I am a psychologist who spent the first ten years of my career doing full-time clinical work at a large community mental health center. The agency was growing quickly and the administrators kept trying to promote me. I declined, even when I was starting to burn out as a clinician. I am a bit obsessive-compulsive and had always been stressed by ambiguity or change. My fear about joining the management ranks was that it would just be too stressful for me.
Early in my career I became compelled to learn as much as I could about spirituality. It wasn’t conscious at the time, but in hindsight I believe I needed to find a way to make sense out of the enormous pain I was witnessing on a daily basis as a therapist. I immersed myself in books and videotapes (later CDs) written by spiritual teachers. I increasingly relied on my own evolving spiritual belief system to make sense of the world, and it increasingly informed my work.
Robin first came to see me in 1993 with symptoms related to a past history of trauma including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative episodes and self-mutilation. She was smart, funny, likable and knowledgeable about her symptoms, as she herself had worked in the mental health field for several years. Robin was very good at presenting to the world that she was feeling better and was healthier than she actually was. She had told very few of her mental health savvy friends about her symptoms. I was honored that she agreed to let me in, and she quickly made significant progress in treatment.
In early 2002 Robin became intractably depressed. What happened during the subsequent eleven months is a dramatic story of Robin struggling against almost constant obsessive suicidal thoughts, and me learning that she had been hiding many of her feelings and symptoms from me and everyone else for many years. Once Robin’s defenses completely abandoned her and she began to talk, I became as spiritually clear as I have ever been…that I needed to be her life-line if she was going to survive.
That year changed me forever. I had no choice but to abandon whatever techniques I had learned as a therapist and to completely “trust my gut,” which I believe is my inner spiritual guidance. I agonized, consulted colleagues and supervisors, extended boundaries in ways that felt appropriate, lost sleep, and worried a lot. At the same time, I began to realize that all the meaningless things I had ever worried about prior to that time were unimportant. Being immersed in the life and death struggle of someone I cared about for such a long period of time, caused everything in my life to take on a different perspective.
The bottom line is that I am no longer afraid of change or ambiguity. I am no longer stressed by the challenges that used to stress me. My life has been through many, many changes since that time including stopping my therapy practice, allowing myself to be promoted many times over a seven year period to various positions with increasing management responsibilities, and then changing career paths again.
I will be forever grateful to Robin for letting me in, for allowing me to witness her pain, and for the positive changes that happened to me as a result. Robin and I both needed to tell her story.
Sharon DeVinney, Ph.D. completed her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Purdue University. She spent ten years doing full-time clinical practice at a community mental health center with primarily adults, many of whom experienced symptoms of severe mental illness. She then spent eight years working as an administrator at that same community mental health center while continuing to maintain a small caseload of therapy clients. She currently works in long-term care facilities in addition to writing, consulting and spending as much time as possible with the people she loves.