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A Strange Job Interview

June 22, 2013

Another old story, this one from 1993: Frustrated with the bureaucratic nonsense at my current job, I applied for a position with an independent community mental health agency that was a spin-or or new outgrowth of a 21-day substance abuse residential program. They had advertised for psychotherapist who was a “mental health generalist.” That phrase was unfamiliar to me but it caught my eye. I’d been practicing in rural areas, often as the Lone Mental Health Ranger, acting like a circuit rider, spending one day in this small town, and the next in another. I took whatever and whoever walked through the door, so I didn’t have the opportunity to develop a specialty but I worked with chronically and severely mentally ill people, depressed and suicidal people, sex abuse victims, sex abuse perpetrators, domestic violence victims and perpetrators, did marriage counseling, and people with personality disorders and those with “only” situational issues or a decision to make. While I had never heard the term “mental health generalist” it sounded right up my alley.

The director, in my first interview, explained that her staff consisted solely of CACs (Certified Addictions Counselors) only and no one with degrees in psychology, a broader mental health orientation, someone who could diagnose that knew the DSM and used more sophisticated approaches to psychotherapy that went beyond becoming clean and sober. Someone who could distinguish between substance abuse, neurosis, personality, disorders and psychosis.
The job was a hundred miles away but it was a pleasant, easy two-hour drive through rural Utah, part of it along I-70 where there was no traffic congestion and a 75 MPH speed limit. The director, a woman named Barbara, scheduled our initial interview for 11:00 AM , explaining that we would have a somewhat formal, structured interview then, followed by lunch together where we could converse more informally. The interview(s) went very well and she stopped just short of saying I had the job, explaining she was ethically required to interview the remaining candidates even though I was clearly the one she wanted to hire. She acted almost giddy and delighted at having met me. I was pleased but a little uncomfortable with what is now called TMI: at lunch she had gone into detail about her own substance abuse history and her struggle to overcome it. I understood, or course, that being a CAC was one profession in which a history of major substance abuse was not a handicap but often seen as an actual asset: you can relate to your clients because you’ve been through it all yourself.
(Yeah, I had wrestled with depression much of my early life, extending into my mid-thirties, and I smoked pot on and off over the years, and been in and out of therapy a couple of times, but I only mentioned the latter in job interviews when directly asked. Call me a hypocrite if you will but if no one is demanding horror stories I wasn’t about to volunteer any).

I had, of course, already submitted a resume, a detailed C.V., and three professional references. She did ask for additional professional references from therapists who had direct experience with me, such as co-leaders of groups. (In clinical jargon, this is called “conjoint therapy”).I supplied them. Altogether I gave her at least 7 or 8 professional references by individuals I was certain would say nothing but good things about me.

I made the drive again (200 miles round-trip) for a second interview with the entire team. This, too, appeared to go very well, although it was kind of like a president’s news conference, with each interrogator asking me a question on a different subject. Barbara buttonholed me after the meeting and effusively told me I had done “magnificently,” as if I were a stage performer. Again she stopped just a tiny bit short of saying I had the job. She would call me with the good news before the end of the week.

No call came. I waited until the middle of the next week and then called her. Barbara was conflicted, she admitted, confused, and uncertain. It was all so complex. At her suggestion, I made the 200 mile drive again, to see her face to face for a third interview.
“I can’t decide between you and another candidate for this one full-time position. You are highly qualified and I like you. So is she and I am also favorably impressed with her.” Barbara seemed to be both literally and figuratively wringing her hands.
“There is something about her I don’t like and I know what it is,” she said. “There is something about you I don’t like and I don’t know what it is.”
A long silence ensued. I thought, WTF? Finally I said, truthfully, “I have no idea how to respond to a statement like that.”
“So, I want to hire each of you half-time for one month. Then I’ll decide at the end of that month which one of you to keep and which one to let go. “But I don’t want you two to feel like you would be competing against each other.”
“But that is exactly what we would be doing,” I pointed out. “You are setting up a competition. It is not realistic to set up a competition and then ask participants not to feel competitive or see it as a competition when it clearly is just that– a completion.”

This fact baffled her. Threw her for a loop. Barbara, the director of a mental health program, could not grasp the reality I was pointing out. She retreated into confusion and verbiage. I soon felt like I was doing therapy with her during this “job interview.” I was helping her sort out her confused and contradictory feelings, her confused thoughts and emotions, helping her try to identify the source of her distress and indecision, figure out what was making decision-making so difficult for her.
“Oh, it’s so hard to make a decision based on a twenty-minute interview!” she exclaimed.
I gritted my teeth and bit my tongue. Twenty minute interview? Damn, lady, I have driven a total of600 miles at my own expense for three—count them, 3– separate interviews totaling about six and half hours. I’ve answered a thousand questions and given you a dozen refer fences. What reality are you talking about? This person is seriously out of touch with reality.

If I accepted her “offer” she would be my immediate supervisor on a day to day basis. She would evaluate my job performance. It occurred to me that she herself would be my toughest mental health client. (Lesson #1: when you are a therapist you do not want your supervisor to be your most difficult, contradictory, and challenging client.)

Back to her “offer” of a half –time position for 30 days. I suggested to her that my packing up and moving 100 miles (entirely at my own expense) to take a half-time position that had a 50% chance of ending after 30 days was not a good deal for me. Barbara appeared baffled, nonplussed. She could not understand my position. After all, that was what she thought was best so why wasn’t I on board? What was wrong with me that I didn’t see it the same way she did?
I declined the “offer.” She voiced frustration that I wasn’t more “empathic” to her confusion, uncertainty, and indecision. She was disappointed in me for not having more compassion for her and the position she was in.

A few weeks later, I confided to a colleague what had happened. “Oh God! He said. “ I know the woman she’s talking about. She couldn’t decide whether to hire her or you?! I used to work with that woman. She was so catty, always spreading rumors and lies. Finally I started interrupting her and saying bluntly ‘that’s a lie and I’m not going to listen to any more of it’ then I’d turn and walk away. That’s how I came to handle her as a coworker.”
The colleague who said that was a Christian counselor and Presbyterian Sunday School teacher.
Within six months both women were fired from the agency.

I was glad I didn’t get caught up in that mess, but frustrated I’d spent so much time and energy on “mental health agency” bullshit with no compensation.

(a shorter version of this story appeared as comment on Chicago Gus’s blog on Open Salon 4/15/2013)

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