After switching careers from music to psychology, Dr. Margaret was seeking a new creative outlet. She found it in her blog, where she writes about mental health (especially what she terms “Perfectly Hidden Depression”), midlife, and relationships.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in the Delta region of southern Arkansas, in the little town of Pine Bluff. My father was a funeral director and bank director, and very loved within the community. My mother was a heels-and-hose, beautifully mannered and kind woman, who cared for me and my two older brothers. I took etiquette lessons, learned to walk with a book on my head, and read Shakespearean verse. I was supposed to come out as a debutante at around 16, but I informed my mom I was already “out.”
I have always rebelled against following rules – sometimes a strength, and sometimes a weakness.
I originally graduated from Southwestern At Memphis (now Rhodes College) with a degree in French. I went on to become a professional vocalist in Dallas (music had always been my first love). I sang jingles during the day and jazz at night. But I wasn’t very happy personally—the lifestyle didn’t fit me. I had grown up in a very stable environment, and it was hard to constantly look for gigs or always be selling your talent to jingle producers. Plus, the jingle business was constantly searching for fresh, new voices. It was very easy to get replaced, and get replaced quickly.
I changed my career to something I knew would be more stable. I wanted to use my mind more – and I wanted to help others. I learned this when I volunteered at Dallas’ Battered Women’s Shelter. That was a life-altering experience. I had never felt better as a person than when I ended my shift there at the shelter. So I used all my savings to go to Southern Methodist University and study Music Therapy, then applied to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I did get in, but was told years later that it had been due more to curiosity than much else: They’d never had a singer want to become a psychologist. I was granted my Ph.D. at the age of 38.
I have been married 25 years to a wonderful guy, and we were lucky enough to have a son through in vitro fertilization. That son just graduated from Vanderbilt and is headed to California to work. I was in practice in Dallas for a short period of time, but have been in private practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1993, where I see mostly adults and families. I specialize in depression, trauma, and marital work.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After 20 years in private practice, in 2012, I decided that I wanted to extend the walls of my practice to try to reach more people. I loved being a therapist. I wasn’t burned out at all, but I thought writing would give me another outlet to share some of the wisdom I had learned from the patients I had seen. I had time on my hands, since our son had left for college. And I needed a new creative venture.
What is your next act?
I am a writer. My blog, Dr. Margaret Rutherford, which I launched at age 58, has turned into another job. Posts vary from giving advice on depression to helping build skills in relationships to how to handle grief—basically the things that I do in my practice. Popular posts have included my work on a particular presentation of depression (Perfectly Hidden Depression), articles on sexual abuse, and my musings on marriage after 24 years.
My two criteria for continuing to write are: I am getting feedback that my posts are helpful, and I am having fun. Those remain my guideposts. Sometimes, when the cart gets before the horse, or I take on too much, I stop having fun. That’s when I have to breathe and sort out what’s causing the tension.
I’m still seeing between 30 and 35 patients a week, and have been since the beginning. But I also spend at least 20 hours a week writing. I have contributed my writing to two books, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor (A. Herzig), and The Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 2) (S. Fader) and have my own eBook, Seven Commandments of Good Therapy available for free download on my website.
I’m the mental health featured writer for Midlife Boulevard, and you can find my work on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50, Vibrant Nation, The Mighty, and Arkansas Women Bloggers. I’ve guest-posted on Psychology Today, and my opinions on depression and relationships can be found on Readers Digest, The Cheat Sheet, and Huffington Post Divorce.
I’m now researching and writing my own book on a syndrome I call “Perfectly Hidden Depression.” PHD is depression gone underground, so to speak. There are people who may or may not realize they’re depressed, but actively hide their sadness and loneliness by erecting a perfect façade of happiness or contentment. They’ve learned that it’s weak or not acceptable to express pain.
Why did you choose this next act?
I knew I wanted to do something creative. I had done a fair amount of acting and singing in the community in my 40s and even early 50s, and had really enjoyed it. So I tried to go back to theatre, but it didn’t work for me as well. Singing is something you have to work hard on every day, and I hadn’t had time to practice, or even sing, in years. When writing was suggested, I had to stop and think. “Me? A writer?” And then, I thought, “Well, if nobody reads it, I guess that will give me the information I need. And I’ll try something else.”
I love writing. I had always loved to write funny emails, or actual letters (If anyone reading remembers letters…). But other than that, after my dissertation, I had sworn I would never write another word. There was a steep learning curve in the first year, and my writing changed drastically. Now I’m trying to learn to switch from the kind of writing that fits a blog, and the kind that works in a book.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
As far as blogging is concerned, I actually worried about the ethicality of writing more than anything else. Therapists don’t talk about themselves with their patients, or only when it might be clinically helpful. Would me writing about my own life, or my experiences and thoughts as a therapist, somehow muddle or harm my work with patients? What if they read it? How would we talk about it?
