THE MAKING OF A THERAPIST
I first went to therapy when I was 9 years old. My parents were divorced, each remarried, and a lot about my life was difficult then. My therapist, Cynthia, was such a supportive counter-balance to the dynamics swirling around me then and my time in session with her changed my life.
I saw her on and off for the next 12 or so years, whenever I was in a harder season and it was incredible to have someone outside of my family care about me, know my history and context, and to help me make choices that supported the kind of life I wanted to have. I remember many things she taught me and she’s often with me still in my work with my clients. I knew early on that I wanted to spend my time helping people the way Cynthia helped me. I was excited to become a therapist.
It’s an incredibly long road though. I’m both very proud of everything I learned in my education and training to become a therapist — there is so much to know to be of service in this way — and I also think that there are many ways the profession needs to evolve. I’ll share about how I got here, what it was like for me, and what I’d like to be different.
First, the (kind of) boring basics. I went to community college and focused on psychology from the start even there. I transferred to UCLA to their clinical psych program and then did my graduate education at Pepperdine. The span of time between starting community college and finishing grad school was 9 years. Ouch. I was good at school in an easy way, I was never overzealous in my academic efforts and I did pretty well anyways. I worked through all of my schooling (as a manicurist) which was really satisfying to me so while I was very committed to my education, my time was divided. During my schooling, I worked in research at UCLA, interned providing psycho-social support to homeless schizophrenic people in NYC, and was a elementary school therapist during my graduate school traineeship.
This was hardly the end of what was required to be a licensed therapist though. Once you have completed your Masters program, you still have to apply for an intern number with the state and then complete THREE THOUSAND HOURS of supervised experience in order to take the licensing exam. It is painful to be at the beginning of those 3,000 hours upon the milestone of finishing graduate school. This is usually unpaid work too, which is a considerable barrier to those who don’t come from wealth – how are people supposed to pay student loans and living expenses while working for free for years?
I tried to solve this problem by starting a business to earn an income while interning for free. The good news was that the beauty agency I started was successful. The bad news was that, in reality, it left me no time to intern. I made the difficult choice to hold off starting my intern hours which expire after 5 years. Once you start accruing hours, you can’t putter around or your earlier hours will eventually lapse and the time investment will have been useless. I graduated, got married, and started my business in one year. It was a lot to navigate. I was 27 and I felt that it would be okay to wait a little longer.
I ran my beauty agency for 9 years before returning to psychology. I never doubted that I would. The time was right once I was financially secure, had more life experience including being married for a considerable amount of time, and while working in beauty was frivolously fun, I wanted to have more depth and meaningful connection in my days. It was so hard to leave a field I was established in to start from scratch in another but it was strengthening to do so.
Because I’d built a solid network and had faith in myself as a business person, I interned in private practice which is relatively rare because it requires you to be a self-starter which unfortunately doesn’t come naturally to many who gravitate to the profession. Most intern-level therapists do their hours in a clinic or other organization with well-established structure and constant influx of clients. I went through three terrible supervisors to get to one I wanted to learn from AND who would allow me to build my own practice under his license but once I did, I loved it and was thriving with an impressive client load that I established for myself. And still, it took so, so long to complete those hours.
I finally finished my 3,000 hours… when I was 4 months pregnant… with twins. It felt incredible to complete those hours, way more monumental than finishing grad school did. I was so close to being a licensed therapist in my own right. That relief and excitement sat right alongside the firm knowledge that there was no way I could apply to the California licensing board to take the exam, wait for their green light to schedule my exam date, and then do the required studying and preparation for the exam before giving birth. It would take months for those things to happen, the bureaucracy of the governing board makes things slooooooow. Would I gamble spending my pregnancy studying to take this exam at 8 months pregnant? I already felt so foggy mentally even half way through.
My friends took me out and we celebrated my completion. They understood what a milestone it was. And I resigned myself to waiting to take the exam until who-knows-when after the babies were born.
Maternity leave came. My little guys were born. COVID happened. I still had infants when I returned to seeing clients because of the crisis everyone was in with the pandemic. I was still working under the license of my supervisor because even though I was now eligible to be licensed now, I had not completed the last steps of proving my hours, passing the exam, and applying for licensure.
I applied for my exam when my little guys were 8 months old. I was approved by California to take my exam when they were 10 months old. I crammed for the test, fed babies, and navigated the pandemic personally and professionally, then took my exam when they were 11 months old. I passed on my first try. It was such a relief, to cross the final threshold necessary to be a legitimate and licensed therapist. To be deemed responsibly educated and ethically salient by the state to be on the inside of people’s lives, to do this special and tender work well.
Jaimi Brooks is a licensed marriage and family therapist, women's group leader, founder of The Well Lived Woman, and creator of the Values Deck.