Tag Archives: social work

Working, eating, breathing, being

progress

Wow…time has flown by since I last wrote at the beginning of January.

I got a job. Not necessarily the ‘best’ job, or my ‘dream job’, but a job none the less. I’m thrilled and I’m terrified, because with this next step comes a bundle of anxieties that I recognise from every other job I’ve ever had, every other change I’ve ever made, every other challenge I’ve ever faced: You suck. You’re stupid, you’re incompetent, everybody thinks you’re an idiot. You can’t do it. You shouldn’t be here. Go kill yourself. Just, whoosh- all the negativity spewing forth from my head before I even signed the paperwork.

Well, fuck that. I can do it, in fact I *am* doing it, every day- yup, full time work, another scary concept for me. I’m learning, and sitting with the scariness of not knowing all the answers, and dealing with the social anxiety of meeting lots of new people. Trying to translate an honours degree in social work into the reality of social work, in a speciality that I know hardly anything about = really fucking scared. Two weeks in, I’m still running on adrenaline and fear but I’m functioning, non-one has told me I shouldn’t be there and the world has kept turning. So screw you, head noise.  

Working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (with a really long commute on top of that) has forced my body into a decent eating routine- I’m managing breakfast, lunch (in front of work colleagues!!!) and a couple of snacks most weekdays. That’s more regular and ‘normal’ than I have been for YEARS. It’s not perfect because I’m not perfect, nobody is perfect, fuck being perfect. It’s still an achievement, and it’s good enough for now. Quick oats, toasted sanwiches, muesli bars and bulk cook-ups of soup are my recovery aides right now. Staying away from any sort of restrictive diet or notion of ‘clean eating’ is also helping my sanity levels. I’m doing what I can, the best way that I can, when I can. I am enough.

A counsellor from a previous therapy group (RIPE, check them out) is running very gentle, body-positive and restorative yoga that is really helping me to manage the head noise, if only for an hour a week. It was perfect timing, the kind of thing that makes me believe in the ‘workings of the universe’- start stressful job, win free place in yoga course- and the gentle reminders to breathe, be still and be kind are just what I need at the moment.

So- I’m doing well. I’m scared and I’m shaky and I’m feeling pushed but I’m managing. I’ll take that, thank you.

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Milestones and stumbling blocks

I’ve finished! I can now call myself a Social Worker, with the piece of paper to prove it, the transcript that shows four years worth of courses and late-night essays and months of placements. Done!

Sooo….what now? Who am I, if I’m not a student anymore? So much of my identity was (is) wrapped up in being a high-achieving, HD-scoring, super-involved student. I will graduate with 1st class honours and a string of extra credits, but no job. What?! That wasn’t the plan! I’ve been looking for jobs since September, because ‘obviously’, in my high achiever, go go go mind, I wasn’t going to take a break after study. I was going to finish, graduate and get right onto changing the world.

WELL. That hasn’t happened.  My perfect transcript doesn’t really count for much, in fact, many community sector jobs list qualifications as ‘desirible’ rather than ‘essential’. Which is depressing given I have been at uni for 4 years and have a $20k debt. Then there’s the driving thing. Apparently, being a social worker is not about people skills, or advocacy, or supporting people through the shitty times in life: it’s driving clients from A to B. Again, a four year degree to…drive people to Centrelink? About 90% of ads list a driver’s licence as essential, and regardless of whether that’s true or not, I don’t drive yet. Thanks, epilepsy. I’ve had two job offers retracted because, despite clearly stating this fact, people don’t register it. It’s like a foreign concept, like not driving is equivalent to being unqualified.  ‘Oh…we just assumed you could drive…oh yes I see it’s written here…well, sorry. Come back when you have a licence’. Part of me wants to scream, “DISCRIMINATION!’ in their faces, but the reality is that I’m a new graduate and they know I’m not going to make waves about it.

It is so FRUSTRATING. I’m so ready for this, I’ve worked so hard, I want to be out there using my skills and just…nothing. Well meaning people say things like, ‘your time will come’ or ‘just think of these stumbling blocks as stepping stones’, and I want to scream. I’ve never been in this situation before. Everything I’ve set my mind to, I’ve worked hard for and gotten it- jobs, scholarships, everything. It’s really hard not to spiral into self loathing- what’s wrong with me? Why are other people getting jobs and not me? I’m a failure.

I may well be unemployed for the next few months, until I- hopefully, all things going to plan (huh)- get my licence in March. I don’t know how I’m going to cope with that. I’m a lot more resilient that I was just a year or so ago, but it still hurts like hell, and I still feel useless and out of control. I’ll keep churning out applications and hopefully get one of the rare-as-hen’s-teeth jobs that don’t require driving. I hate having to rely on hope and the discretion of others instead of skill and experience, it makes me feel completely shit and more disempowered than ever. But I don’t have a choice.

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The Last Bead Has Been Cut From The Thread

beads on string

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.

Reflect.

Reflect.

Reflect.

