The Dregs

This week I had my first fully-booked day as a counsellor. My former-colleagues standard day was six, sometimes seven appointments, but I made the brave decision to set my own availability and max it out at five (in accordance with recommendations I once read for psychologists). I scheduled half hour breaks between appointments, and an additional hour for lunch to give me time to process, write notes, do research, and have adequate time to prepare for each appointment. And even amidst all the extra time I allowed myself, I found it utterly exhausting.

The first appointment of the day went really well. I mean, I was sleepy and not my sharpest, but I did great work being in a deep space with my clients, holding them as they confronted scary truths and recognised harm in their lives. If I started the day at 100% energy/compassion/patience, I probably went down to 70% over that hour.

During my half hour break to write notes/prepare for the next appointment, I probably started it at 80%. It was another deep and engaging session where I got right into the guts of some long-held beliefs and helped a person reflect on and relate differently to them. I probably went down to 20% at the end of the session.

I was pretty anti-social during my time for lunch. I couldn’t even really bring myself to talk to Beth as we sat at the table together, so desperate was I to recover some energy for myself and my next clients. Some food and Animal Crossing later, I went back in with about 60% energy for my next client.

It kept going down until I finished with about 10% at the end of the day. And when it came to exercise, and cooking dinner, and spending time with Beth, I felt pretty close to tapped out. I was so cranky and impatient and ungenerous – it was so unfair that Beth got the dregs of my strength, and I had even less than that. And when some of my friends messaged me about their struggles, I really had to consciously stop myself from snapping at them. I had the thought “I’m giving you free counselling right now”, and it was an unpleasant and nasty thought to have, and I wish that I hadn’t been so worn down when they spoke with me. It turns out I am not the boundless well of compassion I like to think I am, and I need to prioritise my own self-care more often if I want to be my best self with loved ones.

Just thoughts.

Therapeutic Use of F-bombs

CW: Abuse.

I said to a client today “Your friend can fuck off.”

Most of the time when I counsel someone I have a superb filter that catches any judgements before they reach my mouth. I work really hard not to give advice, or to share my personal opinion, but to be with people where they’re at and love them in their entirety. To share with them about theories or techniques that I think might help them, or to say things that I think they need to hear.

And sometimes I think what they need to hear is “That’s fucked up. Your situation is not normal, and people should not be treating you like that.”

I know more than most how helpful it can be to keep a safe, professional distance. Most clients don’t want to worry about what their counsellor is thinking or experiencing while they’re struggling with their own issues. But sometimes it can be terribly important, and tremendously therapeutic, to have a genuine, human response.

In the case of my client this morning, she was in the process of escaping an abusive relationship of 13 years, and she had just told me about a friend who she was on the fence about. Her friend had been saying that it was her fault the relationship was breaking down, because she was too aggressive, and that no man (or job) would accept her until she fixed her aggression issues. And that was so unfair on so many levels I would not tolerate it.

Sometimes when a client says “These are the ways they hurt me”, what they need to hear is “That’s so fucked.” Because sometimes playing it cool and keeping my reactions carefully filtered does the person a disservice. Some situations warrant outrage, and sometimes those clients have no one in their life to be furious on their behalf. Through isolation or toxicity, they have had no one to say “What the fuck? Why are they treating you like that? That’s messed up!”

And hearing someone say that (often for the first time in their lives), there is a moment of confusion and they begin to consider… “Is this actually an abnormal situation? Am I actually in an unhealthy relationship?” And from that thought, many new thoughts are possible.

Therapeutic use of self is a tricky beast, and I don’t always get it right. But I took a shot this morning, and I think it was exactly what my client needed to realise that their “friend” was victim-blaming at a moment of intense vulnerability. Where she goes from here is up to her, but… I hope she knows she’s worth more than what her friend is offering.

The Future That Might Be

I have this vision of me in a small room. During the day, sunlight floods through the windows, and somehow it makes the room feel lighter, too. It’s sunset now though, and the room is bathed in a warm glow as I sit at my desk writing notes from the day’s clients.

All of them have come to me in distress, and while they are with me they put down their burdens and know peace for a time. And they carry some of that peace away with them. But more than that, they leave with knowledge, too. And amidst the knowledge, the seeds of self-love are nourished as they do their best to make brave choices.

