In graduate school, we all suffer from imposter syndrome. I’m 27, slightly older than most students in my small cohort in the marriage and family therapy program, but we’re toddlers, all of us. We may be smart, thoughtful, and incredibly empathetic, but we often feel as if we don’t know anything. Our confidence that we belong in this profession wanes just as fast as it arrived. We stumble around counseling theories and marvel at the DSM. We take shaky first steps during awkward role-playing in front of our instructors—skilled clinicians in their own right. For the most part, we have no experience working in mental health services.
On paper, my admission application undoubtedly raised eyebrows: I resembled less a promising, future clinician and more a lost 20-something hoping that a graduate degree might establish some semblance of credibility. Before I decided on this career path, I’d worked as a bank teller, an office supplies salesman, a teacher’s aide, a tutor, and a debt collector. But whether I knew it or not, I’d been training to become a therapist my entire life. Because, for better or worse, I was raised by two of them.
For well over the past decade, my parents held sessions in a suite of offices they rented only a few miles from home. They worked out of two larger rooms that had excellent natural light and views of nearby mountains on the horizon. The third room of their suite, the smallest, with no windows, had been vacant for quite some time, and my parents often joked that I’d work there once I became licensed. In their minds, we’d operate a group practice, a family business of psychotherapists perhaps, like a local mechanic’s shop or delicatessen, threaded through several generations.
But in the summer of 2021, my mother’s cancer diagnosis pushed her into retirement at age 68. It was a jarring rupture of her plan to never retire. “One of the great things about being a therapist,” she always told me, “is that you can do it forever.”
From my observations growing up, being a therapist, perhaps unlike many professions, permeates the borders between work and the personal. It’s an identity as well as a profession. To be a psychotherapist—a good one—is to be a specific type of person, one consumed by an excruciating amount of empathy and an almost pathological amount of compassion. But my mother’s early retirement signaled a resignation, for the first time in her life, to putting her own needs above others’. Her clients were distraught and saddened. Boundary crossings be damned—one client showed up at my parents’ home unannounced to deliver a basket of thoughtful gifts. Others sent get-well cards and offered to run errands. Many sent text messages and emails bursting with gratitude for my mother’s role in their lives. It turns out you can’t be a therapist forever, but I’m starting to think that there’s something infinite at play.
When I was growing up, people found it amusing when I’d say that my parents were therapists. And it’s a little funny, I suppose. The suburban, nuclear family led by two Baby Boomer therapists is the thing of sitcoms. The absurdity, though, hinges on the fact that our country maintains a cartoonish depiction of psychology, mainly talk therapy. Perhaps people imagined that the dark, leather therapy couch—so often used in the media’s portrayal of therapy—was planted in our living room. Maybe they imagined my brother and me subjected to dream analysis, our parents attentively listening, jotting down notes in response to the ramblings of our adolescent subconscious.
Truthfully, they analyzed my brother and me in the same way any parent would analyze their children’s unsettling behaviors. They sought to find the answer to the answerless question of why their children were the way they were. They studied us in the same way any parent would interrogate their teenage son (my brother) who came home past curfew reeking of pot. They analyzed us in the same way any parent would probe their child (my brother again) who gleefully detonated a dry ice bomb in the backyard. The questions they considered at night, the whispers in hushed, anxious tones, are what I imagine most parents ask: just how much weed is our son smoking? And at what point do we worry about his preoccupation with explosives?
There was no clinical manner to their parenting, thankfully. My parents did, however, embody the sensibility of therapists in our often chaotic home. I see now that this is when my training began, as I watched and learned what it means to listen, to remain calm in times of tension, and to communicate feelings effectively.
That’s not to say that my brother and I were more emotionally advanced than our peers. In fact, we demonstrated signs of mental illness at young ages. My brother’s inability to focus, his hyperactive tendencies, and his frequent impulsive actions caused my parents to seek a pediatric specialist’s help. I, on the other hand, was clinically anxious.
Rare was a morning spent not crying in devastation at the notion of leaving the house to go to school because I was convinced my parents would die while we were separated. I performed tireless inner compulsions and rituals to stave off my parents’ demise, reciting reassurances to myself that they’d be alive and well while I drifted through school. Around the age of 12, my obsessions and mental gymnastics would morph into an irrational fear of illness, contamination, and germs. Many years later, my brother would struggle with addiction, and I’d continue to be plagued by OCD and depression. I don’t buy into the notion that therapists’ kids are less well-adjusted, but I don’t necessarily have the evidence to prove otherwise.
