My Space Between Burnout + Beyond
This post gets a bit personal. As therapists, we’re taught not to do that. Not to speak about who we are and why. Not to share about our lives, our work or the intersection of the two. But I write what I’m about to because it’s relevant to my work. I write this because it might be important for you to know what I do and why. And I write it because it may be important to understand that many of us follow a non-linear, messy, stumbling path to the clarity of our calling. Yes, even therapists. Even really linear-looking, rather together, forward-focused ones like me.
I think that under every really good therapist is a first-class hot mess that got sorted out, whether they ever talk about it or not. And most do not. I’ve known a lot of silencing in my day and with this one, I’m going to take the liberty to share a bit more freely.
I’ve never been called loud, pushy or outgoing. By and large I’m a quiet person. I don’t call attention to myself and I prefer small groups and intimate connections. I didn’t even know I was an introvert until my 40’s (though I might’ve guessed it on my wedding day when I hated everyone looking at me!). So it’s a bit surprising for people to discover how stubborn and rebellious I am deep down. It’s been surprising for me, too.
I worked as a domestic and sexual violence specialist for the first 5 years of my clinical practice and I’ve spent the last year and a half running from it, largely in circles. In my early years as a therapist I refused to break from my chosen focus. To do so felt like diluting my fervor, my dedication, my raw will to help change things for survivors. Without much awareness, my inner stubborn parts insisted that I do this and this alone. So I did. If you met this part of me in a dark alley at night, you wouldn’t argue either. I did the work, held the space and learned how to turn off my emotions. I became a compartmentalizing gold medalist.
The problem with all this came on like the proverbial frog in the kettle – the heat turned up so slowly I didn’t feel the boil. My focus and determination led me into cases of unspeakable, active abuse and kept me in them when I knew the end might never come other than, perhaps, in the form of my client’s brutal death. What a thing to wait on. Rather than slow my roll, my stubborn parts stripped out my emotions and put hollow, steely nothingness in their place. Slowly, without knowing it, a great deal of me slipped away into cold storage.
Fine. Everything was fine.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
I became a psychotherapist a little late in the game, in my late 30s’ after a crushing divorce, an earlier career in design and management and a long run as a stay-at-home mom. I finished my bachelors’ degree and went headlong into grad school, in part to catch up on what I felt I should have done sooner (I always wanted to be a psychologist) and in part to bolster my earning capacity since it was clear that I was headed into becoming a single head of household. Either way, my marriage and the nuclear family I’d built were collapsing and more education was a welcome distraction.
I was freshly separated when I began my master’s degree in psychology and squarely divorced when I finished. Amid all the din of life’s disintegration, I was minted as a mental health professional with an intense passion for working with domestic and sexual violence. And yes, it is because I am a survivor. I landed at my local DV agency for my internship, was hired on as a clinician and I was off to the races. So determined was I to fix the suffering I knew best, I could not see that my trajectory was unsustainable. I worked with victims and survivors and I wasn’t really interested in other problems.
I stayed at the agency job until finances and a need for more freedom drove me to open my own practice. I did so and remained a domestic and sexual violence specialist. Many of my clients remained with me. It was a relief to only be doing clinical work and not fielding a hotline and rape crisis calls at the ER as well. Looking back I almost can’t believe life was like that, but it was.
From my own practice, a little lighter, I continued. Lots of my clients made important gains. I knew that the kind of help I was offering made a difference. The work was varied. Some days it felt victorious. Other days it felt very dim and difficult. Many cases shifted and improved but others did not. I carried right on doing what I’d done since becoming a therapist. The work.
Until, in a long-term, high-risk case of ongoing violence I ended up threatened by a very dangerous abuser and I finally hit a wall. Suddenly, instead of fearing for my client’s life – which I’d grown disturbingly, unacceptably accustomed to – I was suddenly fearing for my own. I never considered this outcome in my wildest imagination, but there it was. What followed for me was a long period of grief, doubt, guilt, fear and intense withdrawal from almost everything and everyone.