I wear the black pants and business shirts of those managers who have gone before me. Those who failed me as role models. I see in my mind’s eye the men they were, and how I am already more than them. How I refuse to stop growing, and how I will continue to surpass them in every way that matters to me.

I take a sip of water and lean back in my chair, appreciating the flowers that fill the space with a gentle fragrance. My eyes wander over the bookshelves, laden with useful resources which I lend to people. My eyes catch on the couches, a horrible bright orange that are enormously comfortable despite their bold colouration. My heart sighs happily, and in that sigh it says “Thank goodness we made it. We made it, we made it, we made it.”

And so we will.

Work stuff

Having spent two weeks off work, I’ve spent about half my waking hours thinking about work. I can categorise these thoughts into three broad types:

  1. I wonder whether anyone will want me/I’m so broken I’ll fail at anything I try. Maybe I shouldn’t leave my current job and just put up with it – it’s not great, but it’s mostly safe and familiar.
  2. I don’t want to risk rejection and hard work. I’ll just get an easy job in retail or a library.
  3. I’m really fucking good at counselling. Sure wish there was a convenient way for others to see it too, and then hire me in conditions that suit me.

 

These three categories also happen to be listed in order of how frequently I think them. I’d say the ratio is about 75:20:5.

Professionalism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes someone a professional.

According to its word origin, it was about a religious calling, and then about skilled tradespeople who held expert knowledge. I think somewhere along the line (or perhaps humans have always been like this) it became a source of division: “you have a problem, I have the knowledge and skill to fix it and you do not, therefore I have power over you”. Not “you need me, I can help you”, but “you need me, what are you going to give me in exchange for my help?”

I’ve seen time and time again how some individuals use this to distance themselves from other human beings. They are informed by the culture around them, or otherwise come to the belief independently that they are superior to others by virtue of what they know or can do. There is a distance, cold and clinical, to reinforce the idea that “I am not like you: I am better.”

On the one hand, I think this can be appropriate. The respect and veneration we show our leaders (say, the Dalai Lama, or Yip Man) is considered culturally acceptable. We treat those higher in the social hierarchy differently than we do our peers. And yet, they’re just people too. They eat and sleep and poop. They watch trash TV and get into misunderstandings with their loved ones. They have sex and get snuffly noses and swear when they stub their toes. They are just as human as the rest of us, and yet they have to wear this mantle of professionalism that makes them seem less human.

Or do they?

One of my favourite employers many years ago would often express her ignorance and uncertainty, even in the face of a crisis. This terrified me at the time, but looking back I have a deep appreciation for her authenticity. Rather than feigning competence, she had the courage to say “I don’t know how we’re going to work through this, but we’ll find a way together.”

I think of my some of the managers I know currently who seem terrified of human connection. They don’t talk about their health, their families, their fears, their hobbies, or passions, because (I think) it would humanise them to their subordinates. I think they hold the subconscious view that if they are seen as relatable, then it undermines the authority they have (and consequently the justifying difference in power, wealth and status).

For a while there, I really did come to believe that if I were to ever become truly “professional” I would have to stop being so human. I would have to learn to put some clinical distance between myself and those I’m supporting, so they could see me as a role, not a person. I figured this was just part of “growing up”, and that if I even wanted to advance my career like all those other “professionals” I’d better learn to be more like them.

Fortunately I have come to realise that this is bullshit. As I move through the world, most of my favourite “professionals” are deeply human. They are open about their lives, their fears, their passions, their knowledge and their ignorance. They Dare Greatly, as Brene Brown might say, and they are not afraid to connect from one human being to another. I strongly believe that we’re all muddling our way through life, just doing our best to be happy, and that we’re all worthy of love and respect.

And yet I have the simultaneous belief that some people have done things that make them worthier of my respect than others. It’s a bit like Orwell’s quote “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I haven’t quite resolved this cognitive dissonance where I hold the simultaneous beliefs that all people are on the same level, but some people really are more worthy of respect and veneration.

The Employee of the Year Who Nearly Became a Librarian

I started writing a long blog post about my first year of working in mental health, my first “real job” as a social worker, and I decided to scrap it all. Why? Because it was full of old hurts and old pain, bitterness that I’m having trouble letting go of. Suffice it to say, I didn’t start the year well. The first team I joined didn’t seem suited to me – I barely got any support, I was told that I wasn’t good at working with people, and there was nothing I could do about it – it was just “something about me”. When my case load had been reduced so much that I was barely working with any clients, management shifted me to another team. After two days there, management was advised that I wasn’t suited for the new team either. I was told that I was going to fail my three-month probation and was offered another job in a residential site, and after long consideration, I took the offer to resign instead.

