tends to follow the American corporate structure fairly closely, with some borrowing from the medical/hospital model.
What is common in mental health and many other industries is having many layers of managers and supervisors and a mixing and comingling of responsibilities. I have had several outstanding supervisors while I was a therapist, but many of them were stymied by their supervisors due to corporate policies. This is a common story many have heard time and again. My question is, do we still need gigantic behemoth corporate structures like this? I understand why our federal government needs a large bureaucracy due to the size of our country and the needs that come with governing, but that is for an entire nation. Do we still need to cling to this traditional corporate structure for business?
Some industries need onsite supervision round the clock for safety or logistical reasons, but certainly not all industries. Do we still need an endless line of supervisors supervising supervision (get it?) or would we benefit from less management and more autonomy? Typically speaking, after I learn the basics of a position, I work best if left alone to do my job. That does not mean I’m not receptive to feedback along the way, but it is my preferred method. I have worked for large companies and smaller ones. Generally, smaller companies can work work more quickly, depending on the industry. Decisions can be made and acted upon far more easily without layers upon layers of corporate bloat.
I’m writing this from a psychological/people first perspective because this is what I know. We have all of these great big multi-layered systems that do not necessarily increase productivity. More is not always better, more is just more. This is part of why I have chosen to work for myself. I answer to me. I have a handful of people I can go to for questions and advice, but they are never looking over my shoulder. I think a big cause of the over-layered corporate structure is an addiction to power and control. In the day-to-day, this looks like the person watching you is being watched by someone else. We have become byzantine in our quest for wealth, efficiency, and power. Could we all benefit from downsizing?
I think we can. I like making my own decisions on my own content. I like scheduling my professional life the way I want it, rather than juggling a myriad of details and events for multiple people who are often at cross purposes with each other. Do we ever take stock of how all these mental and emotional gymnastics take away from the job we were hired to do? Large undertakings frequently require large groups of people. Large groups of people often come with infighting and conflicting agendas. Maybe we can try this huge corporate thing in a hundred years or so when we have figured out a better way to get along and work with each other.
I think we have shown we are adaptable, responsible, and able to handle our duties without constant supervision. This may threaten our corporate structures, but too many cooks spoil the broth. Middle layers of management are added after a company reaches a certain size. I think if we are intending to grow business past a certain point, the structures to accommodate said growth need to be in place beforehand. This is not a new observation, but I mention it because I’ve worked for companies who grew and had nothing in place to accommodate that growth. The resulting outcome was a series of costly mistakes that threatened that growth.
I honestly hope everyone has a legitimate opportunity to do work they enjoy. I feel like we are looking at widespread change that will enable many of us to work in smaller business environments. In theory, that will make it easier to work with like-minded people rather than continuing to contort ourselves into shapes that are foreign to us in order to fit into the corporate mold.
It took many years before I determined I was not a good fit for the standard American corporate gig. Some of that was due to individual temperament, adult ADHD, and uncertainty about what I wanted to do in my 20’s. I went back to school at age 31, got a Master’s degree in psychology, and worked as a therapist for 15 years. I worked for larger mental health agencies and I worked for smaller privately owned companies. One thing I found is that smaller companies are better for me, but working for myself is even better. This may be due to age, but my views on gigantic corporations and how the bottom line takes precedence over human needs became a paradigm I didn’t want to deal with any longer. The mental health industry, at least in my 15 years of experience, is not necessarily better about taking care of it’s employees than any other industry. A considerable amount of time is spent training therapists and counselors about vicarious trauma and burnout, but as an industry they create conditions that encourage burnout and chronic overwork. My conclusion on this is “that’s life in corporate America.” Because it is. These companies are set up like most other corporations in the U.S., so it stands to reason the impact on front line employees will be widely disregarded in order to continue the revenue stream.
Benefits are dangled in front of us like the carrot on the stick and a lot of us put up with far too much in order to keep those benefits for ourselves and our families. It is hard to walk away from a system that uses that carrot and stick so effectively. We are a long way away from universal healthcare, 20 hour work weeks, and many other systems other countries seem to use very effectively. My aim is to help anyone who wants to break away from that. Do your own thing, get paid for it, and have a joyous and productive life. Need help communicating more effectively? I can help. Need help goal-setting so you can set up your own shop? I can help you with that vision, if not the nuts and bolts of it. Confidence-building, self-esteem exercises, assertiveness training? I got it. Please help me help you.