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Plodding On

orange man

 

I had a relatively good day, food wise, yesterday- breakfast, morning tea, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, binge, no vomiting. Ate in public, lots of fluids, listened to the hunger and stopped when I was full. The binge on salty foods was more habit than hunger, and I noticed this, and I stopped.Today was lost to sleeping and  involved an apple, an attempt at dinner and a large (but not a binge) quantity of out-of-a-box  brownies.

It’s so hard to appreciate the things I did well, and block out the, ‘it wasn’t perfect so you failed’ mentality.  Eating disorders love black and white thinking. The Negative Voice loves screaming at me about all the things I do wrong. It’s far harder to tune into the sensible part of me that knows about trying, about creating new pathways and who allows for mistakes and grey areas. It’s OK. Keep going. 

We had a training session on mental health (as it relates to our particular client group) at placement this evening. It was really freaking triggering. I wasn’t prepared for how much it made me feel like screaming and getting out of the room. It was presented by a psychiatrist and was very much a ‘medical model’ presentation. That surprised me because the organisation in general is quite holistic but the tone of this session was very much about diagnostic labels and medication. It made me think a lot about my role as a social worker, trying to create space for other ways of working  and nurturing, and to advocate for a more well-rounded view of mental health/ mental wellness. So it was interesting in that sense, but in the end I walked away so annoyed, and dismayed, that a whole room of volunteer caseworkers who may not have had any other knowledge on supporting the emotional wellbeing of clients  have now been given information through such a narrow lens, and that it was presented as ‘expert knowledge’ and therefore unable to be challenged. There’s so much wonderful consumer led/ informed work being done and yet none of that was incorporated. Was it ignorance, or an intentional position of ‘professionals know best’? Either way it was disappointing,

I’ve got three weeks left of placement and it feels good to have that end date in sight. Most of my theoretical work is done and ready to be submitted, and then I can have a break before uni starts up again in March. My final year- finally! This time next year I’ll be qualified and most likely in a full time social work position. Just gotta keep on keeping on.

 

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Ninja Goldfish Kills Owners, Escapes

 

So, Thursday afternoons I have my elective class, Working with Violence and Abuse. It’s as cheery as it sounds. But so important and every week I build more strength, validation, skills and passion for this area of work. I’ve been offered a placement in an agency that predominately works with women in crisis and I’m pretty sure I’m going to take it. It feels right- this is what I want to do, this is the kind of worker I want to develop into- but also very scary.

ANYWAY, the class is a three hour seminar in a dark, stuffy room and it can often feel like the air is so heavy, and the sadness and despair is so thick you could reach out and touch it. Most people, even just by thinking about the statistical esitimates of the incidence of sexual assault, family violence and child abuse, have had personal experiences of the stuff we cover in the classes. You can see the pain on faces, watch as people flinch at certain stories, hear an occasional gasp or muffled sob.  These reactions are absolutely normal and warranted, but to have 60 people in one room all feeling them all at once- sometimes, we just have to break, breathe out and have a laugh.

Today, after two hours of class we were told it was time for a fun and light activity.  We got told the ending of a story and we had to get into small groups to write the beginning. The story ends with ‘Peter and Mary are lying on the floor, both dead. The only other thing around them is broken glass and a pool of water.’ Given the past ten weeks of classes, many people said things like: ‘it must have been a homicide/ suicide’ or ‘there must have been a history of family violence’. Which is fair enough but also a really strong indicator of how blinkered (and burnt out with despair) workers can become. A colleague once said to me that after years of working in domestic violence services, she started to see every relationship and family as abusive and dysfunctional, even if they were perfectly fine, because her radar was always on the look out for abuse.

Desperately trying to get some lightness, my group said something along the lines of: Peter and Mary were killed by their ninja goldfish who wanted to escape the confines of his tank. After weeks of careful plotting, he jumped out, killed them with some serious fin-karate moves, and slipped away to freedom, leaving only scale prints as evidence. It’s totally impossible but we got a laugh out of it.

These classes- and the real situations that they are trying to prepare us to work in- do make me angry. They cause me to cry and feel helpless and want to punch something. Sometimes they trigger memories of personal stuff and I have to work really hard not to fall back into my own traumatic or violent experiences. But they also fire me up to be an advocate and a change maker, to be the kind of worker that I wish I’d had to support and empower me in the past. I look around the class and I see sixty people who are now more knowledgable about parts of society that many others don’t want to talk about. Not only are we informed, we are developing the skills needed to speak up and create change. We are sixty more people who won’t stay silent. We are people who will sit with survivors, believe them, validate their experiences, and respect them.

And if we need to occasionally make jokes about ninja goldfish to keep our sanity in check, to be the most effective supporters and advocates we can be? I think that’s just fine.

 

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I Think I Can, I Hope I Can…

‘Placement’ is the subject on everyone’s minds and the word on everybody’s lips right now. We’re about to be thrust into the real world of social work, no more cotton wool, no more role-plays in classrooms where we can laugh if we stuff it up (and then critically reflect on it afterwards, of course!).

