I started my graduate program in school psychology after I graduated with a useless degree - Family Life with an emphasis in Human Development. More often than not, I revise the major to just Human Development because it sounds a little more legitimate. At Brigham Young University where I got my degree, people joke that it’s the MRS degree - the degree women get to learn how to be a mom. Hilarious.
And the stigma around the MRS degree kind of fit me at the time. I had gone to BYU with every intention of getting married and absolutely no intention of having a career. I was a product of my culture. My place was to be in the home and graduating with any degree in and of itself was all I needed to accomplish.
Human Development wasn’t what I intended to study when I went to college, though. English was my first major and it felt like an obvious choice. But away from the comfort of my high school peers, many of whom I had known since elementary school, I struggled to focus on anything but worry about what other people thought of me. Am I measuring up? Do I sound smart enough? Am I supposed to be here? It was moments like the time when I was called on in class to use the word “supplant” in a sentence and I did it incorrectly that seemed to answer all these questions: No.
I moved into education where I thought I could teach. This lasted until I read through the syllabus for one of my courses at the beginning of the term, finding in horror an assignment outlining the requirement to create a video of me actually teaching. My heart raced to the unhealthy rate of a sedentary person in the middle of a marathon and I knew with absolute certainty – there was no way I was making a video of myself. Which left only one option. I had to quit the program.
Since I was three years into college with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, I deferred to efficiency. With my transcript in one browser window and a list of programs with course requirements in another, I combed through the lists to see which program aligned with the courses I’d taken. I just needed to graduate. I settled on the degree that most closely matched the courses I had already taken and the one I could consequently graduate the soonest with.
I graduated with absolutely no plan for the future and no real understanding of myself or what I wanted. After a few feeble attempts to get a job at places I would’ve hated working, I started exploring the realm I felt most comfortable in: education. I looked for another degree (I was very familiar with the course catalog by this point) so I could stay safe in the familiarity of assignments and away from the unknown of work life and the reality of independence.
And that's how I stumbled upon school psychology. I hadn't ever heard of school psychologists before but after a few weeks of googling, I felt like I had a solid (read: glaringly naïve) understanding. I read through vague descriptions of what they do, researched salary expectations (a step in the right direction), and brought my preconceived assumptions about what anyone with the word “psychologist” in their title might do. Counseling! Helping people! Kids! These were all things I could get behind. The more I read, the more noble it sounded and the idea of one-on-one work seemed like a place where I could really thrive.
My struggles, though, began during the application process to the program. The day of the all-day interviews for the program I almost didn’t go because, you know, interviews. It took everything in me but I resisted the urge to email the program coordinator to please disregard my application. I was determined to conquer my insecurities and, in what felt like pure heroism, I showed up. And I got in.
Turns out, it wasn't just interview-anxiety but (surprise!) general-everyday-anxiety-that's-never-going-away. Every semester I hit a point where I felt like it was the wrong fit for me. I talked to one of my professors and shared my thoughts of quitting more times than I can count. I couldn’t tell if I was just being hard on myself or it truly wasn’t a good fit. I began to realize that my sure-fire system for making decisions was failing me. How could I rely on feelings when my feelings could convince me of two different things at once?
I kept going in the program. I almost quit, I cried, had panic attacks, and sat in my car during my practicum, willing myself to go inside but pushing against a wall of anxiety just to get in the door. I finished my thesis and presented at regional, national, and international conferences. I got awards for my work as an intern. “You’re so good at what you do,” people would tell me. “You’re barely making it,” I’d tell myself.
It’s not until now that I can look back and see so clearly the irony in my college experience. My educational choices culminated in becoming a school psychologist, an advocate for students with disabilities. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, but it was my own disabilities that led me there. With each fork in the road, I chose the path that seemed most manageable with my (then-partially-diagnosed) mental illness. I was just trying to not dread every day of my life. I wish I could say I learned to mute these voices or self-assuredly push them aside. You know, the anxiety that told me, “If you do that, the worst possible thing will happen and you’ll regret it forever.” And the depression that said, “You’re just not good enough and you shouldn’t even try.” They were the voices spoken confidently, consistently, predictably. And ultimately, I can’t deny that my mental illness played a starring role in leaving the profession altogether.
Decisions are rarely made for a single reason and my choice to stop being a school psychologist was multi-faceted. We were trained in my program to try to prevent burn-out, to practice self-care, leave work at work, and do things to actively decompress. I did my best to follow these recommendations but I ended up still internalizing a lot. I hated the weight of being considered an “expert” in something as complicated as behavior and I constantly felt I wasn’t able to help enough. I was dissatisfied with the system – the lack of progression in public education despite dramatically changing student demographics – and struggled to provide resources to fellow educators trying desperately to meet student needs despite the nation’s blatant neglect to invest in education. Work was taking over my life and yet it didn’t feel like I was making a difference. It wasn’t the kids – it was never the kids – it was everything else. I struggled to maintain my own mental health while trying to encourage positive mental health in others.
I was in the middle of my fourth year when I got an email from a community college about a job I applied to previously. They had another opening for an instructional designer and wondered if I wanted to apply. It was exactly the type of pivot I needed. I was excited about educational technology. I loved collaborating on the design of instruction, curating effective instructional materials and engineering opportunities for student engagement. It was a job I had to take.
True to my nature, leaving my job as a school psychologist brought with it a whole host of feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and failure (maybe if I had just tried a little harder. . .). These thoughts reverberate even now but in the end, I choose to frame it as advocating for myself in the same way I did so naturally for students. It felt like the best form of self-care I could give.
When I sit down to a computer, my fingers reach for the same familiar keys. It’s a reflex, the writing I use when I’m trying to tear down the walls of writer’s block or when I just want to test out the feeling of a keyboard. Like a true child of the ‘90s, it’s none other than the words to the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I’ve stayed awake nights wondering why this is my writing Patronus, the words that come to me in my time of need. I’ve tried to come up with something else – something, perhaps, more scholarly, more respectable, more recent. But those words always seem to find their way out when I’m staring blankly at the computer screen. A 10-12 page essay I've procrastinated, my thesis, an email I've been dreading -- they all seem to start with a teenage Will Smith in his sideways baseball cap. Suddenly, words appear on the screen; they of course have nothing to do with synthesizing 15 articles on cognitive development. But at least I’ve got something.
I don’t think it’s possible to graduate from elementary school without being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” five thousand times. “A writer,” was my confident, unwavering reply. I knew it, and there was never any other profession I considered.
My first story, written and illustrated in first grade, was "semi-autobiographical" with enough details made up to feel safe (okay, so I changed the character's name), giving the illusion of fiction. Titled, Kindergarten Can Be Scary, it was all about a kid afraid to start school. My teacher laminated the cover and bound it in those soft plastic claw bindings you can only find in elementary schools but that felt incredibly official. The back page mimicked a published book with a brief biographical sketch (I summoned a whole paragraph describing my seven-year-old life) and a picture of me. I was hooked.
In fifth grade, a seasoned 14-year-old visited our class and read rhyming poems that made me teacher cry, the ultimate sign of accomplishment. Like the chameleon I am, I shifted to poetry with an uncharacteristic agility. I stayed up late, angling my spiral-bound notebook toward the nightlight while I wrote. I dredged up the most serious, cry-inducing topics I could think of - death, break-ups, thunderstorms - and crafted as many poems as I could, including a goodbye verse that sounded not so vaguely like an N’Sync song.
In middle school and high school I wrote like my life depended on it. And maybe it did. I took creative writing classes and wrote every day. I bought notebooks, decorated them, and filled them. I mostly journaled or wrote short stories or tried to develop a novel. I felt bound to the genre of fiction and largely borrowed story arcs from my favorite books. While elementary school yielded stories inspired by books like Hatchet and The Phantom Tollbooth, middle school was hallmarked by books like Stargirl, Speak, and The Outsiders.
And then in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Dignan, recommended I read High Tide in Tucson. I took her recommendations seriously and promptly checked it out from the library. “It’s creative nonfiction,” she said. A genre I’d never even heard of.
Within the first few pages I felt like Barbara Kingsolver and I were sitting in a room enjoying a conversation I didn’t want to end. She wrote about biology and crabs and who even knows what else but her conversational writing drew me through subjects I didn’t care about and made me think about life in a different way. That, I thought, That’s what I want to write.
Excited by my new discovery, I scoured the shelves of the library, looking for more nonfiction. I was delighted to meet David Sedaris as well as a goldmine of books on writing: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. When I stood in aisles of bookstores and libraries, the authors felt familiar and I couldn’t help thinking these are my people.
When asked, I still told others that I wanted to be a writer as my profession. It was towards the end of my senior year when one of my neighbors asked me my plans for college and beyond. By this point, I was more specific with my intentions. “I’m going to be a creative nonfiction writer,” I replied.
Her reply was almost immediate, “Oh, you mean, like, the stuff nobody reads?”
I wish I could say I was confident enough to let it bounce right off me. But let's be real, I'm still writing about it 15 years later.
In college I started to realize how angsty my teenage writing was. I looked back on notebooks and journals I had been so proud of and felt nothing but embarrassments that the words were in existence. I don't want anybody to read this, I thought. My internal editor cut more and more of my writing before it ever got to paper. This is dumb. I have nothing to say. People crave stories that are original, extraordinary even, and yet we want it to be relatable - packaged in a way everyone can connect with. I'm not uniquely-the-same enough. No one cares about my life. Worse yet, I began to worry about what other people would think about what I wrote. What if my friends see this? My co-workers? My mom?
While writing had been a daily practice until college, I began to do it less and less. I started to begin every entry with something like, “I haven’t written in a while – I just can’t get myself to do it but I need to get back into it.” Years would pass between entries and still my inclination was to begin the same way. It’s annoying to look back and see the same pattern over and over; I guilted myself about not writing as I was writing.
It became a place, though, where I was even more aware of my mental illness. I could put my most anxious or depressed thoughts on paper to free up space in my mind but it was scary to have it documented and even more discouraging to look back on. I haven’t changed at all. I would think. I’m still just as anxious, just as depressed as I’ve ever been. The thoughts are still the same. I’m still me. Good writing brings with it character development and I couldn’t see any development in the character I most often wrote about. I simultaneously felt like I was a terrible writer and also a weak person.
I became an English-major drop-out after only two semesters, succumbing to imposter syndrome. I slowly but surely stopped thinking that being a writer as a profession was even a possibility. I can’t handle the deadlines. I’m too unpredictable, too sporadic. I can’t depend on it for a living, my rational, practical side said. I can’t write for somebody else. This isn’t for me. I still longed for the idea of being a published author but bought notebooks I didn’t fill and eventually stopped writing completely. Often the thought of writing would graze my mind but it was consistently pushed away. I don’t want to leave a trail of my thoughts. I don’t want other people to know about my experiences. There’s a vulnerability and a risk in writing that I stopped being willing to take.
I didn’t want to be seen.
After moving to Portland to be with Kaitlyn, I was unemployed for three months. After being so defined by my profession, by what I viewed as my contribution to society, the emptiness made me question who I am, what I like, what I want to do. I struggled to find purpose and the persistent rejection emails from potential employers created a fertile breeding ground for feelings of self-doubt.
But it was in the midst of my daily existential crises that I went back to what had sustained me through my K-12 education. I wrote. It didn’t stop my concerns that I would never do anything meaningful with my life and I was constantly terrified about not being able to find a job or ever being able to make money again. But it was satisfying. It kept me going. It gave me a routine and something to work on. It made me feel like, “I’m finally doing it.” I wouldn't label myself as a writer with the confidence I did as a kid, but there was a power in feeling like I was taking back part of my identity.
And here I am. Employed now but restless and low-key constantly planning the next ten years of my life. I'm still not ready to be seen but I also don't think I'll ever be. Turns out vulnerability isn't really something you prepare for; it's just as scary no matter how long you wait. So this is when I start.
Now this is the story . . .