I don’t even think I have bootstraps

29 09 2011

I was a sociology major as an undergrad. It made sense to me, as I knew I was going into social work. I stand by that major, though I’ve heard many people disparage it as an easy way to get through college. Hint: everything’s easy if you don’t do any work.

Learning about society and how we function together as a unit to avoid killing and eating each other (it’s possible I just read Hunger Games) has been very helpful to me as a social worker. One professor in particular made a major impression on me, and made me think about some things that inform my practice in a different way.

This professor was old. Really old. He told us stories about growing up during the Depression. And of course, he had way more energy than any of the 20 year olds in the room. He talked about how people should work long past 65 now, because we live so much longer. He told us about his trips to South America, climbing mountains and hiking in rainforests with native people.

You’d think a tough guy like this would be pretty into that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. (I don’t really know what that means. My boots have a fashionable and convenient side zipper.)

But he was the first person I heard say, “Some people are born on third base and grow up thinking they hit a triple.” Lots of those people were in the room, so it was a pretty cool moment.

I think we’re all familiar with this attitude when it comes to financial issues. People who think they’ve worked so hard to get where they are, and maybe they have, but who fail to recognize how lucky they were. To have parents who supported them, to have been able to go to college, to not have had to drop out to care for a sick relative.

My professor was fascinated with what he described as the American ideal–pushing through adversity. Not admitting weakness. Not admitting defeat. He told us a story about a time he almost died giving a lecture, because he decided to ignore severe abdominal pain until his appendix ruptured. The man running the event he was speaking at talked to my professor’s wife, after he had been rushed to the hospital. “Your husband’s quite a guy,” he said with admiration.

“You think so?” said his wife. “Well, I think he’s an asshole.”

I want to be friends with her.

I have to deal with this attitude from parents, teachers, and other workers all the time. Many parents have told me that they understand that their child has a mental illness. However, that is no excuse for poor behavior!

Well, it kind of is. Not that we should let it go. But you have to adjust your expectations. If we’re not going to do that, then what does a diagnosis even mean? You have ADHD, you have bipolar disorder, you have PTSD, but we’re going to act like you don’t. Hmm…

These parents always tell me that their children know right from wrong. I’m sure that they do. But the voices in their head don’t seem to. And when your brain is rushing so fast that you don’t have a minute to slow down and take in and process new information, you’re bound to make some bad decisions. We have kids evaluated and diagnosed when they’re struggling with these things so they can get treatment, so adults in their lives can be a little more patient, and so those same adults can learn what’s effective with this child’s unique ways of thinking and behaving. And yet it’s so hard to let go of the idea that clinging to those same expectations, and resisting medication and other treatments, is somehow superior.

I remember talking with a fellow student back in college, who had an IEP in high school and was entitled to extra test time. However, he was embarrassed and always refused to take it. The other girl we were talking to said, “I’m proud of you for not taking the extra time!”

1. You’re not his mom.
2. Why? Because he jeopardized his academic career for the sake of appearances? Because failing in the face of unfair standards is better than passing, if it means admitting you need help?
3. Why are you still talking. She doesn’t even go here! (Anyone? Come on.)

“If we admit that something is wrong, then we’re coddling him!” You’re right. You there, in the wheelchair! Up, now! If we give in to this desire to be pushed around everywhere, she’s never going to get up and walk.

Of course that’s ridiculous. But we say things like that all the time. To people with disabilities we can’t see, to people with histories we don’t know. They’re doing this incredibly destructive, unproductive thing. Why don’t they just stop it? I don’t know. Why don’t we work together? Simply saying, “Stop. Get yourself together. Do things this way” doesn’t make you a purveyor of tough love.

It makes you, in the words of my dear professor’s wife, an asshole.

Marty McFly, and Other Social Work Pioneers

26 07 2011

I wouldn’t expect most of you to know this, but I’m a bit of a time travel nerd. I think it started with my dad’s love of Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was a kid–I was pretty jealous that Sherman got to do all that traveling in the WABAC Machine with Mr. Peabody. Then of course there was Back to the Future (I’m sorry, it’s pretty much the greatest trilogy of all time, Lord of the Rings be damned.) When I got a bit older took physics, read “A Brief History of Time,” and momentarily dedicated myself to turning my aunt’s Ford Tempo into Doc’s DeLoreon.

Somehow, I never quite mastered it. Hence turning to social work. As convenient as time travel would be, as we get older, we realize that it’s not likely to happen any time soon. (Or, according to these assholes psysicists, not at all.)

At least, that’s what I thought. The more people I talk to about my job, or hear talk about the issues I face every day, the more I realize that some people believe that Back to the Future was, in fact, a documentary.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw when I’m constantly being told what people should have done to avoid their current situations, and how they don’t deserve assistance if they’re not willing to go back and undo their terrible decisions.

I hear this all the time, and it blows my mind. Especially when it comes to people who have children.

SocialJerk:              “One of my clients is facing eviction, I’m really worried.”
Compassionate Soul:”Well, maybe she should have paid her rent.”
SJ:         “That will be a great comfort to her four year old.”
CS:        “Maybe she shouldn’t have had kids she couldn’t afford.”
SJ:         “She was only 16 and in an abusive relationship when she got pregnant.”
CS:        “Maybe she should have picked a better boyfriend and kept her legs closed.”
SJ:         “Maybe you should duck, because I’m throwing a flower pot at you.”
CS:        “What?” *thud*

That’s not to say my clients haven’t made preventable mistakes, or bad choices. I think most humans have. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have clients I wish I could throttle. (Metaphorically.) People who miss their kids’ appointments, pay for cable before buying groceries, or refuse to attend school meetings. And there’s certainly something to be said for dealing with consequences. There are changes that the families I work with need to make. Some of them need to learn to budget to prevent future eviction. Some need to learn non-physical discipline to avoid traumatizing their children. Some need to understand that cursing at a teacher or boss because you feel “disrespected” will not, in fact, warrant you the positive outcome that you’re seeking.

But to simply point out that someone shouldn’t have had a child, or shouldn’t have dropped out of school, or shouldn’t have stayed with an abusive partner does nothing for the present situation.

The person who most often suffers when we punish people for poor choices and mistakes is not the person who made the decision.

It’s their child.

Compassionate suggestions that we reduce benefits for people who have children while on public assistance, as some sort of deterrent, are really punishing that new baby. The idea that teen parents need to be shamed for being “promiscuous,” as some kind of example, actually shames their child. Cutting off WIC or Medicaid due to a missed appointment might teach a parent the importance of being punctual. But more likely, it will make their child miss out on a nutritious meal or a check up.

Not only that, it will teach that parent to be distrustful, and to learn ways to “work” the system, that is clearly working against them.

Do we want to learn from our mistakes? Of course. Is it important to identify cycles of destructive behavior so that they can be broken, and not crop up in the next generation? Absolutely. But sitting around pointing out everything that should have been done, telling someone what foresight they should have had at age fourteen, blaming people who aren’t even available to the family, does nothing for the current situation. All it does it make things seem hopeless. Well, I can’t change those things that happened, so…I guess I might as well just keep doing them? Because at least they’re fun, and comfortable? Or maybe just throw in the towel.

My Ford Tempo caught fire on the side of the highway*, so I’m even further behind in perfecting time travel. But I will make it happen, no matter what those scientists say. However, until I do that, perhaps we can chill out on the blame, in favor of doing something constructive.

*True Story.

Everyone is wrong, unless they agree with me- Unknown

30 06 2011

As a writer, and a social worker, I’ve learned something very important: everybody’s a critic. Every damn person you meet will have an idea as to have you could have done more, done it better, and gotten it done faster than you did. Never mind that it seems that they aren’t really doing anything. Just commenting on why everyone else is wrong.

Back in Anarchy in the UK social work school, this was a common phenomenon.  Social work and the arts was a particularly good scene for this.

