“What’s your sign?” does not belong on an intake form

19 09 2011

I haven’t made much of an effort to hide my atheism. (Here, I mean. Christmas dinner is another story, because it’s just not worth it.) Most of my clients identify themselves as having some kind of religious beliefs, and, of course, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m often happy when my families are actively involved in church, because it can be a great support system. One mother’s congregation helped to pay off her back rent, which was something I certainly couldn’t do for her.

I’m not religious, but I get religion. I grew up rather religious, and identified as Catholic until only a few years ago. So that’s something I can understand. Even when I can’t understand a client’s beliefs, it doesn’t really matter. As long as it works for them.

Right?

I guess. But sometimes…things get weird.

The rare, mythical, coworker/friend of mine worked with a really nice family a while back. Mom, dad, and adorable five year old daughter. I got to know them at our Christmas party, where I colored approximately 758 snowmen pictures with the child. I almost envied my friend for working with them.

Then, in group supervision, I learned a bit more. (She only used first names though, so with that flawless attention to anonymity, I really can’t be certain which family it was. Ha.)

Apparently the parents had some pretty serious flaws in their marriage, and this was affecting their ability to parent their child. There was a history of infidelity, the father was not involved aside from being a physical presence, and there had been some pretty serious fights in front of their daughter. The mother recognized that these were problems, and wanted things to change.

The issue was that she thought God would change her husband.

No, seriously.

I don’t mean, “We’re praying about this for guidance” or even, “My religious beliefs tell me this is OK.” Straight up, “There’s nothing I can do aside from wait for divine intervention.”

Meanwhile the child is being exposed to an unhealthy relationship, and mom and dad are being driven further and further apart.

My friend was somewhat religious, but much more of the “God helps those who help themselves” variety. She found herself at a real standstill with this woman. If you’re waiting and waiting for someone to be changed by an outside force, what else is there to be done? Just put in that time on the queue, and surely you’ll be rewarded. Or something. We’ll see.

I was glad that I didn’t have to cope with that particular family. But I have had some belief systems that have thrown me for a loop. The most frequent one I get is, “SJ, my daughter and I just aren’t going to get along. She’s a Libra, I’m a Capricorn.” “He’s a Gemini. What am I supposed to do?”

This is a constant refrain. There’s only so much they can do, as their signs really conflict.

Parents, before you make the decision to start trying for that little bundle of joy, please consider your zodiac signs and plan conception accordingly. Otherwise we’ll have anarchy on our hands.

Zodiac signs are extraordinarily silly to me, but if my clients (and Twitter feed) are any indication, plenty of people take them very seriously. As a social worker, I’m starting where the client is.

 This puts a disbeliever such as myself in the awkward position of taking their belief seriously and acknowledging their concerns, while not letting something like the month their kid was born in prevent them from having a positive relationship.

But how do we get past that? A belief is so unchanging. “I am this, you are this.” There’s no in between. Acknowledging that a bit of that might be erroneous–maybe I can get along with my Aries mother-in-law, perhaps Jesus won’t change my husband and I’ll have to leave him–can mean letting go of something much bigger.

Early on, I worked with a mother who had been through the tragic, heartbreaking situation of giving birth to a premature daughter who only lived to be six weeks old. This happened about four years before we started working together, and the mother was still very much grieving this loss. Sadly, her mental health and substance abuse issues were exacerbated by her child’s death, and I was working with her on being able to care for her four older children.

I understood that. It was very real.

One day, she told me that she had seen her youngest daughter over the weekend. As she told me, her child who had passed away, “came to visit.” She knew it was this child, because she was wearing a white dress and was four years old, the age her child would have been if she had survived. My client saw her daughter walk through the kitchen, say hello, and disappear.

My first concern was, given this woman’s history, that she was hallucinating again. (As far as how to tell the difference, I’ve never gotten a particularly clear answer.)  The thought that this was a real experience didn’t enter my mind. It’s not my frame of reference; it’s not how my mind works.

