I have baggage. Sometimes it feels like a ten-ton anchor around my neck.
I’m a survivor. But before I was a survivor, I was a victim, and victimhood dies hard.
It took me a long time to realize that too often I greeted the hurt, sadness, fear, and loneliness of bad outcomes with a shrug. What else did I expect? Bad shit always happens to victims. Victimhood became an unconscious but steadfast, and defeatist way of life.
For the last six years, I’ve been working doggedly and proactively to reinvent myself. I allow myself to have hope. I tell myself I’m not jinxed or snake-bitten, hapless or doomed. That’s bullshit. That’s the irrational rationalization of a victim. But sometimes my quest sure feels hopeless.
Where did this victimhood complex come from? I was sexually abused at the age of 11 and again at 13. Thus, I developed the mentality of a victim. I didn’t tell a single person about the molestation for more than forty years. It took a self-inflicted adult trauma to awaken the wounds of my youth. Those wounds ate away at my soul and my psyche, sending me on a journey of risk-taking self-sabotage, which culminated in disgrace.
The adrenaline rush was hardly worth it. I broke the law, was arrested, charged, pled guilty, and sentenced to probation. I lost my wife, job, financial security, career and reputation.
So yes, I have baggage.
Instantly, I devolved into a leper. Nobody would touch me with a ten-foot pole. I was publicly excoriated, tarred the feathered in the public square, and left for dead. But I wasn’t dead. I was very much alive, which required finding a way forward.
But, how could I recover from annihilation? How could I support myself financially? How could I challenge myself creatively and intellectually? How could I hold my doubts, despair, and hopelessness, at bay? How could I recapture even a semblance of confidence?
Prior to my calamity, I had earned a reputation as an accomplished filmmaker, journalist, and, sports and media executive. I won awards, received widespread recognition, and made a comfortable living. This is what I knew. And, I was good at it. But it appeared as if I had reached the end of the line. My future had been eviscerated by my self-destruction.
What now? What could I do with the rest of my life? How would I find purpose, meaning, and belonging?
You see, I’d been driven by achievement since I was a kid. Research scientist, Dr. Ben Houltberg, calls what I have, “performance-based identity.” It means I measure my self-worth solely by how well I perform. In essence, I have to perform at a high level in order to feel accepted, respected, loved. Failure to achieve results in shame and self-loathing, which is obvioiusly not sustainable over the long haul.
Three and a half years of intensive therapy helped me navigate through that psychological morass. I can now recognize the phenomenon that is victimhood when it occurs, but that doesn’t mean I can always control it.
And besides, my primary longing was still to discover a path forward that would enable me to accomplish something meaningful, anything. I desperately needed to find a new career that would excite and inspire me. I needed a “calling” I could feel passionate about.
I decided my first step would be to sit down and write the book that had been percolating inside my brain. So, I gritted my teeth and told the story of my life and its transformation, one keystroke at a time. The experience was pure paradox. It was wonderful — harrowing, cathartic — disconcerting, well within my skill set but completely out of my comfort zone.
In my writing, I discovered a simple truth, articulated by Mark Lewis in his book, The Biology of Desire. Lewis wrote, “Humans need to be able to see their own lives progressing, moving, from a meaningful past to a viable future. They need to see themselves as going somewhere, as characters in a narrative, as making sense.”
Bingo. That’s exactly what I needed. I needed a viable future that made sense.
As I finished the first draft of the book, I discovered the “calling” I had been looking for. It seemed a likely and natural progression, the intersection of all the winding roads I’ve traveled.
I’ve been a storyteller all of my professional life. And, as my long-time therapist and mentor pointed out to me, “story” is the essence of therapy. So, maybe this isn’t such a cockamamie idea after all. Thus, I summoned all the courage I could muster to say the words, “I want to become a therapist,” and began applying to graduate schools at the tender age of 63.
I knew damn well the odds would be formidable. And I was right. So far, I’m 0 for 4 with grad school applications. I didn’t get a good reason for my rejection from two of the schools. It could have been my baggage. It could have been my age. Or, it could have been my less-than-stellar undergraduate G.P.A. forty years ago. Maybe it was a combination of all three.
But, the other two schools were more candid. I was rejected because of the criminal conviction on my record. I get it. I really do. But, my story is complex and requires context. And, to be fair, a lot healing and growth had occurred in the six years since that conviction. Shouldn’t that count for something? Especially in a counseling program?
To be honest, sometimes it feels like I’ve been banging my head against a wall over and over again. I try very hard to fight through the victimhood thing. I allow myself to hope, and to believe that my quest is not in vain.
I’m now awaiting admittance decisions from the last four schools on my list. Surely one of them will recognize the value in admitting me? Right? Surely somebody will see fit to give me an opportunity at redemption, a second chance?
Let me be clear. I’m not seeking sympathy. This is not a tale of woe is me. I know second chances are real. They do exist. I’ve received these gifts of grace innumerable times in my life, and most especially in the last six years. My quarrel is not with my lot in life. It’s with the unknowable manifestation of why and how things happen the way they do.
Sometimes the voice of shame swoops in to hijack my hope. It tells me I could never become a therapist. I’m not smart enough. I’m too old. It’s a stupid idea. I’m a victim. I can’t expect anything to work out. I don’t deserve it.
But, I don’t buy that inflammatory yammering for a second. It’s just not true. I do deserve it. That said, there’s no guarantee I’ll get into the right grad school, become a therapist, and live happily ever after.
People are fond of saying that God has a plan for us. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Is there such a thing as destiny, karma, kismet, or whatever word you choose to use? Is this the path I was meant to take? Again, I don’t know the answer.
What I do know is that my healing journey in therapy and my study of it has transformed my life. My objective has become to take what I’ve learned, and what I continue to learn, and pass it on. My desire is simply to help people. It’s not about making a comeback. It’s not about saving the world. It’s about helping people, one at a time.
I firmly believe I have a great deal to offer as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. I’ve been at the bottom of the barrel. I’ve seen first-hand what psychotherapy can do for someone. I’m living proof it works. Now I want to use what I’ve learned to help others.
In his book, The Gift of Therapy, Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom expounds on Carl Jung’s hypothesis about the efficacy of the wounded healer. “Perhaps wounded healers are effective because they are more able to empathize with the wounds of the patient; perhaps it is because they participate more deeply and personally in the healing process.”
If I am indeed destined to become a therapist, if this is what I’m meant to do, if this is God’s plan, somebody will step forward and say, yes, you are an imperfect human being but I will give you a second chance. You have earned the opportunity to pursue your passion to help others by becoming a “wounded healer.”
Oh, and one more thing. If I do get my Masters Degree, a state licensing board will still have to grant me a license so I can actually practice. Another hurdle. Jesus H. Christ!
One step at a time. What will be will be.
Dr. Ben Houltberg |www.hopesports.org | The Fear of Failure and Performance-Based Identity
Dr. Mark Lewis | The Biology of Desire | Perseus Books | pg. 204
Dr. Irvin Yalom | The Gift of Therapy | HarperCollins Publishers | pg. 107