Thursday, June 09, 2011

Back to Work, Slacker...

It’s been just about two years since I turned in my 30 days notice, packed up my office, and got the heck outta dodge. In the months before my Descent Into Voluntary Underemployment, I bid farewell to several dear lifelong friends due to cross-country moves, mourned a murdered friend, and turned thirty. I didn’t have many clear expectations of the new life I would build, but I knew I was ready for something new when my day-to-day work life made me seriously consider drinking Clorox and setting my hair on fire. It’s not like I was digging ditches, but as I saw clients and tried to provide effective therapy for kids and families, I eventually passed burn-out and found myself crazy-eyed, laughing maniacally, and entertaining fleeting murderous desires.

I worked for a private, non-profit community mental health agency that provided state-contracted counseling and psychotherapy services for a wide range of clients. Just reading that sentence gives me the beginnings of a migraine headache and slightly vomitous rumblings in my digestive tract. Don't get me wrong, I’ve known some amazing people who worked in community mental health for their entire careers without wanting to shove their clients—or even more to shove their colleagues—through an industrial-sized food processor. It just so happens that I wasn’t one of those noble and amazing people, I guess. Sure, I started with lofty ideals of rescuing the world, but after almost five years of clinical work, everyone around me was coming to realize that I needed a break.

I remember one particularly noteworthy meeting. After two years of keeping detailed records of supervision notes, client contact hours, and passing a ridiculous licensing exam, I could finally operate as an autonomous counselor. But one fine day, after a tirade from the higher-ups about medical records or billable hours or some other such nonsense, my supervisor and I had assembled in the big boss’ (who just happened to be a dear friend and wise mentor)’s office. I knew I needed to begin exploring new options when I stepped outside myself for a moment—only to see me pacing the floor, pulling at my hair, and expelling flecks of saliva from my mouth with every near-yell. I’m just glad they didn’t alert security. I probably wouldn’t fare very well in the clink.

As I look back on this season of my life almost two years later, it’s no surprise that I ended up needing a break. During my brief career in community mental health, my experiences ran the gamut from odd to exhilarating, from heartwarming to nauseating, and everywhere in between. I befriended pet ferrets, imaginary guardian warrior angels, and dotty grandmothers. On the other hand, I saw a few clients overcome incredible odds and celebrate major victories—even if these moments were just a bit too rare. I lobbied judges on behalf of parents about to lose custody of their children. I watched proudly as kids graduated from high school, scored in the big game, or clarineted through their first band concerts. On the other end of the spectrum, I somehow experienced any and all possible human fluids depositing themselves somewhere on my person at one time or another. The work wasn’t rocket science. Most of the time the job just required that I show up, nod my head, and try to keep up with the never-ending paperwork. While I couldn’t have seen this truth as I left my farewell lunch (especially since I could hardly keep from jumping in the air and clicking my heels together Mickey Rooney style), some of my clients helped me, changed me, and brightened my life exponentially more than my piecemeal therapy did for them.

Now it’s been two years of building a new life in a new place. I’ve found a church home, made some great friends, and studied spiritual formation with some of the most wise and kind people in the world through the Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation. I’ve learned volumes about myself, and I’ve even kept up with the heinous CEUs required to maintain my counseling license, which I’m saving for a rainy day that I hope never comes! I have edited countless doctoral dissertations, transcribed sermons and speeches, written book proposals, and tried my hand at ghostwriting (which turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself). I’ve written political pieces from both sides of the aisle, tried my hand at travel writing, and edited so many chapters of curriculum and standardized tests that I should have more honorary degrees than a former head of state. I’ve spent hours at my local gym, trying to burn off too many fast food meals and late night snacks. I’ve accompanied choirs, played piano for churches, catered dinner parties (I make a mean Swedish meatball, let me tell you!), and even gone back to that favorite money maker of adolescents everywhere—babysitting!  

In the meantime, because of the wisdom of a generous friend, I experienced Reiki for the first time, and then eventually found the root problem for several years of frequent illness and poor sleep. Chronically inflamed tonsils coupled with a severely deviated septum (thank you, long ago car wreck) are like little bio-terrorists! Thank God for COBRA health insurance—the surgery went well and I now have a new lease on life. My family has welcomed a new baby, and I’m enjoying being an uncle to my 6 year old nephew and my new niece.

So for two years, I’ve been pretty busy. Through all of the other day-to-day excitement, I’ve read about writing, I’ve thought about writing, I’ve talked about writing, I’ve dreamed about writing…I’ve even written about writing. But what do I have to show for it? I have the initial chapters, outline and the skeletal framework for a novel about an unlikely friendship between a young African-American man and a white preacher in South Alabama. I have the beginnings of another novel about two aging southern socialites who lose their husbands, lose their money, and decide to hit the road bedecked in sequins and glitter as velvet leisure suit wearing Pentecostal revivalists in the 1970’s. I have a journal full of reflections on my experiences in the north Alabama foothills during the Academy. Lots of ideas, some of which I think are pretty good. Now I just need the fortitude to finish something. Perhaps putting it out here in the blogosphere (is that a word?) will give me the impetus to get back to work. (Nothing like a little accountability from the 3 and a half people who actually read this blog).

Someday soon this season of my life will draw to a close and I’ll go back to the 9 to 5 world—which may not be so much of a bad thing, after all. Retirement, insurance, and paid vacation days are quite the perks! But until that day comes, I’m a man on a mission…

1 comment:

Julie said...

Oh, Matt...I've missed your posts! I hope this marks a return to blogging. You're the only blogger I know who can make me laugh so hard I almost pee my pants AND cry my eyes out in the same post. I love this about you!