It feels risky and obnoxiously privileged to admit that the COVID-19 pandemic changed my life for the better. Don’t get me wrong — like most people, I was terrified, anxiously disinfecting groceries and monitoring every sniffle. However, when I look back on it now, the pandemic gave me courage that I hadn’t realized I was missing. For the first time, I asked myself important questions:
What is your purpose?
Are you happy?
Is this really as good as it gets?
This was a lot to digest given the fact that our entire planet was shut down and the simple act of breathing was risky. However, the honest truth was that the pandemic provided the push that I desperately needed and had been waiting for. I had been considering the idea of a career in clinical psychology for over a decade but could never rationalize starting over from scratch… until then. Somehow, the pandemic gave me permission.
My Not-So-Entertaining, Pre-Pandemic Life
In early March 2020, I was living life at a frenetic pace. I had a full-time job in the entertainment industry working as an executive assistant in the publicity department of a glamorous, well-known company. I was addicted to the daily chaos, the demanding nature of my job, the hearty paycheck, and my desperate need to exceed expectations. As a single mom, this job afforded me the ability to provide for my family with ease. So what if I was falling apart on the inside?
The truth is, after two years on the job, I was mentally and physically exhausted. In those two years, there were many instances when I felt like I might be wired a bit differently than my colleagues. While my brilliant co-workers’ inner lights burned bright due to their genuine passion for the work we were doing, my light began to flicker. Some days I couldn’t get it to turn on at all. My co-workers always wanted to keep going, but I needed to rest. I was still doing a good job, but I was notably lacking that glow and drive a person has when they are living their purpose.
Though most of my co-workers were strictly interested in talking business, I was desperate to know who they were deep down and how they were feeling that day. I wanted to know what was bothering them and what was on their mind. I was supposed to be scheduling meetings, planning international offsites, and organizing my boss’s life, but the highlights of the job for me were serving as mother hen while onboarding new hires and leading colleagues in meditation. After work, my co-workers would eagerly watch the latest content that our employer was producing and promoting, but I was running to reiki-certification classes and devouring self-help books.
Despite all of the indications that I might be in the wrong place or on the wrong path, I couldn’t see the possibility of getting off the runaway train that my life had become. I certainly couldn’t walk away from the paycheck without a backup plan, so I kept moving forward. As long as I had the funds and a little extra time to pursue my interests on the side, all was well. In the meantime, the price I paid to remain on this runaway train was steep. After over 15 years of working in the entertainment industry, I could hear the faint sound of a new career calling, but I was nowhere near ready to listen.
Unraveling, Questioning Everything, and Living Authentically
As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed and a terrifying new normal set in, my life came to a screeching halt. A stark reality check arrived when I realized that I had only been able to succeed at work because I had helpers at home.
My amazing nanny and housekeeper were keeping the wheels on the bus for my daughter while I kept the wheels on the bus for my boss. Suddenly, it was scary to consider having anyone other than my immediate family breathing inside my home, and I would have to hold down the fort on my own. My employer was expecting my top-notch performance to continue, and I felt paralyzed by the fact that I was now managing the additional responsibility of home-schooling a second grader.
By April of that same year, my current situation at work felt insurmountable. Two weeks to
flatten the curve of COVID was turning into a month. It seemed unreasonable to keep performing at work while also teaching elementary school. Not to mention that I had a hard time focusing on work in the midst of such crippling fear of the unknown.
I had no interest in pretending everything was fine when it so very clearly was not. I was already a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in this environment, but now I had become a giant wooden rectangle trying to thread itself through the eye of a small sewing needle. Previous life events had already given me the opportunity to prove that I was strong and resilient. However, at this moment, it seemed I was neither strong nor resilient enough.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused worldwide pain and suffering, and it also served as a reminder of the fragility of life. With no guarantee of tomorrow, I decided to start being my authentic self immediately. I had to reprioritize and remember who I was before I lost myself by boarding the rollercoaster that is corporate America. I had to stop ruthlessly chasing paychecks and start chasing the truth.
The truth, as it turned out, was that I wanted to help people. I wanted to learn how to counsel people through their struggles and ultimately cheer them on as they went on to be their best selves again. This sense of urgency became increasingly powerful as I felt the pull to finally commit to making this my life’s work. I knew that there would be many different paths to consider — I just had to figure out which one to take.
Rediscovering My Purpose (That Was There All Along)
As I dug into the archives of my life, I thought about all of the times that I dipped my toe into the possibility of pursuing an online master’s in psychology. As I attended countless information sessions and shadowed classrooms, I found myself overwhelmed at the prospect of starting over from scratch. Despite the competition for limited job prospects, and my own anxiety about paying for school, I decided to throw caution to the wind. Now, here I am — in my 40s — pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University.
At this point in time, my goal is to work with kids, teens, and adolescents. I feel that this population is facing tremendously different and exponentially larger challenges than I did during my upbringing, and it would be an honor to be a trusted adult for this vulnerable, impressionable population. While social media isn’t all bad, it certainly has unleashed an entirely new level of pressure, competition, expectations, bullying, unlimited access, instant gratification, and unrealistic beauty standards for young people. I would love to help them build confidence and lean into who they truly are at the core while navigating these important years of their lives and the difficulties that can arise.
I know that I’m now exactly where I belong. I’ve learned to trust the timing of my life and listen to those whispers when they show up. I’m thrilled that this is my path now even though I wish I had figured it out sooner. I’m grateful to have the privilege to pursue my dreams, and I’m so appreciative of all of the life experiences that I’ve had thus far.
While living through the COVID-19 pandemic was collectively traumatic, for me personally, it was a blessing in disguise. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
Meet the Author
Heather Arter was born in New York state and has been living in the Los Angeles area since 2004. After over 15 years in the entertainment industry, she is currently a student in the online master’s program in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University. Her goal is to become a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) with a private practice primarily serving children, teens, and adolescents. Heather currently lives with her daughter and two cats in a house full of crystals and Broadway show tunes.