Many years ago, my career took a most unusual turn. Truth be told, there’s been nothing normal about the path my career has taken, and looking back I’ve been grateful for each and every step on its broken and winding road. In 2001, about a year after completing my graduate degree, I had the opportunity to apply for a job at Milwaukee County. It was a job that would assist in the oversight of the publicly funded community-based mental health services, and it was a job I wanted so fiercely I had labeled it “The Job.” Against all odds, I got this job, and I was certain I would be there until I retired. True to Milwaukee County form, however, within about 86 days I was bumped out of my position due to a massive round of layoffs in another department. I called my brief stint at Milwaukee County my “summer internship.” All kidding aside, I was devastated.
With the help of my new Milwaukee County boss (who is now a long-time, much beloved friend), I made a soft landing in a local non-profit agency serving adults with mental illness. I’ll be honest, I was just grateful to have a job. Granted, it was a director position and by taking it, I was jumping over a few precursory steps to be adequately prepared for it. I wasn’t climbing the corporate ladder, it seemed, I was leap-frogging it. I am not sure what people saw in me to give me these chances I hadn’t earned, but I knew I could not let them down. Fiercely determined, I had never worked so hard before, nor have I ever since.
About a year into my new gig, I got a lucky break. Looking back, I’m convinced, however, that luck wasn’t involved at all. It was an aligning of the stars, a moment of kismet, an opportunity that was truly meant to be. Our team’s psychiatrist at the time, who was….ahem…hmmmmm…how can I delicately say it…the President of His Own Fan Club….gave us a two week notice that he was leaving. He had been the doctor for these most vulnerable patients for over seven years, and he gave us a two week notice like he was working at McDonald’s. I spent about 90 seconds being annoyed, because statutorily we were required to have a psychiatrist on the team and two weeks wasn’t much time to find a doctor. After that, I sprung into action. I knew exactly what I wanted for my team: The Dr. Vance Baker. He was the best of the best of the best in this town; everyone knew that.
I remember telling my supervisor that this was my plan. It was interesting, because this agency I had joined was really struggling at the time. I characterized it that the whole agency had a self-esteem problem. My supervisor let out a quick chuckle that admittedly kind of stung, and then realizing I was serious tried to bring me back to reality. She said, “There’s no way Vance Baker would want to work for us.” I set out to prove her wrong.
Now, there were a few things standing in the way of having The Dr. Vance Baker join our team. One glaring problem was that I didn’t know him, I only knew of him. Second was that he was already employed. Third was that my supervisor was right, our agency was not exactly the premiere agency in town (yet) and why would a rock star want to join this band? Undeterred, I shut out all the noise.
My tactic was simple: I was going to reach out to every single person I could think of who was a psychiatrist or who knew a psychiatrist. I put the word out on the street that I needed a doctor for this team and I needed one yesterday. That’s exactly where the magic began.
About 48 hours into this exercise, my phone rang. At the other end of the line was none other than The Dr. Vance Baker. Now mind you, I had put it out into the universe that I wanted him on my team, but I had not yet made any efforts to contact him directly. He said he heard our team was looking for a new psychiatrist and he wondered if we could talk. We set up a time to meet at a restaurant a day or two later, and I think when I got off the phone I probably squealed like a girl in junior high who just got asked to the dance. I did not know how or why, but things were taking shape.
When the good doctor and I met up a couple days later, I was nervous as all get out. I had to convince him of the appeal of building a team with me. I explained to him my vision for this team and described us as a Phoenix rising out of the ashes. We talked through some of the job’s mechanics – what the job entailed, how many patients were on the caseload, what kind of hours were expected. Somewhere in the midst of this, Vance said, “What I really want to do someday is retire and just spend my days on my land out west collecting bugs.” To which I exclaimed, barely able to contain myself, “Oh my god! I am a lepidopterist!” Vance might be the only person I’ve ever personally met who already knew that meant “one who collects butterflies.” I don’t remember a single thing that was said after that. The deal was done.
What was truly interesting about this whole ordeal was that more than a year prior, Vance had been looking for a way to leave his current outpatient practice and spend more time on his beloved prairie in the western part of the state. One night, during a fit of insomnia, he realized that if he structured his weeks on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday basis, he could spend a full 7 days on the land, followed with a full 7 days in Milwaukee. This would allow him to spend more time on his land, and be available to his Milwaukee jobs every single business week. This newly revised and ingenious plan came to him in the dark of the night, and the following morning he woke up and gave a year’s notice at his job. Funny thing, that year was coming to an end in just a couple of weeks when he got word I was looking for a psychiatrist. He needed a job, and I needed a miracle. In the end, we both got what we needed.
I consider the eight years I spent at this agency one of the hallmarks in my career and I am proud of every single thing that team accomplished together. The secret I don’t say out loud very often, however, is that all of the transformation and rising through the ranks as an agency was really only because I did one great thing: I convinced Dr. Vance Baker to join our team. Never before, and never since, have I been so clinically and philosophically aligned with another person. We had the same ridiculously high and probably unreasonable standards and the same self-deprecating sense of humor. We had the same love for the people we serve and the same intolerance for all the things that got in the way of serving them well. In the end, I could reduce my job to this: I take care of Vance, and he takes care of this team and our clients. He taught me and my colleagues all kinds of valuable things: the importance of honest self-assessment and admitting your mistakes, that helping someone with a mental illness complete a simple task is not in fact enabling them, that our work is riddled with ethical landmines but if you are smart and considerate you can navigate them, and that if you have acid reflux you should put two phone books under the posts at the head of your bed to make it slant so you lay at an angle. Yep. He knows a little something about pretty much everything. He is amazing that way.
Many years passed and over those years, many things changed. Eventually I was promoted and my duties took me further away from that team. A couple years after that, the agency merged with another local non-profit and the landscape of my administrative duties took a turn I couldn’t reconcile. After eight glorious years, I felt the pull back to “The Job” I had been bumped out of at Milwaukee County so many years prior. I struggled with the decision, but it was Vance’s wisdom that ultimately helped me. He said, “Look, there are lots of people with mental illness who deserve your help. It doesn’t have to be here.”
I left that agency knowing I had given it the very best of me. I left a little broken-hearted, a little sad, but also a little excited for a new opportunity. I knew I had done great things and that where I was headed, I would do more. My colleagues gave me a journal where everyone wrote a page or two expressing their thoughts about our time together. Vance wrote simply, “We will remain friends, but my career will lament your loss; I suspect permanently.” Just reading that still brings tears to my eyes, because I feel precisely, deeply, in my heart of hearts, the exact same way.
Interestingly, my friendship with the Dr. Vance Baker has only strengthened since I left that job so many years ago. We email, we talk on the phone, and once or twice a year I make my way westward to his land where we can sit and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. But my favorite of all the things we do is a monthly dinner outing we always keep at my request. I always pick the place, and he always picks the time. We almost always end up in a restaurant neither of us have ever tried, and when we get our cocktails we start the night by clinking our glasses: “Here’s to keeping the love alive.” And I have to admit, it is a love that is not just alive, but still growing.