How the heck did I get here?

(As promised in my last post)


In middle school, I wanted to be a marine biologist. In high school, I wanted to be a writer, English teacher, and drama club director. But I had near-debilitating social anxiety disorder, and the thought of standing in front of a class of teens and talking for 40 minutes threw me into panic. I was near the top of my class and really good at biology (and a huge fan of ER, the television show), so as I entered college, my 18-year-old self thought the only way to success, pride, and money was to become a medical doctor.

I entered college with an exploratory major, but by the end of my first semester had taken Introduction to Psychology and decided that Psychology was the perfect major for a pre-med. Useful to a future physician, interesting enough to study for 4 years, and would set me apart from the army of biology majors I’d be fighting for a spot in medical school. Taking Behavioral Neuroscience sealed the deal, as I realized that the most complex and fascinating thing in the universe is the human brain and I was hungry to know more about it.

I faltered as I took Organic Chemistry. Not for the usual reason (it is known as the class that weeds out those who are not cut out to be doctors, and I was doing very well with the material), but because I was starting to wonder if I didn’t really want to be a physician. Was a PhD in Clinical Psychology a better route for someone loathe to touch people than the road that would take me through doing physical exams and surgery just so I could come out on the other side and do psychotherapy? I went to the Abnormal Psychology professor for guidance. He had a PhD in Clinical Psych and wore the classic turtle neck under tweed jacket with elbow pads that are associated with the stereotypical professor. He projected immediately and told me that as a star student I wouldn’t be satisfied as a psychologist. I needed to be a psychiatrist, the one in charge, the one with the most challenging “cases”. I accepted this and restarted the pre-med program. This would not be the last time I doubted the path I had chosen and then ignored my gut to doggedly carry on.

So, I entered medical school with the intent to become a psychiatrist. Anatomy was creepy but cool, although I smelled like formaldehyde 24/7. I got a work study assignment in forensic pathology, assisting with research and autopsies at the county medical examiner’s office. I toyed with the idea of becoming a medical examiner myself. There was something morbidly exciting about watching the news to find out what/who we would be seeing on the autopsy table that day, and about telling people what I was doing that summer (never breaking confidentiality, of course) and seeing the looks on their faces. It fit with my perception of myself as different, a little goth, emotionally intelligent but not prey to the fears and compunctions about death of “normal” people. Then I assisted on the autopsy of a child who had drowned, his body recovered in the water a few days later. The smell was distinctively awful, a combination of rot and fish. A week later I tried to eat shrimp and within minutes I was throwing up, crying on the bathroom floor about that lost life, about his body, his family, his erased future. And I knew in that moment that I was NOT immune to emotion, nor was I able to compartmentalize the way the women I worked with had to, and that every child on the table would break me a little more, and I went back to pursuing psychiatry.

I labored through my course on physical examination while excelling in the more academic work. This caused another moment of “why am I doing this?”, but by now I was 2 years’ worth of time and money in and to leave would be to FAIL. My greatest fear was always failure, so I was stuck. I made it through my clinical years, enjoying the less tactile/manual rotations like psychiatry and radiology, and matched at my own institution for residency. I graduated from medical school 8 1/2 months pregnant with my first child. I was now Dr. Carolyn Roper Balzer.

I had to start my residency when my daughter was only a few weeks old. This started my training off on the wrong foot, as I longed to be home with her, not doing 26-hour calls covering 4 hospitals. I had good moments, like when I really got through to a patient or was able to describe complex diagnoses and treatments to patients and families in ways my superiors couldn’t or just didn’t. But more and more I noticed that psychiatry was a cycle of evaluate, medicate, adjust medication, remedicate when the patient stopped taking their pills, repeat. Therapy was what the psychologists and social workers we referred patients to did. We saw them when they were suicidal, aggressive, noncompliant, or simply unmedicated. I have to believe that some psychiatrists DO get to do more psychotherapy than prescribing, and I know intimately how important medication can be for some people suffering with some mental disorders, but I was disillusioned, exhausted, and anxious. After 2 years of residency, with just 2 years left before I could become licensed to practice, I left.

For my own sanity, I took a few years to have my family. Two more babies and 4 years later, the lack of a six-figure salary became too much. I started looking for an alternative career. People asked why I couldn’t just become a therapist. After all, I had done 4 years of medical school and 2 years of psychiatric training. That was at least as good as a masters degree. But they didn’t realize that not only did I no longer want to do that, training and licensing don’t work that way. So, I sold Avon. Seriously. I became an Avon lady with an M.D.

Then I saw an ad for an adjunct professor of psychology at a local community college. I thought it made no sense to apply. First, remember my social anxiety? But I had been treating that and had made huge strides. Second, don’t you need a PhD to teach? But my mom, ever my greatest supporter, convinced me to go for it. The professor of abnormal psychology at the time, the class I would be taking over, advocated for me despite the shortcoming of never having done a dissertation, and I started teaching.

I fell in love with it! Maybe it is because I love being the expert in the room, talking about things I love, getting others to love them too. Now I feel like this is where I was meant to be. I have so many stories from my varied experience to share with my students. I took a full-time position as Assistant Professor, non-tenure track, at a small local 4-year college, and I teach everything from Intro Psych to Developmental Psychopathology, Physiological Psychology, and of course, Abnormal. I only hope they will let me continue to do this for a very long time.