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Trust me.

March 11, 2015 2 comments

March is Social Work Month. Since March 1st, my supervisor regularly engages my department in acknowledging our accomplishments and the achievements of social workers at large. I like that she does this for us. I even jumped in on the Social Work Month planning committee in February. But since March came, I couldn’t find any deep thoughts or feelings about Social Work Month. Look, I’m proud to be a social worker and I want to contribute to the advancement of my profession, but I feel like I’m too engulfed by the hurricane that is social to reflect on what this month represents for social workers and others looking in.

Today, however, an interaction with client left me wondering what it is about me that lets me do so well as a social worker. I don’t think it’s my work ethic or critical thinking skills. I think it’s just because people trust me. They trust me quickly. I don’t know why. I can’t say it’s something I say or do. Maybe it’s because I look like a kid and my voice is so child-like. I just don’t know what it is, but I have it. So often, I am grateful for this quality, this thing that lets people feel like it’s OK to let me in their world. It’s humbling and awe-inspiring. It makes me feel connected. Other times, though, it terrifies me. When someone is ready to include me in their life without question, there are moments when it feels too heavy. I’m not ready to be important to someone. I can feel the space around me close in and all I want is to be invisible and unimportant. I want to be forgettable. I’m not prepared to be needed.

When I step back, I think this is a pretty self-centered reaction. My clients existed long before me and will keep going well after I exit their lives. All that is happening is that a relationship is growing. I just need to keep an open heart and allow that bond to develop. I can do my best to make sure we don’t cross lines and hurt each other, but as long as I remain genuine and direct, we can learn from any missteps.

There is a part of me that wants to be reliable at all costs. If I mess up, I want to show that I care about finding a resolution. Maybe that’s what people see. I guess I don’t need to know what exactly makes people trust me; I just need to protect that little pocket where people feel safe to be vulnerable.

I think I can do that. And if I find that I can’t, I will revert to my back-up career as kitten organizer.

Ready to fight.

I was at work and I could feel my insides eating themselves. Stress left me stiff and bent.  After work, I was supposed to talk with a young man who wants to be a social worker and offer some advice. Then I was supposed to go to my jiu jitsu practice, prepared to train. How was I supposed to help someone? And how was I to fight? Stiff shells don’t have much to offer.

As I sat down and heard this young man’s story and shared my social work path, I told him, “I like the fight.” I could feel the heat in me, the static electricity that builds before I get on the mat. I was a warrior again. I went to practice, ready to fight.

As I worked on the mat, I realized I wasn’t fighting. I was helping. I was supporting. I was rooting for the other person’s success. I was a social worker again.

I will go to work tomorrow, ready to fight.

Talk about it.

February 3, 2014 1 comment
These are some questions I should ask myself as a clinician to help me talk about suicide.

These are some questions I should ask myself as a clinician to help me talk about suicide.

Mental health plays a massive part in both my personal and professional life. I’ve written a lot here about my mother’s struggle with borderline personality disorder, depression, and her eventual suicide.  I’ve done my best to share my own issues with anxiety, loss, and trauma. As a social worker, I am neck-deep in depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse, and a variety of other emotional and behavioral issues. My work in mental health has taught me how profoundly alone people feel in their struggles. By providing psycho-education for my clients, I have the chance to normalize their experiences with pain, hopeless and isolation. I work with them so they can feel empowered to take charge of their well-being. We also try to come up with ways for them to share what they’ve learned with others. So often, the act of giving back serves as a powerful factor in a person’s coping and healing.

This Wednesday, I have a chance to do some giving back of my own. My friend, Brandi, is organizing a social media campaign to connect all of us out there who have been impacted by depression . The hope is to alleviate the taboo and stigma around mental illness. Brandi’s campaign, #DayOfLight, will take place this Wednesday, February 5th. I will support Brandi by sharing my professional knowledge on how individuals can seek mental health treatment, advocate for themselves, and participate in peer support. I’m so excited to be a part of this campaign because I’m tired of us treating our mental health and emotional struggles like inconveniences that should be kept secret. I don’t want to perpetuate cycles of shame and self-hate. So I’m going to be a part of the conversation.

If you want to learn more about the #DayOfLight, go here.

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Compassion vs. empathy.

February 23, 2013 1 comment

For the last several weekends, I’ve been reading up on trauma-informed practice so I can be a better social worker. This studying also gives me time to reflect on my practice in a way that I just can’t during the work week. Direct social work practice is by far the most challenging work I’ve ever done, and I’m often knocked out by the emotional and mental strength I need when facing certain situations and conversations. While reading Creating Sanctuary by Sandra Bloom (1997), I became fixated on four sentences :

“Compassion, at least, allows a little distance from the pain. Empathy is a far more dangerous personal experience. Empathy requires that we vicariously experience the trauma that our patients have survived. Empathy is not conscious or willed–it just happens.” (p. 111).

It’s making me think of how I try to connect with my clients and the effort I exert in attempting to understand their perspective and experiences. I think where I’m stuck is figuring out what happens with all the information after the session is over, after the treatment plan is created, the intervention is implemented, the work is contracted. What do I do with each person’s story? I don’t know quite where to go with that yet, but the idea of compassion verses empathy is a good place to start.

