Last Tuesday was my last day on the job.
Let’s go back to March of 2011. I was 22, had not heard back from any graduate programs, and was in a state of constant anxiety about the next phase of life while simultaneously denying that my senior year of college was coming to an end. Desperately attempting to find alternate solutions and avoid moving back in with my parents (no offense to my dear ol’ mom and dad), I obsessively patrolled the job boards. And one day, I found a hidden gem on Craigslist.
Now I know what you may be thinking. But it was not an ad that promoted making millions of dollars in two hours a day, or an ad that repeated itself in all of the job categories (NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY), or a “modeling job.” It was a job that required a bachelor’s degree (only two more months!), a car (had my beat up Honda waiting for me in my parents’ driveway), sign language ability or willingness to learn (three semesters of ASL had me covered) and the willingness to learn and be patient. Done!
The job was advertised as part-time, and after finding out that I was accepted to graduate school in Philadelphia, I spent my non-school and practicum hours working as a one-on-one support staff for a woman with multiple special needs. Let’s call her Hannah. Two-to-three days a week, I spent my days driving Hannah to classes, museums, restaurants, shops – you name it, we went there. My job was to facilitate Hannah’s independence and allow her opportunities to interact with the community around her – opportunities she may not ordinarily have – all while acting quickly in cases of medical emergencies. When I first began, it was a way to supplement my income, and I didn’t think it would be such an integral part of my life and identity as a graduate student.
Boy, was I wrong.
You know that old phrase “leave your work at work?” It took me quite a while to get the hang of that concept. Like all jobs, there were good days and bad days. On a good day, Hannah would be communicative, chatty, and friendly. I’d often forget that I was actually working – after all, what kind of mental health worker gets paid to eat delicious lunches and frolic around in the city? After seven hours, I’d drive home with a smile on my face and be in a cheery mood for the rest of the day. But then there were the bad days, and sometimes bad weeks or months. Hannah had occasional violent outbursts where I would be hit or kicked. While the physical damage was never much to write home about (my college rugby career built up my tolerance for pain), I’d go home feeling defeated, angry, and drained of energy. Why is she hitting me? Why does she hate me so much? Why is it that everything I do is wrong? My schedule during my second year had me balancing work, classes, and internship; after a long day of work, I would still have four hours of classes. Getting hit and seeing minimal progress for six hours, followed by two dramatic and tension-filled hours in Advanced Interventions, followed again by two night-time hours of Statistics. Putting work-related stress aside was next-to impossible, and I’d question whether or not I was cut out for this field.
But despite the stressful times, it was the greatest side job I could ever ask for. I’ve developed a sense of patience and the ability to “slow down” – absolutely necessary skills in becoming a mental health therapist. The positive changes that I did see gave me the sense of pride that every therapist craves – the sense of, “I actually made a difference in this person’s life.” My boss was understanding, caring, and a fantastic human. I relished every moment of working with Hannah and her family.
When you work with someone one-on-one for an extended period of time, you develop a unique relationship. You aren’t their friend, you aren’t their parent, and you aren’t a colleague. With Hannah, I was a bit more hands-on than a therapist, but less facilitating than a teacher. Something I can’t adequately describe, but I do know that it is a relationship that I will miss dearly and was sad to see it go.
During my graduate school internship class, we discussed termination with long-term clients being a process in and of itself – one that can drastically affect the therapist as well as the client. In my internship, most individuals were there on a short-term basis, allowing for more long-term work in less-intensive outpatient therapy. Helpful, we were, but rarely was there an opportunity to build the textbook therapist-client relationship. Termination was not a concept I could really grasp. Until Tuesday.
As I dropped Hannah off at home, I explained to her that it would possibly be my last time working with her (other than occasional weekends…haven’t quite decided yet). I had brought up me leaving and starting a new job multiple times since graduation, but it never resonated as a concrete thing that would inevitably happen. I told her that next week (pending HR stuff), I’ll be starting a new job. After hugging Hannah’s mother and thanking her for this one-of-a-kind opportunity and all of her help, I walked out the door and began to cry. Transitions are rarely simple, and it can be difficult to leave, even if you know that it’s time to move on.
I’m hoping that this experience will prepare me for termination as a therapist. I’ll be starting my new job soon, and I couldn’t be more excited. While I know the most important thing right now is to establish relationships with new clients, it’s always important to keep the collective end goal in mind. Having a long-term pseudo therapist-client relationship will hopefully prepare me for emotional endings.
Most of all, I want to thank Hannah and her family for the wonderful opportunity and my growth over the past two years. It was, without a doubt, the best first job I could have starting out in this field.