Sometimes what I’m doing doesn’t feel a whole lot like my own life. It’s almost as if someone has plucked me out of a crowd and thrown me into these different experiences, and I’m wandering around nodding my head, jotting down notes, and wondering if anyone is going to figure out how unprepared and incompetent I feel. Nobody seems to have caught on quite yet. I’m getting tired of waiting for some kind of shoe to drop.
Right now I’m sitting on a Princess-themed bed in a rented room in a house somewhere in the southern part of Orlando, sipping Syfo Sparkling Water while my Airbnb host’s dog, Charlie, sits patiently on the other side of my door, waiting for me to open it. I’m here through Friday morning on an educational development trip, for my Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate program. I’ll be spending the week getting to know a group of my fellow classmates, all of whom come from different parts of the country (I’m the only one from my state), and we’ll be doing some hardcore role-play training to prepare us to become mental health counseling interns by next fall.
Today I sat across from one of my classmates and tried my best to apply all of the fundamental counseling skills I’d learned throughout the semester to a mock counseling session with her. When she sat down I tried my best to welcome her and move the conversation forward confidently, but as soon as we started talking, my mind went blank. My voice was smaller than normal. It felt like the tiny conference room around me was shrinking, and that my vision was starting to go through a tunnel. I wanted so badly to know how to grasp onto the things she was saying to me, but I was so focused on trying to think of my next question or comment that I often lost track of her words. I tried to smile. I tried to nod and remain relaxed. But I felt like no amount of reading was going to make me understand the subtle mechanics of being a professional helper.
This trip alone has triggered more desires to drink than any other thing I’ve done in the 156 days since I got sober. From the moment I stepped off the plane last night, I’ve had the same urge pop up multiple times, and then leave as quickly as it came. I’m not sure what’s causing it, exactly, but it’s probably a combination of multiple things happening all at once: traveling alone to a city I’ve never been to before, staying in a stranger’s house instead of my own private hotel room, feeling lonely for company and wishing I would hear from my boyfriend more, being anxious about my week of non-stop role-playing experiences, feeling disconnected from my classmates because I haven’t met any of them until now and I find it hard to connect easily with people at first, and the simple act of finding a place to eat tonight leading me on some sort of wild-pizza chase through the drunken streets of downtown Orlando.
This morning when everyone arrived at the hotel where we’re having our sessions, we did some get-to-know-you exercises, which included writing our commitments for the week onto a piece of paper, crumpling them up and throwing them into the center of the room, and then picking up a random sheet to read to the rest of the group. On my sheet, I wrote, “I commit to opening my heart, deepening my craft, and letting go of my ego.” These are things I truly, truly mean to commit to and practice, not only this week, but as I move forward with this program. I wrote those things down feeling excited, nervous, and energized about what was going to happen next. I wrote them down because as strongly as I feel about this profession, I know I still have so, so much to learn, which means I’m going to have to get pretty good at getting out of my own way.
I’m trying to let go of the idea that I have to know exactly what I’m doing when I sit down for these role-play sessions this week. This is part of letting go of my ego. I can’t be self-critical or perfectionist or comparing myself to others if I want to improve what I’m doing.
I’m trying to come to terms with the idea that this new path of mine isn’t simply going to be a career – it’s going to be a vocation and a craft that I will try to iterate and improve upon as often as I can.
I’m trying to feel comfortable with opening my world to these other people I’m sharing the week with – not just on a superficial level, but on a heart level. I’ve done a pretty fair job of keeping my heart and my feelings protected just below the surface, and I believe that this is a large reason why I find it hard to connect with others. It always feels so close, yet something is usually holding me back. I know that, in order to be an effective counselor and helper, I will have to lower my barriers a bit more and start to envision my vocation as a healthy mix between professionalism and humanism. I need to let go of the idea that I need to follow a formula and follow the rules all the time.
These things are hard. I like to think that I’m already a decently self-aware person, but there’s something next-level about sitting in front of a room of your peers and learning, quite literally, how to connect with someone you don’t even know, and relating to them in a way that makes them more willing to trust you with some of their most personal thoughts and feelings. It’s scary, humbling, and an honor to know that this will be my life’s work. It’s terrifying to know that the people I’m working with this week will probably be the easiest “clients” I ever have, and that there’s no guidebook or manual that will tell me which tool to use or which road to take to help my future clients get where they need to go.
It’s a weight. I feel it quite literally in my shoulders, simultaneously weighing them down and pushing them up to my ears. Sometimes I still question myself and wonder if I’ve actually made the right choice in doing all this: Isn’t it easier for me to just stay in my current line of work? Wouldn’t it be nice to have that stable salary working for the software company where everyone seems to like you OK and you have some good ideas to contribute? Why change when you know you’re good at this whole career thing you’ve got going on already? Who needs to feed their soul and mind through work? That’s what the weekend is for. And speaking of weekends, you’re certainly missing out on a lot of your weekends by holing up with your books and computer. You’re missing out on that fun, downtown night life that everyone is supposed to enjoy in their 20s. You? You’re living at home! With your dad, and your wino Step-Mom. You even re-homed your cats for this! It better be worth it.
So yeah, being here has brought up a lot of mixed emotions and low-level feelings of wanting to drink. Being alone in a warm, tropical, faraway place with nobody to hold me accountable has my alcoholic brain online again. I won’t let her out, but she’s there right now, quietly reminding me of the easy path back to not having to care about any of these things.
By the time our session let out, I was starting to feel a little panicked about my impending aloneness. So instead of listening to my drinky brain all afternoon, I threw on my workout clothes & running shoes as soon as I got back from the hotel, and I hit the pavement running. I knew I needed to get my heart pumping, and with it being a perfect 70 degrees and overcast outside, I decided to take a few laps around the park next to my Airbnb.
Self-care is what they call it in my (new) trade, and it’s something all of the faculty members made sure to stress to us students as we sat around in our large group before lunch: “please, please,” a grey-haired professor named Barb said, “make sure you take the time necessary to practice some self-care, whatever that means to you. That means this week, too. Self-care isn’t just a frill or me telling you to slack off. This is a necessary part of the profession. When we’re good to ourselves, we’re better to our clients.”
As I ran, I thought of my commitment that I wrote down earlier that day, and began repeating it to myself as a little mantra. “Open the heart, deepen the craft, lose the ego. Open the heart, deepen the craft, lose the ego. Open the heart, deepen the craft, lose the ego.” A mixture of sweat and condensation started dripping down my face and down the small of my back, and the southern December warmth wrapped itself around my body like shrink wrap. I ran and breathed my mantra in and out, around a hill in the park and through a canvas of Spanish moss that swayed gently in the breeze that followed my body toward the dusk.
“Open, deepen, lose. Open, deepen, lose. Open, deepen, lose.”