Yesterday morning I hit the submit button on my final paper for grad school. It was a strange feeling. Sure, there was the sense of completion, the relief of no more assignments and the new-found freedom of actually "being free" to do what I want, read what I want, write what I want, and not have anything looming in the background.
I went outside to mow (this is where I do my best thinking) and process my strange mix of emotions.
Why was I not elated? What was this lingering sense of disappointment?
There is a type of psychotherapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). While it sounds like a mouthful, the term "dialectical" refers to the idea of two opposing forces. In DBT, we often refer to these two things as our rational mind and our emotional mind.
Our rational mind thinks about things logically, it relies on evidence and past experiences to shape our reaction. It is focused and uses facts to respond.
Our emotional mind is the opposite. Our emotional mind is reactive and is driven by the emotions we experience. It's quick to respond and typically not the most rational or logical.
As human beings we all have rational and emotional parts, and sometimes (most times) we act from one part over the other.
In between the rational and emotional minds lies the wise mind.
The wise mind uses intuition and mindfulness. It considers what logic is telling us and what our emotions are telling us. One of the goals of DBT is to help people move from dichotomous thinking of "it's this, or it's that" into a more integrated way of thinking, which honors our emotional experience without being driven by it, while also using logic and reason.
So, as I mowed I was very stuck in my emotional mind. Why was I feeling disappointed? Was it because school's over and there is some kind of loss in that? Maybe that was true, but I knew my ego a bit better.
No, the real reason I was feeling disappointed was because I thought I would have a PhD by 29. I know, I know. This may sound like an absurd expectation, but we all have our dreams, and this was mine.
As I approach 30, as my husband prepares to begin his graduate school journey, and we discuss starting a family, it felt in some way like my dream was over...at least for the foreseeable future.
My rational mind said, "don't be ridiculous, you got a master's degree from the 5th best school of social work in the nation and were recruited for their doctoral program. Waiting is what's best for your career and your family, not to mention your budget. Get off your high horse that it's not in psychology or chemistry. This is where your passion is, and you can do anything with it."
Somewhere, in the middle of my lawn, my wise mind kicked in. It felt the emotions I had, and it heard the logical argument as well. And that wise mind helped me make sense of the two.
It's easy to romanticize the past and "what could have been." I find myself doing this from time to time, thinking back on my MCAT scores, or "if I had just" published research as an undergrad and gotten into a great PhD program for psychology (which are more competitive than medical school).
It's easy to look at old scores and transcripts and say, "why didn't I..."
The answer to that question, the real truth of why I didn't go down the path of self-expectations is far more complex. Standing in the middle of my lawn on a gorgeous April day, I looked to the sky and was thankful that I didn't.
From the outside, my path has resembled one of my least favorite Beatles songs, The Long and Winding Road, but it all makes sense as I look back.
Had I gone through with my medical school application and gone, I'm not sure I would be here. I say this not to be overly dramatic, but in true response to my health at the time. I looked fine on the outside, but I was very sick, and I do not think I would have made it out of the pressure-cooker that is medical school with all parts intact.
Beyond my health, I also knew that it wasn't the right path, and I couldn't shake that knowing. It always felt like putting a square peg into a round hole. I was trying to force something and make it fit.
As I studied for the MCAT and my concentration wavered due to my failing health and growing anxiety, I contemplated seeking a prescription for Adderall. A friend who was in med-school at the time told me that Adderall was like candy in medical school, it's how people stayed sharp to focus for so many hours. This sounded like a miracle drug to me. Fortunately, at the time, my wiser mind kicked in. I knew that taking Adderall would probably lead me down a very dark road, prescribed or not.
As my MCAT scores were where I wanted them, and the other aspects of my application were on point, my parents got nervous. My mom came in my room one night as I was studying, and said, "Sarah, I don't care if you get in to your dream school. I can't let you go while you are still sick."
Thank God she was right, and thank God that I knew it.
I don't think it's any accident that I wound up becoming a therapist. It's no accident that I work with people who are sick, at the end of their rope, and marginalized. My ego, which always secretly thought I would be work with wealthy people, and in turn be wealthy, learned one of life's greatest lessons:
Everybody poops, including me.
So I didn't go to medical school. Instead, I followed another dream I had since childhood and moved to California. I taught tennis, traveled, and worked in admissions at an elite boarding school in Monterey. It was beautiful. It was an amazing opportunity. It was lonely.
I began the process of applying to PhD programs in clinical psychology, but nothing seemed to open up that matched my research interests with where I was willing to be (location wise). These programs are so competitive that most people move far distances to go to a school they get into. I wasn't willing to cast a wide net. I had more important things to attend to. Namely, getting healthy.
For me, getting healthy meant going back home. I needed to be back home, back near family, and back on the east coast with my new found love (who I've since married).
As my health improved, I cast the net again for graduate schools. The door never opened for a clinical psych program near me, but the door for the MSW program at UNC Chapel Hill did.
I couldn't really explain my draw to the program. I never thought I'd be a social worker or a psychotherapist, but something about it spoke to my soul. A decision was being made that took my ego, and the pile of BS expectations I had, out of the equation. Deep down, somewhere, I knew it was where I was meant to be.
So here I sit, four years after making the decision to start, and some pretty phenomenal things have happened.
My health has drastically improved, for one. I enjoy more balance than I thought I could. I have rich and deeply meaningful relationships, and the work I do invites me into the lives of others every single day. I have the opportunity to offer healing for some of the deepest wounds people experience. It's a true privilege and meaningful work.
I reflect on the immense privilege I have in even being able to contemplate school, in having opportunities to move to CA, to teach tennis, to have family support and accountability.
Going with my wise mind has not been an easy process. My logic, my ego, and my emotions fight it all the time.