I started my journey to becoming a therapist driving a hand-me-down clunker car my parents gave me for high school graduation. That gas-guzzling yellow sedan transported me to and from my classes during my undergraduate years at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1970s.
During my first year of college, I happily pursued my joy ride down the avenue of “Undecided Major.”
Although I considered a career in psychology, my academic advisor warned that I needed to earn a master’s degree (or, worse), a doctorate to have a lucrative career in that field. “No way!” I protested as I slammed the brakes on that option.
Instead, I maneuvered into the fast lane to becoming a certified public accountant, which only required a bachelor’s degree.
Ignoring the yellow traffic lights of boredom with my business courses and mediocre grades on my accounting exams, I mapped out my journey to my desired destination of big bucks and high prestige.
The week I passed the CPA exam, my mother received the devastating diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.
Being an only child, I placed my professional job-search journey on hold while I shouldered the burden of driving my mother to hospitals and clinics for various treatments.
Each week, I spent many hours watching the traffic of very ill patients proceed in and out of medical waiting rooms. I especially recall my heartfelt conversations with a tired, frail woman who worked two jobs to pay medical bills.
My mother lost her battled to cancer shortly after my 22nd birthday. On her deathbed, she expressed her deep regret that she wasted most of her short life seeking status and material wealth.
She wished she could turn around and focus on meaningful activities like helping others, but it was too late.
Although her words had little impact on me at the time, they eventually became the guideposts of my life journey.
Merging Onto the Highway
Shortly after my mother’s funeral, I started my first professional job as a staff accountant for a prestigious bank in downtown Chicago.
Quick to bypass a difficult mourning process, I bought a hot, red sports car. Although I adored my lunch hours exploring downtown bistros and boutiques, I despised my work hours drowning in spreadsheets and interminable meetings.
On the weekends, I volunteered at local hospitals visiting hospice patients and listening to their sorrowful stories their family members could not endure. Only in these encounters did I feel real purpose in my life.
After a year of suppressing my grief and pretending to be happy at a job I hated, I lapsed into a deep state of depression.
Seeking counseling services offered by my employer, I shared my misery with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor.
While listening carefully to my situation, she suggested I join a grief support group. Then she asked, “If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?” Without hesitation, I replied, “I want to do what you do.”
In this profound aha moment, my muddied journey to becoming a therapist became crystal clear.
Change in Itinerary
A month later, I made a U-turn to start a master’s degree in counseling at my alma mater. I also started my lifelong voyage in psychotherapy. Finally! My life felt on track as my depression abated.
I eagerly looked forward to each class, learned why my personality wasn’t suited for accounting, and relished all the group discussions.
In fact, I coasted through my master’s degree with such ease that I decided to apply for the doctoral program in counseling psychology.
Sadly, I traded in my beloved sports car for a frumpy, used vehicle to get through the lean financial years of pursuing my doctorate.
Every week, I labored through hours of dry reading, grunt work for professors, and petty higher-ed politics. At one point, I considered dropping out.
When I then realized my journey had passed the point of no-return, I shifted into high gear to complete my comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, and internship applications.
The Colossal Commute
In the fourth year of my doctoral program, I received momentous news on “Match Day,” the national event when psychology students learn if and where they would start their internship the next year.
The good news was that I got my top choice internship at a university counseling center which included a rotation on the eating disorders unit at a premier psychiatric hospital.
The bad news was that I needed to endure a two-hour commute twice a day, five days a week. Since my used car couldn’t handle that mileage, I assumed a hefty car payment for a new, gas-efficient automobile that resembled a large tin box.
My internship could best be described as a 2000-hour rite of passage.
Each week, my clinical supervisor and I spent two hours reviewing a video recording of one of my counseling sessions in its entirety.
My supervisor dissected every paraphrase, reflection, and summary down to the detail of my unconscious intent to choose a particular metaphor.
If I dared to explain my reasons for my interventions, I suffered a demeaning psychological interpretation of my defense mechanisms. Suffice it to say, I quickly became conditioned to nod and smile at any supervisor’s pearls of wisdom.
Since I met with six supervisors (clinical, group, career, eating disorder specialty, supervision, rotation), for a total of seven hours per week, I kept quiet most of the time.
The pinnacle of my internship occurred when I followed a bulimic hospital patient into the ladies' room to encourage her not to purge. To my utter horror, my onsite supervisor walked in to observe my bathroom intervention. Wasn’t anything sacred?
The Final Stretch of My Journey to Becoming a Therapist
After my internship, nothing intimidated me.
I raced through my dissertation, defense, post-doc internship, and licensure exam. Soon, I found a lucrative job as a counselor/faculty member at a culturally diverse university.
Within a few years, I made the right turn to start my private practice, where I have worked for more than 20 years. And yes, I eventually bought another hot sports car. However, I mostly continued to pursue a modest lifestyle because I avoided the dangerous potholes of unethical insurance billing, burnout from overwork, and greedy refusal to serve the underprivileged.
Looking back, my mother’s tragic death inspired me to avoid her mistake of pursuing the almighty dollar above all else.
Lessons From the Miles
Perhaps the best lesson can be described in this story. During my first counseling practicum, I saw a client for nine months. Although we established a great rapport, she accomplished nothing toward any of the goals we set.
I believed I’d failed her.
Years later, I encountered her by chance. She ran to greet me exclaiming, “You were my role model!” Then she explained that she had graduated from college, completed her first year at a prestigious graduate school, got engaged to a respectable guy, and maintained her sobriety for several years – in short, she accomplished all the goals we set.
That day I realized that with time, the tiniest seed of intervention can flourish into a giant tree of growth.
Here are the most important lessons I learned on my journey of becoming and being a therapist:
- Become a therapist because you truly value helping people struggling in their depths of despair.
- Unless you want to pursue a career in academia, forget the doctorate. Seek ongoing training instead.
- Prevent burnout by limiting your client load to five or six sessions per day.
- Seek psychotherapy because this is the best way to learn the craft.
- Find a supportive mentor.
In sum, find a reliable vehicle, follow a road map, revise your route when necessary, fill your gas tank regularly, obey the road signs, stop at the rest areas and drive carefully.
Most importantly, remember to savor your journey because every moment of this short life is precious.
About JessicaJessica Loftus, a licensed clinical psychologist, and national certified career counselor, offers individual counseling in her private practice located in Palos Heights, Illinois.
She shares her 20 years of clinical experience in her writings, including a self-help book on bad habits, two stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and multiple articles and blog posts.
Visit her blog, Pet Ways to Ease Stress, where prominent members of the pet community offer tips on easing stress with a woof of humor, a purr of insight, and a tail of wisdom.