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  • Writer's pictureL.M. Pierce

**Big Post / Life Changes Alert**

I woke one morning and knew. Big true things seem to happen that way and I’ve been tip-toeing around these thoughts for a long time now. Applying to the MFA programs was the first concrete step toward entertaining a possibility—I was, and still am, terrified by what it all means. What it means to truly, madly, deeply, choose myself.

I went into my Masters in Counseling program for somewhat nebulous reasons. The biggest reasons I could identify at the time were that I was sick of starvation wages and I was haunted by a lifelong chant I’d heard again and again: you should be a therapist. I rebelled against that for a long time but it was kinda true. I’m so used to emotional caretaking (which is how I thought about therapy at the time) that I did it without much thought or awareness of the effort. And, I reasoned, I’d been bumming around through social work jobs and indulging in my own writing without any of it going anywhere. So, I was going to “grow up,” I decided.

One of the things that stood out the most to me from my time in my Counseling program was the idea that “wounded healers heal,” and I definitely gravitated to the program to do just that. I had been experiencing fragmented reality as a result of compartmentalizing the intense trauma in my life. Like so many other people, I boxed up the truths I didn’t think I could survive. Being in graduate school and gaining the knowledge was what I needed to begin feeling safe enough to unpack those things. Misdiagnosis and inappropriate medicinal abuse in my adolescence had filled me with rage and I was determined to prove there were other ways. I learned there were. I was also able to develop intensely deep friendships and they became part of my chosen family. I never really had that consistently before. Then I met someone I thought had the answers and allowed myself to be co-opted by the seduction of feeling special and “chosen” by someone I thought had a magic I would never possess. So, if I couldn’t possess it, I would approximate it. Unfortunately, I found myself doing things completely out of alignment with my own values. But at the time, being controlled and “chosen” made me feel worthy. I felt like all my hard work was finally being rewarded. So why wasn’t I okay? Secretly, at the height of my success and wrapping up my years of study, I was having an extremely hard time. I was acutely suicidal during my internship. But surely things would be better on the other side of all the stress, my peers and I thought. In 2019 I graduated and stepped into what was expected, hoping to prove I was trustworthy, stable, and well enough to be a therapist for others. And that worked for a while…

Well, anyone who’s been topside for the past couple years knows what happened next. About six months after starting my private practice…the world came to a screeching halt. Through the miracle of technology, I was able to maintain my practice and through screens I learned more and more about therapy and about myself. But the existential rift I’ve struggled with all my life, opened up again. I wasn’t happy, but no one was. It was COVID after all! I felt increasingly alienated by my own profession—the politics and philosophical shifts of the mental health field made me angry and I struggled to see my own place and future within it.

Anyway, a lot of things happened during Covid. I had to face some of my past decisions and get brutally honest with myself. I was a foster parent for almost a year and the ending of that was excruciating. I finally got treatment for my undiagnosed ADHD, which quelled much of the anxiety I had struggled with all my life. I also got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and chronic pain took control for a time. I also ended my marriage after years of us struggling to address the issues that went so unseen by those around us. Truly, these past couple years have been one of the most contrasted times in my memory. The intensely powerful joy of relationships, new love, and honesty have carried me through, but…ghosts have powerful presence. I was haunted, not only by what felt like the inevitable fate of being a therapist, but by the moments of the past where people told me I was ungrateful, selfish, and hurtful. I have spent so much time trying to prove I’m not those things, that I completely lost sight of the fact that though there have been times that I have been, those have been actions, not permanent characteristics. I’ve always loved the sentiment that the best apology is changed behavior, and I committed myself to that. (And look, real talk, survival is inherently selfish because it has to be.) Unfortunately, I was so busy apologizing, I began to slip into a pervasive self-betrayal…this part is hard to write and I’ve paused many times here, re-reading what I’ve written because it’s somehow so painful to admit that in my pursuit of being a “good” person (whatever the fuck that means) I managed to abandon my own light in this world.