HOLDING CAN HELP OR HARM
This is the story of how my survival parts – and maybe fate – won out over my absurd determination to fix the unfixable. Why do I say it was absurd? For starters, therapists don’t fix things for people, we help them learn to fix things themselves. Beyond that, nobody ever does this work until they are ready. But sometimes when they’re not ready for you to help them fix it, the want you to help them hold it. And this is understandable, but it’s also where I got stuck.
I worked with many women who were still in abusive situations and committed to holding that space unconditionally, not understanding how bad it could get. Inside the DV movement, we are taught to support whatever a victim wants to do, no matter what. I still have mixed feelings about that as an idea in general, but I am crystal clear today about where I stand on that as a therapist. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the freedom to separate from this where I began my work. I didn’t know my own limitations in staying on that journey with someone unconditionally until I met them under the worst of circumstances.
MY SPACE BETWEEN
In the aftermath of this time, I stopped taking DV/SV cases. In fact, I stopped taking new clients all together for a long time. I questioned everything about what I was doing, what I wanted to do, and if I would work with victims or survivors ever again.
In diversifying into other issues in my case load, I found myself working with numerous entrepreneurs by chance. As a multi-entrepreneur myself, this was very exciting. I love the energy and the emotional journey of building a business. Working with this population in mentorship and career counseling has become a separate pillar of my practice.
I also found a through-line across my generalized caseload: that they were women navigating large life changes, seeking to build resilience and strength. Changes ranged from post-divorce to career pivots, empty-nesting to grief and loss. A whole lot of getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and getting there stronger. That’s what a lot of my work looked like in the time I was running from my passion and toward my calling. And I have enjoyed it.
But do you know the difference between a passion and a calling? As Elizabeth Gilbert teaches in her incredible talk called ‘Flight of the Hummingbird’, passion demands everything from us. It takes and we give because we can’t not. It’s feverous and driven. A calling, on the other hand, draws from us what is naturally flowing. It’s something we feel so open and compelled toward that we might do it whether we could make a living at it or not. It’s an energetic nuance, but it can be felt in a big way.
CIRCLING BACK, THIS TIME TO RISE
I didn’t quite understand the grief and loss I felt when I quietly stopped working with victims and survivors. On the one hand, I’d been blindsided by burnout and vicarious trauma and was not especially wanting more. On the other hand, DV was a subject that I related to so deeply and felt so drawn to respond to. I stayed in this space of push-pull for a long time internally, focusing on a lot of other things externally.
I labored, intellectually and emotionally, with where I should focus. Who did I want to help? Did I need to decide definitively? The truth is I love working with women facing all kinds of change and seeking to build resilience. I love bringing my knowledge of therapy theories into a space of learning, growth and Self-expansion. And I still love relating with and helping survivors of domestic violence, but now in other ways. Two, to be specific.
I’m in a different stage in my journey and I’ve landed back at a calling to work with survivors at a different stage of their journey: the aftermath. Specifically the process of love, relationships and readiness to build healthy, secure attachment. This is no small task for those who’ve been in a long-term abusive relationship. Getting out and getting well is massive stroke of work. I’ve learned – personally and professionally – that so, too, is preparing to love again.
This is a vastly under-recognized experience in the life of survivors and something that not enough support is offered around. As a DV therapist I know that most of the time, survivors cease therapy when things are ‘okay’ again. Yet this is where another whole scope of personal growth and work begin. Perhaps we stay single a while, but even so, re-entry into the world of intimacy after abuse can be a painful rollercoaster. I’m working to develop offerings around this experience and am excited about the new territory.
In addition to a new course / workshop offering around this subject, I am also writing about the experiences of survivors who have transcended abuse and gone on to find healthy, secure love. Understanding these powerful stories and journeys can help shape how those still struggling to leave abuse understand their own possibilities. Learn more about this project at my website.
While I don’t focus my clinical practice on domestic and sexual violence any longer, and while my wellness work serves a variety of women’s needs, returning to work with survivors through education, wellness work and writing feels a bit like coming home. Once I understood both my limitations and my calling, it was much easier to find the way.
Are you a survivor navigating love and dating? I welcome any feedback you might have about what’s hard, what you need, where you could use support and how I can help.