I was a West-Coast Carrie Bradshaw ... sans Mr. Big.
You wouldn't expect it from my childhood: I'd grown up poor in Iowa, and I watched my mother struggle to work full-time and raise six kids on her own, while wishing that Prince Charming would come. (He never did.)
She made ends meet using Sunday newspaper coupons, public assistance and homemade mac-and-state-issued-cheese.
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Fast forward a couple of decades, and there I was, living in California and working an executive-level communications and PR job at Nickelodeon, where I'd been for nearly 15 years. I had the financial security that came with my position, including a sizable company pension, a 401(k) plan and a small money market account. I carried my mortgage on a condo as confidently as I carried my Balenciaga bag.
I was a single woman in her late 30's, and on the whole, things were good.
As a senior director of corporate communications, I spent the bulk of my time in the office--and the rest running from studios to offices to sets. But my passion for the job was waning. I wasn't miserable, per se, but I wasn't feeling it anymore. And I was watching the company conduct rounds of layoffs during the recession.
I'd always vowed that money wouldn't dictate my happiness, but I was used to stability. Changing career paths would likely mean a pay cut. Without a partner or family to support me--not to mention my mortgage, credit card debt and bills--I was afraid to abandon my executive life. Kind of like how people are afraid to abandon a relationship even when it's no longer working.
The easy thing would have been to set my sights on a similar job in the same field, but I wanted to try something new.
Plotting My Great Escape
While still working my corporate job, I started taking classes at a local college to see where my interests lay--and if I could be a student again after being out of school for 15 years. I always loved psychology, so two semesters later, I plunged head-first into a graduate program in clinical psychology at night, while working full-time.
The days were long, and I was tired, but I felt alive again!
At work, layoffs were still happening, and I knew that I could be next. I decided if that happened, I'd commit myself to school full-time. I was actually excited at the possibility! Although my emergency fund would cover me for a few months, I hoped that I'd get a severance package to help with my transition into student-hood.
When I entered my boss's office one summer morning in 2010, I was surprised with the very walking papers that I'd been expecting. Only, instead of celebrating, I panicked! You know that feeling when you're going to break up with someone, but they beat you to it? It was like that--I was prepared, but scared nonetheless.
There I was, free from corporate shackles, but not free from my living expenses, graduate school tuition, credit card debt and a home mortgage. Most of my money was in long-term investments and untouchable without paying severe penalties. At least I had gotten the severance package I hoped for--a safety net to recreate my life.
So I leapt into survival mode, becoming a full-time graduate student at 37 years old.
With the assistance of loans, I tackled four classes a semester, so I could complete my degree only a few months after my severance ended. Simultaneously, I pursued PR consulting opportunities to supplement my severance pay and nominal unemployment income. I cut back on luxuries--eating out, manicures and pedicures--and conserved gas whenever possible.
Was I Turning Into My Mother?
I'd like to think of myself as an empowered woman, but when I lost my job, my early childhood experiences with poverty triggered a momentary damsel-in-distress moment. I found myself secretly wishing for my own Prince Charming to rescue me.
My stomach churned at the notion that I believed in the same fairytale as my mother once did, but I couldn't help it.
Meanwhile, some family members advised me to abandon California for a safer, more affordable life in the Midwest with them. I wasn’t opposed to moving to another city if the right opportunity presented itself, but my gut said to stay in California. If I were to move, I wanted it to be for a reason--not to run away.
As far as I was concerned, I had no other choice.
Closing One Door Opens Another (or Two)
A decade earlier, I'd inquired about teaching public relations at the University of Southern California, but the timing hadn't been right. Now, with 15 years of high-profile PR experience, the timing was right. So I began teaching at USC and Pepperdine, while I was still in grad school.
Two months before I received my degree, the non-profit agency where I was training as a psychotherapist offered me a job overseeing their new outpatient and residential drug treatment facilities. It's an amazing organization called Conscious Recovery, which is run by the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica, California.
The position perfectly married both my careers in strategic communications and psychotherapy. People don't realize how closely related psychology and public relations are--many PR campaigns are rooted in the principles of social psychology.
It's proving to be a fun, enterprising experience--one that corporate America never afforded me. I am now changing the world for the better!
There was only one thing left for me to achieve: open a private therapy practice of my own.
The Keys to My Very Own Career Castle
While working at the non-profit agency by day, I searched for an office and networked at night. In the psych world, things are a little different than in the business world: "Trainees" are people who do unpaid work during their last year of school, and "interns" are certified therapists who must amass around 3,000 paid hours (that number varies by state) to become autonomous, fully licensed therapists. So the position that I was searching for was technically an internship.
A little under two years after leaving my PR gig, all of my hard work paid off: I was accepted at a practice that will help me earn my hours working with clients. Jennifer Musselman, M.A., MFTI, proudly hangs above the door of my very own office in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
Today, I am an adjunct professor who oversees the development of a rehab facility--while nearing my goal of becoming a fully licensed psychotherapist.
In other words, I'm a world away from my corporate job. Now, more than ever, I trust myself and my capabilities. I've also learned that when the going gets tough, I get tougher.
Tackling this challenge at nearly 40 years old was both the most frightening thing I'd ever faced and the most empowering because I did it all on my own! The leap of faith to invest in both my financial future and my personal happiness has made me a stronger, more fulfilled person.
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