The Road Less Traveled: The Path from Artistry to Therapy
It seems unlikely that someone who got her undergraduate degree in fine arts would end up becoming a psychologist, but for Cheryl Wilczak, it was a natural progression.
Cheryl earned her undergraduate degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in 1980 and worked as a creative director in the commercial field for many years. She was working as a computer graphics artist at the time she decided she wanted a career helping people. Acting on impulse, she applied to New York University’s art therapy program and was accepted. “It was just one of those fluky things that I did,” she says.
After earning her graduate degree, Cheryl worked with pediatric cancer patients at Mount Sinai Hospital. “An art therapist works with people to express difficult feelings on a non-verbal level,” she explains. “The idea is when you’re facing difficult circumstances, sometimes creating an image is easier than trying to talk about it. Art therapists help patients express their feelings through all kinds of art, from painting to sculpture.”
Going All the Way
After a few years, Cheryl decided to go all the way with her psychology career and get her doctorate. She applied to two universities, one of which was Antioch University New England. “I liked Antioch University New England because I needed to work part-time, and the school’s schedule was flexible,” she says. “I’d already been in my career field for a while, and I wanted to live my life and get my degree at the same time.” Consequently, Cheryl was a full-time doctoral student and a working art therapist throughout her doctoral-degree studies at Antioch. She earned her PsyD degree in 2005.
As part of her studies, Cheryl was trained in individual therapy, couples therapy, and family therapy, and much of her internship and post-doctoral work was with couples and families.
“I really believe that working with the family system or with significant others has a better effect than working with individuals, so I have a tendency to bring other people in besides the individual who comes in to help,” she says. While earning her degree, Wilczak worked, among other places, in a child guidance clinic and at the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, helping young adults with substance abuse issues.
Field Work Leads to Own Practice
The most challenging part of the Antioch program for Cheryl was doing the fieldwork, where she would work for several months at one clinic and then switch to another clinic; sometimes she’d be working with adults, other times with children, and still other times with families. “You’re really switching gears to do these different things, and it was very challenging,” she says.
In 2007, Cheryl founded Harbor Bridge Emotional Health, LLC, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her husband helped her find an office space and she built a website and sent letters to local general practitioners, churches, and other community-oriented sites. “The business was an immediate success!” claims Cheryl “partly because Greenwich, Connecticut is one of the centers of the Wall Street financial crisis. People just started coming in,” she says. She planned to accept just ten people weekly, but by 2009 she was seeing forty-seven people per week.
Cheryl now has an assistant who handles office management and insurance claims, and she’s in the process of hiring a second psychologist. For Cheryl, the progression from artist to therapist was natural — and positive. “The best thing is being able to see the difference you can make in the lives of people,” she says. “When people come in, they’re having problems and over time you see their lives becoming better. That’s extremely rewarding.”