Hard to imagine

About 30 years ago, after leaving residential treatment against the advice of my doctors, I finished my undergraduate requirements on a part-time schedule, took the GREs, and applied to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. I knew that acceptance to one of these programs straight out of college would be a long-shot under the best of circumstances, but because I had trouble imagining my life without being in school, I thought why not try applying anyway.  And go figure, I got in.

Shortly after my college graduation, I moved across the country to an apartment near where the graduate school was located, and found a highly-recommended psychiatrist (Dr. P.) to continue my mental healthcare in this new city.  Dr. P. evaluated me for several sessions and obtained my records from my previous doctors. Then, knowing that I was supposed to be starting graduate school in a matter of weeks, she urged me to withdraw. She said I wouldn’t be able to succeed in this path, and that it would be a terrible mistake to try.

I didn’t know what to do, but didn’t think it made sense to drop out of graduate school before I’d even seen what it was like. I tried to explain this to Dr. P., but she insisted that I was being unrealistic, and embarking on a dangerously stressful course that could only end in failure and regret.  So I went to a nearby outpatient clinic to get randomly assigned to a new psychiatrist, and started graduate school as planned.

My progress in school was slow and uncertain for many reasons. But the biggest reason was that every time I faced a setback, I feared that maybe Dr. P. had been right. Maybe I was too mentally ill to succeed as a clinical psychologist. After all, my own mental health history was more severe than the most impaired of my patients at the clinic, the ones my professors referred to with stigmatizing labels and hopeless prognoses. Though in retrospect it seems clear that every reasonably self-aware clinical psychology trainee ought to have some self-doubts, the degree of fear and stigma attached to my self-doubts was staggering. Maybe I never should have left the smoke-filled TV lounge of the residential program, where I had been so desperate for air and non-delusional conversation?

I did finish my Ph.D. after a decade which included two leaves of absence for depression. Afterwards I worked for close to a decade more in a series of temporary, often low-paying post-doctoral positions.  Still having trouble managing my illness (and requiring two more leaves of absence), I worried that I would never be able to use my degree for stable employment. It took me several years of applying for faculty jobs before I received an offer. And soon after starting this tenure track job I was back on emergency medical leave again, haunted by Dr. P’s prophecy.

It was nearly five years ago that I returned from leave for one last chance at redeeming my career, and though it hasn’t been easy or smooth, I’ve really given it everything I could. With the help of ketamine infusions, I have accomplished far more during this time – in terms of being a scholar and teacher and functional adult – than ever before.  It really has been one of the most strenuous challenges of my life, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped encourage and support me through it, including several on-line readers.

Today I found out that I have been awarded tenure. For the first time I feel like I can really say that Dr. P. was wrong about my future — and that she was wrong to have made my young self feel crazy and stupid for still wanting to try to pursue it. She might have talked to me about the likelihood that I’d need more time to get my degree, and more support, than my classmates. She might have talked to me about the importance of being patient with myself through this process. But what she said was more or less the opposite of those things. Even if she did it with good intentions, to tell me my plans were doomed to end catastrophically was harmful, as well as factually incorrect. Today as I am finally leaving Dr. P’s prophecy behind, my future is opening up. Sure the road I took to get here was much longer, steeper and more meandering than that of most tenured professors. But what I’ve experienced and learned along the way only makes me better at my work, not worse.

That I’ve actually arrived here hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but I know it will mean many positive, anxiety-reducing changes in my life. It also means that I have definitively defied the odds against me in a way that even now seems practically impossible.

After having seen all that they saw,
It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine.
Things were different then. All is different now.
I tried to explain somehow.
Things were different then. All is different now…
~Pearl Jam (1993)

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