Everyone needs something: How my love for psychology, research, statistics, and more helped me hang on in desperate times

I recently learned that I’ll be advancing to an exciting new role at work effective July 1st. I’ll be taking the lead on some existing projects and also transitioning into some new areas. In preparation for my new role, my supervisor and I have been reflecting back on my past two years with the agency. This led me to start reflecting back on my entire professional/academic journey that ultimately led me here. It’s been anything but a linear path, and I’ve recently come to realize that it’s been my passion for academics/learning that has carried me through the past 15 or so years.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I entered college as a psychology major with every intention of going the clinical route. My ultimate goal was to become a therapist who would work with eating disordered clients. It seemed like the most natural career choice for me given that so much of my life at that point (and so much of it after, little did I know) had been shaped by my own experiences in therapy. I wanted to “give back” and help others like myself. I had the perfect little timeline mapped out where I would graduate from my college’s special 5-year combined bachelor’s/master’s program and then after a couple years of working I would apply to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology. By my late twenties I would be Dr. Becca, happily managing my own successful private practice specializing in eating disorders and contributing valuable research to the field on the side.

That would have been really nice. Unfortunately (or actually, somewhat fortunately, I now realize), that did not end up happening. My eating disorder remained an unrelenting force over the next 10+ years which greatly altered my perfect little timeline.

Luckily for me I soon realized that clinical work in the field of eating disorders was not for me, and I shifted my focus entirely to research. While this initially restored a little of my hope (I could still help others indirectly by publishing groundbreaking research) I still came up against more and more challenges as the years progressed. I picked up several new behaviors during my freshman year that complicated and intensified my eating disorder. I was having trouble staying on top of my schoolwork because I was constantly exhausted and depressed and I quickly alienated myself from every friend I thought I made.

I had an especially rough junior year. A string of rather traumatic events that began on my 21st birthday led me to start questioning my future and why I even bothered going to school anymore. This was also the start of my longest succession of revolving door treatment stays. When I came back to school from a leave in the spring of 2006 I was denied the opportunity to return to on-campus housing, thus forcing me to move back home. I tried commuting for a while, but the nearly 2-hour drive was extremely inconvenient. More often than not I ended up taking spontaneous detours along the way to engage in various eating disorder “activities.” All my former college friends were getting ready to graduate and there I was pulled off on the side of the road trying to convince myself to go to class instead of doing “that thing” that I absolutely hated but could not stop doing.

Several interrupted semesters and hospitalizations later I finally swallowed my pride and transferred to the college 20 minutes from my home. This felt like a huge step down for me. This school wasn’t as highly ranked as my first school and although I was less than a year shy of graduating when I transferred, I had to re-take a bunch of classes that didn’t transfer which prolonged my schooling even more. (Note: I soon realized that rankings are not the be all and end all and I honestly think I got a better education at the lesser ranked school…).

One of the class sequences I had to re-take was the entire psychological statistics and research methods sequence (so like, four semesters worth of classes, because for whatever reason the A’s I got in those classes at my first school meant nothing). The psychology department at this school was very small, and I ended up having the same professor for most of these classes, the notorious Dr. N. Nobody liked Dr. N right off the bat. She was tough and blunt. She did not subscribe to the “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” theory. If a student asked what she thought was a stupid question, she would stare at said student with disbelief for what felt like an eternity and then with a huff would say, “look it up!” I tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible in her classes. I purposely sat in the middle row closest to the wall with the door so I could make a clean and quick exit at the end of each class. Halfway through my first semester with her I was pretty sure she couldn’t place my face with my name on the roster and I was perfectly okay with that. Then one day everything changed.

As I was making my usual clean exit I heard Dr. N shout my name. “Hey… you. Rebecca? Come back here!” Cue major panic on my end. What on earth had I done wrong?!?

“What’s your story? Where are you from? What are your plans? Do you actually like this stats stuff or are you just good at it?”

This was her way of initiating conversation with me, you know… socially awkward style. Little did I know this was the beginning of a very unusual but positive relationship that would shape my future.

Dr. N started inviting me back to her office after class to chat and before I knew it I was TAing two of her classes and spending most of my free time in her tiny cramped office assisting her with research. I soon learned that Dr. N was not the scary grouchy old woman I once thought she was. Okay, she actually was pretty grouchy, but only because she got upset when students failed to live up to her high expectations. However, she could also be quite friendly and warm once you got to know her.

