I never knew how lost I was. I thought I knew it all; only it was through recovery that I truly found myself. I was on my path to become “Dr. Cheryl Pfeffer, PsyD,” and I thought I had it all worked out. I was not one of “those people.” I thought to myself, “This only happens to losers and I win at everything.” This was not true. I am able to lose, and thankfully, I lost, because I have learned that life is not about winning and losing. It is about loving, forgiving, and persevering. I have learned that it is okay to “lose,” because these are “learning lessons,” and these lessons continue to teach me about the beauty of life, which includes losses and gains, not being a winner or a loser. I am grateful for my substance use because it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me; It taught me to recover. Like I said, I found myself. I don't know if this would have ever happened, if I didn't fall and then, endure the way that I did.
When I was asked, actually told, to leave my doctoral program in 2007, because “something was just not right,” it attacked my self-worth and purpose. I lost my whole identity, because I put so much weight into being “Dr. Cheryl Pfeffer.” Before I was dismissed from my doctoral program in 2007, I was placed on a forced 6-month leave of absence in 2004. That 6 months turned into 3 years. At the 3-year leave of absence mark in 2007, I was told, “But all of your cohorts have graduated now. How are you going to deal with that?” My answer was not good enough. I didn't know it at the time, but this would eventually lead me to reevaluate myself, and it was the beginning of embarking on my recovery process.
I tried to regain my false sense of identity by applying to a new graduate school, and I came clean about being in recovery. I was previously a 4th year graduate student, and I was willing to go back to school for 5 years to get my doctorate and regain my false sense of identity. At 6 months sober, I was told by a dean at a new graduate school that there are a couple of faculty members who believed I was "too high risk" to enter their program. This went on for 3 years in my sobriety. I applied 3 times, and I was rejected 4 times. It was awful to receive a rejection letter for the 4th time when I did not even apply. I asked the dean, “It has been 3 years. When will I not be high risk?” He responded with, “I do not know.”
Although I was being discriminated against, it was a blessing in disguise. I have to look at things that way now. I had to redevelop my identity, and embrace life. Without my doctorate, I was stuck with Me. How scary. Who was I really? I continue to find myself everyday. I challenge myself with things that scare me. I have become a public speaker, scuba diver, pianist, skydiver, singer, dancer, comedienne, and sparkling water aficionado, among many other things. I have excelled in my field without my doctorate, and I have learned that I don't need to be viewed at “the top” to be okay with myself. I do what I want, but this time, I do it in healthy ways.
When I first entered the field in psychology, I said to myself, I will never work with those people. “Those people” included sex offenders and “addicts.” How crazy that I assimilated sex offenders with people who want to recover from substance use disorder. When I began to recover, I immediately found my passion. I was already in the mental health field, and I had my Masters in Clinical Psychology. I was going to make a difference and help people just like me. I went to a community college to study more about substance use disorder, and it felt amazing to be accepted somewhere. When I entered the community college campus, I was scared. There were many people, some with boom boxes walking around campus. Where the heck was I? I was right where I was supposed to be. I learned to accept life where it took me.
Already having my Masters in Clinical Psychology, I went through many hurdles to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Addictions Professional. I volunteered many hours at treatment centers to become qualified in the substance use disorder field. I took graduate level classes to fulfill my licensing requirements. Some of which were at the graduate school that rejected me 4 times. I challenged myself, and I didn't give up. I continued to challenge and educate myself; I took courses in trauma and other mental health conditions that are commonly associated with substance use disorder. Currently, I want to become certified as a hypnotherapist. I learned that I am excited to continue to educate myself with many different things. Thankfully, it does not stop. Ever.
I realized that I did not need my doctorate to be somebody; I have always been somebody. Most importantly, I have my family, and I am always making new friends. I have a spirit within me, and I am funny, vibrant, engaging, and loving. Sure, I may have lost some things along the way, but I can regain them. I can go back to a doctoral program, but I choose not to. Although I am highly passionate and excited about my profession and career, it is not all of me. It is only a part of me. Today, I can make choices. I am happy with who I am today, and that is a miracle. The best part about recovery is that I am free.