The Indelibles

September 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

It is inevitable. As a social worker, you will encounter those who I will call The Indelibles.

The people who will never leave you. The ones whose encounters imprint themselves on your brain like a pool of ink. The individuals whose stories will continue to walk along side you for the rest of your career. The visions of their faces and bodies will emerge in your head at the most inopportune (and opportune) times. The ones that will take hold of you and sometimes leave you at the precipice of your own limits and force you to face yourself, the world and your work in it.

I have a number of stories that I carry around with me. Even now, I still can’t shake them.

Especially one: a pair of blazing young eyes and lips made piercingly violet by whatever noxious substance had taken hold and whose unblinking stare held me down like black anvils on my shoulders. I still remember the utter silence of that stare. And the colour of her puffy jacket as she walked away from whatever help I could offer.

These people – these stories – often bring social workers to the grim reality of people’s lives and sometimes make us face our utter helplessness as professionals. The inability to do anything. It is a very uncomfortable stance to face, but a necessary one to truly understand the work and yourself.

I tell my students that there is a difference between being a “helper” and being a social worker. A “helper” is putting yourself in a very selfish position – of gleaning a sense of personal satisfaction from some small act of assistance that only addresses the problem in the moment. But this “help” is usually very fleeting and often doesn’t impact a client’s life in a meaningful way.

In my version of social work, things work very differently. A social worker often does not have moments of triumphs with clients in days or months or sometimes even years, but we continue to attempt to lay the difficult groundwork and foundation to help clients enact real and lasting change. The decisions and conversations we have are difficult and fraught – there are no easy battles, no settled conclusions, no turn-key solutions. We do the best with what is available in the system. We help to guide a client as best as we can without stripping them of their dignity, their autonomy, and their responsibility.

It is in this way that I think social work is a profession that teaches you who you truly are. We are in a profession that pushes our personal boundaries and prejudices and limits almost every day. We are asked to walk away from our comfort zones and enter another’s harrowing experience more often than most. I can’t comment on what and how you will feel when you first realize you are at that point in your work – it is different for everyone. I can only assure you that, at that moment and on that edge, you will have to make a choice about what kind of social worker (and maybe even, what kind of person) you want to be.

Stories, stories, stories

April 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

One of the best things about where I am at in my career right now, is that I get to take on students and teach them about how to be a social worker.

When I first started teaching, I had a lot of doubts about what exactly I could impart to them. I wasn’t at all sure how I would be able to teach what I know to a young and impressionable student. And even though I have a number of years of social work under my belt, like most clinicians I imagine, I still struggle with how to define our work and how to explain what it is that we do to others outside our field.

But the most common question I get asked by my students is: how or why did you get into social work?

A great question.

For the most part, I think that most individuals who go into social work are earnest and kind-hearted and carry a very well-defined and intense desire to make real change in the world. And indeed, being a social worker can provide some tangible opportunities to enact change and impact people’s lives profoundly.

(How much change and how often social workers can make things happen is something entirely different. Not to mention, what defines “successful” change. Which is a whole other topic for a later post. I’m sure other seasoned social workers will agree!)

And yes, those were some of the same reasons that I decided to go into social work. To impact people’s lives and make things better. But there was also something else that I felt was more profound and important for me and is really what inspires me in my work everyday.

Some students (and colleagues) can look in from the outside and just see a social worker, sitting in front of a client, chit-chatting away. The “social” in our social worker title. And yes, this is an important aspect of what we do and how we engage clients, create significant therapeutic alliances and elicit trust. But the “chit-chat” is really about a human being bearing witness to another human being. Listening and validating that person’s story. Being fully and wholly present with another.

It is this connection that I get to foster with people that is the real “specialness” of the work that we do. The privileged position to have the opportunity to stretch the tentacles of my humanity out to touch another’s humanity.

Even when clients are yelling and screaming at me, spewing anger and sometimes even real hate, I always try to remember that in the end, we are all human and really just want someone else to bear witness, to be with us in our experience. To show us that we are not alone – especially during the darkest times.

It is in our attempts, as social workers, to create this connection that is what defines what we do. I believe that our responsibility is to bring people’s wholeness (but not perfection) forward. In illuminating their stories, we help lead individuals down the path to their own solutions and remind them of their strengths. And this is often, as I explain to my students, how real and lasting change in people’s lives happens.

So despite all the challenges, the personal obstacles and the just plain hard work of the job, this is why I went into social work. Not the easiest of paths by any stretch of the imagination. But so very, very worth it.

Struggling with defeat – Part 2

March 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

You must forgive me. I’m writing this after one of the craziest and stressful periods of work I have had in a long time. For much of this evening, I thought to myself: I’m exhausted. The last thing I want to do is write about this stressful time. However, then I thought, but this might exactly be the time that I need to write about it.

So here I am. Barely awake. My feet and mind and heart aching.