This is for real.

February 7, 2013 1 comment

My job is the most difficult thing I’ve ever loved. There are many aspects of social work which challenge me, but lately the circumstances at work are forcing me to really take a look at myself. In working so closely with individuals coping with complex mental health issues, physical health problems, and extreme financial hardship, I often feel overwhelmed as I try to prioritize each person’s need considering their level of functioning. The more I get to know my clients, the more the pieces of their history help me to work on the puzzle that is their present. And it’s so hard. After all, these are actual, real people. They are not case studies over which I can hypothesize. Although I work my clients live, their world doesn’t freeze when I leave at the end of my work day; their lives were happening long before I got there.

So my challenge is managing the weight of my clients’ reality. The thing is, to look at my clients as individuals compels me to face all the aspects of myself with which I struggle. There is no place in my work for passive communication or laziness. I have to be honest and direct, even if it invokes confrontation. I have trust my instincts and my own knowledge. And I can’t put things off until the next day just because the task at hand feels uncomfortable. Basically, I have to be more responsible and more mature than I even feel capable of.

Every time I make a mistake, I initially feel my stomach drop and a brief sense of panic about my next step. But I can’t avoid my mistakes. That would mean I choose to neglect the men and women who come into my office, and that’s not the sort of person I want to be. As I work to be a better social worker, I think it’s pushing me to be a better person.

Categories: social work Tags: , ,

Getting ready.

May 12, 2012 2 comments

On Monday, May 14, I will join my cohort in our commencement ceremony as we graduate from our Master’s of Social Work program. For the last six weeks, I’ve hardly been able to absorb what this means for me. Actually, it’s part of the reason that I haven’t been writing. So much has been going on in my little skull that I can’t seem to pull one thought away from another.

While I’m primarily ecstatic to finish my degree, a large part of me is apprehensive about what comes next. I have to pass an exam to become a licensed social worker. I need to find a new apartment. I’m going to Cuba for the month of June and have about two and half weeks to get ready. Oh, and I also need to find a job.

Looking for work is the part of graduating that makes me the most anxious. Several of my classmates have found work and others are going on interviews left and right. Although this should encourage me since my classmates’ opportunities indicate that students coming from our program are appealing to employers, I do get taken over by unproductive thoughts that make me doubt my competence as a social worker. Last night, however, I had one small interaction that made me feel like things could be OK.

Last night, my school had an alumni event. I went with some friends, hoping to make some professional connections and take advantage of one of our last opportunities to get free food. About an hour or so into the event, I saw my supervisor from my internship last year. We were equally excited to see each other, as we developed both really wonderful working and personal relationships with each other last year. For the first time, I got to meet her husband. Like my supervisor, he was warm, caring, and unabashedly enthusiastic about learning. He asked me some questions about my experience at Penn, and my former supervisor chimed in that she thought I was a very creative student. After talking some more,  her husband remarked that I reminded him of his wife when she first graduated. This meant the world to me.

My former supervisor is my #1 social work hero. At all times, she fiercely advocates for her clients’ best interest. After 30 years in the field, she remains intensely passionate about her profession and stands committed to furthering her education. She loves solving the seemingly impossible cases. Whenever she receives praise for her hard work, she turns bashful and modest. She’s strong in her beliefs, but loves a learning opportunity, even if it means finding she was wrong. She’s only about 5 feet tall, but man, is she a pistol.

So last night, when she said she thought I was creative and her husband saw something in me that reminded him of his wife, I couldn’t help but feel a lift in confidence. I know I have much more to learn. Yet my former supervisor’s husband made me a little stunned (in a good way) when he said, “You know, it won’t be long before you’ll become someone’s mentor.” I know that’s still a long time coming, but I can’t wait for the process.

Categories: social work Tags: , ,

I admire you.

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Currently, I am in my last semester of social work school. With the end of this period in my academic and professional life approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of social worker I want to be. I know I want to be a leader in my field. But what does a leader look like?

When I think of the leaders I truly admire, they are not those with the most charisma and a bag full of slogans at hand. Rather, they are individuals who work quietly and thoughtfully, determining what is best for those they lead in the big picture sense. Real leaders take risks. They hold their ground when the existing power structures threaten their ideals and try to convince the rest of the world that their actions are wrong. Real leaders uphold standards and set precedents. They do not want praise or recognition; they simply want effective, positive change.

I also think leadership must be lonely. To assert yourself against a dominant belief, institution, or system means leaving behind the security that comes with aligning yourself with the majority. When you become the face of a cause or the voice for a group of people, you also become the primary target. Those who initially offer support may feel their courage waning as the opposition grow hostile. Subsequently, they walk away to protect themselves, leaving the leader once again to stand alone.

Right now, I am sitting in the graduate student lounge at my school, surrounded by a few of my classmates who are preparing to take the social work licensing exam. As I look at them and reflect on the beliefs they’ve voiced, the actions they’ve taken, and the work they will do in the future, I feel like I am looking at the quiet kind of leaders I’ve always respected. I am grateful to have these role models in my life and I am excited to see what we’ll do next.