“A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
I have four degrees: 2 in psychology and 2 in the health sciences. My scholarly propensities have always tended toward science, so my academic mentors consistently funneled me in that direction.
When I was in grade 9, my guidance counsellor had me take a career aptitude test. Even at such a young age, I anticipated the usual suspects: doctor, scientist, teacher, and the choice for which, at the ripe old 13 years, I was fervently holding out hope: veterinarian.
What actually dot-matrixed its way into fruition was the following Earth-shattering list: actor, dancer, choreographer, and – wait for it – mime. Yep, you read that right. My high school career aptitude test singled this book smart, nerdy, math-loving overachiever out for the coveted, prosperously life-altering future of a mime.
Well, I did hate public speaking, so it got that much right.
I did not take a conventional route to get to where I currently am in my career. I was only 16 years old when I decided I wanted to be an athletic therapist. I had always been a sports enthusiast, but although I came from a very athletic family, those particular genes passed me by. In fact, the lowest grade I received throughout my entire high school career came to me by way of my ninth grade Phys Ed. teacher, who also happened to be my mom.
As a child I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. I believed it meant I would earn my living playing with puppies. The rude awakening occurred during a fateful Career Day when I learned farm animals were also a major part of the equation. I have to put my arm where??? Then one day during biology class, my teacher asked if anyone wanted to be a vet. Not quite ready to completely abandon my dream, I tentatively raised my hand. I was the only one to do so, which meant I won the honour of getting to dissect a sheep’s heart and lungs in front of the entire class.
I was incredibly focused on maintaining a neutral expression despite the nauseating smell of formaldehyde wafting up from the dubious looking bucket on the floor beside my lab bench. Then my teacher proceeded to explain the intricacies of proper scalpel etiquette. “Be sure to press straight down on the back of the blade,” he began. “If you angle it slightly to either side, it will snap off, fly across the room, and imbed itself in the neck of one of your classmates.” Awesome. No pressure.
For the next 15 minutes I focused intently on mastering my scalpel technique, listening to the rapid-fire instructions emanating from my teacher. I had just begun to feel like I had the hang of things when Bang! From over my left shoulder came a giant racket as one of my classmates passed out cold and hit the floor. I immediately assumed I had killed him and checked the end of my scalpel for confirmation. As it turned out, my blade was still firmly attached, and my unfortunate classmate had merely been overwhelmed by the scent of formaldehyde permeating the room.
But that did it. My dream of becoming a veterinarian perished that day. I remember descending into a funk at that point, because for the first time in my short existence, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. You have to understand that even back then I was no stranger to anxiety. Not having a concrete plan was terrifying. My childhood best friend was going to be a dermatologist. It was what she had always wanted to be – even before I was old enough to know what a dermatologist even did. You’re 8! – Just say you want to be a freaking doctor for crying out loud! Sidebar: that same friend eventually went on to become a trauma surgeon. Her dream may have morphed slightly, but this was the kind of life plan comparison I was up against.
By the time Grade 11 rolled around, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I did, however, have a massive crush on a hockey player in my class, which led me to drop out of basketball (much to my mother’s horror – she was a provincial level basketball player at 5’2” and the sport still reigns supreme in my family) and become the scorekeeper for our school’s hockey team. And I adored every second of it – much unlike basketball. I fell full-on in love with the sport and began to dream about ways in which I might make a career out of my new-found passion.
At the time, my high school offered a career exploration program for extra credit and one of the options was to shadow local athletic therapists for one afternoon a week. I was all in. Observe people who earned their living by working in the field of sport and earn extra credit? What more could this little overachiever ask?
Boom. Done. I was in seventh heaven. For the next 5 years I worked my tail off getting into and through a university program that would graduate me ready to begin a career in athletic therapy, while still qualifying as pre-med so as to satisfy the parental units ( you know – for when I eventually outgrew the sports obsession and decided to get a real job). Not only did I graduate, but I landed my dream job at the university in my hometown working with the varsity football team. In my mind, there was no greater honour. At 21 years old, life couldn’t get any better than that.
For the next two years, I was happier than a pig in pooh. The hours were grueling and the pay was lousy, but I could have cared less. I was the same age as the athletes under my care and my social life was ensconced in the university where I worked. I was tired but I was happy. Until that happiness faded.
By the time I turned 23, I had an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had made a terrible mistake. The life I had been living had been amazing for the past 2 years, but I was already starting to outgrow the fun. That left me with a job that still worked me to the bone but had already lost most of its luster. I had the nagging sensation that the people who had tried to steer me in a different direction early on in my education might actually have had a point. I had spent all this money on a university education that now left me in a career I was already so over.
I could have gone to med school. I spent a lot of time in my 20s harboring a low-grade guilt over not having done so. There were a lot of people who wanted me to be a doctor. And I know I would have been a good one. It falls right in my wheelhouse after all. But I have honestly never wanted to be a doctor. I would have been miserable.
