Looking Back – My Forty Years as a Psychologist

This month\’s column records my personal journey as I head for retirement this fall after being employed 40 years as a clinical psychologist. Perhaps my comments on my own journey could have meaning for some of you if you are on a similar journey.

I got my very first professional job August 1, 1969 at the tender age of twenty-six. Were we ever really that young? Although I started in a research psychologist position, studying the effects of Ritalin on children\’s learning and behavioral problems, I remember thinking at the time…would anyone take me seriously as a psychologist at such a young age. Didn\’t one need the wisdom of years in this profession? Now I\’m wondering if they think I\’m on the verge of senility!

But I muddled through that scary beginning. I remember the pride I felt the first time someone called me “doctor.” Those grueling years of graduate school finally seemed worth it: the sweltering summers in Champaign-Urbana taking required German courses (a language requirement later lifted, much to my consternation) and fighting the gender bias that existed at the time, making it nearly impossible to find a thesis advisor without sleeping with him. The first statement of our Department Head to our newly arrived class of 25 males and 5 females was, “If I had my way, there wouldn\’t be any women here at all. We\’re just wasting our time educating you because you\’ll just stay home and have babies.” We women sat there shell-shocked. A few years later we would burn our bras and start to protest. My general advisor, also male of course, would write in my permanent file that he didn\’t anticipate that I would finish the degree, even though, at the time, I was receiving an “A” in his course. Funny, I still feel a surge of anger as I write about those times.

Then the two babies came and with them job changes. No you can\’t work part time, the State of Illinois told me. No you can\’t have off at Halloween to see them in their costumes, the private clinic told me. No you can\’t get off early or stay home with a sick child, they all told me. And amid all the work pressures, two marriages came and went. From 1985 on, I was psychologist and single Mom. The kids survived, in fact thrived, even though Mom still worked. A wonderful, kind older woman (my current age!!) came into our lives and drove them to soccer, fixed hot meals, supervised homework, and provided a listening ear. And best of all, when I got home, she had a hot meal ready for me and had cleaned and organized my kitchen. What a blessing! Every working woman needs a “wife.”

A return to California, where I had grown up in La Jolla, from Illinois came in 1981. Behind me were 12 years of working for the state, then a private clinic, and finally my own biofeedback practice. Ahead of me lay 10 years at a Christian counseling center and then almost 19 years in a Psychiatry clinic at Kaiser Permanente. Each position offered a new training ground, new professional relationships, and new challenges. The skills came through training, being mentored by colleagues, and by osmosis as I worked with each new patient.

I estimate that I have seen between nine to ten thousand patients over the years; some once, some for years; mostly women; many children in foster care (in my private practice). Just when you\’ve think you\’ve heard everything, a patient presents with a history of maltreatment that shocks even a seasoned therapist. You know you help a small percentage, you figure you may have been integral to change for a few. There are many more that pass your way and disappear without you ever knowing if you\’ve helped or at least not harmed them.

You realize almost every day that you\’re lucky to be two steps ahead in terms of your own relationships and decisions. And, often, you realize with humility that you are several steps behind. Their courage bolsters your courage to tackle the same issues with more verve. You feel extraordinarily privileged to be privy to their innermost secrets, the first to listen to their stories of a childhood molestation or a lonely life as the spouse of an alcoholic. You share your own struggles when appropriate. Often being “real” produces the most impact. You\’re amazed at how many clients assume you must have your act completely together if you are a therapist…not!

Looking Ahead – What\’s Next?

I find it amazing that I have made very few specific plans. I have taken the opportunity to help my children and grandchildren and to do some fabulous trips while I still have an income. When I retire, I\’ll need to hunker down financially and find all those free or inexpensive ways to enjoy life.

I don\’t plan to continue as a therapist unless in the context of providing fun, inspiring workshops for women, and maintaining my website (www.doctorflamingo-online.com). I know I want to explore some creative interests that have been on the back burner. I may even finish my second novel (information on the first and the unfinished second can be found at www.degreesofobsession.com).

I will continue to enjoy a significant other relationship discovered in just this past year (it\’s never too late, ladies). My third grandchild is on the way, and I\’ll spend more time with my two grandsons in Oregon. And I will be grateful for good health, wonderful friends, a loving Maker, and the continued blessings of each new day.

* * *

A REMINDER:

If you feel you have a psychiatric emergency, go directly to a family member, a friend, your physician, your pastor, or the nearest hospital emergency room and TELL THEM YOU NEED ARE IN CRISIS AND IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP.

OR

Call 911 or one of these numbers:
• 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-784-2433
• 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255
• For a Suicide Hotline in your state: www.suicidehotlines.com

Suicide is a permanent and tragic solution to a temporary problem. GET HELP.