My previous post was an exercise in acknowledging all of the space I'm in. The fact that I have some consistent themes to my internal (and external) struggles is just that - a fact. I often hide it, because there's this bizarre misconception (that I share) that if you're doing things right then you shouldn't be struggling.
Years ago I was blessed to watch firsthand as strong women opened up about their very real, very normal struggles, and be met with love and support. It was a huge turning point in starting to understand that it's okay to not be perfect. You're not supposed to be. And it's okay to ask for help. That's why we have loved ones - so they can lend us their strengths and we can lend them ours.
In more recent years, my social media feeds have consistently sported multiple memes, infographics, posts, and everything else to encourage and promote being open about not being perfect. Open about the emotional spectrum that goes beyond the "happy/motivated" warm fuzzy feelings.
My previous post might have hit some folks in an unexpected way. Either because they haven't seen me be that open before (at least not at that length), or because it struck a chord in their own hearts, or because that kind of sharing is just not done very much.
This post will look much like the last one, with a key difference. This time, I will be emphasizing the truths, challenges, and belief changes that pushed me forward. It was important to me to lay the groundwork of the struggle first, because it was never one or the other, either wrestling with shame or growing into boldness. They happened at the same time.
You do not have to have it all together to take the next step. And it doesn't matter if that step is a tactical retreat or an advance.
If this helps even one person navigate their circumstances, it will be worth it.
A brief summary from my last post:
- I seek comfort in stability, predictability, and conformity.
- I have previously been uncomfortable to the point of distress if I felt that I could not attain these.
- When I am distressed, I run away; usually this is entirely mental/emotional, but at times it has manifested in "quitting" whatever endeavor I perceived to be the source. There's usually somewhere else to run to that's equally as acceptable, so I got away with this for a long time.
- Every time I ran, the belief that I'm a failure sent its roots a little deeper. This corroborated with (or maybe caused) an equally deep sense of shame.
Briefly looking back on this journey, there were times during PT school when I would be so overwhelmed and stressed that I would literally call in sick, just to give myself some breathing room and mentally recover. This mostly happened during our clinical rotations, which were full-time clinic hours.
And I would be so ashamed. Ashamed! Why should I need to take that space, take the extra time? I don't have any mental illness or disorder, and all my peers were struggling too, but they didn't ever have to run away for a day. So it was something wrong with me.
But I was confident that I was where I was meant to be. I would breathe, prepare myself, and come back determined to learn and to persevere. I tried to give myself grace for needing a mental health day, and talked to my classmates to reassure myself that we all felt like we were floundering. We helped hold each other up, until we could each swim on our own.
As a new grad physical therapist, there was an expected learning curve and expected adjustment phase. Thank God my professors and clinical instructors all made this clear, because it would have been so much worse otherwise.
Adjusting to my first job as a physical therapist was chaos. I hated feeling like I didn't know what I was doing, but I had an incredible support system at that clinic. They reminded me so often to ask my questions that I finally started to believe that it really was okay.
I started to truly believe that it was okay if I didn't have all the answers.
That it was okay to ask.
Despite that incredible support system in my ideal clinic setting, I still had some dark days. Probably had a few "sick days." I am a firm believer in counseling, and sought it out, which helped a little bit. The person I worked with wasn't a great match for me, so it wasn't as effective as it could've been.
I recognized that I was not handling my stress well and reached out for professional help.
The height of the pandemic saw a significant drop in everyone's caseloads. The slower pace was so sustainable and calming for me. I was finally able to be the therapist I wanted to be, because my tangled ball of survival/identity stress had made way for creativity and problem solving.
As things began to open back up, the visit numbers in a day increased. They weren't as high as they had been, but it was bittersweet all the same. I was loyal to my clinic because of my coworkers, and I wanted to do my part. But I knew the recovering caseloads would bring the tangled ball back, sooner or later.
I wound up getting let go from that position, due to insufficient funding in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns. I didn't hold it against them. After all, the goal had never been to settle in the city where I was located. So, this was the opportunity I needed to keep moving forward.
This was the summer of 2020. New city, new job, new house, all in the span of about 3 weeks. I couldn't have done it without the support of my church family, my blood family, and God himself paving the way for me.
I'd already been through some major adjustment phases before this, so I expected there to be some growing pains. And there definitely were. But again, I was surrounded by genuinely helpful people and working in a setting I legitimately enjoyed. Each season of stress before this, I'd gotten just a little bit more skilled at navigating through those waters and staying afloat. This time, I tried to plan out how I was going to use my PTO and down time in order to give myself the rest days I knew I would need. I didn't want to take last-second mental health days.
I was learning myself, and preparing to manage my stressors and stress responses.
