In 1987, I was in my third year of dental school, working hard drilling cavity preps, making cement impressions for bridges and crowns, and bending wires for braces. But, in truth I was miserable, going through the motions of doing a job I thought would satisfy my dreams. Even now, my stomach churns remembering the anxiety of waking up to a truth I had tried to deny. I wanted to believe I could force myself to be happy. But mind over matter wasn’t working any more. I had to face realty: I had made a terrible mistake.
For someone who had prided herself on being in control, how did I get to a place where everything was unraveling?
Flash back to 1983. I’m in a pre-med program in college, fulfilling a track I’d been on since childhood. Having a natural proclivity for science, I had set my sights on becoming a physician like my father at an early age. And the positive encouragement I got when I told people “I want to be a doctor” propelled that decision for years. But as I started filling out medical school applications, something was shifting in my mind. Questions I had never thought to ask myself now occurred to me like what does it really mean to be a doctor? Could I stomach telling someone that their loved one was dying? That thought made me dizzy with anxiety and dread. For that and some other reasons, I no longer wanted to be a physician.
(It would be 20 more years before I first came across the Change Triangle and learned other ways to manage anxiety besides avoidance!)
Oh my God, what am I going to do with my life???
I had to think quick. I racked my brain for an alternative career—something that didn’t involve death or loss. I asked myself, what profession was similar to medicine, but less intense?
I know! I’ll be a dentist! (The fact that I knew nothing about dentistry and never even had a cavity didn’t seem to deter me.)
The scariest part at this point was telling my father. I mustered up the courage and dropped the bomb. “Dad, I don’t want to go to medical school anymore, I want to be a dentist.”
He was appalled by my announcement. I wished he had been proud of me for figuring out what I wanted. Instead, he unabashedly conveyed his deep disappointed in me and disapproval of my decision.
The first two years of dental school were great. I was in a classroom, a place where I always felt comfortable, learning anatomy, physiology, pathology, and neuroscience. In fact, the medical students and dental students had the same classes for the first two years. Starting in the 3rd year, however, the dental students peeled off to the dental clinic to do actual dentistry. That’s when things went south. My manual dexterity wasn’t great, and I didn’t enjoy it. I was either anxious drilling in mouths, or bored by the work.
I prayed that it was dental school I didn’t like and not dentistry. I decided to finish school and be a dentist for a year. If I still hated it, my plan was to quit. I knew enough to cut my losses before I started to make good money, which might lure me into staying.
My year as a dentist at the Memphis VA hospital could not have been better. I loved the state-of-the-art dental clinic. I met terrific colleagues. I adored the patients who were kind, grateful and appreciative for my treatment. I hated the work!
I was trapped between three huge anxieties: fear of staying in a career I had no passion for, fear of an unknown future, and fear of falling from grace in my status as an accomplished and responsible person. At that time in my life, I still needed to appear perfect. (Perfectionism is defense on the Change Triangle). On paper it appeared that I was.
But once I accepted that I had made a colossal mistake, I had to face my fears again. I had spent my whole life avoiding this very situation of having no path (and avoiding the feelings that went with that experience). Equally terrifying was telling my father, my in-laws, and my husband that I would leave dentistry without any career plan except to find a paying job. I would start from scratch.
My announcement was not well-received. I was called irresponsible, selfish, and told I was making a HUGE mistake.
I was ashamed of my mistakes and my selfishness to give up a lucrative career that I had studied so many years to achieve. I was also enraged from the lack of support I received from my family. In short, I was devastated.
I remember the days and weeks that followed when I tried to get a job. I cold-called prospective employers and explained my predicament. I am a smart woman who made a career mistake and am currently shifting gears. I’m looking for an entry level position in marketing. I am a hard worker and a fast learner. But, it seemed like everyone said the exact same thing, “Why would you leave a career as a dentist? That’s crazy!” I didn’t really have a good answer except the truth, I wasn’t happy. But, that answer wasn’t good enough.
Over the next ten years, I had two children and tried out many other jobs. I had a stint in corporate America working for Maybelline cosmetics, I started a home-based business selling vitamins and skin care, and I headed up sales at a friend’s start-up tech healthcare venture. None of them felt right.
In 2001, one of my best friends announced she was going back to social work school to become a psychotherapist and a light bulb went on in my brain. I was raised by a psychiatrist and a guidance counsellor. I had always loved “analyzing” my friends. I loved psychology/self-help books . Neuroscience was my favorite course in dental school. At 37-years old it suddenly dawned on me that’s what I wanted to be - a psychotherapist! I decided to give up my goal of finding a job that paid me lots of money in exchange for doing work that I really wanted to do. With luck and hard work, I hoped I’d make a living.
Turns out, my family was wrong. I was a responsible person, even though I took a crooked path to finding myself. I love and am passionate about my work as a psychotherapist and more recently as an emotions educator. Amazingly, all that dental/medical education proved useful in my new career. No part of my journey was a waste of time.
Leaving dentistry was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The fear was intense. The stress was almost more than I could bare. I thought the world would fall apart. But it didn’t. It got better.