 

It was an impressionable time in my life. I’d worked so hard to get my first job as a social worker, only to discover that I didn’t have enough street smarts and that I couldn’t work with people (either staff or clients). My confidence and self esteem were at rock bottom, and I genuinely believed in my heart of hearts that I was not suited to social work. I resigned myself to studying librarianship and avoiding people for the rest of my life.

 

As fate would have it, I ran into a manager the week after while I was doing some paperwork at head office. He said that a team member needed sudden leave and that I could fill in for her for two months if I wanted it. Between the shame of seeing all my former colleagues again after I’d said goodbye and my imminent impecuniosity, I took the job.

 

The new team was different in all the ways I needed. I liked all of my colleagues, and they all seemed to like me. My team leader put a heavy emphasis on supportive supervision, making time to check in with me every day, and she put my wellbeing as the highest priority. I got on well with the consumers I was supporting and found I could really sink my teeth into the work, focussing on their mental health recovery rather than just surviving day-to-day. I made a lot of friends at the office and started teaching tai chi as one of the daily mindfulness sessions the organisation held. Every week people would be kind to me, they would tell me they appreciated me and that I was doing a good job.

 

My colleague (whom I was replacing) elected to retire, and I was joyfully accepted as a permanent member of the team. In addition to this, I started working an extra day per week with another team, although I found this difficult and after a few months withdrew from this position. As fate would have it, I was offered a position to join a new project lead by two international mental health wizards, even though I didn’t apply for the job. I was told by several staff members that I was perfect for the team, and after they interviewed me they asked me to join them anyway because they believed that I had something special to contribute.

 

Along the way I won an award for encouraging new employees, a framed certificate and a cash prize. A few months later, to my great surprise, I was selected as the Employee of the Year over 15 other people, some of which were managers, and certainly all of which who had worked with the organisation for longer than me. Even now, four days later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened. All of this has been very confusing to me, and I’m struggling to accept the narrative that maybe I’m not bad at working with people, that maybe I’m not a bad social worker. This final award, which has never been given to a staff member on the ground level before, is a compelling piece of evidence for an alternate narrative to the one I have been in for so long. So here is my tentative exploration into widening it.

 

Reasons I’m a good social worker:

  • I excelled at university.
  • Robyn, my mentor, said she’d draw on my story to inspire her for many years to come.
  • My supervisors on placement said they were proud of me and that I’d make an excellent counsellor.
  • I am regularly told by colleagues within and without of my team that they appreciate me.
  • I was headhunted to be part of this new exciting project because someone saw something more valuable in me than in the people who had applied for the job.
  • I am smart. I am thoughtful. I am curious. I constantly want to learn and improve my knowledge and practice, and I am always willing to grow. I have been told on several occasions that these traits are well-suited to social work, and that my colleagues and friends are glad I’ve chosen to spend my time and energy in this field.
  • I am humble, respectful and do not have a big ego. I always seek to learn from others, and I am largely open to admitting my mistakes so that I can learn from them. I’ve been told that people feel the difference.
  • I am friendly. I am kind. I see the best in people, and practice from a place of unconditional positive regard. I have been told on numerous occasions that I’m “so natural” when meeting new people and helping them feel comfortable.
  • I am genuine. I am real. I do not put much emphasis on masks and wearing different hats and trying to control others through my assumed power as a professional.
  • I have been told by consumers that I brighten their lives and that I give them hope when it has been difficult for them.
  • I use my knowledge of social work theory in a meaningful way.
  • I have a strong desire to help people.
  • I am compassionate, and this has been called my greatest strength. When I ask someone how they are, I care about the answer.
  • I won the Encouragement Award for new employees.
  • I won Employee of the Year, over managers and other staff who have worked hard this year and done great things.
  • I was told by my fellow students and some staff at university that I would make a great social worker some day. I was told that I naturally embody social work values, a willingness to share my experiences honestly and the ability to understand and empathise with others.
  • I am sensitive. I am gentle. I help create an environment of safety and trust. I have been told that I help ground people.
  • I am quite good at facilitating groups, even when complex discussions are going on. I am very inclusive in group discussions.
  • I have been told by friends, and the mother of a consumer that I am suited for this kind of work. That “the world needs people like [me]”, and that I am”wasted” working in retail.
  • I am quirky, different and unique. Some people are drawn to this, and it allows me to work in ways that other people might not have considered.
  • I have been told that I work hard, and that people appreciate and notice it.