However, it was how this woman’s mind worked. She sincerely believed that this was her daughter coming to visit. Something that would scare the shit out of me was something of a comfort to her. Even though I didn’t, and still don’t, understand it, I can work with it.

There are times, though, when it can’t be worked with or around. If your child is at risk because of your beliefs, something has to change. Religion seems to be the ultimate topic we can’t question–I mean, that’s against her religion. But when it’s a part of our client’s lives, and is impacting them, positively or negatively (especially negatively) it needs to be addressed somehow.

That’s one of many things I’m still figuring out.

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16 responses

19 09 2011
KatjaMichelle

Wait last post you talked about *looks around* race and now you’re talking about *whispers* religion well go ahead with your bad self socialjerk long distance high five coming your way from the west coast.

19 09 2011
socialjerk

It’s possible that shit’s getting real.

SocialJerk accepts high fives AND (terrorist) fist bumps from all coasts.

19 09 2011
Tracy

I’m curious how you respond to such statements, especially those about astrology. I’m on the same page as you (I don’t buy that kind of stuff at all), but my coworkers are OBSESSED with it. I grapple with staying respectful by smiling and nodding but wanting to scream that they’re full of shit! I guess I’m lucky that it’s just coworkers and not clients (well in my case, lucky that it’s not students/administrators/faculty members–I work at a university).

22 09 2011
socialjerk

Some of my coworkers are very into the like. A couple of them read The Secret last year, and it led to some of the worst weeks of my professional life. (“Are you staying positive? Are you visualizing it and putting it out into the universe?” Ugh.) I ignored it for a bit, then I explained my differing viewpoint in as respectful a manner as possible. After that, I felt free to make snarky (but not mean) comments. Because I never like to be the only one being made uncomfortable.

With clients, I’m not trying to get them to shut up like I am with my coworkers, so it’s different. Especially with the astrology thing, I try to focus more on the meaning it has to them–like, I don’t know much about this, so when you say your son is a Libra, what do you see in him that makes you say that? It tends to work fairly well for me.

Good luck with your coworkers! And stay positive as Venus enters retrograde OK never mind I have no idea.

20 09 2011
ECMH Nerd

i was trying to work with a family who had a preschooler that was glaringly on the autism spectrum. i wanted to get mom to agree to an evaluation. she thought that her evangelical church could lay hands on the child and get the demons out. literally. and then invited me to attend her church. oof.

she often told me that “god would provide” and that she was praying on it. looking back on it, i could have pulled a messiah on her and said “yes ma’am. god is providing me. god is asking me to get your son an evaluation. don’t look god’s gift horse in the mouth. me and my angelic self have other kids to work with so there’s an expiration date on my miracles.”

but i was younger then and less jaded so i didn’t think about it. now though… i’m just waiting. i still think of that poor kid and worry about him. i hope he and his demons have found some peace.

22 09 2011
socialjerk

Oh wow, that’s so scary and frustrating. It makes you wonder what else would be addressed with the laying on of hands. The cynic in my kind of loves your messiah idea, though.

Hope that child wound up getting the help he needed.

20 09 2011
Sarah

Your story reminds me of this joke:
There was a huge storm with a flood, everyone told John to get to higher ground but he just said, No, God will save me. The flood came up to his porch, and some men came by in a canoe and said get in, John, we’ll help you get to higher ground. John just said no, God will save me, The flood came halfway up his first floor, a motor boat came by and the driver said John get in the boat before you Die. John said God will save me. The flood was now up to the second floor and the sheriff came by in his cutter and ordered him into the boat, John again insisted God would save him. Finally when the flood was just below the peak of roof and the coast guard helicopter came to get him. No John insisted God would save him. The next day John was dead and met God. Angrily he shouted, I believed! Why didn’t you save me!? John, God answered quietly, I sent a canoe, two boats and a helicopter.
I think it is totally valid to tell people that God is using you to help them, but I am not a social worker, I don’t have the same kinds of constraints you have to deal with.