The major reason I entered this degree was because I want to contribute to change- individual, community and worldwide change- on the way we think about, experience and act on violence. Yup, big cliche, I know- the victim/ survivor becoming the advocate and change maker. But it’s true, that’s what I feel pulled towards and that’s what I’ve been doing from a very young age, before I could even name what was happening to me as ‘abuse’ and define what I was passionate about as ‘activism’.

I have a lot of insight and experience now, at the ripe old age of 23, but is it enough? I sat in a class today about childhood sexual abuse and I thought, is it still too close? Can I cope with this? Am I drawn to this kind of work for the wrong reasons?  They are confronting questions. They force me to look inside myself and sit still for more than 30 seconds and think, really think, about what I have to offer right now, and what parts of myself are still too raw. To get past the good girl who always says yes to everything, even things that aren’t helpful/ supportive for her. To let my ego get bruised a bit by acknowledging that maybe I’m not quite ready to throw myself into family violence or crisis work just yet.

But…maybe I am. Maybe that’s the the wonderful thing about placement, that you get to experience a field and a workplace while still clearly being defined as a learner, not a member of staff. Maybe I won’t know how strong I am, and what skills and talents I have, until I throw myself in and try to swim.

I was speaking about this yesterday with the Wise Woman*- basically asking, do you think I can handle this? Am I strong enough?- and she made it very clear that if I was going to do a placement in these fields, I needed to have strong supports around me, and I needed to use them. Again, pretty confronting for the part of me that finds it really hard to accept that, no matter how self-relient I think I am, I’m really just like everyone else. Even the carers need care, the supporters need to be supported.

Sometimes the best way for me to digest such a foreign idea- self care? pffft!- is to be harsh. As in, I’m no good to anybody if I burn out before I even get my degree. I can’t sit with somebody in crisis if I have no boundaries and take on all of their emotions. I can’t support other people work through their shit unless I’m committed to working through my own. I can’t model compassion for others if I don’t have any for myself.

So, I’m thinking about it. I’m listing the things I need from a placement- a space to learn, good supervision, time to debrief when needed, flexible hours to allow me to continue accessing outside support- and I’m calling on the advocate inside me, the one who fights so well for others, to come and bat for me for a while. I hope that will be enough to get me started while I learn how to do this thing called life.

 

 

*The Wise Woman is my current ‘therapeutic person’, after a number of false starts with psychiatrists/ psychologists. The Victorian public mental health service system is a complex beast (a whole other post!) but basically it didn’t meet my needs and so I now get my support and help outside of it.

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Sarah And The Scarf

I’m writing this huddled under a mess of blankets and heat packs and layers of clothing because real autumn has finally hit, and it is cold. I actually love this time of year, despite living in a typical no-insulation, gaps-in-the-walls share house . I find it much easier to dress my body for cold weather. Today I got to wear a woollen scarf without overheating and it made me happy, far happier than the situation warranted!

It was a uni day today. Social Work, third year, first semester. We go on our first placement soon and there’s a lot of anxiety and tension hanging above the group. I’m not too worried about placement because- having worked in the sector quite a bit already, and having been involved as a client- it doesn’t hold the same feeling of diving headfirst into the unknown that it does for many of the others. So yippee, one less thing to obsess and worry over.

Then today I got a shock. It was a class focusing on crisis counselling and interventions. The case scenario was of ‘Sarah’, a young woman with an extensive history of surviving physical and emotional abuse, including a sexual assault when she was in her early teens. Sarah had been tossed around out of home care and psychiatric hospital systems, she was doing sex work to support a heroin habit, she lived in a boarding house. Sarah had never known what it was like to be cared for and she didn’t trust anyone. We had to act either as ‘Sarah’ or as workers who had met her once before she called, six months later, having just taken an overdose and needing immediate help.

Sarah’s story is not mine, but there were enough similarities that she got under my skin. From a worker perspective it was a positive because I was able to ask questions from a place of both theoretical knowledge and lived/ intuitive experience. But I felt myself struggling to come back into the present when I finished roleplaying her, and I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. It’s such a fine line, trying to empathise with clients while also holding my own boundaries and staying in the present. This is not my story. I am here. Listening. Breathing. Connecting, not falling back into the past. After today I am more worried about whether or not I’ll be able to hold myself in this way during placement.

This is where the scarf comes in. As both a client and a worker I like to have something on me that I can touch/ feel to remind me that I am in the present. So I use necklaces, bracelets, scarves. People know me by my necklaces! Today I was wearing a beautiful possum/ merino wool scarf that I bought in New Zealand last year. It’s soft and comforting and makes me feel good. These kind of ’emotional touchstones’ have been great thus far, doing telephone support work. I’m going to have to figure out a way of being more discrete about it as I move to doing more face-to-face client work. But I quite like having that dilemma because it reminds me that I am a student, still learning, and that it’s OK to discover these strategies as I go along. Phew. Breathe out.

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