The Nature of My Epiphanies

By Dana Lise Shavin

When I was nineteen, I had an epiphany. I was in my dorm room on a snowy afternoon, thinking about the reading I had to do for an upcoming psychology exam. I was weighing the disadvantages of a cold walk to the library against the merits of a warm boyfriend on the bed, when it hit me: I wasn’t just some kid going through the motions of college. I was a serious psychology student, on my way to becoming a healer! Overcome with newfound importance, I told my boyfriend about my sudden realization. The gravity was lost on him, but not on me. I had had a vision of my life’s path. I had been called.

I did all the right things. I studied hard for exams and read books about mental illness, the theories behind them, and treatment. I analyzed my friends and family, went a little crazy, got therapy myself. I pledged allegiance to this system and that: psychoanalysis, rational emotive therapy, behaviorism, co-dependency theory, Eastern thought. After much consideration I declared myself an eclectic, so that I could pull freely from all of them without seeming unfocused. Throughout the search I remained an eager and open student, certain of one thing: that the goal of healer was a good fit for me. I graduated from college, left the boyfriend, and went in search of good experience in the field.

When I was twenty-two, I had an epiphany. I was working as a counselor at a halfway house for recovering addicts in a tiny South Georgia town. I ran support groups and counseling sessions, and listened passionately and endlessly to stories about drugs and alcohol and the unraveling of lives. Suddenly, on my twenty-second birthday, I awoke from my reverie. I was helping, yes, but was I healing? I raced to the library, researched schools, and wrote for applications. A graduate degree was the next logical step, and I was so excited I could barely wait to begin.

When I was twenty-four, I had an epiphany: I had acquired the requisite skills of a healer, and it was time to put them to the test. I took a job at a community mental health center in the North Georgia mountains. I was a master’s level therapist, but that wasn’t all. I was also a case manager, a behavior management specialist, an examiner, and an advocate. I had thirty clients, then fifty, then close to a hundred. I went to work at eight and got home at six. I dressed in the occasional suit and sat reverently in meetings. I clamored for responsibility and kept up my paperwork. I like my job, I told my friends. But I did not tell them about the odd moments, the sudden flashes when I would feel my knees give way. I didn’t tell them that I was unable to fend off the ache that snaked like an umbilical cord from the most painful parts of my clients to the open spaces in my chest. Most of all, I didn’t tell them that I had begun to doubt.

Over time I had acquired three dogs and I lived in unfashionable houses that heated poorly with wood stoves. I moved far out into the country where I struggled with seasons and curvy roads and grass growing on the porch. I went to work but with less enthusiasm and I spent more time in my house with the wavy walls and the kitchen mice, watching the dogs sleep and becoming aware of a fatigue I hadn’t noticed before. At lunch I ate grilled cheese sandwiches in the graveyard not far from the mental health center. I cried almost every day on my way to work and on the weekends I slept heavily. I was deeply unhappy but too afraid to change course. After all, I had been called, and you don’t give up your calling over a case of career burn-out.

When I was twenty-six, I had an epiphany. I was in Cancun with my brother because neither of us could come up with a better vacation partner. We were both lonely, unhappy in our jobs, and worried about our father, who had cancer. On edge, we fought bitterly over dinner about who was worse company. The next morning, still sullen, we got a phone call from our mother. Our father had died.

In the speechless hours that followed I rewrote my life, editing out what had become least like me, leaving in the good parts to elaborate on later. The strange houses, the sputtering stoves, a dog in every room: these were the things that gave me hope. This odd collection of appliances and animals crept into my empty spaces like water. These were the things I hung on to when there were no epiphanies, the things that came back to me like a boomerang even if I turned my back. I quit the job, and I stopped doing therapy altogether.

When I was thirty-two, I had an epiphany that felt much like a panic attack. In the years since my father’s death I had thought a great deal about my career path. I could not leave my original vision of healer behind, yet my burn-out demanded I change course. In answer, I had created a job of least discomfort, becoming a psychological examiner and testing for learning disabilities, personality disorders, giftedness. I joked that testing was my last stopover in the mental health field before I jumped from the train completely. The epiphany came without warning in the middle of a young man’s recitation of eight digits backwards from memory. On the fourth digit I flew from my office, and on the cool bathroom floor held a towel to my face as I waited for the terror to pass. This was it, I knew. It was time for me to put my notions of healing to rest. To turn my attention to something else I believed in. To be called again. I turned my attention to art.

Last week I had an epiphany. I realized that for the past eight years my life as a painter and writer has been unmarred by the uneasy feeling that things aren’t as they should be. If I cry on my way to work from a little wavy house in Georgia it is because the old dog is sick, not because I am depressed or ill-matched to a job whose purpose I can no longer serve. I have stopped eating in a graveyard for the company of those I most identify with, and although I struggle with the fact that I am not the healer I promised a needy world I would be, I take comfort in the fact that art, like words, can bring solace to an unquiet mind.

Dana Lise Shavin is an artist and writer living in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Please visit her website at Barking Horse Studio.
She can be contacted at danalise[AT]juno.com
(replace [AT] with @).

"Cosmic Housewife" ©2002 Dana Lise Shavin

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