From cooking to counseling

By Rebecca Koch

In a switch from career to calling, R. Paul Johnson is increasing the quality of life for both his clients and himself.

Living in a flat in Paris and baking croissants in the city’s finest restaurants may sound glamorous, but for R. Paul Johnson, whose time in Europe trickled into an expansive 20-year career in the restaurant industry, it led to burnt out.

pauljohn“I got tired of the lifestyle,” Johnson says. “I eventually became managing director for a restaurant group and had about 800 employees under my purview. It’s really difficult work.”

The burn out led Johnson to search for more fulfilling work. He was taking a walk on his day off when he wandered onto the campus of a community college. It was the first day of the semester, and the campus was buzzing with students. He explored further and found himself in a Psych 101 class.

“I was amazed by the discussion and lecture from a great professor, and I thought OK, this is cool. So I eventually enrolled in the class,” Johnson says. “It was difficult—I was working 60 hours a week on top of the class, but I did it. I thought well, if I ever get a chance to go back, this is what I’m interested in learning more about.”

It might seem like a stark transition—working in a restaurant to studying psychology. But the parallel is very much there: The industry has the highest correlation with mental health issues. The high-pressure environment and long hours make for a taxing culture. It’s something Johnson can now reflect on more holistically. “I began to be aware of things and really see the behavioral issues that go on and the erratic emotions people have,” he says.

He went back to school full-time, graduating with his bachelor’s in psychology in 2012. This would proliferate into a Master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University in 2013, and his current tenure as a Clinical Psychology doctoral student.

As he started his Ph.D., Johnson also worked at a facility that served people with schizophrenia. It informed his dissertation—a body of research that explores the lived experiences of those whose loved ones have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Johnson didn’t believe in the siloed approach that clinicians often took when it came to recommending treatment for those who are chronically mentally ill. “I was interested in understanding why some clinicians feel like that—because that’s not the case at all. We know the research. And that’s where my work as a counselor came in,” he says.

Today Johnson works at a large hospice organization—a place where he believes the care team functions as a united front. Johnson frequently works with doctors, nurses, and social workers to support both patients and their loved ones in the bereavement department.

“For those with anticipatory grief, we need to allow ourselves to live for today, and remember that they’re still here. There is so much out of our control, and in our human effort to control everything, we miss out on a lot.”

His works applies personally, too. It’s something he saw with his own mom.

“My mom passed—she had been sick for a long time. What I tried to do for her was just offer the best quality of life for as long as she was here. It involved saying the things I thought I needed to say, encouraging other family members to do so as well, and just being open and honest about it. So often we can get caught up in the fear of death that we forget to live our life.”

Creating the best “quality of life” is something that Johnson works on daily. It was the impetus for his move out of the restaurant industry, and it’s what drives most of his work with clients today.

“I think to be happy you need to feel like you’re really making a difference in your community—and there is a lot of work that needs to be done around helping each other out,” Johnson says. “I always felt like there had to be an opportunity for me to help people in a more impactful way. For me, that’s helping people improve their quality of life through all stages.”

Johnson believes the key to this starts with what that means to you—the answer is not universal. For him, it means freedom to travel, to sit and be somewhere, to have friends and family close, and to be happy in his career. At this stage of his life, he feels good about what he’s doing. He has options—something he lacked for so many years with such a grueling schedule—and it’s a luxury he appreciates.

“I have a wide-open future. I don’t really know where I’ll be next, but the fact that I have options is a good thing.”

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