So, I enrolled myself at the university where I continued to work in athletic therapy and graduated with a degree in psychology 2 years later. I love psychology – even to this day. I looked into doing my PhD so I could become a licensed psychologist but knew in my heart of hearts that my personality was not a good fit for the profession. I have a hard time leaving anything at work and I knew even back then that I would have quickly burnt out in a career that involves helping people with heavy stuff. I even went to therapy myself to see if I could find a way to make it a more manageable option. But alas, I decided it would be a career choice that would likely have proven harmful to me over the years and opted instead to get a Master in sport psychology. I mean a sports and psychology combo? Come ON! Could there be a profession better suited for me?
And that’s how I found myself standing back on the same sidelines of the same sports team I had left only a few years earlier, just in a different capacity. But when I finished graduate school, sport psychology was still quite new in Canada and although I worked very hard to try to bring my vision to fruition with my sport teams, this new role also soon left me wanting more.
When it became painfully obvious to me that my place of employment just wasn’t ready for what I had to offer, and that if they weren’t, it was equally likely most other schools weren’t either, I made the uncomfortable decision to go back to graduate school. This time I decided to do what made the most sense at the ripe old age of 31: I got a Master of Physical Therapy. In my head I was too old to start a new career from scratch. Med school would take too long and cost too much. I had the ideal background to get in and it was a career in the health sciences of which, in my mind, I could be proud. Plus – and this was not insignificant after 3 other degrees – it would pay the bills.
If I am being completely honest, part of the draw of physiotherapy school was the challenge of just getting accepted to the program. The year I applied, it was actually easier to get into medical school than a physio program. All that really meant was that there were more applicants for all available spaces in physiotherapy programs than there were for medical programs, but it gave physio schools serious bragging rights – at least in the eyes of our program directors. It also made those of us who got in feel pretty special for a few minutes.
Here’s the thing though: even when I decided to apply to physio school, I knew my heart wasn’t in it. Once I began the application process though, it became all about the challenges that followed. Could I get in? Could I get straight A’s? Could I get nominated for a clinical placement award? Could I graduate with honours? As I checked off each of those boxes, the unease grew in the pit of my stomach.
In the end, I stuck it out. I accomplished all the things I set out to achieve and have been working in the field for the past decade. I know I am a good physiotherapist and I there are many aspects of the job I enjoy. I thrive on the challenges of figuring out difficult conditions. I am grateful I am in a position in which I can help many people feel better. I do not take that lightly. I have met many fabulous people and been a part of several awesome teams over the years. But physiotherapy was never my dream, and when I accepted the offer of admission from Queen’s, I settled. And I have been settling ever since.
But I never stopped dreaming.
When I was 23, I went to visit my best friend who was living in the Cayman Islands at the time. A bunch of us were out for drinks one night and we started talking about people we had met who had the coolest possible jobs. While fantasizing about our own awe-inspiring future resumés, one of the girls memorably shouted, “Dive master, cellar master, and… Intelligence for the Navy!”
I have never forgotten that moment, because for me, it represents the value of continuing to dream big, fabulous, audacious dreams. If I could go back to that practical 31-year-old version of me, I would tell her that no one is ever too old to go after their dreams. Sure, it is important to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table, but no one should ever settle.
Growing up, I always assumed I was left-brain dominant because I had a mind for science. I shunned all arts classes in favour of anything science. And yet I have always loved to create. I am an artist and a writer, but only recently have I begun to refer to myself using those terms, opting previously to simply say, “I like to draw,” or “Sometimes I write stuff.” My creative right brain was something I used to attempt to silence, putting those competencies on a back burner. I considered them to be a nothing more than hobbies, simply because I came up through scientific channels that often undermined the arts.
Now here I sit at the young age of 43, with 4 science-based university degrees adorning one lone wall of my home while an entire room is consecrated to my yoga practice, and a beautiful glass desk and easel take up prime real estate in my living room overlooking the best vistas my home has to offer. A stranger coming into my home would never guess I currently work as a healthcare professional because everything in my personal space offers insight into what is truly important to me.
No one is ever too old to dream. Dreaming is what allows us to grow. The older we get, the more we know our true selves and the better our dreams reflect what we truly desire. When that dream gets too big to ignore, we have no choice but to clear out the stuff that no longer serves us to make room for it to manifest. My current audacious dream is to write – and not just as a hobby. Despite an auspicious scientific beginning, I realize am destined to create. As my reverie begins to take clearer shape, I lie awake each night knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am going after my dreams – no matter how crazy, risky, or impossible they might seem.
After all, “yoga guru, cellar master, and Intelligence for the Navy”, has a pretty cool ring to it.
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