22 09 2011
socialjerk

I think that’s the idea I try to get across, but it is hard, when considering what a delicate topic religion is. (In terms of what you can and can’t talk about, funding-wise.)

There’s a similar speech from a priest on The West Wing when President Bartlet is praying for wisdom over how to deal with a death penalty case. That was always my view of religion, when I was religious, so it’s hard sometimes to wrap my head around such a different viewpoint.

21 09 2011
SocialWrkGirl (@SocialWrkGirl)

Oy! SJ, yesterday in one of my schools I was told a student I work with’s father is praying over her benign brain tumor instead of having it removed so she stops having major migraines.

Also…I appologize for the zodiac tweets. They’re funny here in SWG land. Not exact science/serious. But to each her own right?

22 09 2011
socialjerk

That’s terrifying. Medical neglect?

Do you do zodiac tweets? I honestly hadn’t noticed. I tend to just ignore them in general. My mom will sometimes read me my horoscope when I’m at home, though she also doesn’t take it seriously at all, it’s just for funzies. It only bothers me when it holds people back from addressing something–hey, it’s written in the stars, nothing to be done!

21 09 2011
Elle

Hi, SJ. I recently started social work school and stumbled upon your blog. I’m really grateful that I found you! We just recently had some assignments in which we had to think about populations that might be harder for us to work with, and why, and for me that is the uber religious. I just don’t have that frame of reference, because I’m not particularly religious. Also, I find some religions and their beliefs downright frightening and ridiculous. It’s comforting to know that I will get to a point that I can likely work with such individuals despite not sharing their beliefs.

22 09 2011
socialjerk

I agree. As much as you want to be respectful and understanding of other people’s beliefs, sometimes it’s next to impossible. But there’s usually plenty more common ground to find.

Good luck in school! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog, hope it doesn’t scare you off 🙂

21 09 2011
Natalie

It’s an incredibly messy area (and I have a divinity degree, too!). I had to treat a teen whose problem was a ghost raping her every night (and that was a culturally appropriate interpretation, just not one I could buy into). When there’s a culture clash around child safety, sometimes you really can’t defer to the client’s perspective (“While you are waiting and praying for God to change your husband’s heart, legally we need to be sure your child is not witnessing any aggression. How can we do that?”)

Interestingly, my last boss had a 40 year career as an astrologer before deciding to go back to school for mental health. Work parties always involved “readings,” and sometimes tarot, taken completely seriously. No joke! He swears signs run in families in spite of planning (I was supposed to be a nice calm Capricorn, but was born early and am Scorpio just like my mother and grandmother, more’s the pity) 😉

22 09 2011
socialjerk

A ghost raping her? Wow. My coworker actually had a teen saying something similar. It started off with hallucinations of having been raped, which were easily proven to be hallucinations, and then they combined with her seeing ghosts at home. Her worker believed in ghosts and the supernatural, but he definitely also recognized that this girl needed serious help.

Oh, and your old office parties sound way more fun than ours 🙂

25 09 2011
Carlos

This post actually brings back memories on how I found your blog. I remember at a certain point in time, I wondered to myself “Hmmm, most people in these kinds of services are religious to an extent. How would I as an atheist fare in such a situation?” That is when after a quick search online, I found your blog. I think the title of that particular entry was (paraphrasing here): “You’re doing God’s work.” .. Was said to the atheist” and ever since then I was hooked.

So I guess you could say that I share those sentiments of “I don’t really get that point of view sometimes.”. But I take it as something I will eventually have to learn to deal with.

28 09 2011
socialjerk

When I was an undergrad, most of the people I did service work of any kind with were motivated by religion. In social work school, I didn’t think I would encounter that so much, but I found that I was in the minority because I wasn’t into “spiritual” or “Eastern” methods. I’ve accepted that I’ll always be odd one out, at least a bit. 🙂

So glad you’re hooked!

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