I am trying to identify the very worst professions to tell your new dental hygienist that you do for a living. This person has unfettered access to talking to you for 40-ish minutes and you can’t do much about it including articulately respond. And they always ask, of course. “What do you do for a living?” And I always consider lying, but I’m not sure what is safe or even WORSE than being a therapist.
I went to have my teeth cleaned and usually, I have a woman who is harmless and from whom I learn all sorts of things about high school wrestling, but that day I had someone new. I am a terrible judge of age so I’m going to say she was about 50 and hope she never reads this and tells me she is 37.
She was quiet. She did a little bit of patronizing about the fact that I missed my second cleaning last year and I didn’t feel like being all, ‘It’s all good, Cathy. [Editor’s note: Her name is not Cathy.] I had a nervous breakdown and was no longer living here and, frankly, wasn’t all that worried about plaque considering I had lost the ability to function in most meaningful ways.’
This is a true fact about me: Sometimes, like when I meet new people, I literally state a goal to myself to “not be a total weirdo” and so I had the very best of intentions with this visit to the dentist. I actually felt PRIDE at having sidestepped the first potential landmine. “I had a conflict and just never managed to reschedule,” I replied to her.
She readied her instruments and laid me back in the chair. I opened my mouth wide, probably a bit before I was supposed to, but it was a force of habit. And then she asked. “So what do you do for a living?”
Now. My biggest concern was actually that I would answer and then say something like, “What do you do?” like the time when I had worked at the movie rental store way too many days in a row before getting put on movie theater concessions duty and ended up telling a man that his popcorn was “due back by 6 p.m.” the next day.
I took a deep breath. “I’m a therapist,” I replied and reopened my mouth so that we could get the show on the road. She sat back in her little chair and said, “Really.” It wasn’t the question version of really but rather a “finally I have one of you to grill” type of really. I closed my eyes and waited for it. Because it’s always there. Someone always knows someone with some sort of mental health concern [Editor’s note: Die, stigma, die] and want to know what I would diagnose them with or how they could be helpful or they just want to tell me the story.
“So,” she began. “Do you actually believe that medications are, like, helpful for people?”
That is a bold opening. Usually, it takes people at least two or three sentences to tell me they think that people with mental health diagnoses just need to spend more time in nature instead of psychotropic medication. I liked her spunk. ‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘She came to play.’ I don’t know why I thought that. She was a perfectly kind dental hygienist who did not want to argue the merits of SSRIs with me.
“Yes, absolutely,” I replied, rejecting the instrument she was finally trying to shove in my mouth. “Some people don’t need them. But some people absolutely need them and don’t need to be ashamed of it.” Off we went with the scraping of the teeth and she didn’t say much. Until she asked, “What age do you work with?”
This is the second worst question. “I work with adolescents,” also, apparently, is a lightning rod for so many people but I thought Cathy and I were already on the road so that’s what I told her.
She paused. “So, do you teach them how to, like, feel their emotions correctly?” she asked.
I did not know how to answer that question because I don’t know what correctly feeling emotions actually is nor would I have any idea how to teach that. So I paraphrased. “I help them to understand their emotions and process them productively?” I literally made it a question. Like, “Is this close to what you meant?”
She didn’t clarify but asked her next question. “What is a life coach?”
I shrugged. She was polishing my teeth. The finer points of life coaching were going to be difficult to explain in this predicament.
“What gives people the idea that they can coach someone else on how to live their lives?” she asked. I shrugged again.
“I don’t know,” I finally said when given the chance. “But if I had a life coach, I would hope they had a whistle.”
No. No no no no no, I thought. You’re about to be a weirdo. Oh god.
Cathy finished polishing my teeth and went to get the dentist to look at my mouth. When she returned, she said it would be a few minutes. So there we sat with one another and I begged her with my eyes to not ask me any more questions. Uncomfortable silence is totally fine at times like these.
“So what was the psychology program like when you first went to college?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I answered too quickly. “I wasn’t a psychology major.”
There are times in my life where I engage in what I like to call “going for broke.” It’s an asinine life philosophy and simply means that I already feel like I’ve crossed the line of normalcy so there is no point in holding back the weirdness anymore. Because I knew the follow-up question was going to be, “What did you major in?” and then I was going to have to explain how I ended up being a therapist which is incredibly not straightforward. And, well, Cathy wasn’t prepared.
“Well,” I began, speaking in the rapid-fire way I do when going for broke, “it’s sort of a funny story. I double majored in journalism and music. Well, I didn’t mean to. I just took too many music classes so they told me to take two more and get the major so I just did that. But I didn’t really want to work in journalism even though I was already working for a newspaper. But I was just writing obituaries. That’s a cool job. You learn a lot about people. And I think that people should write their own obituary every few years just to take stock in their lives and make sure they’re doing what they want to do. I know that sounds morbid, but it’s a cool exercise. If you enjoy that sort of thing. Anyway, after graduating, I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I began working for Mayo and they paid me to take classes to become a medical transcriptionist which was a fine job but I got a little bored and played a lot of Guitar Hero because I worked from home and didn’t have anyone to talk to. But Mayo helped pay for grad school, though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get a masters degree in, but I thought counseling might be interesting and so I started taking classes in that. Then I taught classes as a graduate assistant — one of them was Emotions and Behavior which I guess means I was teaching college students how to feel their emotions correctly — but anyway, I graduated and then started a private practice. I kept working at Mayo until I was making enough money to quit. And then I got hired at the university as an emergency hire and then I did both and then I stopped private practice for a year or so but then I missed the variety so I started it back up again. And sometimes, I teach classes at the university in multiple departments, but none of the departments I teach in are journalism or music which I think is kind of ironic, right? But anyway. That’s how I became a therapist.”
And Cathy looked at me. I am familiar with that look. It’s got a very distinct “Is this person okay?” color to it. I waited to see what she would say.
She tilted her head to the side and then asked me, very seriously, the following question:
“And your parents are, like, okay with you?”
I tilted my head back and processed the question. I’ve been asked that before but 100% of the times had to do with being gay. And goodness was I not getting into queer theory with Cathy. But I loved the question. And I thought I could go one of two ways with my answer. I could be offended and defend myself and defend my parents, backing out of my “go for broke” speech to prove my normalcy and make everything okay again.
Or I could go the other way.
So I laughed and said, “Oh. Yeah. I have a younger brother. He’s perfectly normal. They’re good.”
She laughed, too, and said, “Oh, well, that makes sense,” even though secretly I don’t think it made any sense.
And at that moment, the dentist walked in and that was the end of my interaction with Cathy.
Looking back, truthfully, I think I probably lost her somewhere around “write your own obituary for fun.”