I saw, however, that many mental health professionals were on social media like Facebook or Instagram. And since I live in a smaller town, it’s not at all difficult to find out things about me. I’m a very open, direct therapist—if it became a problem for someone, we would talk about it. It did one time. I had written a post about my empty nest feelings. One person said, “I know you’ve been upset, I feel funny talking about my problems.” I asked her to quit reading the blog, and she agreed. In many ways, my posts are a good litmus test to see if you’d enjoy working with me. So the benefits outweighed the concern.
I don’t think I prepared at all. I read a few blogs, but quickly realized I didn’t want to be overly influenced by the writing style of others. I dove in, head first!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband has been tremendously supportive. I don’t think I’ve done more than two loads of laundry in the past two years. My son only reads my blog occasionally, but that’s as it should be. He’s always asking about how “the writing” is going, however, and has cheered me on.
Some friends were a bit dubious, mainly wondering why I wanted to add to an already busy schedule. But they’re now very supportive.
What challenges have you encountered?
Time. There’s not enough of it. I’ve had to practice time management, even more than normal. And I know I have, at times, pushed myself way too hard. I’ve maintained a full patient load (that’s seeing around 35 patients a week) and blogged regularly. It’s been a challenge, to say the least. I’m now taking a day off every week, but that only began in May of this year.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I’ve not thought about giving up blogging. But it’s difficult occasionally not to compare my life with others. Keeping my eye, and my spirit, focused on my purpose, has been vital to maintaining my joy in the process. The hours it takes to write cut into my time with family and friends. But it’s worth it.
Every time I have thought about stopping, I’ll get an email, or a comment, thanking me for touching their life. That’s all the motivation I need.
The same goes, actually, for becoming a psychologist. It can take several years to get all the training, and I remember thinking about what my other friends were doing with their life – buying homes, having children. In midlife, the equivalent might be early retirement or traveling. It takes sacrificing some things to reach your own goal. At times, it can be lonely.
What are you learning about yourself through this process?
My friends tell me I’ve emotionally opened myself up more, and I think they’re right. I’ve risked stating my experience, my opinion, and my ideas over social media. That changes you.
I’ve learned that 5:00 in the morning is a great time for self-reflection.
And I’ve learned (again in some ways) that risking is worth it. You’re never too old to learn something new.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
This is a loaded question! Lol… I have regrets in my life, mostly about being divorced twice. But in some ways, those failures caused me to be even more driven to change in a positive direction. I had had enough of chaos. I know those painful experiences give me empathy for others.
As far as becoming a psychologist, there are programs out there that don’t include writing a dissertation. It’s called a Psy.D. I might have done that instead, since I wasn’t all that interested in clinical research.
My blogging venture? I would’ve reached out more, early on, to other bloggers. I didn’t realize how much support was available from blogging colleagues.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
When I hear anyone say that they’re too old to try something, I ask this question. “Do you believe you have a reasonable chance of living for another decade or two?” The answer is usually yes. “Then why wouldn’t you want to spend that time doing something that intrigues or challenges you, rather than not?”
Yes, it’s true that the dreams we might have had in our twenties cannot practically happen now. But you can get close to the feelings and experiences you once might have treasured. If you wanted to be a ballerina, take dance classes. If you wanted to travel the world, pick somewhere you’d like to go, and go. If you wanted to teach, get back in a classroom, or volunteer to help someone learn to read. You can honor that part of you that wants expression. As long as you have your health and your mind, it’s all possible.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?
If you want to become a therapist, realize there are many different ways of doing that. Some take longer than others. You need to look into social work, licensed professional counseling, as well as psychology.
As far as blogging is concerned, it’s important to know what you want to create, and stay true to your own writing voice. Comparison with others will kill the joy in it. I also think it’s very helpful, if not vital, to have someone who will be honest about your writing, and make editorial suggestions. That person can also act as a cheerleader!
What resources do you recommend?
This is a very practical article about becoming a psychologist.
Here’s a great article about the many sorts of helping professionals.
Here are some great blogging start-up suggestions.
The best help for bloggers who want to make money blogging? Susan Maccarelli’s website Beyond Your Blog.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Currently, I’m writing a book on a topic that has gone viral on my site, Perfectly Hidden Depression. I have a literary agent, and am learning all about proposals and trying to get the attention of an acquiring editor. I’ve worked on it for a year already, and there’s a steep learning curve!
As far as the next few years…
I’ve advised others – if it doesn’t exist, create it.
I imagine that if I’m disappointed in where my life is going, or frustrated about finding purpose, I will continue looking for opportunity to create what I need. It’s probable others would enjoy or need it as well!
Contact Dr. Margaret Rutherford at email@example.com