Glen Chiacchieri / August 2023
The last time I wrote about my life, I explained Why I Quit Tech to Become a Therapist. That essay resonated with a lot of people. Many have written to me and I've really enjoyed hearing how the article impacted them.
In the past couple years I've started getting letters from people wondering what happened next. How has the career transition gone since that article?
In the spirit of generosity, I'd like to share my experiences publicly for those who are curious and considering such a career change themselves with the hope that the details of my journey may help them on theirs.
The following describes my time in graduate school and internship from January 2018 to May 2020.
If my last essay was about the thrill of discovering my path, then graduate school was the joy of walking it.
I attended Lesley University's clinical mental health counseling program full-time, which is the degree needed to become a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Massachusetts. I chose this program because it satisfied the state licensing requirements, was conveniently located in my city, and its curriculum acknowledged the spiritual dimensions of counseling which was important to me. I also had a very welcoming experience with one of the professors at an open house. Even though my undergraduate degree was in computer engineering, I didn't need to take any prerequisite classes to attend. I paid for the program from savings, part-time contract work in tech, and a small emergency loan from my parents.
In the tradition of person-centered therapy, Lesley's counseling curriculum emphasized the importance of establishing trust and compassion in the therapeutic relationship with less emphasis on intellectual or scientific knowledge of mental health disorders and treatments. Coming from a technical background this was actually a very welcome change for me, allowing my capacities for empathy and understanding to grow rather than reinforce my already-strong analytical skills. Even so, I engaged enthusiastically with the material — clinical skills, developmental psychology, psychopathology, psychology of culture and identity, group therapy, feminist therapy, addiction, trauma, spirituality! I ate it all up with gusto.
The teachers further enhanced my capacity for empathy. They were warm and experienced clinicians who genuinely cared about our well-being and growth. I remember one time I asked a question to a professor expecting them to answer from their position of authority as the teacher, but instead they turned the question back to me, allowing me to draw on my own understanding. This was a powerful modeling of person-centered therapy and it was inspiring. Sometimes I wonder if I learned more from my teachers' presences and the way they carried themselves than any specific material we covered in class.
I also loved learning with the other students. There was a range from young students just finishing their undergraduate studies to people in their 40s and 50s making career changes. There were also people closer to my age (28 when I started the program) and I made good friends. It was wonderful to be around people that were good listeners, compassionate, and eager to learn and grow. I even fell in love with one of the students in my cohort, forming a long-term relationship.
One thing that was certainly noticeable was the gender shift — from the tech world of primarily men to the counseling world of primarily women. For me, the change in gender majority was a welcome counterbalance to my previous experiences in mostly male settings — I didn't feel so out of place and I felt that I got to connect more with my latent feminine qualities. It also helped that my meditation teacher and several professors were male therapists that acted as role models for me.
One of my favorite things about the program was that it emphasized the student's personal development. In almost every class, we were asked to reflect on ourselves and understand how our life experiences informed our attitudes and beliefs about mental health and well-being. This naturally lead to greater self-awareness, and Lesley's curriculum actively encouraged multicultural competency and social justice perspectives. I remember one time for a class assignment I interviewed the director of Native American Lifelines, an organization providing health and wellness services to Native Americans outside of reservations. He shared with us that even though 75% of the Native American population is considered "urban" (not living on a reservation), only 1% of the federal Indian Health Services budget is allocated for urban services. To me this was such a clear demonstration of how systemic inequality impacts marginalized groups, and it opened my heart. There were many moments like this as I started to understand and appreciate the diversity of human experience as well as what shaped my particular perspective. In this way, my awareness and compassion grew.
I'll mention briefly here that even before I started studying at Lesley, I had begun a 240-hour training in the Hakomi method, a mindfulness-based somatic therapy. This was an excellent complement to my studies in grad school. Whereas Lesley's program introduced the foundations of person-centered therapy, the Hakomi trainings showed me how powerful experiential therapy could be for deeper healing. In our trainings I saw and had experiences that were profound, beyond what I understood talk therapy could offer. Training in a method that could facilitate deeper levels of healing gave me confidence in myself as well as therapy's potential to help people. I finished the Hakomi training in December 2018, near the end of my first year at Lesley.
As part of the Massachusetts licensing requirements students are required to complete 700 hours of field experience through an internship, about two semesters of part-time work. I chose to do mine at the Dimock Center in Boston. Half of my internship was at the center's "detox" unit, where people suffering from substance abuse could receive both medical and mental health care for up to 14 days. The other half of my internship was at a male residential addiction recovery home, where clients received housing for up to a year and supervised support in their recovery from substance abuse. I did intake assessments, ran therapy groups, met one-on-one with clients, and filed lots of paperwork.