Here's the truth: getting a Masters degree in Counseling and being a therapist has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life thus far. No words can describe the sacred depths of bearing witness to the astounding work and healing of other humans. I have been transformed by this witness. I have also been transformed through the act of being the kind of therapist I so desperately needed in my own life. Being able to be that person for others has healed the raw wounds of what therapists have done, intentionally or not, to me (and to so many others) throughout my life. It has also been about healing myself. I have been transformed by hearing myself repeat my own mantras, encouraging others to pursue the people, the passions, and the ventures that make them feel most alive and most themselves. Still, it wasn’t until someone I had a lot of personal resonance with, made a choice that was so paradigm shifting, I was rattled. They chose to leave a field which they were also “called” to in favor of reduced stress and increased capacity in other areas of their life.

I Was Shooketh.

But why? It has taken me a long time to digest the reality that bearing witness to someone so completely, honestly, and unabashedly choosing themselves reminded me that I wasn’t. I was TERRIFIED to choose myself because in that shadowy realm where all light melds with the night, I felt like a bad investment. Somewhere along the way, I departed from myself and approximated what I thought a well-adjusted healthy human being looked like. But as Covid has scorched through many of our formerly functional ego defenses, it has also eroded mine. Tentatively, secretly, I took a small step toward truth…

Over the last eight months, I applied to several MFA programs in creative writing. At first, I told almost no one. I was…embarrassed? Who even makes a life, a real grown-up life, writing? Lots of people do, but they were more talented and capable than me. Which is weird, because writing has been an omnipresent force in my life, from journaling, to song lyrics, to angsty poems. I wrote my first novel when I was in 7th grade. The play of my own life and existential quandaries often filters onto my pages, reimagined as other people, creatures, and scenarios. Writing kept me alive when little else did. I’ve even published two books. I’ve taught workshops and cohosted a writers group and and and….But these programs I applied to were fully funded and astronomically competitive. “Little” Me couldn’t bear the thought of judgement, only to be found deficient. Not when it came to my passion, my life force.

If you’ve made it this far, I appreciate your commitment, and I imagine you probably know what comes next. I was waitlisted at two of these programs, one being an absolute powerhouse in the MFA world, and, after long months waiting, I received a fully funded acceptance in an unlikely place filled with before unimagined possibilities. Three fully funded years to focus on my writing, on teaching writing, and immersing myself in the wellspring of what has always been life sustaining, even when it’s sucky and hard and a grind. I didn’t think it was possible to be supported, much less funded, to do what I’ve always done as a means of survival.

I do believe that going through the MAC program was also about learning other means of survival so that writing could become more than just that. An article in Innovators Magazine said:

“Art offers a unique way of understanding the meaning of life and how beauty and pleasure could be part of existence. It combines the imaginary world with reality and encourages people to change their thinking and perceptions. Good art has the power to engage with the world to change the world.”

It's interesting, because in many ways, therapy is also about changing thinking and perceptions. And being part of the therapy world has changed my own thinking and perceptions of myself. I had to heal myself to value myself to choose myself. I’ve never really liked the saccharine “love yourself” pop psy sound bite, though that is some of what I’m talking about. But loving yourself is more than just treating yourself well. Choosing yourself, risking passion in the face of possible, or even probable, rejection and failure, is something else entirely. I had to go through everything else, witness the courageous choices of others, to be reminded that I too, could choose. That I could so truly, madly, deeply, choose myself so that I could truly embody myself. Mixed in with the magic of all that has made me a writer are the prismatic elements that I have often felt so ashamed of. See, I got confused at some point. Choosing myself got categorized as being selfish or self-indulgent. We live in a society that profits off this confusion and there’s a lot of that in the mental health field as well. Martyrdom and ego and control are as present in the helping fields as anywhere else. These are some of the downsides to being operated by humans. But the upside is that where there is human martyrdom, ego, and control, there is also human choice, magic, and flow. There are many therapists out there hosting these spaces of magic. You know who you are, and I love you all for it.

