I hope my future intern isn’t reading this

29 04 2012

It had to happen sooner or later. The higher-ups at Anonymous Agency have noticed that I’ve been working here for a while, and have deemed that it’s time for me to have an intern.

As an incoming student and intern, I was rather enamoured with the grand social work tradition of giving back and training replacements for when we die the next generation of helping professionals. I recognized that I would be in the position of supervising and teaching at some point.

Now that the point is fast approaching, it sounds a little less noble and a little more terrifying. Being someone’s supervisor, especially when they’re a student, is a big responsibility and a delicate operation. Social workers are needy and insecure (I can say that, I am one) in a tough, emotionally draining field. This is not simply being someone’s boss, assigning them tasks and staying on them to get in on time. It’s nurturing their innate talent, guiding them into a profession that most don’t want, and helping them not to go crazy in the process.

My first supervisor was a dream. I was her first student, and she was adorably excited and enthusiastic. Her door was always open and she brought me cookies on more than one occasion. She believed in my abilities and trusted my judgment. As a result, I was obsessed with not letting her down and pushed myself to do my best work. This was when I was assigned to work with homebound senior citizens, which was far from my chosen field. I was pretty bummed when I first got the assignment. But my supervisor was so encouraging and so clearly loved this population that I was able to see what she saw.

Clearly, I was spoiled.

My next supervisor didn’t return my calls for days, when I was trying to confirm that I would, in fact, be working for her. When I finally started, she continued to pretty much avoid speaking to me.

Remember when I said social workers are needy and insecure? This kind of supervisor turns us into sixteen year old girls going through their first break up. I mean, I just don’t understand what I did! Just talk to me, I think we can work this out! Oh my god, I’m eating this roll of cookie dough, salmonella and my fat thighs be damned!

I was trapped in that classic useless intern role-reading old case files at an empty desk- for the first couple of weeks. I texted my friends and family furiously. I mean, I was paying them to work there. And I was supposed to be preparing for a career that was just around the corner. If there was an opening for a professional highlighter I’d be set, but I hadn’t seen any listings for that on Idealist.

Finally, MIA supervisor revealed that she just didn’t have time for an intern (It wasn’t me, it was her!) and arranged for me to be passed on to her old supervisor. I was assured that my new supervisor was tough, but I would learn a lot from her.

The dating analogy would be too disturbing to continue at this point.

It turns out when some people say “tough,” they actually mean “sociopathic bitch.” Not a term I throw around lightly (or at all) but hear me out.

The first thing this woman ever said to me was “dont wear jeans.” Before “hello, my name is Your Worst Nightmare,” even. This was a Friday, everyone wore jeans, and I never saw a client. But fine.

When I finally started seeing clients, this woman continue to be an asshole tough. I routinely cried after supervision.

For anyone wondering, no, that is not normal. This woman seemed to be kind of like the witch who kidnapped Rapunzel. Instead of my hair, she needed my tears to stay young and vibrant.

I wrote a process recording of one of my more difficult sessions with a young girl I was very stuck with. Strange, as I had almost four weeks of experience as a counselor at that point.

My supervisor laughed while reading it.

“This was a terrible session.”
She could hardly contain her mirth.

“Um…I know. I need help, I’m not sure what to do.”

“Yeah, obviously.”

Am I on a hidden camera version on Horrible Bosses?

Later that year, I hurt my knee while running, and was limping up the stairs to my office. Again, she thought this was a source of great amusement.

“SJ, you have a limp?” She asked as she giggled.

“For the moment. I hurt myself in a race over the weekend.”

“Oh, I was wondering!” She was guffawing at this point.

I would think she had a high tolerance for pain, except I consistently spent half of my time in supervision with her hearing about how I couldn’t imagine how much she suffered due to TMJ, IBS, restless leg syndrome, chronic fatigue, and every other syndrome that can’t be tested for.

Sound really fucking weird? It was.

When she called me at home to tell me I ought to apply for a full time position, because she thought I did excellent work, my response was a genuinely mystified, “You do?” And, even in the horrendous job market, I almost didn’t apply, for fear of working under her again.

