And lo, it is over. Operation: Third Year Placement is finished. Huzzah.
It was a physical and emotional relief to walk out into the clear sky and warm 5pm sunshine on Friday, with a big card and lovely gift and (best of all) my final report complete and signed off.
The title and picture in this post are reference to the string of beads I kept hanging from my bookshelf for second half of the placement. I would come home each day and cut one off, hold it in my hand for a bit and then place it on the shelf. It served as both a physical acknowledgement and a chance to reflect briefly on the day, and then a way to try and disconnect and unwind at night. My dear friend J shared the idea with me as something she had used during her midwifery placements. It sounds a little bit melodramatic out of context but it really worked well for me as a self-care tool.
Developing stronger self care- and more specifically self awareness as to what I need to do to keep well- is the main achievement I will carry from this placement. It wasn’t the case load or the practice of counselling techniques or the endless filling out of forms (So. Many. Forms!) that was particularly challenging over this period, although I learnt a lot of beneficial things in these areas. The challenge was negotiating with myself, or selves- the authentic me and the Negative Voice- to get myself to work each day, to focus, learn, engage, eat enough, push past self doubt and just try. Getting through nights where I endlessly played back conversations or comments from people and tore myself to shreds over what I should have done, could have done, didn’t do perfectly.
Perfectionism was a huge barrier to try and overcome, especially in the first half. Constantly berating myself because I didn’t know everything, couldn’t answer every question instantly, got things wrong. It was a big jump from university learning, where I have more or less mastered the academic/ research/ writing skills and therefore reliably do very well on assessments. I took about five months (out of seven) to be able to distinguish between criticism and feedback, and to let myself be a student- be definition, one who is learning and is not expected to know everything! Indeed, will never know everything, and if gets to a point where I think I do, it’s time for some serious reflection.
It was a longer than average placement because I took breaks. Two and a bit weeks in Nepal, a week with the not-so-fondly-named Death Flu, three weeks when I mentally and physically crashed to the the point of being admitted to hospital, two weeks compulsory leave when the centre closed at the Christmas/ New Year period. This was the hardest but most insightful lesson of placement- if I don’t care for myself, I simply CANNOT care for others. I am not present, genuine or helpful when in a state of acute hunger/ nutritional deficiency/ sleep deprivation, which inflates depression and then eventually turns into intense, all-consuming suicidality. I can physically show up (sometimes), but I won’t be engaged, tuned in or of much use for anything really.
This tendency to crash has happened before during intense work and study periods. In the past (and my automatic response still is to do this), it was ‘Suck it up, push on, keep going, put your mask on, you weak piece of shit, you don’t deserve compassion, you deserve to die’. Which has the predictable outcome of more self-destruction, more days absent, more suicide attempts, dropping out of courses, disconnecting from the world. I think (hope) it finally clicked this time. I was suicidal most of the placement- still am, the majority of the time- but I got through it because I accepted support when I couldn’t support myself. Which was incredibly scary, made me feel very vulnerable and flooded with guilt/ shame/ disgust. But to my complete amazement, no-one ran away in horror. The Wise Woman was absolutely steady, totally non-judgemental and took over when I needed it. My friends were incredibly caring, and gave me lots practical and emotional support. My family did a better job than they ever have before. I took time off to look after myself and the world didn’t end, in fact it became noticeably calmer and brighter upron my return.
Lessons: I have learnt some.
Listen to people- really listen.
Ask questions with genuine curiosity.
Allow people to tell their stories as many times and in as many ways as they need to.
Be aware of how your own stories affect you, and how they play out in your life and practice.
Offer support and options, while sitting with the knowledge that people will make their own choices.
Encourage reflection, including your own.
Look for strengths in people, situations and the broader community.
Accept that butchers paper, whiteboard markers and photocpiers are going to be an intergral part of your ‘social work journey’.
Also try to accept that here will never be enough resources, time or money.
Be creative with what you have.
Know the systems well so you can can work effectively within them.
Advocate and educate for individual and social change.
Try and promote social justice.
Know your limits.
Know also that you have entered a profession where you will do a fuckload of paperwork.
Keep an eye on your dreams.
Reflect some more.
Try and appreciate the processes as much, or even more than, the outcomes.
Take a break occasionally.
Study and attend to professional and personal development as much as you can. (There will often be free food- bonus!)
Be open to new ideas, and make changes in your practice when you need to.
Seek guidance and support from colleagues, teachers, mentors and any other wise folks.
Sleep is good.
Don’t check work emails at home.