I don’t know how other parents intervened in their children’s maladaptive behavior, but we had “terrace talks,” the threat of which would strike fear in my brother and me. If you were invited to attend one of these meetings, then you knew something had gone terribly wrong. The offenses that led to this Sunday morning assembly in the backyard, so as to provide distance from the eavesdropping of the brother not in trouble, could be any number of things, like a failing grade in class, defiance of authority, an email from a teacher. In an eerily calm manner, my mother and father, their backs upright and tall against sun-drenched, poorly constructed plastic patio furniture, would sit across from my brother or me and deploy the tactful skills of intervention that they’d developed as clinicians.
As much as the terrace talks were meant to foster open communication and respect (what else would you expect from two therapists?), they often felt like a deposition. My mother would peer from her glasses at a document in front of her and inquire into the whereabouts of, perhaps, the last 10 missing assignments. And we didn’t bother lying; they both came prepared, ready to rebuke any bogus defenses. “I find it interesting that you happened to misplace all of the assignments for March,” they might say. But it wouldn’t be meant as a “gotcha” moment, nor would it lead to harsh punishment. Instead, in true therapeutic form, they sought to get to the bottom of an underlying issue. What was it that was causing a failing grade in algebra? Poor study habits? Lack of attention in class? Was it more complicated, maybe a matter of having zero foresight into the impact of not graduating from high school? Although they simply wanted to understand where we were coming from and how to move forward, for a 12- and 15-year-old, it was, needless to say, incredibly annoying.
As children, we tend to distill vast amounts of complex information into overly simplified conclusions. Watching my parents navigate their professional lives, I learned that the work of a therapist is all-consuming and emotionally taxing. I was also—at far too early an age—committed to the belief that people are broken. But I think I was mostly right. Growing up, I’d overhear conversations about nameless clients in vague, nondescriptive language that were startling and chilling nonetheless. I heard stories of clients being hospitalized, students harming themselves or others, teenagers overdosing on heroin—you know, normal family dinner conversation.
Often my parents’ pagers—later their clunky, brick cell phones—would go off, alerting them of a work emergency. Although they did their best to leave their work out of our home, the sense of urgency placed onto mental health—how quickly things turn tragic!—hung in the air and followed us all. On occasion, my parents were visibly drained and dispirited, and they relied on one another to unburden and release the pain they’d been asked to shepherd. To their credit, they imparted the belief that mental health is to be taken as seriously as one’s own physical health—a novel concept still to this day.
I didn’t want to be a therapist. The work seemed emotionally exhausting. The liability and responsibility is profound, the record keeping and notetaking laborious, the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout high, the practice of insurance billing painstaking, and the compensation, well, lousy. To follow my parents’ path seemed like a rejection of my own individuality, a failure to find my own direction in life. I can list a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t be a therapist, but ultimately I’m not sure I ever had a choice. It feels now like part of my genetic makeup.
Even still, I shudder to think of the ways I’ll be ill-equipped to help others once I’m cast out of the cocoon of grad school and into the real clinical world, despite all the wisdom the clinicians who instruct and mentor us (and for a select lucky few, the ones who raise us) have graciously passed on. As much as I’d like there to be one, there’s no single torch to be passed down and carried by a new generation of therapists. There’s no one source of light to help us guide the lost, the hurt, the broken.
As I watch my parents grow older (and somehow get better and better at doing therapy with each passing year) I’m realizing more that they won’t be able to do this work forever. But there is, I’m starting to learn, a spirit to carry.
Whether or not my practice merges with my father’s—Lappin & Lappin, LLC does have a nice ring to it—I know that when it comes to working with my own clients, my parents will always be with me, even when they’re not. Perhaps one day I’ll have my own clinical version of terrace talks with a difficult adolescent client. And when I manage to navigate someone’s turn for the worse with grace and equanimity—in hushed tones, trying to shelter my own children in the next room—I’ll know it’s because of my mom and dad. I’ll carry their spirit the best I can, the one that moves me through my clients’ dark moments and my own, the one that tells me this work is a commitment to think of others first. It’s a responsibility to bear, but a privilege to hold.
David Lappin is a graduate student in Southern California, training to become a marriage and family therapist. Contact: email@example.com.*
*Jay Lappin and David Lappin—no relation.
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