“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” – Annie Lamott
The idea of taking a “sabbatical” had been rattling around in my brain for many years but took root as COVID began to impact the big world and my small private practice in it. There were multiple challenging adaptations and pivots, so many of us experienced during these last few years, including shifting to telehealth, pandemic anxiety, the intensity of cultural fear and anger, and managing the increasing surge of new and former patients requesting therapy. Managing an already full private practice, waiting list, and fielding calls from new and former patients was overwhelming. Finding referrals was challenging. Saying “no” to former patients I had worked with at various times during their lifecycle was painful and unexpected. The sheer amounts of calls, emails, and texts were a bit much for my pre-digital-age brain. My eyes and neck were Zoom fatigued.
I began my private practice as a Psychological Assistant in 1985 while in graduate school at CSPP. At that time, HIV/AIDS pandemic was in its first frightening stage, profoundly impacting my circle of friends, colleagues, and patients. At the beginning of that pandemic, I began working on my dissertation research exploring stress and coping in HIV-positive gay and bisexual men.
Just recently, while on sabbatical in December, a man stopped me outside my local nursery and asked if I was “that guy” who ran the HIV stress management study he participated in all those years ago. As far as I know, he was one of just a few of the 90 or so men in my study that survived that pandemic. It was a poignant moment as he shared his appreciation for the meditation, emotional regulation, and relaxation skills he learned from those groups. He said it prepared him better for this current pandemic. What was most strange to me was that he recognized me while I was wearing a hat, a mask, and sunglasses, and it had been 35 years since we had met. The parentheses of pandemics enclosed the 37 years of what has been and continues to be a very satisfying and meaningful psychotherapy practice.
Many conversations were had with my friends and colleagues about the best way to take an extended break. I loved, and still love, working in private practice as a psychotherapist. I was in no way ready to retire from something I felt so passionate about and nourished by. But I was tired. I had questions to ask, and I wanted time and space to listen. I decided to take an extended break to reflect on it all, slow down and be still.
I decided to begin my “sabbatical” on Thanksgiving and return after the New Year. All my patients were informed approximately six weeks before, and if urgent needs arose, arrangements were made. Most of my patients were long-term patients who were high functioning and stable. Many were intrigued by the fact that I was taking a “sabbatical” and drawn to it themselves, particularly in the middle of a stressful pandemic.
I explored what I hoped to experience with more free time than I had known since having a summer off in college. I turned to journaling and reflection and asked myself what I most deeply sought. As much as I wished to travel, visit friends, and have an active adventure as I typically do with time off, I knew something different was called for during this moment in time and this particular developmental stage in my life.
I intentionally told my friends and family that I was seeking a spiritual retreat of quiet, solitude, and contemplation to create as much unstructured and uninterrupted free time as possible. I imagined my home and garden as a monastery and myself as a monk seeking quiet and contemplative experiences.
When my husband asked how he could support me during this time, we decided together that he would take a few “vacations” with his friends while I remained at “the Abbey.” We agreed that when we were at home together during the day, we would keep our conversations minimal and create an environment of sacred peace. I also decided to spend a week at Rancho La Puerta as the formal centerpiece of my sabbatical. Our dinner and evenings together were enjoyed as usual.
My intentions were not to think, analyze or problem-solve but to just listen, surrender to my senses and “be.” I created time, space, quiet, and rituals for a monastic and yet to be determined experience. I intended to be “still” and do a personal and professional life review. To reflect, contemplate and listen to the world and my current sixty-two-year-old self in it.
I spent most of my days in solitude in my garden and nature in canyons, hiking trails, and walking beaches. Most days, I would arise without plans, “be” in the moment and allow the following experience to unfold. This was very unfamiliar and a bit uncomfortable at the beginning. I watched my mind wanting to gallop as I tried to put it to rest.
Some days I would just climb into my car without a destination and drive in some undetermined direction. One day I found myself at a lake where my Dad and I went fishing when I was a young child. I watched the sunrise and set. For the first time in quite a while, I experienced living without much structure, talking, and analysis. I wrote, meditated, wandered, and listened.
I reread “A Year to Live” by Stephen Levine and imagined how I would live my life and any changes I would make if I had just one year to live. During this time, I lost three colleagues that were dear to me. It made the “year to live” meditation all the more poignant. I felt immense gratitude for the journey of my life, my loves, and my vocation. What an adventure! I slowed down my revved engine to a crawl. Doing this for 5 1/2 weeks was remarkable and profound.
I loved this experience. I had no epiphanies or profound life-changing “realizations” other than the ones I already knew and lived with: How precious time is. How my family, friends, and cherished relationships are everything to me. How meaningfulness and purpose in vocation, in the right “portions,” nourishes me. How being present and accepting of “what is” matters the most. My mantra for those weeks was, “what is, is, is what I want.” How exquisite quiet, contemplative time is for my spirit.
I continued to sort out what matters more and what matters less now. Whom I keep closer. I wanted to play more and work less and see only patients that fit my current practice needs and wishes. I want to say “no” and “yes” better. I want to pare back my practice as I age.
When I returned in January, the speed of the world, the number of tasks and responsibilities, and a pinging iPhone seemed a bit overwhelming in contrast to my quiet, monastic retreat. All my patients did just fine, and I believe many benefited from their therapist’s journey of sabbatical. It was surprising how many of them began to use the word “sabbatical” to describe something that they were looking for and how they might find more of it. I began to wonder whether this is something I might gift myself every year until I retire…
Paul Sussman is a psychologist practicing in Hillcrest. Recently he created a sabbatical for himself. This move is highly unusual for private-practice psychologists and reflects Paul’s courage, integrity, and commitment to growth and development. We can all learn from his words.