Thursday, January 21, 2010

Identity Crisis

I was laid off about three months ago. (Gosh, has it really been that long?)

It wasn't the most wonderful job. There were parts of it I loved (the students, the people in my department, the beautiful landscaping, my office--well, except for that bizarre picture of the St. Bernard carrying an umbrella). And parts that absolutely irked me, times when I didn't think I could stand another day, when I'd race home to surf the web for job openings. So it's surprising to me to realize that I'm still angry about the layoff.

I've described to friends that the ex-job was like one's first high-school relationship: you want to be with someone, but you know that the person you are with is really wrong for you. You know it's not going to last. So you plot and plan, hoping to dump the person before he or she can dump you. You want to be the dumper and not the dumpee.

Unfortunately, I didn't move fast enough. I got dumped.

It's a funny thing, working in mental health. I had done it during my training and had sworn never to go back to it. And then, three years ago, I had gone and signed up with the ex (some of us will do anything for money). All those stereotypes, about people going into the mental health field because they need to "figure themselves out"...they're true. From the positive perspective, many people are drawn to the field because of a personal experience--a family member or a loved one struggling with a mental illness. And this is admirable, a noble thing: to have a passion to make the world a better place for those who suffer, to give meaning and purpose to one's own pain. The problem becomes, however, that many staff members haven't worked through their issues. In order to be a healing person, you have to be healthier(mentally and physically) than the person you are trying to help...if for no other reason than to have credibility (how seriously can I take the advice of an obese cardiologist who smokes?).

I am fortunate enough to have a second half-time job, at a wonderful hospital. It is everything the other place was not. Clear communication is a priority. Administration is approachable. Professional development is expected and opportunities are offered. Yes, there are individuals who demonstrate their issues for their coworkers, but for the most part it's a healthy place to be. (When co-workers gripe, I remind them they are working in the healthcare equivalent of Disney.)

And yet, I feel something missing. I've been unsatisfied. And I know the "something missing" is in me.

Today it clicked. Today I finally understood that the missing piece is my sense of professional identity. I've long felt so fortunate that I chose a profession that seems like the most natural thing to me. My work is who I am, it is what I was meant to do.

But in Hospital House-of-Mouse, I'm a consumer consultant. Based on my experiences as a user of healthcare, I give presentations, write newsletters, review training materials, sit in committee meetings and express my opinion. But what I am absolutely forbidden to reveal (by decree from administration) is my profession.

Lately I've caught myself--in meetings with staff who have the same professional credentials as I--using technical terminology, seeing if they'll realize I know more that the average person. And ask why. And then maybe I can reveal the dark secret.

It makes me sad, this realization...because it means that for me to be truly whole, and happy professionally, I cannot stay at HHoM. I love it there. But I need more. I am not offering the world everything I have.

One possible reality--fantasy?--is for me to work in my field at HHoM. But I have a fear that I will be perceived as a traitor to the job and department I'm in. Everyone else in it has moved away from their education and training and seem to be perfectly content (e.g., the physician who becomes an administrator). Some people will understand and be supportive; others will not.

Most of the professional opportunities that have appealed to me are full-time. The few half-time gigs--which would enable me to have both a place at HHoM and a professional side--have just not felt right. And I decided when I was first laid off, that I would not compromise. Too many times in the past, for multiple reasons, what gave way was what I wanted for myself. This time, I am holding out for the type of work I want.

I'm grieving in advance, for whatever change is comiing. And hoping that wherever I land, it will be what I need for me.

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