What I really want to continue to say from my last post was that I had tried many things that I thought would make things better where I work. I had tried striking up a committee to look at increasing quality in workflow and care initiatives. I tried to drum up interest to have an ethics debrief session for staff to talk about traumatic incidents and compassion fatigue. I tried to be very respectful of people’s roles and attempted to cajole, kindly tease, and encourage, my colleagues into communicating with me about patients.

There were a handful of people who wanted things to change. (They had told me so – in confidence, of course.) And they showed up for the committee meetings when they could. But it all just fizzled. Despite my efforts at niceness, at respect, at encouragement – it all fell apart.

It is very frustrating to feel like the only one who is trying to drive change. It is very difficult to maintain an optimistic perspective when everyone is just waiting you out. I felt at times that they were watching me, waiting to see how long it would take me to just give up. And then they could feel free to go back to their regularly scheduled, apathetic activities.

Unfortunately for them, I took longer than usual. Almost a year. Looking back, I’m surprised that I was able to keep up the blind ridiculousness for that long.

And that was when I found myself at that window. Staring at the tiles on the floor, seeing nothing.

Defeat does not come easy to me. I imagine, it doesn’t come easy to anyone. But I was surrounded by colleagues who had been beaten down by defeat and bullying over years and years and years. And finally, I was one of them.

It still is hard for me to even look at that last sentence.

My struggle with defeat is personal. And it resides completely around the concept of acceptance. It took me a very long time to accept that the things I wanted to change are so much bigger than and so very beyond just me. That looking back now, I realize that my efforts were doomed to fail because I was fighting an “enemy” whose sickness permeated all the veins in its very being. To extract the sickness needed more than just my little committees and small kindnesses.

My therapist told me that at times like these, there are only two choices: accept that things will not change and choose to work within that environment or make a plan to leave.

This sounds harsh, but I realize now that it is absolutely right.

Respect is something that I’ve learned I cannot work without. It permeates and informs my social work practice every single moment of the day. Slowly and painfully, I’ve realized that to continually feed a machine that takes my respect and spits it out on a daily basis is untenable and damaging to me.

So I’ve decided to make a plan. This has not been an easy decision. But a necessary one for my own emotional safety and wellbeing.

But until then, the struggle continues.

Struggling with defeat – Part 1

February 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

The struggle has been long and it has been tiring.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I had finally reached the edge of it all. I had taken the elevator to almost the top of the tallest tower in the hospital. As I exited the elevator bay, there was a huge window, which allowed for a wide view of the city. On a clear day, you can see all the way down to the lake – even sometimes see the white crests of the waves as they rush into the city shore. This window was often where I would come when I was having a particularly hectic and myopic day. A glimpse of the outside world was what I needed to feel calm – to return a sense of perspective to me and my work.

But that day, I wasn’t there to look out the window. Instead, I slumped onto the wooden bench, hunched over with my head practically between my knees. My shoulders were rounded over and if you were a person coming upon me from the hallway, you would’ve thought that I was inspecting the tiny flecks of colour embedded in the tiles on the floor, very, very intensely. But to be honest, I wasn’t seeing anything at all.

You see, that was the day I realized that I had lost. That I was done.

Many months before, a new job had landed me in a new program and with a new team. I was both excited and trepidatious when I started. After being in precarious employment positions for a number of years, the prospect of having a stable and secure job was a relief. Social work positions in hospital settings are difficult to come by and this was one where I had just hung on and hung on and finally had won the waiting game. So I was very grateful.

Starting a new job is already a difficult thing to do – getting used to new procedures, a brand new environment, a different patient population, and not to mention, trying to remember everyone’s names. And in the past, I had been pretty fortunate to have worked on units and teams who welcomed me with open arms and did what they could to orient and support me through the transition.

But this was not the case with this unit.

When I arrived, I was almost completely and utterly ignored my first day. And in the weeks that followed, things only got worse.

Staff thought my questions about patients were intrusive. They didn’t know why I wanted or needed to know or worse, some nurses thought that I was checking up on them or into their nursing practice. One of the staff physicians thought I was accusing him and his group of residents when I was trying to locate a wayward patient chart. The desk clerk mistakenly thought I had gone over her head to the manager about an incident with a patient and definitely let me know her displeasure about it and threw personal insults at me. And the worst moment? When my manager thought he was doing me a favour by pulling me aside and telling me – almost conspiratorially and in the guise of “protecting” me – that he had received comments from staff saying that they thought I was a bully.

I was flabbergasted. Completely without words.

For a while after, I have to admit they almost had me. After going through that rough start, I had retreated into myself a little bit to regroup. They had almost succeeded in indoctrinating me into their fear-based culture. And they were so good at it that it took me a long while to figure out what was going on.

But when I did finally figure it out, I – being the kind of person glutton for punishment – was hopeful for change. I guess this is what makes me the social worker that I am. I still possess a tiny spark of naivete that can get me into trouble.

