The idea of becoming a therapist in midlife popped out of my mouth twice in two months—first as a daydream, then as an outrage.
The daydream came over family dinner. My 20-year-old daughter was home from college and musing about possible majors when my wife, Liz, turned to me and said, “Sweetie, doesn’t it sound amazing to go to school again and be able to learn whatever you want? Like, what do you think you’d even study?”
Back in my 20s, I spent six years studying American literature for a PhD. I’ve since worked for almost three decades as a journalist, studying endless new subjects toward the writing of books and articles. I’m a serial autodidact, too, picking up new skills—climbing, surfing, weightlifting, carpentry, flamenco guitar, cooking—with such obsessive monomania that my closest friends consider it my defining compulsion. I love studying, in other words, and I love learning, but I’ve done an awful lot of it. So I responded to Liz’s question by shaking my head with exhaustion and saying, “I haven’t the slightest idea, honey. Nothing?”
No sooner had I said this, though, than I heard myself blurting out, in a curiously cheerful tone, “Wait, I know exactly what I’d study if I went back to school. I’d study to become a therapist.”
Liz barely responded—our daughter was home, after all, and vastly more interesting. Plus, I already had a cherished professional identity. I’d never labeled it, but if I was honest with myself, it was something like Man-of-Action Writer Guy. So I gave no more thought to studying therapy until weeks later, when Liz and I were walking around our neighborhood. We’d been married 22 years—working at home all that time, sharing lunch daily—and we were going through a rough patch. Liz was in individual therapy for the first time, confronting old family-of-origin stuff that paralyzed her with insecurity.
I’d been worried about our marriage. We still loved each other, and laughed whenever we got out of town, but our tenderness seemed to be on indefinite hold. I’d insisted that we see someone, and we’d found a terrific clinician, trained in emotionally focused couples therapy. That had led to honest but painful conversations about many things, including money.
Liz is also a journalist, and the business model of American print media has been collapsing for as long as we’ve been together. She still has a proper staff-writing job with salary and benefits, but my biggest contracts, with Men’s Journal and Food & Wine, had evaporated a few years earlier. So I’d returned to freelancing and faced the uncomfortable fact that freelance pay rates haven’t gone up since houses in San Francisco cost $300,000—which is to say, a quarter century ago.
And yet writing is far more than a job for me—the craft of it, and the subjects I cover, have always been the core of my identity. I told myself that since Liz was paying the bills, I might as well double down on passion projects and write strictly from the heart. That was stressful enough for Liz before our older daughter left for college. As our younger daughter got ready to follow—and Liz allowed herself to feel private anxieties from her childhood that she’d been denying all her life—my refusal to compromise professionally became unbearable to her.
All this was in the background of what began as just another ordinary walk with Liz around our neighborhood. We live on a narrow San Francisco Street lined with old wooden homes. Afternoon fog rolled in as she made small talk by asking about my work. I was still getting terrific assignments, but the money part hurt, and I wondered aloud if I might yet turn things around with a new podcast or bestselling novel.
Liz is a kind person. In all the years we’ve known each other, I’ve never heard her speak a cruel word to anyone, myself included. That day, though, she exploded and told me pointedly that she needed me to come up with a different plan. She was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to carry us forever and wanted to know what would happen to us if she lost her job.
I stopped walking and demanded she stop mincing words. “What exactly are you saying?” I asked.
“Find another source of income,” she said.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe this stung so badly. After all, what do married couples do except share the burden of securing their joint future? Somehow, though, it felt as if Liz were voting “no confidence” on my entire way of being, demanding that I come up with a new one or find myself divorced—although, to be fair, she never said the word divorce.
Full of wounded outrage, I said, “But what exactly do you want me to do? Like, quit being a writer? And become what, a therapist?”
“That actually sounds great,” Liz said.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe you just said that. You really want me to quit being a writer?”
“No! Of course not. And you’d never do that anyway. But just . . . I don’t know, why not become a therapist? Or something else.”
During the argument that followed, I noticed something odd. Even as I repeatedly asked Liz how she could suggest anything so upsetting, I found myself adding caveats like, “Although, just to be clear, I’m not saying I have any real problem with becoming a therapist per se. In fact, it sounds weirdly great.”
