I’ve taught a lot of workshops where I started out by saying my main goal — the one that led to everything else that has happened over the last twelve years — was just to recreate the job I lost in 2001 when public health funding for acupuncture got cut. I didn’t really want to own my own business. I certainly didn’t want to be an employer. I mostly just wanted to be an acupuncturist and get a paycheck without having to do anything weird.
You wouldn’t think something so simple would eventually lead to a multi-stakeholder cooperative and a new acupuncture school. I sure didn’t think so. It was a total surprise to me that, for the most part, the infrastructure I needed (or anybody needed) to simply have a real job as an acupuncturist just wasn’t there. It all had to be built.
Once I figured out how to have the job I wanted, pretty much everything I’ve done since has been about helping to build a structure that would make it more stable and more satisfying. Coworkers? Check. Co-managers? Check. Support for being an employer, including training videos for new employees? Check. Real colleagues who were running similar businesses and who can coach me through things that they are better at than I am, like transitioning to electronic medical records? Check. A professional organization that actually gives me tangible, practical support, not to mention moral support and camaraderie? Better and better! A way to replace myself so that my business will outlive me and truly be a community institution? Working on it…
So it was something of a shock to realize that the last element, represented by POCA Tech, was going to take me out of punking. I should have seen it coming; I guess I’ve been in denial. Certainly I’ve steadily been cutting back my clinical hours for the last few years, as WCA and POCA both got bigger and more complex. I’ve been down to about 9 hours a week, maxing out at 50 treatments. 50 treatments a week has been feeling to me like 100+ used to feel. I’ve been complaining to anybody who would listen that I didn’t have the stamina of a real punk. So you wouldn’t think I’d be shocked; you wouldn’t think that there’s a huge emotional difference between punking for 9 hours a week versus punking for 6 or for 4, which is all I’ll be able to do soon. It turns out that there is, though. I spent all of last week melting down about what I finally figured out was happening: the loss of my personal practice, the loss of my punk identity, the loss of the job I loved even when I was too tired to really do it. I’d done so many things, so many different kinds of things, believing I was making my job more secure. Which I was, until suddenly I wasn’t anymore; there was a seamless shift into doing the exact opposite. I’d managed to pretend it wasn’t happening and then it was done.
It’s one thing to want a vacation from what you do. It’s another thing entirely to realize you’re not going to be able to do it — or not much of it, anyway — even if you want to. It’s one thing to want to open the door of your practice and wander away occasionally; it’s another thing to hear it slam shut behind you.
What am I going to say I do for a living? I wailed to my coworkers in our Oversight meeting. I’m going to have to say I’m an administrator. I loved being a punk. It’s not fair. I can’t stop completely because there are patients I can’t imagine not treating, but staying barely connected is not the same thing as punking. Did I mention that this isn’t fair?
I seem to be done with the wailing part (I’m sure everybody at WCA is thinking we certainly hope so) and now I’m on to the getting a perspective part. And I’m in the best possible place to do that, which is a CA workshop in Montreal taught by Melissa, Cris and Andy. In the opening round this morning, one of the questions that came up was, how do you keep your work fresh when you’re doing the same thing over and over? Pondering that question, alongside my current situation, made me want to think about some things out loud here.
The truth is, once you start doing something, you never really know what will happen. (This is one of the big problems with how conventional acupuncture schools are structured and how expensive they are: it’s easy for people to get out of school, get into practice, and realize, oh, I don’t actually want to do this. Oops! ) Like a lot of other people, I got into the “healing profession” because I needed healing myself. And luckily for me, it worked. If community acupuncture clinics are wells, I didn’t just need a long deep drink, I needed to be immersed. I immersed myself, I got good and soaked, and I got better. Twelve years ago, six years ago, I needed to be in the clinic for twenty hours a week for reasons that had nothing to do with my paycheck. Eventually I got to the point where I could do other things.
Thanks to WCA and to POCA, I’ve had the opportunity to do lots of other things. This is one of my favorite things about our cooperative, and I appreciate it more every day: the way that we collectively build competence for ourselves and each other. We learn how to do all kinds of things and then we teach each other. We get good at things together. And then those skills belong to us. I love watching my friends teach a CA 101 workshop, knowing that they are doing a better job at it than I would. 10 years ago none of us had any thoughts about teaching workshops at all — not to mention running a cooperative.
Plenty of the skills I’ve developed I didn’t really want at first. It’s only later that I appreciated them. I’m beginning to have some faith that running a 501c3 nonprofit acupuncture school is just going to be another one of those skills; I’ll be glad I did it, even though I wailed about it initially.
So looking at my new job, and looking at my old job, here are some questions that I’m asking myself ( I really could have asked these at any point, and it would have been good to know the answers):
1) What part of this job is just for me, and what part is for other people? I think it’s good to have a balance of selfishness and selflessness. By definition, no job is entertaining all the time. It’s not unreasonable to expect an adult to be able to do some things she doesn’t really want to do because she understands that they need to be done. I wasn’t thrilled about some of the repetitive aspects of punking and I’m not thrilled about some of the repetitive aspects of administrating. The results of both can be pretty thrilling, however. It’s also important to be honest about what parts are for me and what parts are for other people, to not be confused in my own mind.
2) What part of this job is a challenge to me, and what part is comforting routine? Everybody needs both.
3) What kind of a balance do I need? Some people need more in the way of challenge, some people need more in the way of routine. How am I doing?
4) What side do I gravitate towards reflexively versus what is actually good for me? Am I resisting stretching myself because I’m scared? To what degree is staying with a routine a challenge in and of itself? Is it harder for me to try something new or to maintain something that’s working? What muscles do I need to build?
From my perspective now, looking back on punking, I would say to anybody who is wondering about their long term trajectory: expect change. You won’t stay the same and neither will your clinic. You will have the chance to learn how to do things you had no idea you could do. Some of them you’ll be really good at. Some of them you’ll be relieved to delegate. If you tried to predict which was which, you’ll probably be wrong. This is yet another reason you need a community.
Because we all inherited a profession that is, for many of us, as insubstantial as a set on a stage, there is an endless amount of constructive work that needs to be done. If punking becomes too much of a routine and not enough of a challenge, help us build out the infrastructure and the superstructure. Think about the next level of support that would make your job better and talk to somebody else in POCA about how to build what you need. Is your job perfect? Congratulations! How about making somebody else’s job better? When you get dizzy from hanging upside down in the scaffolding of the superstructure, come back down to earth and work in your clinic; it will feel amazing. I didn’t realize how much I needed the ground until I thought about hanging upside down all day long, every day.
It’s not too early to start thinking about other campuses of POCA Tech, because it took years of planning to get WCA to the stage where I could think about doing this. Comrades, we can use you everywhere. No matter what changes for your clinic or for you. We probably need you most in the part of the structure that nobody can see yet. Stick around and help us make it visible.