I still took last-second "sick days" sometimes. I used them to catch up on notes, but at my own pace. It was almost enjoyable, doing it that way.
Even on the "bad days," I was learning what constitutes a "good day" for me. For Kaitlin.
My stress management efforts were effective, but not as effective as they needed to be. The notes always piled back up, and the lateness of my completion of those notes was a constant presence in emails and staff meetings. I very literally was not measuring up.
This was unfolding early in 2021, maybe February or January. My request was received with the grace and support of a true leader. My clinic director was the kind that legitimately wanted everyone to do well, and he would move mountains to help make that happen. After talking things over, he connected me with resources that helped me not overthink my documentation quite as much. And it really did help!
But the problem persisted. I hated that it was still a problem, that something about me was still a problem. Why was this fundamental component of being a physical therapist so difficult for me?
I had decided to just keep pushing forward, and hope that eventually I would reach the point that every other clinician seemed to arrive at. Eventually I would only be annoyed by documentation, like everyone else; I wouldn't be crippled by undermanaged stress over it.
In late January 2021, I also took a weekend virtual certification course to use Parkinson's Wellness Recovery (PWR!) in the clinic setting. I absolutely loved every second of it. Learning is one of my favorite things, and the more it highlights the connection between the brain and the body, the better. This was all that and more. My passion for physical therapy was at bonfire status.
This same optimism and passion threw into sharp contrast where I was. This was the first real break in the glass.
In the Spring of 2021 (maybe April?), I broke almost completely. Coming to work 2-3 hours early was normal for me by that point; it was the only way I could stay even remotely on top of my notes. After doing that for several weeks, pulling into the parking lot started to become a constant reminder of my failings as a staff physical therapist. For about a month leading up to this particular day, it wasn't uncommon for me to pull in, stare at the business sign, and cry, pray for strength, sigh in resignation, or all three.
But, by this point, I knew I was a good clinician. I knew it was just this aspect of the job that I was struggling with. But Kaitlin Cordova was a good physical therapist.
One day I pulled into the parking lot. I hadn't come early that day. I think it had already been a difficult morning for me. (A difficult few months, honestly.) It was a crying response that time, and the thought "what if I just turned around and went home" was back again. It was stronger this time, though. Less of an errant thought and more like a survival instinct to run.
Like every other time, I pulled myself together and went inside. Didn't last long. After pulling up my schedule for the day, I made the call that I couldn't be there. Not that day, anyway. It was certainly the most drastic last-second mental health day I ever took.
I hated that I was still struggling so much. Hadn't I done the right things? Wasn't I trying hard enough? Was it really just a question of time or was there something wrong with me? How could it possibly be true that I was so weak and selfish and slow that I had to leave my coworkers to manage their caseload, plus the patients I abandoned for the day? How could I possibly be such a failure? Why couldn't I do this normal thing like everyone else? Why did I have to be so needy?
But I would've hurt myself and others more if I had stayed.
On that day, I did what I needed to do, for me and for them.
I did not run away. I retreated.
I connected with a new counselor that day and was able to get on her schedule really quickly. I needed help beyond the practicalities of fulfilling my job description. Whatever was inside me that triggered that reaction had to be dealt with. This could not happen again, not if I wanted to stay gainfully employed and reasonably content. Even if I gave up PT and became a tradesperson, whatever was inside me would just follow me to the next thing, just like it had been following me through everything all my life up to then.
I recognized that something had to change, and quickly. Regardless of how I felt about it, I owned up to this fact. And I took action.
In addition to starting with a counselor, I met with my boss and discussed job practicalities, including a reduced workload. Obviously he was not in a position to be an emotional/mental support, but he supported me in every professional way possible. His kind heart and incredible servant-leadership was a blessing. Still is a blessing.
I learned to expect good leaders to care about the ones they're responsible for.
I learned that a good leader will gladly work with you to help you be well as you go about your job.
I learned that if I want the answer to a question, I can ask it straight out. It is their choice how to respond.
And I finally started to consider that my boss truly meant it when he said that I had something special. Something worth fighting for.
We waited two months to see if the counseling and the practical changes would have enough promise that I would feel confident in staying on as a staff PT. And I did feel better with the reduced workload, of course. That was my happy place, I already knew that much about myself.
I was so conflicted during that waiting period. I was happier, but I knew it was temporary. I knew the tangled ball of survival stress was just going to come right back once we started trying to increase my caseload again. Something inside was refusing to heal, and it refused to be rushed. Damn me for having something broken inside. Damn them all for trying to help.
But there were people willing to help, and I didn't have to go it alone.
But there was a way for me to be happy as a staff PT, even if it might not be sustainable.
