graduate school, sober lifestyle


Imagine a precocious little girl in a homemade, red plaid dress with matching ribbons in her shoulder-length, sandy-blonde hair (she has bangs, so clearly this is a flashback from long, long ago), and white anklet socks and brown top-siders on her feet. She is marching in the door with a good — in fact, near-perfect — report card, her whole body tingling in anticipation of that intoxicating hit of parental approval she knows is forthcoming.

That girl is me. Did you guess? It’s funny I chose to paint that exact picture, because the outfit was from first grade, when I had…let’s just say, “social adjustment issues,” that led to regular trips to the principal’s office and my teacher installing a special study carrel in the corner of the classroom to keep me from being disruptive.

Legend has it I was doing somersaults one day on the carpet in the back of the room that was supposed to be for, like, naps and storytime and docile 💩 like that. 😳

Explains a lot, right?

I ended up killing it in all the academic subjects, to the point they put me in the “gifted” —sorry, “enrichment” — program, but my conduct left something to be desired. Read on to see just how much has changed! 🤣

The problem child is now 43, sans bangs (and socks, most of the time). I’m a first-year student studying Counseling Psychology in graduate school, who can’t keep her mouth shut in class, and is clearly not above showing off her straight A’s on the internet. 🤓

You see, I need something to feel good about. Something to spike the ’ol dopamine. I’m looking for a mental fix that won’t derail my physical sobriety.

Good grades always seemed to do the trick!

Good grades… and fresh haircuts. 💇🏼‍♀️ Here’s a gratuitous “AFTER” pic from my midweek trip to the salon, something that would’ve been impossible when I had a full-time job.

As you know from previous posts, this girl is unemployed. After 2 1/2 weeks, the initial shock of getting laid off has worn off. And after receiving my first rejection from a job opportunity that necessitated spending 12 full hours poring over a copyediting assessment — it was a very confusing assessment, so I think we can agree the job was not a good fit — the old fear is starting to creep back in.

I can hear that familiar negative soundtrack starting to play, filling my head with the perfectionist messages that spin themselves into performance-based self-worth:

🗣 You’re not good enough. The world doesn’t value you. You mean nothing unless you’re accomplishing something. ➡️👂🏻

But wait, guys, do you see? I’m doing well in school! That counts as “something,” right?!?!?

(Please insert effusive praise into the giant pit of need. 📩 Thank you; come again!)

In reality, grades don’t mean 💩, and they won’t pay back the student loans I now have to take out to make up for the unforeseen loss of income, and just like back in first grade, they’re no guarantee of future…let’s say “fulfillment” instead of “success,” because that word has a materialistic connotation to which I do not subscribe.

In practical terms, getting A’s through half a semester in the classroom has very little — if any — correlation with the type of counselor I will be, or if I will actually help anyone else discover the inner strength and unconditional self-love to fill their giant pit of need, so that they don’t think drugs/alcohol/food/sex/etc. will make them whole. Getting A’s all my life did not prevent me from falling into that trap.

Nor did any of that effusive praise from authority figures when I showed them my report card.

Still, school is the task in front of me right now, and it’s important, and the fact I’m “performing” well is a positive thing. Thank God for school, because it’s keeping me positive during an otherwise 💩-y time. And even while I’m struggling to figure out how I’m going to pay my share of the bills over the next three years, my classes are stimulating the same vim, vigor and zest for life displayed by the precocious — OK, maybe obnoxious — little girl in the red plaid dress and top-siders.

That passion, I’m pretty sure, is what got me accepted into this grad school program after 20 years out of academia. In contrast to my younger self, I now have some clue as to how to channel it.

Yes, I still have trouble reining myself in sometimes. I say too much, with too little filter, and tend to take jokes right up to — if not over — the edge (and this is me without alcohol, y’all!) So far, my cohort doesn’t seem to mind that much.

Maybe, at 43, the performative part of my personality is just something I should learn to embrace, instead of fight. 🤔

The day I received the standard “thanks but no thanks” email from that job I applied for, I had to give a presentation about Gestalt Therapy in my Psych Theories class. I poured like a month into putting the thing together, reading the textbook, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts and learning everything I could. No joke: I loved every minute of this assignment. I was a live wire of nerves when it came time to present, so I don’t really remember what I said…but I know I said it with plenty of gusto!

Afterward, a classmate turned to me and said, “Great energy!” It seemed like the highest compliment anyone could’ve paid me, except then, my professor got up to the podium and was like, “I should have just coordinated my lecture with your presentation, because that was awesome!”

Of course, this seems like sweet music to a needy perfectionist’s ears, but what makes it so meaningful to me right now is, I’m not putting on some kind of performance. I’m not trying to “fake it ‘til I make it” or be someone I think others want me to be. The person getting praised for her energy and passion is the real me, discussing something I’m genuinely interested in and pursuing something I truly care about. It’s complete congruence, as Carl Rogers would say.

A dramatic departure from the soul-crushing job search process, I’m sure you can see! 😐

Writing this blog, studying psychology, training to be a counselor…I’ve said it before: This stuff does not pay, but it lights my fire. If I’m going to perform well at anything in the world, after all the things I’ve tried in four decades on Earth, I should hope it would be this. And after two decades mired in addiction and stagnation, I’m so grateful I have this chance.

It’s funny to remember what the teachers told my mom back in first grade when they plucked my disruptive butt from the study carrel and plopped me in Mrs. Melone’s advanced English and math classes. They said that based on the aptitude tests, they thought I might be acting out because I was bored.

I could write an entire separate post about how that basically sums up my alcoholism…

Whatever my issues, boredom ain’t it — not anymore! In the midst of the biggest career transition of my life, I have never felt more intellectually stimulated, deeply motivated, eager to learn, or excited about the future. Combine my studies with 27 months of continuous sobriety (and a newfound love of running), and you might say I’ve never felt more alive.

Aaaaand now, the voices in my head are back.

🗣 You just spent three hours sitting here writing this, when you were supposed to be reading a 40-page chapter so you could take a quiz, and starting on your next Theories paper, and checking out job postings to make your husband happy.

Unfortunately, while it’s always nice to march in the door with a perfect report card, when you’re also responsible for helping to pay for the house, the euphoric buzz of other people’s approval tends to be very short-lived. No matter how cute your hair looks. 😉

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