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What I Learned After Retiring for My Mental Health

I don’t think enough people talk about retirement. Perhaps retirement is becoming a privilege to so few that we just don’t talk about it much. If you have been careful, thoughtful, and fortunate enough to retire with any degree of comfort, you know you are blessed. However, even under pretty good circumstances, retirement is a unique developmental transition that we don’t really think about until we get closer to the event. We might work with a financial planner, imagine trips we would like to take, or even places we might move to. We don’t necessarily think about what it would be like to leave a career that you spent time, effort, and heart in building.

It’s actually even more complicated because there are different pathways to retirement. For me, that pathway was the result of a mental health crisis. When it happened to me, I was floored, gutted, afraid, and I felt alone and unable to really talk about it with anyone other than my therapist. At that time I discovered the Mighty, and read posts and stories from other people who found their way to retirement in the same way. I have found this community helpful in so many ways when I experienced my crisis. It is helpful to know that you are not alone and to get simple authentic words of support from other Mighty members. It’s helpful to hear people’s stories, to just know what this experience of living is like for others.

While still a lived experience for me, I am further along in the process of retirement. It has been a complicated journey, but what I would like to focus on is the grief of losing a profession. It is not as painful as grieving a person, but it is profound and transformative. Basically, retirement and accepting my disability transformed my relationship with myself. It made me more aware of deeply held beliefs that were causing me suffering. Self-compassion and self-care became my new focus. The challenge was to accept that I was not equal to my accomplishments. That I have value and worth simply from being part of this common humanity. I read somewhere that retirement is like taking things apart before building something new. The process of taking things apart might include dismantling an office or giving away materials to younger peers, but it also includes dismantling of your attachments to false identities and false priorities. It is an opportunity for growth and freedom.

I was a psychologist for over 25 years and I worked with families and children with severe mental illness and developmental disabilities. It was challenging, stressful, and very rewarding. Much of the time, I loved my career. I enjoyed the challenge, the creativity, and the relationships I developed. Most of all, I felt grateful that I had a career with such purpose, that I felt like I was making a difference in the lives of families. I was proud to be a psychologist. However, I felt vulnerable after experiencing significant trauma in my personal life. It became more difficult to carry the pain and suffering that I was witnessing. I began to consider making a change but was unclear what to do next. Before I had a chance to make a change, I had a severe trauma reaction to an interpersonal conflict with my boss. My therapist called it a “blended” reaction. This means that you are in a highly stressful situation that mirrors your earlier trauma. This resulted in a severe trauma reaction. I felt like a raw nerve and I couldn’t think clearly. I had problems with anxiety and depression before, but I had never been this sick and it was frightening. My therapist reassured me this was temporary, that my mental faculties would return with rest, but it was scary and felt like a permanent brain injury.

Though I made some weak attempts at returning to my career, I quickly knew that I would never again work as a psychologist. I never want to get that sick again and I am not confident enough that I could continue and be effective. I was left to question what that meant for me and my future. I was fortunate and able to work out the financial implications much more quickly than the emotional outcome. I was left with painful questions that had no easy answer.  Was it worth it? Did I make a difference? Can I be proud of what I did? What does it mean for my identity if I am no longer a psychologist? I felt a deep sense of grief and loss that almost rivaled the loss of loved ones that I had also experienced at this time. Honestly, it took about as long to work through this grief, and I would be surprised if I don’t revisit this grief in the future just as I have done with the loss of my parents. It is a part of me.

In this turmoil, I was forced to adjust my relationship with myself and to explore the expectations that I had of myself. I needed to identify and challenge a deeply held belief that my worth was a function of my accomplishments. That I only felt worthy when I was accomplishing things, writing articles, and helping others. It is very tenuous and fragile to base your self-worth on your accomplishments.  Humans are flawed creatures and sooner or later we all experience failure.  If our identity is based on our accomplishments, what does that mean when we fail? When we become so ill we can no longer produce?  Are we no longer worthy? As I unpacked my own trauma, I felt like a fraud for all the years that I operated as an “expert”.  While I was operating as an expert there was actually so much that I didn’t know about myself and my own trauma. I felt shattered.

It has been about three years since my trauma reaction. I am grateful for the support I had from my loved ones and that I had access to good medical care. I am not the same person I was before my breakdown but I don’t feel like a raw nerve. Everyday I feel more grounded in the here and now, less burdened by intrusive thoughts of past trauma and my lost profession. I have more control over when I choose to visit these thoughts. Perhaps the most valuable part of this experience is the transformation that occurs in how I think about myself. I know on a deeper level that I am worthy of compassion and care irrespective of my accomplishments. That I am part of this common humanity filled with humans that all want the same thing-to be happy and to avoid suffering. We are all the same. This not only helped me feel better about saying goodbye to my career, it brought more grace and warmth to all of my relationships, particularly my with my young adult child.

For others that may be experiencing losing a profession due to a mental health crisis, please know that you can feel better, sleep better, eat better, and think better. There is just an element of time that can’t be replaced. Just like the loss of a loved one, it is just something you need to go through and it takes time. I hope you have support from your loved ones and access to medical care like I have. It is an opportunity for growth and transformation if you are able and willing to entertain the idea of self-compassion. To broaden your idea of self-worth and connect with your common humanity. To find beauty and grace in your own flawed humanity.

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