But I was actively seeking help, something I had always struggled with in the past.
The internal conflict was intense. I still remembered my five-year plan from back in February. I knew what made me happy working as a PT. But those things looked increasingly unattainable. I had tried so hard to make it work, and had amazing support beyond what I ever would have thought to ask for. Yet even so, it gradually became clear that Kaitlin Cordova could not work as a traditional staff PT.
I wasn't sure what to do. Physical therapy was all I wanted. Outpatient orthopedic, to be specific. How could I have that, though? I'd had two incredible jobs in that exact setting with more support than I ever thought I could have, and it very clearly was not working out.
Conflict needs at least two sides. Sometimes they can compromise and coexist. Sometimes one has to surrender to the other. But the two sides always have to address each other.
During that two-month waiting period, I was consistent with my counseling sessions, and I did the homework she gave me. I needed this to work. I could not stay as I was.
And I started to learn to value myself for just being me. Not for whatever mold I could fit into.
I started to admit to myself the specifics of what makes me special. The gifts and talents and uniqueness that God created me to have. The ways Kaitlin bears the image of God himself for the world to see.
I started to learn about boundaries, and how there were some that I consistently ignored with myself. I've told numerous friends, especially women, to stand firm on their boundaries. But here I was, completely ignoring my own on a shockingly regular basis.
I started to learn that boundaries are good, that protecting them protects me, and that I am more of who I was made to be when I protect them.
Emotions are difficult for me to express and articulate. Often I let music do it for me. The music I was listening to during the first half of 2021 echoed my fierce determination to keep fighting. Sometimes it gave words and movement to my angst. Unbeknownst to me, it was also nurturing the roots of my self-assuredness and self-worth. That music was vital during that time of intense internal conflict and processing.
The conflict between what I dreamed of being and what I thought I needed to be started to shift. I researched other ways I could use my Physical Therapy degree aside from being in a clinic. None of them looked very appealing, but I was open to the possibility.
I researched other lines of work altogether, and buckled down on my budget to figure out how much I actually needed to earn in a month to make ends meet and have a little fun now and then. (And to keep dancing. Ballroom dance was another major lifeline during all this, where I could practice being more of myself than I even knew I had. And where I could forget about my worries for a little while. And smile. And dance.)
I accepted that any path I chose would be hard. If I chose to stay at the clinic, it would be hard. If I chose to leave, it would be hard. But I could choose my hard.
While I had been researching ways to earn money outside the clinic, at some point it occurred to me to check if there was a way to do what I truly wanted to do in the first place. That would be the ideal scenario.
I don't even know what search terms I used, but I found what I needed. I found a group on Facebook called Uncaged Clinician, and it was full of clinicians just like me who wanted to give their best, but doing so didn't fit in the traditional model.
I kept searching until I found likeminded people. And I bonded myself to them, and learned as much as I could as quickly as I could.
I sought counsel from friends, family, and my counselor.
And I decided to choose myself over the box I had been trying to put myself in.
Still, I had spent so much time committing myself to the box of "normal" employment, that it was very hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I had forsaken it. It felt like I had failed at what I had set out to do. Like I had failed at being a normal member of society.
But I didn't fail.
I acknowledged the conflict. I considered both sides. I sought counsel.
And I changed course.
In all honesty, I still have those "I'm a failure" thoughts sometimes. I spent a long time cultivating those thought patterns, though, so really it's amazing that I've come as far as I have in such a short period of time, to where I can more consistently receive those thoughts with curiosity rather than shame. "Well now that's a mean thing to say about myself. What about this makes makes me think that way?"
Internal conflicts of this magnitude don't resolve nice and neat and clean. For a long time, I didn't broadcast that I had voluntarily left stable employment to become an entrepreneur. After all, it wasn't what I was "supposed" to do, and based on my thought patterns up to that point, that made me less-than.
That broken belief was strong enough that it didn't matter to me that I'd left in order to pursue my dreams of helping people feel better, move better, and stay better so that they not only recovered from their injuries, but became better versions of themselves. It didn't matter, because ultimately I believed I had failed to do what I was "supposed to." (I feel compelled to add that becoming a better version of yourself isn't always an improvement in physical function. Sometimes it is just learning how to work with your body instead of against it.)
The same God who gave me my dreams and passions intended for me to see them through in ways I hadn't anticipated. And that's okay! (It took me so long to be able to say that sincerely, y'all.)
This past Summer, when I chose to leave the box, I also chose to continue a positive trend of asking for help instead of trying to do it all on my own. The Facebook group I had found had a coaching program available to help people like me get started and have a fighting chance. I'd had enough of "failure," and I needed this to succeed. Even better, I knew that I could succeed, as long as I had the right people in my corner.