A few years ago, as my writing and speaking career was starting to take off, I said to myself, "I make much of my living having people get angry with me in front of large audiences. Why not spend my off-hours putting myself in the middle of other people's family conflicts?"
So by the middle of 2005 I quietly started living a second life: first as a volunteer crisis counselor, then a 50-something graduate student in marriage and family therapy. And now I can finally say it: Rich Gallagher, MA, MFT. After four years of classes, term papers, and nearly 600 therapy sessions with clients, I have now finished the graduate work to become a psychotherapist.
This is not a career change. Rather, it gets added to the eclectic mix of things I do for a living. (More accurately, I will go from being an off-hours student to being an off-hours therapist.) And I had both practical and emotional reasons for doing this.
First, the practical ones. It adds depth to my "day job" of teaching workplace communications skills, many of which borrow from techniques used in psychotherapy. My most recent book How to Tell Anyone Anything, now a staple of my consulting work, was based in part on my graduate work - and my next book will be the first to have "MA, MFT" after my name. Another practical reason is transitioning to a retirement that is no longer that far away. I will never be happy sitting around watching daytime television, so I thoughtfully chose a new profession that I can practice for as long as I like.
But there are emotional reasons as well. Like the kid who dreams of being a fireman, I always wanted to be a therapist someday. Counseling people has attracted me ever since I was a young boy wanting to be a Catholic priest. For a number of reasons, some very personal, I ended up pursuing a technical career after college, but becoming a therapist later in life finally keeps a decades-old promise to myself.
Perhaps the biggest reason is that this stuff really helps. I ran several "Anxiety Camp" group programs where average participant anxiety scores consistently dropped by about 60%. I've had the pleasure of seeing relationships get closer, workplaces function better, and people work through grief or divorce to start living renewed lives. Therapy clients are generally very good people dealing with the life issues we all share, and it has been a pleasure to be at least a small part of their growth and healing.
Above all, it is a gift to enjoy something so much that the journey itself is worth it. Think, for example, of the person who loves horses so much that they don't mind cleaning the stables every night. This is exactly how I felt about the 14-hour counseling shifts, the crisis interventions, the housecalls all over rural northern Pennsylvania, and the 30-page papers. All a pleasure and all very much worth it.
I couldn't have done this without a lot of support from others, starting with my darling wife Colleen, my family, and my close friends, few of whom escaped being psychoanalyzed for my course assignments. Northcentral University made this all possible with a pioneering, fully accredited online MFT program for working adults. I was fortunate to be mentored by two of the nicest and most talented clinical supervisors, Wendy Hovey, LCSW at Guthrie Health and Kate Halliday LCSW. Even the IRS gets a tip of the hat: Thanks to tax deductions and spreading my expenses over time, I am graduating debt-free.
I also can never repay the friendship and practical help of the Ithaca Therapists Group, a digitally-linked community that was always there for me. Whether it was client referrals, hooking me up with supervision and clinical opportunities, coming to speak to my therapy groups, or simply encouraging and supporting me, I cannot thank its members enough (and won't forget to pass it on).
What happens from here? Hopefully lining up the two years of part-time supervised practice required for NYS licensing, and then getting my full LMFT license and hanging out my own shingle. But that's the fun part. From here, pretty much the only thing that stands between me and being a therapist is being a therapist. Thank you all for supporting me on this journey.