 

This list has been the product of over an hour – I had to go through “My Little Book of Big Praise” to find more evidence to support it. I think it would be far easier for me to list all the reasons I thought I was bad at social work, though I’m going to make a deliberate step away from that narrative. From now on, I will strive to believe that I am good at social work and mental health recovery. It’s a foreign thought for the moment, but I will work to push through the doubt, using this list evidence.

My journey to my first “real” social work job

So in recent blog post, I alluded to getting a new job. I have to say, it’s been a huge relief to me to find employment as a social worker. I’ve been there for six weeks now (has it been so long?) and it was surprisingly easy to acclimatise; after a few days there I felt like a duck that had taken to water.

Since my placement ended at the end of 2013, my employment status has been an issue of great shame for me. I expected myself to get a job with the hospital straight away, but the earliest advertised position was a few weeks into January 2014. Due to a foolish, foolish oversight, I didn’t check the closing date of the position and I missed it by two days. My placement had been a little rocky anyway, and while I had learned a huge amount about being part of a workplace and getting along with colleagues, for the most part I wasn’t happy there. It was both relieving and deeply shameful for me to know I missed the job.

Still, it opened me up to a whole field of employment opportunities. I made a few applications for social work positions in employment (oh the irony), working with young people (even though I really didn’t want to after my experiences at PICYS) and even at the other hospital I worked at (which was a worse experience by far). In the end though, I was scared of putting in real effort to apply for reasons that I still don’t understand. I guess putting myself on the line and getting rejected, or not hearing anything at all, was terrifying to me. This was contrasted to the shame of not having a social work job, despite the fact I had a degree. I was pretty complacent, enjoying my day (and by jove did I enjoy each and every one of them), working casually at Petbarn and earning a few hundred dollars a week to sustain myself and save a little.

Eventually I started looking at professional development courses that were running because I wanted to get back into the social work mindset. I paid $55 to go to a half-day course on making real connection with people (in the context of building strong rapport), and I met someone who volunteered with the Hearing Voices Network (HVN) to run a support group. After the training, she introduced me to the head of the HVN where I gushed about the great work she was doing and how I wanted to help if I could. Later that week I found myself at a group as a co-facilitator, and I began helping out weekly.

It affirmed for me that mental health is something I’m passionate about, which surprised me. I remember at uni hearing a guest speaker give a detailed account of her son’s experience of schizophrenia, and it seemed nightmarish to me. I was terrified of the (false) idea of being permanently sick in a world of delusion and fear and never having an escape. From that point on, I specifically asked not to be involved in student placements at mental health sites. But when I finally looked at what was really scaring me, I was able to work very hard on my own mental health and it changed my life for the better.

Since then, I made plenty of applications to spread my passion for supporting people when they were not in the best place mentally. It took a few months, and I had two unsuccessful interviews as a “peer support worker” (meaning not a professional, but as a human being with lived experience of mental illness who can relate to people who are mentally ill) and finally one for a “recovery support worker” (a mostly-professional role) with an outreach team. This last one yielded a full-time job for me, and there are no words for the gratitude I have for receiving the opportunity.

I still have days of anxiety, sometimes many in a row, where I constantly question whether I’m suited for the role. But then again, I also constantly question whether being a parrot would be any easier (in the sense that I constantly look for alternative jobs and then stress out because I wouldn’t enjoy being a baker, or whatever). For the most part, I really love driving to people’s houses and engaging with them in a way that, I hope, improves their lives. It really is everything I was hoping for from a mental health job, and the drives between people’s houses gives me a safe time and space to ground, unwind, relax and check in with myself throughout the day. I seem to be doing pretty well at the moment (plus, I get a work car and free petrol!), and I hope my colleagues think likewise. I am learning so much about myself and growing each and every day into a more competent and capable person.

I’d better stop there, but another quick announcement on the back of this one…

Got a house with two friends. Picking up the keys today. Holy shit right?