Long story short, I’m retiring from the practice of psychotherapy at the end of 2011.

The full story is why.

Where do I start?

It is difficult to write this without giving the wrong impression. It would be easy to sound entitled, for example. But, truth is, I’m no more entitled than anyone else who worked for a living and reached a certain age. Nothing special about me in that way.

It would also be easy to sound as though I don’t enjoy my work when, in fact, I usually do. Indeed, while I’m doing it — in session, listening to my patients, thinking about what they are saying and what they are not; what they are feeling and what they are not — I am doing something that gives me satisfaction as it is happening. I listen, I joke or laugh, I witness their pain, I try to make sense of things for myself and for them, I try to support their growth and healing. I call on all I have learned in life and in books, all my training and experience tell me might be helpful.

I am stimulated and challenged, immensely lucky to have had the chance to do this.

It can be (and often is) terrifically interesting and rewarding. Everyone has a story and I am a lover of stories; the listening and the telling.

Most of the people who I have seen are, if you look hard enough, captivating and decent people trying to make their way through the thicket of life without a map. Some had wise and sensitive parents who gave them some clues about where the ground would give way and how to make it out of the canopied forest and into the light. But, for them, as it is for me and you, any guidance can only be partial. We all feel, fairly often, that we’ve lost our way on the path, if indeed there is one.

Other people have taught me — some of you who were my patients and are reading this have taught me — everything I know. OK, not everything, but more than I can ever say. It has been a privilege to work for you, with you, and on you; to help you and to give meaning to my own life by doing so.

Mark Messier

I have been in the full-time private practice of clinical psychology since 1982 — almost 30 years. Before that, I was the Chief Psychologist and head of the psychology internship program at Forest Hospital. And before that, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Douglass College, Rutgers University and a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton.

I have to go back to the summer of my sophomore year in high school in order to find a time when I was last “free.” All the years following found me working or going to school full-time, sometimes both; almost 50 years. Even when you are a junior grade college professor, which all assistant professors are, you are working on your research during the summer, so there isn’t much time off.

And if you are like me, from time to time you wonder what it would be like to take what is now called “a gap year.” Essentially a year off the treadmill any job can feel like at times. Twelve months to do something different. A year without having to manage my practice and be responsible for the lives of others.

Professionally responsible, that is. Which means being available by phone and in person. And a year not having to oversee the business end of the practice, that, when you are a solo practitioner, is something you must do. Not to mention dealing with insurance issues (don’t get me started on that one). Although, I have a wonderful office manager who is astonishingly good at taking this on, it is a part of private practice most health care professionals just hate.

So the idea of a “gap year” has appealed for a long time, as a period of refreshment to recharge and give perspective. But, virtually no one in my profession does this. It isn’t practical and the engine of an ongoing business takes on a life and momentum of its own, easier to maintain than to restart, if you can restart it.

And then there is the fact that as a therapist you are always in the middle of things with the people you serve, never at an end-point with everyone all at once. You don’t go into a career as a therapist unless you have the sense of responsibility I mentioned earlier. You don’t want to let anyone down. You want to help them get to the finish line or at least to the point it can be seen in the distance.

For some therapists including myself, it is a routine that has an established and comforting rhythm. Some can’t imagine another life. For them and for me, it has been a career enhanced by the status and monetary compensation attached to it. They start in practice, as I did, wondering if it will all work out and discover it all does. In the beginning they wonder if the phone will ring with calls from people who want their services. In the end, as it has been for me, the bigger concern is saying “no” because there is simply not enough time to see everyone.

How then did I finally reason this out, you might ask. How did I decide this was the time?

While I don’t deserve retirement more than anyone else, I am able to do it. That was consideration #1: assuming a normal life expectancy, could I live without running out of money? You never know for sure, but it seems a reasonably safe prediction.

I know some people keep working in my profession out of the fear of future financial distress. But at this point in my life, fear tells me more what I should be trying to do than what I should avoid. So, having done my homework on the subject of my fiscal future, I’m willing to take the risk.

Then there was the question some of us ask ourselves, “How would I change my life if I knew that I had only ____ years to live” (fill in the blank with whatever number would cause you to change your life). This is usually an abstract question and it remains this for me, since I don’t have any life threatening diseases I know of.

But still, we aren’t promised a life that goes on forever, and there are some other things I’d like to do in my indeterminate future. I have books and moviesI’d like to read and watch. There are places I’d like to visit, things I’d like to learn about that don’t have to do with my profession.

I’d like to be able to sleep late, exercise more, commute less, socialize a bit more. I no longer wish to “mind my own business” (literally), but rather to be free of the cares that are particular to any kind of corporate enterprise, especially when many others depend on me. Time for a bit more self-indulgence then.

I will spend more time out-of-doors, in the natural light (literally), rather than working “inside,” trying to help people find the light (figuratively).

This might sound like a complaint, I know. That others have depended upon me professionally has been gratifying and has compensated me well beyond the dollars and cents of it. But it is time to try something else.

