The social worker the Bronx deserves, but not the one it needs.

30 07 2012

I remember seeing the 1960s Adam West Batman TV show for the first time when I was six years old, on a rainy day during a family vacation. This was a year after I had seen the Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, which, as I was five, scared the shit out of me. But I was mesmerized by the cartoon-y, campy version, which led me to fall in love with the grittier film, and even more in love with Batman Returns. Then I just kind of fell in love with Chris O’Donnell (yes please) even though the movies got terrible. During this time, though, I came upon the wealth of graphic novels (or comics, if you want to be a dick about it) that kept my Batman love alive until Christopher Nolan’s brilliance reminded the rest of the world of what Batman had to offer.

So I had been counting down the days until I could see The Dark Knight Rises.

Most of us are only thinking of one thing when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises. I have a few friends who are refusing to see it in theaters. Not out of some sort of protest over violence in film, but because they’re really scared. I understand that. I don’t think it’s sensible, or going to keep them safe, but it’s understandable.

When I talk about Batman here, I’m not going to talk about the shooting. Because, like most people, I don’t believe the shooting had a thing to do with the movie. If it hadn’t been at this movie, it would have been at some other event. It was about a possibly ill, definitely terrible person, who was able to get a lot of weaponry way too easily, finding the easiest way to murder a lot of people. I’m terribly sad for everyone involved, of course, but there’s not really anything more to say here.

My love of comics expanded over the years, particularly to include the X-Men, but Batman always had a special place in my heart. He’s always reminded me of social work.

Back in Two-Face’s lair social work school, I did a presentation in my Social Work and the Arts class about using comics in our work. My main inspiration for that was The Crow. James O’Barr wrote it as a way of coping with the death of his girlfriend, who was killed by a drunk driver. He channeled everything he was feeling, the grief and loss and rage at not being able to protect her, and was able to create a character that could avenge the woman he loved, and protect others.

I mean, comic books are for kids.

The X-Men are part of a minority group, largely hated for the thing that makes them different, debating whether to try to change what they are, to fight the majority with violence, or to embrace what makes them different and use it to help others. Art Spiegelman dealt with the trauma and horror his family had been through, and shared the repercussions with the world, in Maus. One! Hundred! Demons! is all about exorcising those things that haunt you–abuse, bad relationships, weird families–through art.

And of course there are the actual issues that our superheroes tackle–Northstar’s coming out and recent marriage, (Mazel tov, by the way) Magneto’s life as a Holocaust survivor, Iron Man’s alcoholism, and Batman witnessing the tragic death of his parents, then growing up to take back his city from the violent criminals that have taken over.

If there was any question as to why Batman resonates with me so much.

I wrote about the young boy I work with who was randomly shot earlier in the year. There was another awful event in the city recently, in which a four year old boy was shot to death on a playground. Things like this happen a lot. We have random shootings and muggings with depressing regularity, particularly where I work.

Being social workers, we know it’s so much more complex than good versus evil. As much as the people who shot those children are the bad guys (and they are) we also know that they have their own stories. Their own trauma. We often wonder what makes some kids survive whatever they go through, and work incredibly hard to have a different life, as opposed to some kids who take the same path their bad examples and influences did. Sometimes it’s easier to conceive of it all as a choice between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, Charles Xavier and Max Eisenhardt.

Sometimes it’s nice to fantasize that one of those kids is going to grow up to reject the drugs and gun violence that plagues our neighborhood and take it back for the hardworking citizens that make up a majority of the population. It’s nice to imagine that it’s a clear choice between good and evil, that good has an unlimited budget and some of the greatest minds in the world working on its side, and that the power of a symbol can unite people in hope.

Until that time, I’ll  keep doing the work, firmly in the grey area. But I’ll keep reading my comics, because we all need to escape, and we all need hope.

For “savior,” press one. Para español, oprima numero dos.

30 08 2010

Confession time: I’m a comic book geek. Who doesn’t love a good hero story? My favorite is, of course, Batman. (I was there before Christian Bale, just so we’re clear.) A traumatized child grows up and uses his phobia to rectify his past? What social worker wouldn’t love that?

The truth is, we all want to be heroes. No one goes into a helping profession hoping that it will be a futile, uphill battle. You know it probably will be, but you hope that you’ll have those superhero moments.

