I’m standing in front of my bathroom mirror brushing my teeth just like any other day. But this isn’t like any other day. It’s the day my eleven-year-old son, Maxwell, will be graduating from elementary school. But that’s not all. It’s also the day of my commencement ceremony, where I’ll be celebrating the completion of my master’s degree in clinical psychology. So obviously I’m spending a little extra time perfecting my hair and doing a quick shave on razor setting #5 because nothing comes between me and my Miami Vice-esque 5 o’clock shadow. As I look at my reflection, I hardly recognize myself. No, not because of all the gray (which I prefer to think of as wisdom highlights!). And no, not because of the bags under my eyes (which are Prada, btw). It isn’t so much what I look like that I don’t recognize, it’s more who I’ve become.
Let’s go back.
I used to be a self-professed perfectionist and a workaholic. I lived and breathed the advertising industry. I was driven by job titles, money, press and award recognition. I defined myself by what I accomplished and how well I accomplished it. I looked at those things for validation, as a way to prove to the rest of the world that I am good enough, that I am worthy. I think I was trying to offset the “gay people are less than” message that society fed me during my early impressionable years.
I used work as a numbing agent and a distraction. I strived so hard in my professional life to be seen as successful and “impressive” to compensate for the shame I felt growing up about being different.
I recently read that if someone describes themself as a perfectionist, there’s a very good chance that they have a lot of unresolved shame in their life. This rang very true for me. So by trying to be perfect at everything, I was trying to avoid or downplay the toxic feelings of shame and judgment. Along the way, though, I missed out on so many opportunities because I was afraid to try anything new that might be deemed less than perfect. Essentially, I was afraid to dream because of my deep-rooted fear of failure, making mistakes and disappointing others. The risks were just too damn high.
Then something very special happened. Our son Maxwell was born in 2010. He came to us through an open adoption. From the moment I held him for the first time, I stopped living for myself. Soon thereafter I realized that my chosen profession was consistently keeping me away from home. Whether it was all-nighters at the office preparing for new business pitches or traveling all over the country and abroad for commercial and photo shoots, I began to resent my work because it was keeping me away from the only things that really grounded me, the things I needed to be around most, my family.
I tried to convince myself that I was doing it all for Max, working hard to provide him with a better life so he has everything he needs. But I was just placating myself, because what he needed was me and what I needed was him. As Max grew older, and became a toddler, I realized that I was rarely 100% present because I was always one text message away from having to drop everything to put out some client fire or show up for my boss 24/7. I needed to make a change so I decided to leave the big corporate agency life behind for smaller, creative shops that supported more of a work-life balance. I took a pay cut, but it afforded me the opportunity to attend all of Max’s elementary school performances, PTA meetings, soccer games, Halloween nights and karate tournaments. I had found the balance I needed. But after a few more years it turned out not to be enough.
At the height of my nearly 20-year career I started to feel that my heart and soul were no longer in advertising. I was burnt out, uninspired, and bitter. The things that used to give me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment no longer satisfied me. I started to ask myself existential questions like what is all this for and how am I leaving my mark. By this time I realized that perfectionism was unattainable and self-destructive. Plus, I finally began to learn how to stop caring about how others perceived me. I stopped looking for external validation, and instead, focused on how I was feeling on the inside. For years I’ve wanted to make more of an impact on my community. So after careful consideration I decided it was the right time to finally pursue my passion and fulfill what I know is my purpose—to become a clinical psychotherapist. I talked it over with my husband, and he fully supported me and agreed to temporarily take on the majority of our shared family expenses in order for me to leave my job as a creative director and attend graduate school full-time.
During this time, my son Max had a hard time understanding why I would—at the advanced age of 44 (I know, I’m as shocked as you are)—leave behind a successful career in pursuit of new uncharted territory. It was a fair question. One that I asked myself ad nauseam. Doing this was and is a huge risk and quite a large investment. Two years of grad school (during Covid no less), then another two or more years earning my 3,000 hours of clinical experience, all before I can become officially licensed. But I explained to Max that we only have one life to live, and therefore it’s important to dream big. I reminded him that you’re never too old to dream or change course. I also explained that it takes a lot of hard work, determination and patience to make your dreams come true.
Max saw my tenacity these past two years. He watched me spend countless nights and weekends studying, researching and writing papers. He got to see the adrenaline, nerves and excitement that comes with doing something you set your mind to and the satisfaction of reaching that goal. He saw how proud I was to have gotten through grad school in my 40s and be able to walk up onto that stage and accept my diploma. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all was modeling self-discipline for Max. I did what I wanted to do with my life to achieve the very best for myself and my family. I want Max to know that his potential is limitless. I also want Max to know that not everyone has the privilege to be able to follow their dreams; sometimes the realities of life makes it much harder for people to attain the things they want. I explained how fortunate I was to have been put in this position to have this special opportunity.
So here we are: a kind, funny and hard-working elementary school graduate who is about to embark upon those exciting and awkward adolescent years, experiencing all those unforgettable milestones that come along with middle school. And then there’s me—with my brand new degree in clinical psychology, I am fortunate to already be seeing 11 weekly clients as a trainee, and I look forward to growing my list in the coming months. I work with all types of clients to help them cope with and work through anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, family trauma, and/or sexuality and gender identity-related issues. I’d especially like to work with the LGBTQ+ community as they navigate the uncharted waters of starting families, offering the guidance and support I wish I had during my son’s adoption process. I want to become both an authority and sounding board for people in transition, looking to make big changes in their lives, both professionally and personally. But more than anything, I simply want to empower people to achieve their full potential.
So as I stand here looking at my reflection in the mirror, aside from those gray wisdom highlights and the wrinkles on my face that I wear with pride (or so I tell myself), I see a man made stronger by the passing years. A man full of gratitude for how family and fatherhood has nourished his soul. A man who understands the power of forgiveness and acceptance. A man who continues to work on himself and never stops growing. A man who believes that anything is possible and hopes that the best is yet to come.
And I can now say from the other side of all the hard work and struggle that these tassels were definitely worth the hassle.