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?

Fishwinning, muscle spasming, thief failing and pattern breaking

Yup, it’s official. I’m a crazy fish guy.

Sam Lyota (damn, I’ve got to stop doing that. I’ll never forget you buddy.), you’ll be pleased to know, is doing swimmingly. >pauses to giggle<
I turned his filter off again because, happy as he was to fight the current for a few hours, I could see it was wearing him down. Aqua One, why you sell an OP’d filter for a 9L tank? He survived the cleaning and water change- which I turned out to have quite an acidic pH – poor guy, it’s amazing what I’ve put him through. He loves the new food he’s on, though he doesn’t eat much, and as far as I can tell he’s happier and healthier than ever. Yay fish!

In other fish news, John came back into the store. To my surprise and delight, the ammonia levels were very low and the nitrite levels were slightly high. It turned out that the bionoods I sold him were actually working. Holy smokes, I didn’t see that one coming, and neither did he – he had come into the store expecting to buy a better filter. Bacteria were colonising and breaking down the waste, and within a few days I expect the nitrite and ammonia will both drop to 0. He was ecstatic. High off our collective triumph, he pondered whether he could get a tropical tank, maybe a 50L one, no wait, maybe a 200L one. We laughed together as we realised the joy was overruling our judgement, but it was such a wonderful moment we shared. I am so grateful I was part of that, and I helped him all on my lonesome.

In (far less interesting) non-fish news, I pulled a muscle at work yesterday. It’s ridiculous that I can do dozens of knuckle-pushups, run for kilometers, almost skin-the-cat, and yet reaching for a clipboard is apparently enough to send my chest into spasms. Since overextending, I’ve been in quite agonising pain whenever I’ve taken a deep breath or moved my arms above my head. Yesterday I made the foolish decision to place just a single box of cat litter (maybe 12kg?) at head height, and just before I got it on the shelf I spasmed in pain and it fell upon me. I still get wracked with pain every now and then, but it’s definitely improving with time. Alas, no karate tonight, but perhaps taiji tomorrow.

Thief_II_-_The_Metal_Age_Coverart

Eugene (who, if I haven’t mentioned, has returned from England for a few weeks and returns on Thursday) and I played Thief II together. We foolishly assumed that with our age would come skill and we’d be able to pass the whole game in a single sitting. The game was just like I’d remembered it, except slightly less terrifying as I begun to understand the mechanics (while sophisticated for its time in 2001 were not as complex as games today) it was based on. I could recall where most of the treasure was, where the guards were located, quotes on the walls, complex puzzles and the mechanics of stealth. Needless to say we didn’t get past the second level, but I enjoyed re-watching the cutscenes, just as I had twelve years previous.

Placement is going well! I’m still challenged quite often by anxiety, but I’m managing a lot better than I used to. The first few days of prac were spent in an overload of information and sense of general panic, but now when I started to understand how and why things worked, I begun to enjoy it a lot more. Then that honeymoon phase ended and I sort of went “Okay, I’ve had my fun playing social worker. I don’t want to work full-time and be responsible and professional anymore.” And I really struggled, and am struggling with that. My mother’s always done so much for me, taken care of me, provided for me, and I (out of laziness and convenience) have accepted all her housework and cooking and laundering. Now, at the first sniff of responsibility, I long to turn tail and run to the couch where I can distract myself with videogames and do what I’ve always done. But doing what I’ve always done will get me where I’ve always got, and the time has come to take a deep breath and step forwards, and to be a better person. It’s not easy sometimes, but hell, it’s so important. So, despite the little niggles at my health, I still go to work every day and still challenge myself not to run from that which scares me.

Speaking of health, Naomi started me on this revolting powdered alfalfa drink. It tastes pretty bad, but I have to say it works amazingly. For reasons beyond my comprehension I’ve had energy in abundance and my stomach hasn’t been hurting as much. I look forward to drinking it every day now.

All right, that’s enough from me! I hope you’re all doing well. Drop me a line if you’d like to catch up again soon!

Love,

Xin.

Quick update

Lyota’s doing great! He spent the first day wedged in the gap between the heater and the glass, and I was really worried he was cold. After some experimentation turning the filter on and off, I discovered that the filter they provided is too powerful for a 9L tank and was basically pushing him around, creating a current which he constantly had to fight. Poor guy was being worn down from the effort, so I took it out. It seems strange they provided such a filter for a tank that size – I thought Aqua One would have known better! I’ll have to keep on top of the ammonia, NO2 and NO3 levels to make sure he’s okay without it, but he seems much happier now. I also upgraded his food, but he doesn’t seem to realise that he can eat it while it’s floating. Apparently betta’s can be fussy and take a few days to adjust, so perhaps tomorrow (day 3) he’ll start eating.

I started my full-time placement at Swan District Hospital in Midland today. I don’t really want to think about it because of all the brainpower that’s required. Without getting too much into it, I met a lot of people and learned a lot about a new organisation and environment. I really enjoyed it and I love the team, and when my brain isn’t too overloaded, I’m sure I’ll happily work there. My anxiety has come up a few times throughout the day, seizing me with a sudden panic whenever I’ve thought about an uncertain future of work, but I’ve said my lines and walked along side it, and I seem to be managing okay. I’m certainly not panicking as much about whether or not I’m cut out for social work as I expected, which says to me I’ve grown at least a little.

I’ve learned my first black belt kata in karate. It’s shisochin, and Steve was kind enough to say that it looks good. I’m not really sure how I’ve changed over the past two years of training – I still apply myself just as hard I think, but I seem to be getting better and better over time. I find it puzzling – I’m not really changing the way I do things, but I seem to be improving nonetheless. I dunno, it perplexes me. I guess I’m fortunate enough to have a school where practicing the right thing over and over leads to growth, not maintenance.

That’s about it right now. Gotta get up early for work tomorrow! Really looking forward to some gaming with Craig-kun later in the week.

Oh! And Japan! I’m going to Japan in February with Beth and Mr Craig! Our main destinations are Osaka, Tokyo and Kyoto, with day-trips to Iga and Hiroshima. Does anyone reading have any suggestions for what to see and do? Japan has been a life-long dream of mine – I often fantasised about growing up as a samurai or ninja. I’m starting to reconsider my enthusiasm for training there (after hearing about new students being beaten up) but I’m still stoked to see it.

That’s it! Sleepy times now! Night guys.