“A child care subsidy? I believe I’ve got that right here!” “Domestic violence? Unhand that lady! To the shelter!”

This is particularly acute in social work school. During your internship, you want someone you can save. Just someone who will be able to look back at your time together and say, hey, this social worker helped me. Life is better now.

Sometimes it happens. Some people notice. But often, progress is so gradual, and not at all what clients expect, that they aren’t able to look back and see these things.

And then there are the heroes along the way.

These people are what I call “swoop and savers.” They haven’t been present for the life of the case. They get called in, very late in the game, and things are abundantly clear to them. These people know just what the clients need, and it is oh-so-simple to deliver it.

I have a teenage client who has spent her summer in a psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrists are intimidating as it is. They have medical degrees, they wear white coats, and they have access to all those drugs.

One psychiatrist in particular decided he had my client figured out. The real problem stems not from her mental illness, but from the tense relationship with her mother. Why hasn’t the mother been more involved in counseling?

Well…I…we did, at first, but…I stuttered for a while on the phone, embarrassed at my ineptitude, until I agreed to come in for a family session.

After about ten minutes, the girl and her mother were yelling over each other, while the girl punched a wall and threw anything in the room that wasn’t nailed down. I tried to reason with her while Dr. Saves-a-lot called for help.

Oh right.

That’s why we hadn’t been doing this.

We had done family sessions. For months, when the case first opened. But sometimes there’s a lot to be done before those can be productive. After a year with this family, I knew that. In knowing this family for a week, this psychiatrist assumed he knew better than the social worker. (Note: anti-MSW bias will come back to bite you.)

I’ve gotten lots of questions from other helping professionals, similar to the ones I got from this psychiatrist. “Why hasn’t this child been evaluated?” “Why hasn’t this family been reunited?” “Why didn’t you help this family to find new housing?” “Don’t you know ANYTHING?”

We all want other people in similar fields to know that we’re competent, that we’re doing our jobs, and that we’re doing the best we can. We also all want to be that one person who can change this client’s life.

We each know how hard it is to do that. But why is it so hard to remember that when we’re looking at someone else’s work, and trying to fly to the rescue?

Flashback Thursday (damn you alliteration)

15 07 2010

Social work school is, I think, harder than most people expect. There is an incredible amount of reading to be done, and you have to intern three days a week for the entire two years.

You’re also surrounded by maniacs.

I went to a pretty competitive school with a great reputation. One of the ones that make people say, “Ooh, that’s a good school!” when you mention you attended. And I have to respond with, “Yeah, I’m glad I survived.”

I decided to take a class called “Social Work and the Arts.” It was described as helping students to bring art into their social work practice. I thought it would help me to bring my interest in writing into my work.

What it did was give me some classic stories, that rival those of my friends who went to musical theater school. (These are people who wore masks for an entire semester, for credit.)

On our first day, we were asked to form a circle in the middle of the room. The professor decided that the graduate students needed to participate in an ice breaker. We each had to say our names, and do some kind of movement. The class would then repeat it. Hoping to leave with my dignity intact, I said my name and waved.

The disappointment in the room was palpable.

“Molly” jumped up and down. “Larry” hula-hooped, sans hoop. “Gina” took the cake by turning around and shaking her butt for the rest of the class.

Did I mention that this was grad school? And that I was expected to imitate these people?

Things only got worse when it was explained that this was one of those classes that the students would teach–halfway through the semester, the professor gives up and group projects take over.

I was in the writing group, naturally. Fortunately for me, people who choose writing are reclusive and weird, and were content to take the coward’s way out–Powerpoint. I did a charming presentation on using comic books in therapy. (Side note- if the X-Men don’t help your gay teen to accept him or herself, nothing will.)

Then there was the dance group.

First we had to pass a ball around the room, not using our hands. Then we had to talk about how that made us feel. Powerless? Creative? One girl shared that she almost passed Jack the ball with her knees, until she realized her crotch would be in his face “and I remembered you had a boyfriend.”

Right, because if Jack was single and loved the ladies, crotch-face during classtime would be a-ok.

There’s more to this, I promise. I’m trying to avoid a ‘nam-style flashback by not getting too in-depth here. Social Work and the Arts will be back, but until then, remember: I’m a trained professional.