One day in class, we got on to the topic of child soldiers in Africa. I had just read a book on the subject, and people were eagerly exchanging ideas about how to incorporate the artistic methods we had been discussing and learning about into rehabilitating these children.

“I heard about an art program that they were using. The kids didn’t have photos of their families, so they were working with them to draw their memories and create new scrapbooks.”

Well that’s lovely. How non-controversial. Really, something everyone can enjoy.

Some asshole always has to ruin it.

“Did that idea come organically from their community?”

No, it was not organic. They used pesticides, you nitwit.

“Because what I heard was the UN workers went in and taught this model, and then African workers used it with the kids.”
“Oh, OK. I didn’t know that. I thought it had come from their culture.”

Yes. And if the crayolas were not made right there in Sudan, then it’s just wrong! Cultural genocide, I say!

What would have been better? Months of brainstorming so similar ideas could arise “organically” from these children’s fellow countrymen? The UN and international community in general doing nothing? Or is the most important thing that these kids were getting the help they desperately needed?

You have three guesses as to which I believe. I think you’ll only need one.

I’ve encountered similar nonsense regarding the It Gets Better Project. I’m a big fan of it. (And Dan Savage. Anyone who can do to Rick Santorum what has been done…you have my respect, sir.) It seemed pretty non-controversial. Who among us, gay, straight, whatever, wouldn’t want to go back to their high school self and say, “Relax, kid. One day you’ll be living the glamorous life of a social worker. You will have great friends, be stunningly good looking, and will actually like your family!” Or something similar. Considering that LGBT kids were choosing suicide as a better alternative to completing high school, because they saw no hope for the future, it seemed like a reasonable option.

Until I heard the criticism.

“Things don’t really get better, don’t lie to kids.”
My condolences on your cynical assholery.

“YouTube videos don’t make things better!”
I’m sorry, but have you seen that surprised kitty being tickled?

“Oh yeah, just adopt and travel to Paris with your committed partner. That doesn’t take into account racial discrimination or socioeconomic issues.”
Yes, how dare a successful man draw on his own experience to talk to young people dealing with something he’s already gotten through!

The most common sentiment seemed to be that this wasn’t enough. We needed laws, anti-bullying programs, mentors, allies. I don’t think anyone at the It Gets Better project would disagree. But what’s wrong with taking a half hour to make a video that might reach someone? Does it hurt? Does it take away thirty valuable minutes that would have otherwise been spent in direct service to an at-risk adolescent?

Because if you can’t do everything, it’s best to just do nothing. I think Gandhi said that.

On the topic of Gandhi, I was recently told, by a liberal blogger, that the man who led a non violent revolution against a great colonial power was no good, because apparently he didn’t like gay people. Seriously. He wasn’t perfect, so forget everything he did. Margaret Sanger too, because she was a racist. And early feminists were not inclusive of non-white, non-heterosexual women. Forget them all!

After a brief period of disillusionment, I was actually kind of happy when I learned that Martin Luther King Jr. was a chronic adulterer. It sounds strange, but it makes sense (in my head.) You mean he wasn’t a saint, but he accomplished all that he did? He was just a dumb human? I’m one of those too! Maybe there’s hope! I can do things too!

I get it about my work too. How I should be incorporating culture more, making more of an effort to track down uninvolved fathers, come in on weekends to meet the clients where they are, organize protests to address social injustice, because that always gets left out. I’m not doing my work perfectly, but I am doing it.

It seems like some people are looking for an excuse to not have hope. The system is so large, so flawed, there are so many -isms to combat, I don’t have the experience, I’m not of the oppressed minority…ok, cool. Guess I don’t have to do anything! I’ll just sit back and judge. So comfy up here.

Before we blindly criiticize the work that others are doing, let’s ask ourselves: can I do better? Am I doing better? If the answer is, “Um, sure. Just don’t feel like it right now” it might be time to shut up.  Recognize that you can see these flaws due to those who came before you. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.

And we should acknowledge that in our whiny blogs.