For all the typology nerds on the page, according to the enneagram, I am a type 7. The epicure, the enthusiast, the adventurer, etc. This also means, in many ways, I HATE choosing. Making a choice feels like saying no to all other possibilities and I need to know where all the exits are. Have a Plan A-Z. So, in true form, I wanted to do it all. But I can’t. I wanted to be part-time therapist and mesh it with my writing journey because our society is also good at making us feel like ending something is a failure, even when you dress it up all pretty. But when someone dies, we don’t generally take the stance that they’ve “failed at living” (though that’ll be the next Capitalism scheme, I’m sure) and what is life but a rehearsal of many smaller deaths before a bigger one? Death, in an archetypal and metaphorical and for some, spiritual, way, is not synonymous with failure, but rather of an ending that leads to new beginning. Winter heralds the coming spring and all that Instagram stuff. At some point, I slipped into the flow of other people’s choices, too terrified and distrustful to own mine. Convenient, eh? When we don’t choose, we also get to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the outcome. Wait…Choosing? Responsibility? Again, if you’re smiling, it’s because you know…7s hate that too.

But here I am, making choices. Ending my time as a therapist definitely feels like a death because what lies beyond is unknown and scary. Will I screw it all up? Probably. Will I learn things I couldn’t have learned any other way (because I’m so often doing everything in the hardest fashion possible)? The signs say most definitely. …But will I regret it…? One more inspiring piece of source material and then I promise I’ll stop (for now). Some time ago, I came across a piece written by a hospice nurse who spent many years with the dying—providing compassionate company and care as they neared their departure. She shared some of the regrets she heard expressed in those final days. I’m not saying there are no atheists in a foxhole (there are) and likewise I’m not saying there are no liars on a deathbed…but I do believe her when she said that most shared was regrets about what people had NOT done. Whether it was spending more time with their children or caring less about money… many people shared that they regretted not doing what they had really wanted to do with their life. Or they regretted not taking a chance or not going after a relationship. All the coulda-woulda-shoulda’s. Ghosts that haunt. To me, that is more terrifying than any choice. Living, and then dying, with the regret that I did not pursue what I truly wanted because of [insert the millions of reasons here].

Look, Covid about wrecked the optimist in me…Fatalism and nihilism have been helpful in coping with the metric shit ton of fear and uncertainty about our particular point in this timeline. But…it’s not my true form. I am, to my goth/emo dismay, an effusive optimist. That is, I believe, one of my best qualities as a therapist…reframing despair and making room for hope. Writing and art has been my hope and I do sincerely believe one of the greatest endeavors in life is to document, witness, and capture the goopy inspiring mess that is existence. So, though there is no hope, IF there is any hope, I believe it’s through the courageous act of making art. (By the way, science, math, and psychology are all their own kinds of art too). Especially in a world that tries to convince us that ordering without Prime delivery is true bravery. If Jonathan Swift can inspire a whole heartless country to care about famine by proposing baby-eating as a modest proposal, then the sky is the fucking limit.

Anyway, I could end this with some kind of carpe diem plug encouraging you to pursue what scares you most…and I will. But not by telling you, rather, I will show, through daring, foolish, hopeful action, that the best life is the one we truly, madly, deeply choose for ourselves. I don’t really believe in fate, just like I don’t believe in ghosts, and yet…I’m impacted by the possibility of both. And if I did believe in those things, then I’m fated to do this, just as I believe ghosts are fated to find the ones who can hear and see them. Fated to find the one who will turn to them and ask, “what do you need to finally be at peace?” Funny, because that’s what this whole thing has been. The haunting I experienced was just that… impressions of a past, asking me to turn and face the fear that only I can decide my future. Just as many of us discover that our futures are not determined by our past, I’m now fully waking to the reality that all the future really asks of us is to dare in our present.

So…because I refuse to grow up, I double doggy dare you to make choices. Even if your choice takes you to the middle of Nowhere, Illinois.

There’s magic to be found everywhere because the magic (cue rising inspirational montage) has always been inside you. And, as it turns out, it's always been inside of me too.

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