So, I embarked on a mission. A mission to change the culture, to cultivate trust and empathy, to change how staff viewed social work, to open up communication and foster team work, and make staff practices and processes transparent. And this was all going to be for the benefit for the most important people of all – our patients!

*Sigh* Such optimism. Such hope. Such blind faith. And needless to say, things didn’t exactly go as I had planned….

Keep, keep on fighting…

January 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Maybe I’ve been doing this too long, and perhaps I haven’t yet tired of hearing my own voice, but being a strong and vocal advocate comes naturally to me. I’m shocked when I get reminded that being an advocate is a skill, not something that most individuals (and even some social workers) are innately able to do.

I guess I’ve always been a bit of a scrapper since I was a kid. I wasn’t ever afraid to go my own way or to do something that went against the grain. I was the outsider – the nerdy kid who always did well in school but didn’t have the right trendy clothes and brought weird lunches to school. I never got asked to the “cool kid” parties. It would be accurate to say that I was in elementary school “purgatory” but I certainly wasn’t the lowest on the totem pole.

But even at that young age, I had a healthy sense of justice. I always defended the kids that were picked on; the ones who fell even further down the elementary school pecking line.  I think I also remember one year when I imposed a one-person protest and campaign against the whole damn elementary school social order – I just chose not to be around the cool kids and hung out mostly with the misfits, the ones who just didn’t “fit in”.  That caused such a ruckus. The cool kids were so mad at me. (I had no idea why at the time.)

So when a new colleague of mine said to me the other day: “I didn’t know that I was allowed to fight.” I was floored. I didn’t understand. I stood there dumbfounded, unable to speak.

What he meant was, that he didn’t know that he could speak up for himself. Or that he could use his knowledge and skills to help patients get what they needed. He didn’t know that he could advocate – fight for something better.

It is in our very nature as social workers to advocate and fight for something better. Whether it is for our patients or for the betterment of society in general. Wherever we are, we are the ones who have the skills and capacity to facilitate change. However small or large, we can make a difference at all levels.

The sad thing is that we often forget this. The pressures and expectations of bringing about almost impossible outcomes (the so-called “magic” of our profession) for patients – amidst an environment of almost zero resource and usually entirely on our own – can grind you down to a place where you can’t even remember why you even started this journey.

Sometimes, I find that in advocating so hard for our patients, we are often in danger of fighting the humanity of ourselves. In that, we are always at risk of disappearing into our role and not paying attention to our needs as human beings.  We forget that, as social workers in the face of such enormous responsibility, we are like patients too. That sometimes we need help, support, and someone to fight for us.

Perhaps this was where my colleague was at. Perhaps he had forgotten. And needed to be taken by the hand and reminded again.




Gratitude and another beginning

January 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

It’s been a long while since I’ve written here. Years really.

The decision to begin again has not been an easy one. The long-ago event that precipitated and ceased my blog posts was painful and scary and devastating. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with it and to decide what to do – if anything at all.

When I said social work can be scary – I wasn’t kidding. You need to be a special kind of person to be one. A tough and courageous person. It is not for the feint of heart.

The responsibility can be awesome but it also can be cruel. I’ve learned hard lessons in the last couple of years and I’ve needed the time to recover.

But one of the main reasons I decided to resurrect this blog was because despite its dormancy, this blog was getting read. Even though I hadn’t posted in over two years. Not a ton of people were dropping by but enough. And the kind comments that were left for me were wonderful and inspiring.

These individuals reminded me that I still had something to contribute, something to say.

Something worth writing and reading about. 

So thank you to those who gave me the courage to begin writing here again. You have given me back more than you know.

And now, here’s to new and inspired beginnings…..


Curiosity + Kindness = Compassion

January 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve always thought that social workers often do very simple work in complicated situations.  When I say “simple”, I certainly don’t mean “easy” or “amateur” or “brainless”, but rather our work is lucid and transparent – often very straightforward.

In the maelstrom of a busy hospital unit, in a setting where science and deductive reasoning take prescience and where concrete answers are sought for every situation, the perceived “messiness” of emotions and psychosocial situations are often deemed as untenable mazes with no solution.  There is no pill to pop to take someone’s tearful anger away or an injection to eradicate a depressive fog or a course of treatment to mold a non-compliant patient into a model one.

Undoubtedly, these are complicated situations.  Some are so much so that I often wonder if I’m within the scenes of a movie or the pages of a novel, rather than a real life circumstance.

But this is where social workers dwell.  In what is perceived to be a situation of uncertainty and precariousness.

So how do I navigate these situations?  Simply.  With a genuine curiosity and a gentle kindness.  These two things are the greatest of my tools.  Compassion is what often unravels the maze that people find themselves in and in most cases, even lights the way to the solutions of their own problems.

And this often doesn’t take long.  Sometimes within minutes, there arises a solution. Or at the very least, the realization that perhaps their situations could be different, maybe even better.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers