Updated: May 18
I still remember the crushing feeling when a novel I had worked on was rejected by my agent. I didn’t cry but felt like it. The news had come in a letter. “Some good stuff but I just don’t think it’s saleable.” My wife was pregnant with our first child and I realized I needed a more dependable source of income. I had less than two years of college from SUNY Binghamton and LA Valley College.
The Myers Briggs says I’m an ENFJ, with suggested careers writer, teacher, therapist or clergy. I wasn’t that spiritual back then, but I had been a writer and a teacher (UCLA extension journalism and Learning Annex on creative writing). And the idea of being a therapist was appealing. I took classes at Portland State University and was accepted in the program that allowed you to earn credit for life experiences. Lots of writing about my life and a few required classes, and I earned an undergraduate degree from Eastern Oregon College who administered the external degree program. Then I applied for and was accepted into Lewis & Clark College’s master’s degree program for counseling psychology.
One unrelated to writing highlight was when I was just out of the pool at the school, exercising to de-stress after class. As I stood in the locker room in my birthday suit, Trail Blazer coach Rick Adelman, Jerome Kersey , and Terry Porter walked through. I waved and said how much I enjoyed their play, getting a polite acknowledgement. But this makes for a conversation stopper when I casually mention “The Trail Blazers saw me naked,” and how all of them left the city not that long afterward. Haunted by my doughy pallor, no doubt. The Trail Blazers used the Lewis & Clark gym for their practice.
Department chair Dr. Doran French was my advisor. His interest was children. Mine wasn’t really but encouraged by him, I did a paper on the efficacy of multi systemic therapies as opposed to other therapeutic practices for kids. The article was published in the Oregon Counseling Association Journal Spring 1993, entitled Treatment of the Juvenile Offender; Many Approaches, Few Successes. The abstract reads: “Treatment problems with the growing number of serious juvenile offenders have been addressed by virtually every school of therapeutic thought. Yet successes are few and delinquency continues to plague most communities. This literature review compares the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches and concludes that an approach combining behavioral and systemic interventions offers the best chance of success.”
I graduated in the summer of that year.
Academic writing was never my forte or passion, but it was inevitable that I would do it. I didn’t like the repetitiveness, the dependency on quoting other sources, the somewhat rigid structure that always ended with “More research is needed.” But at a training, I met Insoo Kim Berg, the co-founder with her husband Steve de Shazer, of solution-focused therapy. I liked the therapy’s inherent optimism, the belief that clients ultimately had the solution to their problems, they just needed a counselor to help bring it out. I had two journal articles published in the Journal of Systemic Therapies: Finding Solutions in a Relaxation Group and Finding Solutions in a Roomful of Angry People.
For my grad school internship, I had worked at Southeast Mental Health Network, a community behavioral healthcare agency. What that meant was seeing hard core patients who were struggling with mental health and addiction, criminal justice, homelessness, domestic violence, poverty and just about every societal ill you can imagine. People whose insurance came through Medicaid. It was rare to see a client who hadn’t been physically-sexually-and emotionally abused as a child and repeated those challenges going into adulthood. It was a deep dive into trauma.
I remember my first time in a room with an early client. The room was small with cinder block walls painted a pale yellow and marred by numerous dark smudges. Functional furniture, no cliched couch. She was very depressed, with past suicide attempts. Barely made eye contact. I was thinking, “Oh my god, does she know who she is trusting with her mental health?” I drew comfort from one of my supervisors telling me that just being a man and not abusive would be therapeutic for many of the clients. That much I could handle.
I had found my calling.