In the days following our walk, the persistent simultaneity of those contradictory thoughts—how dare Liz and sounds weirdly great—got me wondering if either represented a more authentic self to which I owed greater loyalty.
My daydream about becoming a therapist—when it popped out of my mouth over dinner, I mean—had obvious roots. My mother and father never, ever talked about mental health when I was a kid—and yet addiction, depression, and suicide run in the family, on both sides. Ever since I can remember, my moods have lurched from low to high and back again with frightening speed; my attachment style runs crushingly insecure; and to say that I suffer negative self-talk is the understatement of the century. That’s what a lot of my man-of-action stuff was about—escaping my own thoughts, quieting my uneasy heart. In private, though, in my childhood and college bedrooms, I’d become an armchair psychologist, reading psychoanalytic literature in an effort to make sense of my inner world.
I finally sought out psychotherapy in my late 20s—discreetly, by asking someone I can’t even recall if they happened to know a good therapist. My goal, at the time, had nothing to do with healing. The way I saw it, I just wanted to fix everything pathetic and unlovable about myself and thereby hold onto a woman whom I considered the most important and electrifying creature ever born. My first therapist did a fine job of extricating me from that terrible relationship and from my lifelong pattern of similarly dramatic entanglements, which is how I grew up enough to find Liz.
I sought therapy for a second time in my 30s, after Liz and I lost a late-stage pregnancy. In that instance, worsening suicidal ideation led me to a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants that likely saved my life. This psychiatrist happened to be a psychoanalyst of the many-times-a-week variety. He encouraged me to try formal analysis, but I declined because SSRIs were already lifting my mood, and I’d found some appropriately manly new means of self-medication: powerlifting and triathlons.
Years later, though, when the aforementioned magazine contracts disappeared, I fell apart again and found another psychoanalyst. Together, he and I formed a therapeutic bond that has endured for more than a decade and has led me to think, during many sessions, You have a great job.
I’ve also befriended therapists along the way, including one named Kiernan, who jokes that I’d be a fun client because I’d do all the homework and actually try to change. Over the years, I’ve even begun to love the parts of journalism that bear the closest resemblance to practicing therapy—sitting with interview subjects and embodying a peaceful presence, asking good questions and listening with compassion, bearing witness to suffering while looking for a deeper emotional truth. When I spent time in a Tijuana homeless shelter, interviewing an asylum seeker from Cameroon, I wanted badly to help carry the burden of his trauma. When a football-loving father in Montana told me about his anguish over his quarterback son’s recent head injury, I wanted to be worthy of the trust he’d placed in me and perhaps contribute to his healing.
As for my outrage at Liz—my indignation at her suggestion that I become a therapist for real—I struggled to identify all its sources. One of the more obvious was ego investment in the idea of myself as a writer and only a writer. Another was worry that I might not be well-suited to the profession. So I texted Kiernan and asked for her take.
Instantly, she texted back, “You’ll be great!” Notice the verb tense: future, indicating something that will happen.
Kiernan lives in my neighborhood, so we agreed to meet at a nearby modernist-woodsy café called Pinhole—as in the old-fashioned pinhole cameras that you’d see in a Wes Anderson movie. It felt liberating to hear Kiernan speak as if my becoming a therapist were not only a done deal but perfectly appropriate for me. She knows Liz and me well enough to understand that economics was a factor and said encouraging things, like that male therapists were in short supply, and that it was fine to become a therapist later in life—that love and loss and experience can all be helpful in doing the work. She also pointed out that a therapist’s schedule could be flexible enough to accommodate writing.
As I walked home, feeling lighter and more optimistic than I had in ages, I texted another therapist friend, Amy, who’d been an editor at Bon Appétit before getting licensed. Amy replied with similar encouragement and a link to an MFT master’s degree program. This felt like a particularly luminous gift—like that moment when a prisoner, after months of digging his escape tunnel, finally breaks through to the outside world.
A week later, I enrolled. Two weeks after that, I began the first course, Counseling Theories and Strategies. Curiously, though, months passed before I mentioned this shift in my life to my climbing or surfing buddies (all male). In fact, the very thought of telling them made me queasy, as if I were quietly abandoning my personal role in our special operations commando team and claiming a new role (pastry chef?) that our team might not need.
