sober lifestyle

Qualification

Basically my biography 😬

The reading assignment this week for “Concepts of Psychopathology & Wellness” is two thick chapters — nearly 75 total pages — but I’ve learned not to stress too much about finishing the homework for this class.

I mean, I know it’s a thing for psych students to start self-diagnosing every disorder they study (it’s called Medical Student’s Disease), but for me, this is not about the power of suggestion. This shit is seriously my life story. I could’ve stood up in front of my cohort and spoken with confidence about the last five weeks’ worth of “Abnormal Behavior” readings without having cracked the book.

Many of my classmates have actual professional experience in counseling, in addition to their relevant bachelor’s degrees. So, in some ways, being in grad school for psychology at Delaware Valley University reminds me of my undergrad era at Northwestern, where I was surrounded by kids toting binders full of newspaper clips and highlight reels from TV and radio reporting internships, while I’d just checked “JOURNALISM” on my application because I loved to write.

Now, as I page through the DSM-5 for the first time and prep my resume to seek internship opportunities, I realize: My only “qualifications” for working in this field boil down to “being really f*cked up.”

Not that personal struggles with anxiety, depression, hypomania, suicidal ideation, disordered eating and addiction make me any kind of mental, or “behavioral health,” expert. Not that being in recovery for nearly three years and therapy (on and off) for 20, or having been tested/diagnosed and medicated/experimented upon between the ages of 19 and 43 qualifies me to treat others grappling with any of the above issues. I’m well aware, it does not.

Side note: I do have a 4.0 GPA through 1 1/2 semesters in DelVal’s MA in Counseling Psychology program 🤓. I’ve been getting positive feedback from my role-play “client” in Advanced Techniques, and my Multicultural Counseling professor left the following comment on the reflection paper I turned in last week:

Side note to side note: Even though grades have slim to no bearing on my future success as a therapist, I celebrated my straight A’s with a shopping spree at the school bookstore. (Did you know compulsive spending is considered a specific mental health condition, in addition to being a common symptom of a manic episode?)

I don’t mean to make light of mental health, because the truth is, I am dealing — on a deep level and daily basis — with many of the heavy topics we’re discussing in class. I focus mostly on alcoholism in this space, but the more time I log in sobriety, the larger my other issues seem to loom. I sometimes wonder: How the hell did I ever think I could become a therapist when I’m basically a “textbook” therapy patient?

Lately, the biggest “mole” I’m having to “whack” is the abject misery of living with IBS-C. After YEARS of trial-and-error attempts at treatment (emphasis on error), a recent pelvic CT scan uncovered some potentially concerning developments regarding ovarian cysts. So…off we go on yet another uncertain investigative mission. 😑

Someone at school recently gushed about the digestive benefits of bone broth, and since that’s literally the only remedy I hadn’t heard of before, I instantly went online and ordered a couple bags of expensive organic meat juice, because why the 🤬 not at this point; I’d rip an actual bone off an animal carcass and chew on it if I thought it would fix me.

Whew! See what I mean?

I have so much lived experience to share that I worry…do my classmates think I’m making stuff up? 🗣 “This chick literally has every issue in the book!” I find myself raising my hand, weighing in on what it’s like to want to end your own life. I find myself launching into public diatribes about the mental toll of chronic health problems and the seeming lack of competency, and empathy, that I’ve witnessed among medical professionals paid to alleviate those problems.

I find myself waxing philosophical — and getting emotional — about how the loss of a lifestyle, or the giving up of a coping mechanism you once considered a “magic pill,” is really the death of a dream, and that symbolic kind of death can result in gut-wrenching grief that never completely goes away.

I’ve seen the above snippet of wisdom floating around on the internet for a while, to the point I’m not even sure where it originated. It seems particularly relevant now, in the midst of this monumental life change I’ve decided to undertake.

I guess it’s natural to feel a lot of angst while switching professions in your 40s AND recovering from the litany of shit that’s been previously listed. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of new information you’re packing into your newly de-fogged brain, or the decades of privilege you’re un-packing in order to be a more ethical and effective counselor — not to mention a more responsible citizen.

It’s not unusual for any human being, undergoing any type of growth, to come down with a bad case of Imposter Syndrome.

It’s certainly par for the course when an addict, faced with the kind of psychological stressors that used to trigger her self-medicating instinct and send her reaching for her favorite (not-so) magic pill, experiences sudden bouts of sadness, grief, confusion and self-doubt. Times get tough, and you get tired of fighting. The old escape hatch is permanently closed, and you can’t go back. The hole you’d like to crawl in and hide has been filled in, and your brain has healed far too much to make digging seem like a good idea.

You have no choice but to keep moving forward, finding little nuggets of hope to fuel you as you go.

Maybe it’s that life force that really qualifies someone for their chosen livelihood. I mean, it’s good to have a strong background in your field, and you need your education, as both a foundation and bureaucratic formality. But it’s the passion for the pursuit that ultimately makes the difference.

In my case, the “spirit of recovery” could be considered a valuable soft skill for an aspiring counselor. I would define it as an openness to change, a willingness to try, the courage to push past pain instead of running away — or tunneling under — and the refusal to ever give up on the gift of life. It’s like an eternal flame that flickers and falters but never burns out.

Or, like that little blue speck of light that appears in every picture I take out in nature…which I’m totally not imagining, right? 🤔

F*ck, it took something supernatural to get me through two decades as a journalist; I didn’t want to talk to strangers for stories any more in 2018, on my last day at Gatehouse Media, than I did in 1996, standing at the entry gate to the NU campus. My body’s fight-or-flight response was fully engaged every day on that job, and my go-to coping strategy turned into a near-daily binge-drinking habit that almost destroyed my life!

Getting sober almost 1,000 days/33 months ago did not make me a completely different person. It did not eradicate all my issues or clear my path of all pitfalls or equip me with any extraordinary knowledge or give me license to play tour guide on anyone else’s life journey. But it did give me a purpose, which is something I never had before, and a push toward service that’s not inherent for a natural introvert.

It planted me here, in this grad school program, seeking an internship placement for next winter while learning and growing more in a few months than I did in half a lifetime…and still, dammit, with a shitton of reading left to do!

Hey, maybe the time I’ve invested, venting my thoughts in this blog, will spare my classmates some amateur psychobabble in Monday’s discussion of eating disorders and addiction. And maybe, having not finished the homework will force me to practice a vital skill that all qualified counselors must master.

It’s called, “STFU and Listen.”

I still “talk to strangers” pretty much every day, but now, it’s for counseling research…and there’s no need to worry what I look like on camera!

2 thoughts on “Qualification”

  1. Thanks Jen. One of my early AA mentors advised me that if I was planning on staying in the fellowship, I might want to buy a black suit. A mutual clubhouse friend had died and this was his way of telling me that I needed to not drink, even and especially, in grief, because grief would be ever present. What I learned, as you pointed out, is that all change involves grieving. Some bittersweet, some just bitter. Learning to grieve in a healthy way was a valuable tool.

    Great insights as always, Jen. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

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