Questions You Couldn’t Ask Your Therapist: What Did Retirement Feel Like?

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Sometimes what comes out of your mouth is unlike what goes on in the quiet, unchallenged echo chamber inside your head. Ideas sound different when said aloud.

In early 2011, I told some friends and colleagues I was considering retirement at the end of the year.

They were surprised. And I was surprised they were surprised.

Thoughts given a voice can be challenged. Openness sometimes results in enlightenment, but rarely is free of charge.

A small number predicted I’d be bored, but only those unaware of my non-professional interests. One thought I’d return to work. People wondered what would happen if the economy tanked and my bankroll vanished. My accountant said she’d never heard of anyone closing a money-making business.

A few incredulous souls couldn’t fathom the reasons I gave (see Retirement). A small number encouraged me and said they were impressed with my decision-making process. A couple over the age of 70 were puzzled — still employed themselves — as was one 40-something who thought she’d probably never retire.

I became aware of my likeness to a coal mine canary — a lead scout on a journey to an undiscovered netherworld. I realized my retirement might have an audience made up of colleagues. They wanted to know whether I would give the “all clear” for them to proceed, lest they go “down the shaft” in a figurative sense, a plunge into the abyss. For all the encouragement therapists give about taking risks, you’d be surprised by how many are themselves risk-averse.

My friends Ron Ableman and Bob Calysn were terrific. Both had been retired for a year or more and figured out the process. Each one established new routines, had strong social networks, and a sufficient range of interests, from working for Habitat for Humanity to writing fiction.

The naysayers counted for less once I sounded out people like Bob and Ron. I’d known Bob, now deceased, since grad school and Ron since seventh grade, more than long enough to get into both the details and the feelings about the decision. I consider myself lucky to have had Bob as a friend, and that my buddy Ron — uncanny in his wisdom — is still among us.

I’d been leaning toward the idea — over 95% of the way there — when an August vacation finished the vexing job. I came back to work without the holiday-bounce I traditionally received from periods of time off. The moment had arrived to dismantle the “head shrinking” machine.

I long joked with my kids about my job. When they asked how the day went, I’d sometimes say I accidentally reduced a patient’s brain to the tiny size of a character from Beetlejuice. Now, however, I knew the contraption needed to be shut off before it was I who was shrinking.

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My wonderful office manager, Debbie, heard the news first. I couldn’t speak without a few tears. All mine. She offered to keep working until the end. Debbie is the best, something I’ve known forever.

I gave my patients over three months heads-up. The announcements came face-to-face in the space of about 10 days, so no one would find out indirectly. Emotion was present on both sides.

Once unburdened, the air started to come out of my tension-filled anticipation of hurting these good people. Sleep became more restful and I relaxed for the first time in the year of retirement soul-searching.

Six days before the therapeutic finale, the office furniture I intended to keep was removed. The rest had been sold to Danute Kuncas, the therapist taking over my office. Within two days she had transformed the place and, I must admit, improved the appearance. The last 72 hours of practice in  a “new” space took on a surreal quality. I was more aware of the silence in the suite than before. Perhaps I experienced a foreshadowing of the end of my job listening to others, the coming silence of the missing voices.

December 25, 2011 marked my first full day of retirement — yes, I worked the morning of the 24th.

The urge to check voice mail gradually diminished. The tension brought on by clocks needing minding and schedules to keep slowly receded. Like a runner waiting alone for the starting gun, I began to figure out the race had been cancelled and the stadium was empty. I soon became aware that waiting for tomorrow really is an option for almost everything; and, indeed, for the day after tomorrow or next week. At least, if one is retired or a child on summer vacation.

I both expected and hoped for the unwinding and slowing of my internal tempo. Less urgency and compulsion. Fewer moments of “have to” and “ought to.” My life became more my own.

The beauty of the glide into retirement — the stillness — was wonderful. Another old friend, Art Patterson, came to mind. He made the most beautiful hook-slide I’d ever seen, in a 1972 softball game. Peculiar what one thinks of, something entirely unconnected with retiring, and yet … Let me explain.

The ball arrived in the catcher’s hands well before Art’s slide. I “knew” he would be tagged out. But somehow my friend angled his body — drifting to the right — away from the foul line, home plate, and the hands waiting to tag him. Art’s left toe touched the corner of the base in a cloud of dust. The catcher was stupefied, wondering what had happened.

Safe at home — my feeling exactly.

Whenever I think of Art’s slide — I stood a few feet away from the action — it is a slow motion instant of artistic perfection.

The almost undetectable movement — slower than slow, but not at all as life happens — made it exquisite. And the marvelous sensation of the freeze-frame perception is as close as I can come to describing my internal state within days of retiring. “At the still point of the turning world,” in T.S. Eliot’s words.

A number of my patients thought I might be excited as I exited my practice. “Exit” and “excite,” they thought, are only different by two letters.

Not so.

“Comfortable and at ease” was the way I described myself when they asked. The closer I came to the end point, the more it seemed “right.”

The world of therapy turns without me. I don’t have anything more to prove in the professional world of healing. I’ve done my part.

I always wonder about ambition in people who are senior citizens. Surely bodies and minds age differently. For me, the grand ambition of youth is long gone. I am pleased to have bowed humbly and bid farewell to the earlier version of myself. I do wish, however, certain other things like the capacity to run fast had not fled, in tandem with my hair.

The beginning of retirement was like the last day of school in its freedom from responsibility.  The dictates of homework assignments and hectic passing periods were easily set aside once I finished graduate school, and so was my career when I retired. Those days were similar to the time just after I resigned from the faculty at Rutgers University to take a job in Chicago. The day of my return to Chicago — in July of 1975 — James Levine conducted the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia Park in Mahler’s Symphony #3, the work whose first movement is called “Summer Marches In.” The fanfare opening the piece sounded as if it were being played for me alone; as if I were welcomed to a new life.

Levine

Please understand: I’d happily become a clinical psychologist again, if my younger self so desired. Times change and one changes with those times. The therapist version simply passed the baton to the retired facsimile of the youthful Gerry Stein.

In short, retirement, which is inevitable unless you die on the job, came at the right moment for me. I am lucky to have had a choice, fortunate to have reaped fulfillment in my career, blessed to have known so many great people.

For you?

You’ll figure it out when it is time.

Those who want to know my thoughts on how to go about retirement planning might wish to read this:  Betting on Life: A Psychologist’s Guide to Making Retirement and Bucket List Plans.

Since this piece is about the older version of myself, I’ve placed the photo of a very young example up top, riding (?) happily into the sunset. The Rocking Chair image is the work of Paul Lemiski and Joel Savard, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is of James Levine, now 71, conducting the Boston Symphony in recent years. Unfortunately, numerous physical problems caused him to resign his position with that orchestra and put his directorship of the Metropolitan Opera on hold, although he has now returned to the latter job, conducting from a wheel chair. Hat’s off to him. The photo is the work of Michael J. Lutch/via Bloomberg.

Retirement

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 Béjar 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.