I’m celebrating a special anniversary this month: I’ve officially been a psychologist for 20 years. But I’ve been working only occasionally since leukemia hospitalized me 18 months ago. I still pay my professional dues, but lately I’ve worked just enough to cover basic work expenses. Can I still consider myself a psychologist if I’m not working?
I really just happened into psychology, but it turns out I like the work, although it’s not without its stresses. I’ve often felt good about what I do, and I’m happy if I can help a client feel better.
I was very distressed about abandoning clients so abruptly when I was hospitalized, and long feared I may have upset them with my unexpected disappearing act. Don’t get me wrong: I know another psychologist could well assume these clients’ care, yet I had developed relationships and wanted to see clients through. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be there to do so, and I deeply regretted not having planned for that possibility.
I still wonder how my former clients are doing, but psychology guidelines forbid my calling to find out. When old clients make contact, I’m thrilled to be able to catch up on their lives. About six months ago, I decided I was up to seeing one of these clients. I didn’t sleep much the night before this first post-cancer session since I feared messing up. I warned this client that I might be a bit rusty but, to my relief, she chose to return. Counselling must be one of those skills that, with enough practice, practitioners don’t lose after a short break.
Since then, I have been able to sleep the night before those occasional client sessions. I’m not as worried about messing up, and clients often leave feeling better than when they came. I have realized, however, that as much as I love what I do, I can only manage to work a little bit. I’m functioning much better than I was when I first left hospital, yet I question whether I will be able to work full time again. I’m just too bushed, and therapy, however gratifying, can be draining. Also, between doctors’ appointments, pharmacy and medical lab visits, and all else I do to maintain my health, staying well is a part-time job in itself. I admire people who continue to work despite health challenges, and realize I’m blessed to have someone who will support me if I don’t.
I am surprised by how much being a psychologist defines me, and how unsettling it is to think of losing that identity altogether. Maybe retirement feels like this, except most people have a chance to plan financially and emotionally for that time. I, and many others I’m sure, haven’t had that luxury. It may take me some time yet to get my head around my new reality.
Whether or not I can still legitimately view myself as a psychologist, I plan on celebrating this anniversary. Working or not, I think I’ve earned it. And I’ll take any excuse to eat cake.