One of the things I have done and hope to continue to do is oral history interviewing. I’ve done this with a fair number of Chicago Symphony musicians who are retired or are retiring, so I get to hear about how they made the decision to quit and how it is going once the job is set aside. These men and women don’t typically give up music, but it no longer takes on the dominating position in their lives. Mostly, they seem pretty happy after they are done. They have given their all for a world-class team and their pride in that helps to sustain them once it is finished.

I can imagine a similar feeling about my work as a therapist.

Daniel Barenboim

But I’ve heard a few cautionary tales too. One that has gone the rounds is about the CSO’s former Music Director Daniel Barenboim and a string player of long-standing. This man had been a wonderful musician, but he had aged to the point of needing to step aside for the good of the ensemble. The problem was that the CSO had been his life, with little in the way of hobbies or other interests to fill that life, so he just kept going and denied what his ears and fingers were telling him.

One day at a CSO rehearsal, the Music Director made the matter public and uncomfortable for him and his cohorts. Addressing the musician, Barenboim said something to him like, “Wouldn’t you rather be at home than to have to be here doing this strenuous job?”

“I will die in this chair!” came the indignant response.

“Well, you know, we can have it moved to your home!”

Barenboim, of course, was enormously clever to say this, but terribly tactless as well. The poignancy of the player’s dilemma, if the conductor grasped it, was set aside for the momentary pleasure of one-upping the man.

In the end, the musician did leave the orchestra. But, someone who knew him quite well told me his retirement was empty, because playing in the orchestra was the only thing that had given meaning to his later life.

All of which is a long way of saying I don’t think I’m that guy. Most people I know who have retired, including CSO musicians, eventually seem to figure out how to organize their time usefully, even if there is a period of adjustment along the way.

Ultimately, though, clinching the decision has not been a matter of thought or reflection, but simply listening to my body.

A childhood anecdote might help make my point.

Like most kids, I enjoyed amusement parks; especially the high rides, the roller coasters. When I was small, my dad would take me to Chicago’s legendary Riverview Park, a place that had several of those attractions. The highest and fastest and scariest was called “The Bobs.”

File:The Bobs at Riverview (JJH).jpg

My dad was probably in his middle-40s at the time. He didn’t seem to be nearly as excited about going as I was, but took some pleasure in the fact that I enjoyed it immensely. “The Bobs,” however, was definitely a problem for him. It didn’t scare him, it didn’t thrill him, it just knocked him around in an uncomfortable way, and he said so. If you’ve ever ridden a contraption like that, you know you get jostled pretty seriously, thrown from one side of the car to another, bumping into your companion and the hard restraining surfaces.

I always wondered what he was talking about when he referred to the roughness of the ride. All the movement seemed great fun for me and was in no way troublesome. But, when I came to be his age and in his seat with one of my own children, then I knew exactly what he meant. Funny how we meet our parents again as we age, meet them in the mirror — meet them in ourselves, feeling what they felt when we were little, at a time that they were the age we have now become; the age where the experience of living in a more mature body finally creates the understanding.

While doing therapy is nothing like the physical experience of riding a roller-coaster, doing it in your 60s (at least for me) has not been the physical experience of doing it earlier in my career. If someone had told me 20 years ago, it would fatigue me in the way it does today, I’m sure I would not have had any more understanding of what they were saying than I did when I was 10 and my dad told me he didn’t like the physical experience of being thrown about on the hurtling high-ride.

I find the fatigue puzzling. After all, I just sit there and listen to you and talk to you. I have never felt more consistently able to concentrate on what you are saying, or better (more therapeutic) at doing my job. But then comes the end of the day, and I am both exhausted and sometimes a bit “wired,” even though I work shorter days than ever.

I’ve been playing with ways to make it less physically demanding: taking lots of vacation, doing regular aerobic exercise and weight lifting, reducing my case load, and working only four days a week for quite some time. None of that has done the trick.

Go figure.

As I said, it is time.

To all of you with whom I’ve had personal contact, thank you. Even to those of you where that contact didn’t help, I sometimes was able to learn some things that deepened my understanding and eventually benefited others. Best of all, of course, to those of you who did profit from our time together, thanks for trusting in me and allowing me to know the vulnerable, hurt places inside that were needful of something good.

I plan on remaining involved with the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, a philanthropic enterprise of which I am president.

And I do intend to keep writing this blog. I have not closed the door to professional opportunities involving psychology, and expect to keep my license in case something interesting turns up.

I cannot say with certainty I will never do therapy again, just not for a while.

And from time to time I’ll tell you how retirement looks from the other side in these web log updates.

Stay tuned.

Images from the top: Sunset from Zebulun Beach at Herzliya, Israel, 11/20/06, by RonAlmog; Retirement of Mark Messier on January 12, 2006, taken by dtnyc383; Daniel Barenboim rehearsing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Pilas, Sevilla, Spain on July 25, 2005, uploaded by Fernando Delgado BĂ©jar from the Enciclopedia Libre; a picture of “The Bobs” from a postcard sold at Riverview Park, uploaded by JohnJHenderson. Finally, J.M.W. Turner’s 1838 painting of The Fighting Temeraire, being tugged to her last birth. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.