Working with Dr. N served as a major turning point for me in my academic journey. At a time when my identity was very much tied up in the eating disorder, she helped show me that I had more to offer. I spent the next two years working for her and although my troubles were far from behind me, she helped keep me going. In the fall of 2008 my eating disorder took a turn for the worse and although I never told her exactly what was going on, she knew something was wrong and encouraged me to get help. When I returned three months later a good XX lbs heavier after my intense stay at NYSPI she greeted me with, “Oh wow, you don’t look like you’re dying anymore! This is so great.” Yep, that was Dr. N. Had anyone else made such a comment (and they did), I would have been undeniably triggered and in full over-analysis mode. I was already self-conscious enough about my massive weight gain, and here someone was drawing direct attention to it. With Dr. N though, I was actually able to take this comment at face value. She wasn’t calling me “fat” or shaming me for my weight gain, she was genuinely happy that I appeared healthier because it meant I could devote more energy to the things I was good at.

Now, I wish I could say this was the end of my struggles and that I went merrily on from here with my renewed love for research and stats. Unfortunately, the next couple years were some of the hardest, but I can only imagine they would have been even harder had I not had my work with Dr. N to keep me going. She helped me navigate the university bureaucracy that was making it extra hard for me to get my damn degree. She listened to me go on for hours about my research interests and how I came to be so passionate about getting people to understand mental illness. She also encouraged me to apply to graduate schools.

In the summer of 2011 I made the cross-country move to Los Angeles to begin a master’s program in Experimental Psychology, something I never would have imagined myself doing just a year earlier. As I’ve revealed in previous blogs, my transition to LA was not the easiest, and my struggles continued throughout my time as a graduate student. However, in late 2012 after yet another major low point followed by some quality time at BHC/Reasons, I was finally able to start initiating serious life changes that would help me become more functional and “healthy” than I had ever been. When trying to make sense of this transformation I’ve mostly just thought of it as a result of me finally becoming fed up enough with my eating disorder to start doing something about it (like, actually doing things that were initiated by me and not some outside force of treatment). And yeah, I’m sure this was part of it, but I’m now realizing what a pivotal role my commitment to education had in this transformation. It’s the one thing other than my eating disorder that followed me wherever I went. As sick and depressed as I got, I still kept coming back to my love for learning.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to yet another amazing mentor through my master’s program, Dr. A or “Andy.” Andy loves to tell the story of the first party I attended at his house just shortly after moving to LA. Being among one the newest members of the lab, I didn’t know most of the people at the party. I was also about 10x more shy and “socially awkward” than I am now and I was well aware of this fact. So aware, in fact, that I felt the need to apologize for this as I was leaving the party. Yes, on my way out I turned to Andy and said, “I’m really sorry for being so… socially awkward…” and he started cracking up. I like to think that comment broke the ice for us, and from that point on I gradually grew to be less and less “awkward.”

I truly believe that the general-experimental psych program at CSUN is a hidden gem that few people know about. The advanced statistics training is outstanding and the professors are among some of the best and brightest who are willing to mentor students with a wide variety of research interests. My research interests were more clinical than most so I was able to cross-over into the clinical psych program to work with professors and take additional classes.

Just as valuable as the academic training, however, was the dedication to students’ personal and professional growth. Without this, I may have lost myself along the way. Midway through the process of applying to research-heavy clinical psych PhD programs, I had an epiphany and realized I actually did not want to go that route. My love for research hadn’t gone anywhere, I just realized that I was applying for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to wait another 6, 7, or 8 years before I could start working in my chosen field. I didn’t want to be forced to move to some random place in middle America just because that’s where the research was being done. I didn’t want to fall into even more debt. I had already wasted enough time and wanted to actually start doing something. I shocked everyone and withdrew my applications and started applying to jobs instead. At first Andy and others told me I was crazy; I was throwing my life away. No, I thought, I was finally not throwing my life away. I was finished doing things just because they seemed like the “right” things to do, or because they may sound more impressive on a resume. With my eating disorder, I had spent a huge chunk of life doing things half-assed and without my full devotion. I was ready to start doing real meaningful stuff all the way through. When I first interviewed at Hathaway-Sycamores, I instantly felt connected. This was a place where I knew I could make a difference.

Part of my job involves supervising undergraduates who complete research internships at our agency. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this task, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of the job. I see bits and pieces of myself in a lot of the interns, and I love helping them discover their passions in this very fascinating field of work. It takes me back to that day nearly a decade ago when Dr. N approached me with, “Hey you! Do you actually like this stats stuff or are you just good at it?” Yes, I do like it, and I get just as excited when I see my interns enjoying their work.

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