There is a lot I could share about my experience in this internship, but I think what stood out most to me is the degree of suffering. Clients often faced interwoven challenges of substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, lack of education, poor relationships, histories of trauma, and other mental and physical health disorders. On top of that, the system of care I was a part of was far from perfect — much of the staff found it taxing to work there and they were often under-resourced, under-paid, and stressed, resulting in less-than-ideal care and sometimes frustrating and heartbreaking outcomes.
This was my first time witnessing some of our society's worst suffering and it weighed on me heavily. I sometimes found myself crying from grief when thinking about clients or getting angry about injustices I saw. I went through phases of hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair thinking that there is too much suffering and nothing I could do about it. I was stressed, started having loose bowel movements, felt fewer pleasurable sensations in my body, and had trouble sleeping. I wish I had paid more attention to these signs at the time, but I'll discuss that in more detail in another essay.
Luckily, I was also supported. At my internship I had two supervisors who I could talk to about my experiences. At my university I had a weekly class where I talked about my experiences with other students and an advisor. I talked with my girlfriend, other peers, and friends. I exercised, did yoga, meditated diligently, went to my own therapy, and took lots of breaks. All of this was really helpful.
And even though I saw a lot of suffering at my internship, there was also a lot of healing. Clients found housing, found further treatment, took jobs, left bad relationships, found other ways to cope besides drugs, and resolved traumas. I was continually surprised and nourished by the capacities for resilience, courage, and joy I saw in clients — the heart and marrow of the human spirit.
For my part, I knew that even though I was inexperienced and the suffering was great, I was still making a difference. Even if it was a single shared smile, a moment of deep listening, or even just simple open presence with a client, those experiences mattered, to me and to them, and it became part of my practice to recognize and appreciate those moments, especially given the backdrop of intense challenges. And sometimes I was able to play a larger role in a client's healing journey, such as helping a client learn to manage their traumatic memories, and that was so meaningful it brings a tear to my eye when I think about it now.
I also learned so much in a short period — about homelessness, addiction, trauma, and resilience, about what parts of the job resonated with me and what didn't, about dealing with my own stress and negative reactions to suffering like hopelessness and despair, about how institutions of care work, about the importance of robust supports in holding great suffering. And just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, not all internships or therapy jobs are this intense, so I also learned about my limits.
Maybe the most important things I learned at this internship were that I was capable of doing this work and that I actually liked it! Up until this internship, a career in therapy was still kind of theoretical since I had never actually worked in the field before. And even though parts of the job were challenging and I struggled, I continually got feedback from advisors and clients that I was doing well. Heck, some part of me was even invigorated by the challenge! And there were lots of parts of the job I enjoyed — connecting with clients on a deep level, seeing clients heal and grow, using experiential therapy techniques like Hakomi, discussing cases with other clinicians, and learning first-hand what causes suffering and what alleviates it.
But then everything stopped.
In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic began and my internship and graduate classes were halted as institutions scrambled to adapt to a rapidly-spreading deadly virus. To be honest, I was relieved. At that point I had been dealing with the continual strain of internship for 7 months (24 hours a week), a part-time contract job in tech to make ends meet, and full-time graduate school classes. The pandemic meant that all these obligations paused and I had some space to stop, breathe, and decompress while my university and internship site sorted things out.
But as the stresses of my professional life were lifted, the stresses of a global pandemic began to sink in. The small co-op I lived in at the time followed the strictest protocols we could to protect the health of our members — no in-person contact with people outside our co-op and minimal trips outside. I remember feeling intense fear when people came near me in the grocery store, trying to keep myself 6 feet away to prevent a possible infection. I also remember exhaustively washing our groceries when we got home, again to prevent infection (this was before scientists discovered that the risk of infection was mostly airborne). Luckily, no one I knew directly was harmed or even infected by the virus, but the protective efforts and social isolation took their toll. I was stressed and exhausted. I couldn't see my romantic partner, friends, or other supports in-person. I wrote Mindfulness and Purpose in Difficult Times in April 2020 to share some of the ways I was using mindfulness to cope.
I never returned to my internship, either in-person or remote. It was just too difficult for my supervisors to manage a recovery house full of vulnerable people in a pandemic as well as a newly remote intern. The licensing board in Massachusetts decided that students graduating in May 2020 whose internships were impacted by the pandemic could make up any hours they missed in post-graduate experience. All of my graduate courses pivoted to remote learning, and I finished my few remaining classes.
I had a graduation ceremony over Zoom in May 2020. Through no fault of the university the ceremony felt lackluster and unreal in the shadow of a still-unfolding pandemic. But still, I had officially made it through grad school, completing a significant milestone on the path to becoming a licensed therapist in Massachusetts.
My plan was to take an easy summer, doing part-time contract work in tech but mostly letting myself recover from the stresses of classes, internship, work, and the pandemic before starting my first post-graduate clinical job in the fall.
That didn't happen. Instead, my life was completely derailed by chronic illness. I'll share more about how in a follow-up essay.