March is National Social Work Month. Being a social worker is a great life and a career choice I do not regret. And while I do not want to play into the idea that being a social worker means a miserable work/life balance and days full of stress, often without support, there are times when I think we can all relate to the meme below.
So throughout the month of March, let the social workers that inspire you know that someone else is getting that warm feeling too. Send me a message through the Contact page with the first name and email of a social worker you admire. They will receive the following message and attached certificate in celebration of Social work month.
Happy 2018 Social Work Month!
You are receiving this email because someone submitted your name as a social worker that inspires them. In the hurry of your day, take a moment to realize that you work is essential to the community and you are appreciated.
Attached is your certificate of appreciation (because we can’t give you a bonus) to help remind you that your work is valuable and makes an impact.
The Social Worker’s Companion Blog
If you want to submit your own name, I won’t tell ; )
Before I became interested in social work, I was a philosophy major. I was drawn to people who thought deeply about the world and themselves.
I was drawn to social work, not only because it was an active way for me to be a part of making the world closer to the full potential I see, but also because social work is a profession (much like philosophy) that has a value of knowing deeply. In the Code of Ethics, we are held to a standard of knowing our work deeply- the value of competence. But just as important, we are called to know ourselves deeply and continue to examine our motives, bias, reactions, and internal states. Cue Socrates (but hold the hemlock)!
I found a lot of insight through working with my own therapist to understand the root of my anxiety issues (see previous post When Helper’s Need Help) but there is a lot of other ways to engage in self-reflection. As simple as it may sound, one of the most helpful exercises for myself in the past year was the Enneagram personality test. I actually completed the test and discussed it within the context of therapy.
It provided many insights about myself and the relationships that surrounded me, but mostly it acted as a catalyst to take time to examine myself.
Each Enneagram type is attached to a basic fear and basic desire that tend to drive that type. In the interest of being vulnerable, my Enneagram Type is 4, which indicates the following:
Basic Fear: That they have no identity or personal significance
Basic Desire: To find themselves and their significance (to create an
Upon reflection, I found this to be very true of myself. This wasn’t just helpful for my personal life, but also caused me to reflect how my personality intersects with social work. For example, if my basic desire is to create an identity for myself of significance, am I attempting to do this through my work? If I am attempting to “create” myself through my work, then how could my focus be on where it really should be- on quality service provision? These are all lines of inquiry that opened after taking time to explore my personality through this outlet.
I was thinking back about my first few weeks officially “doing social work.” Specifically, I was remembering back to the first time I hit THE perimeter-the place when you realize as a helper that you cannot “make it okay” for everyone experiencing suffering that comes into your life.
I was 23. I was halfway through completing my MSW degree at Jane Addams College of Social Work. Of course that meant I was also completing my practicum hours. Working at a grassroots community center on the Westside of the city was a phenomenally eye opening experience. Coming from the culturally homogenous rural area of Eastern Oregon to practicing social work in a minority-majority community in Chicago, I obviously learned a lot of lessons and skills that contributed to a more well rounded practice experience. I also got a lot of practice bumping up against the edge of help I could provide and was left, almost every day, feeling that what I could provide was so inadequate to what I wanted to be able to do.
I wanted to make magic happen for people, and while sometimes magical moments did happen, I had to come to terms with being ok with saying “I did my best today, if nothing more.”
It was in this context, that I experienced one of the major differences between rural and urban poverty. Urban poverty is exposed. It’s in your face. The sheer density of persons means there is literally less space to experience poverty in privacy. For a social worker, rural poverty is actually very difficult for this reason, because to engage with someone you must first find them-out in that secluded encampment or on the riverbank covered in dense brush-but mostly if a person in a rural area doesn’t want to be found by a social services worker, they won’t be. You have to develop eyes to see poverty in a rural community.
Coming from this background, it was jarring to live in Chicago. I felt at times that I was surrounded by suffering- on my walk to work, at work, at my internship,in my neighborhood, going to class, coming home from class…I had to find my perimeter. I had to learn that I couldn’t react to every situation of suffering I encountered. There was just too much.
On my way home from class around 11 one night, I was bundled against a frigid wind waiting at the blue line stop for my “L” train. I began a conversation with a women sitting on the platform. I was 23. She was 22. We were both fairly new to the city and we both talked about our boyfriends, we were similar in a lot of ways-except that she was pregnant. And, she was living under that “L” train platform. Sure, I had a crap apartment-with sporadic heat, no hot water, and some infestation problems (still can’t help but cringe at cockroaches) but our lives were night and day.
Unlike me, she didn’t have friends or family. She didn’t have safety, stability, food, warmth and 1,000 other things she needed. When my train pulled up and I left her there, I felt so low. What was the point of an MSW degree if I couldn’t help Megan?
After that, I always came prepared with something for Megan. Snacks, socks, gloves… we also had a conversation about getting WIC, nearby shelters and getting on the city’s master housing waitlist-the Chicago Central Referral System (CRS). But, it never felt like enough. I had to wrestle with my perimeter every time I saw her. To be honest, I still do most days.
I think the discomfort of hitting up against your perimeter as a helper is both something one has to come to terms with to remain in the social work profession, and it is also a gift. It is a reminder of a vision – what we as a community (whatever community you live in) need to be doing better. In my vision for community, Megan has a safe place to have her baby and live her life to the fullest. I strive for that while learning not to be paralyzed by suffering.
If you have mastered this, you’re already my hero-drop me a line.
I’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.
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?