My Foray Into The Counseling Profession

Growing up in Syracuse, I would see public service announcements on T.V. for the local hotline service, called CONTACT. I made use of that service on more than a few occasions as a teen and young adult. I wanted to volunteer, but I didn’t have the spare time. The intensive training program and minimum 12 hours a month while working two jobs and attending college part-time was beyond my energy level. More importantly, I lacked a car, which impeded the flexibility required; it wasn’t on a good bus route, and late night/overnight shifts were part of the commitment.

Finally, in the winter of 1992, I had wheels and slightly more time. It was an agonizing winter, as I recall; Syracuse received a record snowfall of 192.1 inches (16 feet!), which has not been repeated since. I began the training in January and discovered an intensity within me. At that time, I was still developing a sense of professional direction. I wanted to be a therapist, but I still had doubts as to my ability. The trainers mentored me. I recall easily getting into role as we practiced calls on each other; I wanted to make it feel real for the counselor-in-training. People remarked on my ability to slip into character, so to speak. Likewise, they thought I was a perceptive and empathetic listener. I shone.

After four months of training, I was ready to “go live.” I remember handling three different phone lines, often alone, since volunteer coverage was thin. At one point in January 1993, they selected a few of us and asked if we’d be interested in working overnight shifts for pay. I accepted.

Ah, what a bitterly cold winter it was. I remember my schedule. I would go to CONTACT at 11:00 p.m. on Sunday and take calls until 7:00 a.m Monday. Then I’d go home and sleep until 11:30 a.m., awaking to work at the library from noon to 7:30 p.m. I’d rush home and nap for a couple hours before heading out to CONTACT for another overnight. I would repeat the nap and the work shift, and finally crash Tuesday night.

I remember the chilled loneliness and boredom of 3:00 a.m. in a poorly insulated building when it was six degrees outside. I remember the exhaustion of two jobs (but I was packed with energy — I miss that). I remember not getting paid for weeks and weeks, because it was a non-profit with accounting struggles; so there was no immediate gratification for all that effort.

At some point in the spring, the exhaustion and emotional intensity of the work broke my resilience. I was working full-time, carrying six credit hours of classes. I’d had several frightening calls with suicidal people. Oh, and then there were the sex callers — men who wanted to masturbate to the sound of a woman’s voice. If you’re not intending to serve as a vehicle for that, it leaves you feeling pretty vile. Anyhow, I realized I needed a rest. I was finding it hard to detach from callers’ sadness, anger, and fear; their despair penetrated my defenses.

I met with the director and explained that I needed to stop volunteering. I felt terribly guilty for reneging on the commitment I’d made to serve others in need. Though I don’t know why; several other volunteers had needed to leave for various reasons. (It was another epiphany revealing my double-standard. It was okay for others to have needs, but I held myself to a “do it at all costs” expectations.) She was kind and empathetic. The pain of that whole experience made me doubt whether I “could handle” being a therapist. I’d often been told I was “too emotional” to be one. It was years later, after I decided this is my calling, that I realized detachment is a skill one attends graduate school to learn. And I learned to value my commitment to my own well-being, knowing that if I’m run down, I can be of little use to others’ souls.

It was a life-changing, affirming experience, part of the twisty-turny lifelong path I’ve traveled toward my right work. I’m facing another bend in the road, since I’m now living in a state which does not recognize — at all — my previous professional training, which is a master’s degree, a post-graduate internship of two years, and a licensing exam. If I want to practice as a therapist, I will have to do at least the latter two tasks (internship and exams) over again, and it’s likely I’ll need to take more courses in family therapy too. It’s rather demoralizing. I’m trying to think creatively about this. I’ve had one inquiry from someone wanting to work with a life coach, but I’m not prepared to take clients just yet. I have no office. How to make this work?

I’m open to ideas. Please share.

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2 Comments on “My Foray Into The Counseling Profession”

  1. Kathleen Says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    I have been browsing your blog for a few months now and find it refreshing.

    As far as being a life coach is concerned, I don’t think you need an office to get started, just a phone. Plenty of life coaches meet their clients on the phone rather than in person. Also, maybe they might enjoy meeting you at your kitchen table with a cup of tea.

    Another idea, you could call yourself a “spiritual counselor”. I don’t think California requires licensing for that. Check out Common Ground, a very nice freebie directory that comes out bi-monthly, available at most independent bookstores. You might find some creative solutions as to how you can continue practicing until you get your official California hoop-jumping award. You can probably find a copy at the East West Bookstore at 324 Castro Street in Mountain View. (800) 909-6161. (No I don’t work there, just lived in the Bay Area for 20 years. It’s a very well known bookstore, and being as you are new to the area, you may not have found it yet).

    I am sure you will find the perfect solution to your situation.

  2. Kathryn Says:

    Thank you, Kathleen, for the positive feedback and the suggestions. I will definitely check out the East West Bookstore (I recall driving by) and Common Ground.

    The only piece I struggle with — and it’s not a small one — is using my home address and number for business. (I abhor cell phones; we’re getting rid of mine as soon as we sell our house, and reception out here is so bad as to make it almost pointless). Being trained as a therapist means having a certain sense of boundaries for therapeutic reasons, and being deeply ingrained, it’s not easily released. This is where my own thinking about myself as a professional needs to be tweaked. Perhaps I’ll contact some local coaches for information gathering.

    In any case, thank you for visiting my blog, and I hope you keep dropping by.