When Helpers Need Help

panicI’ve heard my friend’s with various anxiety disorders describe the feeling of a panic attack in different ways, although around a cluster of similar systems. For  me, it is simple to describe.

It feels like I’m dying. Not in the figurative way. In the literal, I’m having a heart attack call an ambulance kind of way. And I have- called an ambulance- and had them tell me that nothing is wrong and been left feeling silly, with only a big medical bill to show for it.

Ironically enough, it was during the time period in my life that I was trying to become the best helper I could be that I had to reach out for help myself. 

Right after finishing my BSW, I worked for a summer  and saved enough to buy my first car. I put everything I owned in it and  moved 2,000 miles from Oregon to Chicago to start a new job. I was excited to start building my social work experience and to see a brand new part of the country. I had no friends or family in Chicago, although I would meet some of the best people I know by the time I was finished. I also didn’t understand how to exist in a city, or in the snow for that matter. I trusted people I shouldn’t have. I put myself in dangerous situation without even realizing what was happening. I never had enough money for food after paying rent and 1,000 other little stressors like this built up.

After a year of working in a housing and homelessness services agency, I decided to get my MSW at UIC. Financially, I needed to keep my job while I attended school, but I felt confident in my time management skills. I commuted each night after work on the blue line to UIC and back home around 11pm each night. I would do homework until 2am and start again at 6am. I also started the infamous unpaid social work internship at a wonderfully vibrant community center on the Westside. 20 hours a week on the weekends and evenings when I didn’t have class. I was coping and moving along. I did that for 6 months. Then all of the sudden, I wasn’t coping anymore.

I started having horrific panic attacks. A lot of them. It started to effect my work, then my school. I made a doctor’s appointment and was diagnosed with panic disorder by my MD. He started medication and I knew counseling would make it more effective. But who has the time for another appointment or the money for co-pays? It was strange to learn about the medication I was taking and read about panic disorder in my DSM for class, while also having this visceral embodiment of the disorder.

I was that overwhelmed client that we all wish would just make time to take care of their mental health. 

It took a long time to start feeling better. I took the medication. I employed on myself all those self-talk strategies we learn. But still there were times when I was so convinced that I was dying that I thought ” I might as well kill myself and so I don’t have to go through all this fear before it happens.” It sounds melodramatic now, but it seemed logical in the moment.

A lot of little things helped along the way. Phone calls from my dad to walk me through some of the worst attacks, a casserole my coworker made me during finals, kind words of encouragement from my boyfriend and my supervisors. All were incredibly meaningful and brought me through to graduation.

Looking back, that time was an important part of my education. Just as much as what I learned in all my MSW coursework. I learned how to practice social work, while also reaching out for help for my own struggles. I learned that I have limits, that  at times what I want to achieve surpasses the limits of what is healthy from my brain and body.

I know many social workers can relate to the paradox of being the helper who also needs help. I feel you.

Mandy

Hull House: Inspiration and Warning

Hello Friends- whether active in social work or considering the profession, I hope we can use the internet for it’s best purpose-to connect and share meaningful ideas.

Now it is only fitting that the first post on this blog should center around Jane Addams, the mother of Social Work and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Jane Addams, and many of you I am sure, I am driven by an idealism which imagines a world in which “the good” is “secured for all of us.”

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
― Jane Addams (Twenty Years at Hull House)

I would often reflect on the  life and work of Jane Addams as I was working towards my MSW at University of Illinois in Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work (more on my experiences of social work in Chicago to come). As I would exit the blue line train at the UIC stop, I would pass the historic Hull House each day on my way to class. I would think about how every inch of that street was saturated with the history that has made social work what it is today.

In my curiosity, I pulled Addam’s book Twenty Years at Hull House from the library. While I recommend the full read, I’ll tell you that I felt an immediate kinship with this woman who passed out of the world more than 50 years before my time. We had a similar origin story into the social work world. Addams witnessed a scene of grueling poverty as burned and scarred women carried boiling brew down the streets of London, being scalded as they worked for a beer brewer. The injustice of the scene awoke the spirit of social work. For me, it was when I first witnessed homelessness in my small, rural, town in Eastern Oregon. The scene of the man I met sleeping along the Umatilla River, shocked something inside of me awake.

Do any of you have a moment that awoke the spirit of social work for you?

The second element of kinship was the call to give myself to an usual degree (measured by the norms of society at the time) to rectify or make better the situation that caused the awakening. For Addams, it was the conditions of Chicago tenements. For me, homelessness, along with the isolation and detrimental life effects that come with lacking the basic need of safe housing. I say to an unusual degree, because one looks around and sees that mainstream society has accepted these issues as a given. Therefore, if one steps out to drastically improve the living conditions of a Chicago tenement or end homelessness to a degree that may effect “the good” one is able to have for oneself, one will often be alone and told that one has simply not accepted the facts about life yet.

Addam’s book still remains so strongly in my thoughts because she demonstrates that social workers should not forget that at it’s birth social work was a revolution. It was  revolutionary because Addams chose to do something with her life that did not compute with the realities of her time. Are social worker’s today committed to this same revolutionary spirit or are we more interested in maintenance and compliance of current systems even when they may not serve those most vulnerable in the best way?

The hard truth that Addams shows us through her example, is that to produce extraordinary change, one must be willing to break with what is expected and may be expected to give of self to an extraordinary degree.

 

The warning of Hull  House is that our work must also be tempered and grounded in the reality that often times we are outsiders, with no personal contact, to the  social issues that awaken our spirit. I was awoken by homelessness, yet I have never experienced a night on the streets. Addams was awoken by the hunger and poverty she saw on the streets of London, yet she was a wealthy white woman of education and privilege. As one of my favorite feminists, Eleanor Humes Haney wrote, “charity is a luxury.” Social worker’s should take care to understand that their role as a “giver” should be understood as a luxury and not touted as a something pointing to our own personal goodness.

How do we remain true to our own experience and simultaneously to the service called for by the realities that awaken us to the change we seek. I believe this is one of the central questions social workers must wrestle with. Have you found a path to walk between these two equally important truths?

Read Twenty Years at Hull House Here