Wednesday, April 7, 2021

19. "What About MY Voice?"

By summer of 1997 I was having one of my not-so-okay moments.  The only Work I had ever wanted to do my entire life was to serve as psychotherapist. I had set up a “therapy booth” in my parents’ living room, I had often been the one friends would come to with their struggles in High School,  I was that guy in gay bars that men seemed to want to cry to as they talked about their friends and lovers who died from AIDS, this just seemed to be my natural calling.  My mother was always supportive of my passion, and consistently encouraged me to follow my dream.  So I took the academic route to getting my psychotherapy license in California:  I majored in Psychology in college, pursued a Masters Degree in graduate school, began working in an internship to get my approved supervised hours. And therein lied the snag.  

Let’s start by unpacking what is inherently flawed about the system.  In order to qualify as a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist in the state of California, one must complete a Masters program and 3000 supervised clinical hours.  Typically a significant portion of these hours are unpaid, setting up a structure that statistically prioritizes white privilege over people of color and/or those financially struggling.  These unpaid hours are signed off by a supervisor who has the ability to exert power over you and potentially against you.  This person gets to decide how of if you will continue on your professional path.  If there are any cultural, theoretical, or philosophical differences, then the supervisor has the power to not sign off on your hours and recommend to your academic setting that you are not qualified to advance.  This leaves the unpaid student/intern extremely vulnerable to mental exploitation, emotional abuse, and an all around diminishment of their value.  In short, it is a hazing ritual that seems set up to break you down more than to actually educate, nurture, and shape professional development.

I was 25-years-old when I entered this pernicious system in Berkeley, California.  I couldn’t have been more excited to finally get professional mentoring to do the work I had been practicing and preparing for my entire life.  I was eager to work with a supervisor who could help me learn efficient and effective ways of using therapy to boost my community’s mental health and joy, resist social injustice, heal from the AIDS crisis, and improve sexual pleasure and relationships.    

The supervisor I was assigned to could not have been more of a mismatch.  She was older, conservative, reserved, seemed to lack any joy in her work, and typically prioritized a narrative of therapy as 100% neutral, “blank slate”, in which the therapist says and does very little.  I understood the historical context of that narrative — I learned about the theories of psychoanalysis that privileged European patriarchal values from the early 20th century.  But I did not find those narratives were a constructive fit in the late 1990s working with a diverse community in the Bay Area who were living in the here-and-now traumas related to AIDS deaths, racially based police violence, transphobia, and the beginnings of Silicon Valley's domination over housing markets and homelessness.  My clients weren’t asking for greater “insight” into their past problems, they were seeking very active collaboration and assistance with current traumas and threats. 

These differences between myself and the supervisor in and of themselves were not a problem.  But her handling of these differences became a source of tension and contention.  She questioned my verbal participation in the therapy room.  She discouraged active engagement and collaboration.   She sought to identify my role (essentially blame me) when clients didn’t return for therapy sessions.  The inherent structural inequity in the room prioritized the narrative that she was right, I was wrong.  She knew how to help clients, I didn’t.  She had the experience, I had none.  Ultimately she had the right to tell my school I shouldn’t be a therapist at all and made sure I knew that.  And after a year of this I started to believe her.  I had no other professional experience to compare this to.  I thought she’s licensed and I’m not, she must know what she’s talking about.  I was beat down, discouraged, and doubted every natural instinct I had ever had that I could help other human beings.  I almost dropped out completely.  I was feeling the burden of this discouragement while visiting my parents in Los Angeles during the summer of 1997.   My mother could tell I was down, and asked me what was wrong.  I told her about the internship, I told her what my supervisor had said, how she saw me.  My mother turned to me and essentially said:

“You have been doing this your entire life.  I've seen you helping people since you were a five-year-old.  I know you’re going to help a lot more people.  What about my voice? Doesn't my voice matter?


And right away, there was a reset.  My mother was absolutely right.  I did know what I was doing.  I didn’t yet have the professional experience, the educational skills, the theoretical techniques and tools, but I did have an abiding sense of love and passion for this work.  I could trust that and be okay.  Why did I give another person the power to make me doubt this?  Why was I prioritizing a supervisor’s disapproval over my mother’s narrative?

Soon after that, I changed supervisors.  I began working with Margaret Benson Thompson who immediately helped me deprogram from the brainwashing of the first supervisor and get back to the joy and learning the therapy profession had to offer.  Margaret helped me find my own voice in the therapy room, my own style in the practice, and how mental health can be a conduit for greater social justice and structural outcomes.  

One of the theoretical orientations we studied in depth throughout the next year was “Narrative” therapy.  This was the idea that what we feel and believe is largely derived from the stories we tell and how our minds shape experience.  So if I tell myself that I’m an unqualified piece of shit who can’t help others and will never get to do the work I love to do, then that will be my story, that will be my truth, and I will create and perpetuate that reality.  

But when I prioritized my mother’s voice, a different narrative could emerge.  That narrative was far more evidence-based, historical, as it revealed a portrait of a guy who had an innate love for supporting mental health and human joy from early childhood onward.  He sought to make a world a better place by different means throughout his teenage years and early adulthood.  He was thwarted and discouraged at various times but his true passion and resilience always found a way to come shining through.  

This narrative allowed me to be human, to be vulnerable, to be teachable, to be strong.  It paved the road for me get my MFT license in 2003, become clearer in how I work with clients, the tools I would practice, and ultimately understand how to question and challenge the “shoulds” that discourage us from living our lives fully.  It gave me the confidence to pursue non-traditional routes of serving others, such as starting the international PrEP Facts Group in 2013, and discussing biomedical advancements in HIV prevention and sexual pleasure around the world.   And ultimately, this narrative resulted in an invitation to President Barack Obama's LGBT White House celebration in 2016.   

As I turn fifty I look back on this story with some sadness.  I was very lucky to have a mother and eventually a supervisor who fundamentally supported my Work.  Many aren’t that fortunate, and don’t make it through the system.  Many gifted, talented, and caring people have not fulfilled their dream or natural calling to help the world.   

To them I say:  Please listen to the voices who know you and love you.   Please listen to your own narrative.  Don’t give the systems the ability to privilege their narrative over yours.  Your voice matters.  Your Spirit matters.   The old systems are failing right now.  The dinosaurs are dying out.  The world needs you, now more than ever.  Let’s prioritize the voices that helps us live and serve our communities with passion, meaning, and joy.  

 Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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