WDID Part III: Why Psychology?

Here’s the crazy thing: I pretty much ended up pursuing a career in psychology because I was good at running a sweep in 4th grade and then really good at faking being suicidal in high school.

That’s a true statement, even if on the surface it sounds strange and not a little appalling. So here’s the backstory on how I got to the present professionally.

Way back in elementary school I had a coach in little league football whom I grew close to, not exactly sure why, I guess we just clicked as coach and player. As I made my way to high school, Bill went off and got his degree in psychology and eventually returned in the role of a school counselor at my school. His office was right up the hall from my locker so I used to drop in on him all the time, to b.s. and hang out, along with friends. Bill eventually launched what he called a “psychodrama program,” and I was one of its initial participants. It was these experiences that really set the course for my career in psychology.

The program was an innovative service that involved a group of us students enacting teens in crisis so that professionals who might work with such teens (teachers, doctors, EMTs, cops) could practice their intervention skills via role plays. My own specialty was playing a kid with a previous suicide attempt veering in the direction of considering another one. I absolutely loved swirling on the edge of the abyss based on what you, the professional, said during the exchange. If the exchange went well, the professional and I could end things positively, crisis averted, sometimes even in a tearful embrace; if it went south, Bill might stop the proceedings in order to save the professional from my wrath with helpful tips. In many instances (to up the ante, as it were) we wouldn’t tell the professionals I was playing a role until after the exchange was over (if you’re thinking that’s playing loose with ethics you’re right, though it really did serve to get people’s attention). All in all it was pretty electrifying stuff to me, playing the roles themselves, doing the debriefs afterward, coaching grown ups on how to work with a troubled teen, and revealing my actual, respectable self to them. The program was a hit, was requested all the time, and I even ended up receiving a community service award of for my efforts.

There was a second side to these experiences, however, that was equally if not more compelling to me, and that was in how we prepped for this work. In order to deepen our understanding of kids in crisis, Bill would have the team participate in lots of emotional awareness raising activities among ourselves, amounting to some pretty cool group therapy-like work. We got really open in those activities, learned how to be radically vulnerable with one another and to trust each other in that space, all of which instilled a lot of resiliency of character in each of us, not to mention growing comfortable being our authentic selves and not endlessly encumbered by the usual demands of adolescent artifice.

This was my first taste of willful, deliberate personal growth, and while at times it freaked the shit out of me, most of the time I was pretty dazzled by it. I started seeing the way things played out around me a little differently, started feeling less caught up in the drama of my teens and recognizing more my agency in them. That gave me a certain strength back then I didn’t necessarily see in my other friends, and definitely a confidence in “being in the world” in a way that has fed my comfort in operating within the intimacy that characterizes the kind of work I’ve done over the years (not to mention in all of my relationships).

But where the psychodrama work itself was concerned, my reaction to that was,“So this is psychology, eh? Getting real with yourself, and channeling that in ways that can have a real impact on others?” That seemed pretty cool to me. I knew well in advance of Duke what my major would be.

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All’s I’ll say about my undergraduate education in psychology was that it bore no—ZERO—resemblance to what I’d experienced in high school. Being a pretty popular major at the time, too many of the classes were these huge and impersonal affairs. The subject matter as presented was pretty dry, the professors too often long in the tooth. It just didn’t click for me at Duke (granted, I was pumping the majority of my energy into socializing and lacrosse there, so didn’t take the time to do anything to make my major come alive any better).

This left me a tad uncertain upon graduating from Duke if psychology was the right fit for me. I decided to spend a year working a few jobs in the field before pulling the trigger on grad school. This actually stretched into two years, during which I worked in an afterschool program for behaviorally challenged kids, and as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor for a county agency (blows my mind to think they hired a 22 year old with just an undergraduate degree in psychology to do this work, but then, given the population we served, let’s just say the clients got what they paid for). I guess I felt good enough at that point to go on in psychology, applied to various Psy.D. programs (which emphasize practicing psychology over researching it, a la’ Ph.D. programs), and went on to get my doctorate in clinical at the University of Denver.

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Did I sell you on that last line? Were you maybe a tad distracted by that half-hearted “I guess I felt good enough…”? Looking back, I realize that that was only about as good as it got for me back then. Those jobs in the field I worked before applying to grad school? Truth is, they were really pretty depressing—tough clients, paltry wages, cheerless institutional settings. And yet time at that point in my life (now two years out of college) felt to be working against me. Most of my friends were knee-deep in their young careers but indeed on their way (most of my friends did the 80s thing of going into banking, for that matter, so I should say they were on their particularly rollicking way). I’d sunk a good bit of time and effort into psychology, and lacking any inspiration to do anything else (such as go into business in some manner), I felt going forward into the field had become something of a fait accompli. So I just did it, though still not convinced it was the absolute right thing for me.

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Did grad school end up firing me up? Does having an almost affair with a sexy classmate count?

Grad school certainly involved its fair share of compelling experiences, some of which occurred in the classrooms, most of which happened during the various “practicum placements” (jobs in the field) I participated in each year while there. I did learn a TON about psychology in grad school, of course; in fact, relative to my undergraduate education, grad school finally found me really dedicated to actually learning something. I definitely wrapped things up there with a handful of real skills—in assessment, in various forms of therapy. But did I have a clear vision for where and how I’d apply them now, finally at the true advent of my actual working career? No, I didn’t. In fact, I even prolonged my time in and around grad school by selling myself on the notion of staying in Denver an extra year given some additional placements that became available to me (and over my father’s gentle but astute questions/concerns about delaying things further).

After that extra year, I went on to do my obligatory one year internship at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Even in this choice you can see me still scrambling to figure out who I wanted to be when I grew up, given its behavioral medicine emphasis (a specialization I paid no attention to during grad school and, while open to the possibility, really had no particular interest in). During this year, two additional opportunities presented themselves to me—to teach an undergraduate course in psychology at Loyola University Maryland, as well as work on a longitudinal study of hypertension at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The latter became something of a post-doc for me, which I did during my internship and then for an additional year after. Finally, at that point, now 30 years young (!), edumacated out the wazoo, sitting on about $50k in student loan debt, FINALLY I was ready to begin to really work and really start earning an income (an overall financial strategy I would encourage to absolutely NO ONE). And STILL I hadn’t a strong clue for what I wanted to really do.

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So that’s pretty much a blow by blow of the answer to, why psychology. I’ve already Readers Digest-ed what happens in my career going forward here. Before drawing these reflections to a close with an actual critique of my career in my next blog, as well as offering a sense for what else I may have done if I didn’t pursue psychology, it may be useful to offer some key points about this origin story, points I’ve heard myself make to others or reflected on over the years.

  • My interest in psychology was prompted by the opportunistic fluke of getting involved in a very different sort of program while in high school.
  • While the program provided a bona fide service to the community, the personal development experiences that we participated in as part of the program were probably more compelling to me than the work itself.
  • A point I haven’t made yet, worth noting, is that the psychodrama program involved reasonably high functioning kids like myself pushing themselves to develop emotionally above and beyond what their usual life experiences were doing. In other words, my interests in psychology were not born of wondering why things go wrong for some people (which was altogether the emphasis of my graduate work), but rather why some people doing perfectly well seek to develop themselves even further.
  • Overall, my pursuit of psychology seemed as driven by a lack of inspiration in any other direction as it was a particular interest in doing this kind of work. I never burned for psychology. With each passing year early on, I just found myself slipping deeper into the commitment in this direction.

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