This was obviously a me problem, not a them problem, and I thought for a while that I just didn’t like the word therapist—so vague, as if the entire profession were uncomfortable with its own nature. I could feel myself yearning for a more concrete (masculine?) word like doctor, carpenter, cop, poet, priest. I decided that psychoanalyst or clinical psychologist might’ve felt a little better, doubtless because both sounded high-status and active. Psychoanalysts analyze, after all; psychologists psychologize; but therapists . . . therapize? What does that even mean?
When I did finally tell my male friends, having completed that first course and begun a second on ethics and law, I found myself using the word shrink, as in “I’m back in school to become a shrink.” But even shrink bothered me, because it seemed to carry its own insecurity: I know tough guys aren’t therapists, and I wouldn’t want anybody thinking I’m not a tough guy, so, yeah, I’m becoming a goddamn shrink.
The closest I got to clarity was a few months later, as I plowed through homework for courses in family therapy and psychopathology. My mother and father happened by on a Sunday morning and strolled with me to Pinhole, where we got espresso drinks and sat in the same sunny parklet where I’d talked with Kiernan. Mom broke up a ginger scone to share, and it occurred to me that I still hadn’t spoken a word to my parents about my therapist plans. They’d always been my greatest cheerleaders, and I’d never doubted that they approved of my professional identities to date—writer/surfer/climber. Now, though, I felt paralyzed about therapist.
When I finally blurted it out—“What have I been up to? Ah, well . . .”—my mother burst into tears, thinking my career shift meant I felt like a failure in my writing. “You seemed so hopeful about your last venture in podcasting,” she said.
Then my father, one of the world’s great natural empaths, said, “Gee, son, that sounds incredibly interesting. Say more.”
So I did. I shared that I was tired of relying exclusively on journalism, was looking at the marriage and family therapy track, was learning the basics of psychoanalysis and Internal Family Systems. As I talked, I realized that my prior learning obsessions had been born of my parents’ half-lived dreams. My mother had been a fiction writer as a young woman but had quit to work full-time when I needed college tuition money; she loved French cooking but rarely had an audience that merited the trouble. My father surfed in the 1950s but stopped to go to law school and start a family; he’d been a serious weightlifter for years, found later-life happiness in Yosemite rock climbing, and envied a friend who made a living as a globe-trotting adventure photographer. Perhaps I’d wanted to become all of the above as a way of fulfilling my parents’ dearest aspirations and thereby securing their love.
Becoming a therapist, though, had nothing to do with my parents’ dreams and everything to do with the part of me that has never felt secure—and for which climbing, writing, and surfing have always been soothing but not curative. So perhaps I was afraid to hurt my parents by declaring allegiance to an aspect of myself that sought wholeness where they never had.
Standing up from my seat at the parklet, coffee in hand, I tried to soften the blow by reassuring my mother and father that I had no intention of quitting writing or surfing or anything else.
“I’m glad, son,” my father said, as he and my mother stood to leave with me. “And tell me. How does the whole process work anyway? Like what does it take to get . . . licensed?”
As we walked down the sidewalk toward my house, I laid it all out—another year’s coursework, a few hundred hours’ worth of unpaid practicum, 3,000 clinical hours.
“Three thousand?!” my father gasped. “Wow, that’s a lot. What is that . . . two years?”
“At least,” I said. “And yes, it’s a lot.” But it was the final puzzle piece in my understanding of that odd simultaneity—daydream and outrage. Becoming a therapist really does sound wonderful to me, and it sounds like a hard road. So I guess I’m coming around to accepting that both are true. I’m also realizing that these parts of myself that I’ve long seen as irreconcilable—Action Man and Therapy Guy—might finally be able to work together. The former has always been my preferred public mask. Therapy Guy has been much more private. Perhaps, though, in learning the profession of therapy, they can both let go of whatever shame still resides in me and find a way to unite into, well—who knows?—maybe something like Action Man Therapy Guy.
ILLUSTRATION © PAPER STREET DESIGN
Daniel Duane is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, including the cult-classic surfing memoir Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Esquire, and other publications.