Why are some terrible people in social work? I’m not entirely sure. I guess there are bad people in every profession, some people have been in it too long and are too far removed from the people we work with, and some are in it for the wrong reasons. But we can learn from every experience.

That supervisor who gave me nothing and then sent me into this supervisory hell was right. I learned a lot from that supervisor. I learned the kind of supervisor, and human, I never want to be. I learned to appreciate the wonderful supervisor I had before and have now. I learned the importance of providing a supportive environment to an insecure student, and how much an overly critical or dismissive boss can impact a person’s development in the field. I learned that good guidance can not only make or break an experience, but also a new worker’s growth. I learned that it is of the utmost importance for every supervisor to remember that it’s not all about them.

And I learned to never, ever, under any circumstances, discuss digestive issues with an employee.


How to put off writing notes? Writing blog entries!

2 11 2010

I love writing. It’s kind of why I do this blogging thing. I was worried, when I started social work school, that I wouldn’t have time to write anymore. But I was wrong.

I just don’t have much time to write things that I like.

Most social work job listings (not that I’ve been looking) specify that they are looking for someone with good writing skills. I don’t think most people think of this as a field that requires tons of writing.

Let’s all take a minute to laugh at those people, shall we?

Document, document, document. It is the social work mantra. (Well, that and “be nice to each other.”) If you’ve written it down once, surely that isn’t enough. At my job, we have one computer system where we enter contacts that we have with clients. Seeing them in the office, seeing them on home visits, running into them in the bodega (seriously) it all goes in. Along with the purpose of the visit, who you saw, how long it went for, and if anyone looked fat.

Then you get to write progress notes. Every social worker’s dream. (Did a chill just go up anyone’s spine? Just me? Oh, OK.) This is where you record everything else. Did you see the kids? Did any of them have marks or bruises? How was everyone dressed? What did you talk about? If you were in the home, was it clean? Was there food? Why were you there? Type faster, dammit, you’ve got four other people to see today!

I’m beginning to suspect that my computer judges me when I take too long to get my notes done.

Notes can be difficult. It’s like reliving a session. Sometimes, this is fine. We played with play-doh, talked about how we feel about Deadbeat Dad, and drew a picture of an angry monster.

Sometimes, it’s not.

Hmm, what happened first? Well, I think the teen revealed that she had a girlfriend. Then mom screamed at her. Then the teen stormed out. Oh no wait, first she told her mother to “fuck off.” Never mind, she stormed out, came back for her jacket, then told her mother to fuck off.

Am I allowed to write “fuck” in a progress note?

It’s better than social work school, though. In social work school you have a smaller caseload, because you’re in the office for fewer days, but you are still expected to do all the usual documentation. With one additional assignment.

PROCESS RECORDINGS. (OK, I know you all felt it get colder in here that time!)

Is there anything worse than a process recording? Really, one thing, aside from waterboarding?

For those who might be unfamiliar, there are some variations, but here are the basics. One starts off a process recording by making a nifty three column chart. This is where the fun ends.

The first column is where you write what happened in the session. Not bad, right? We do that in the progress notes!

Oh, you poor, naive bastard.

Process recordings are verbatim. Write down word for word what was said in that 45 minute meeting. And don’t leave anything out! You think it’s unimportant, but what the hell do you know? The kid interrupted you? Interesting. The dad needed a bathroom break? Was this before or after you brought up depression screenings? How long was he in there for?

The second column is where you write about the therapeutic interventions and theories you were using. “Yes, that was one of Minuchin’s techniques.” “I brought in CBT to the process.” “I’m going to say this was Freudian, but I’m pulling that out of my ass.”

Then in the third column, talk about how you were feeling while all of this was going on. “I was nervous when she brought this up.” “I experienced some counter transference at this point.”

It’s all so social work-y I could die.

The real fun happens when your supervisor goes over it with a red pen, tearing your work apart and convincing you you’ll never have a clue as to what you’re doing.

But thank goodness we get beyond that. I’ve grown into such a confident, competent, worker.

No time to write about it now, though. I’ve been working on this same note for three hours, and I’m having an anxiety attack about handing it in.

If being a drunk old man is wrong, (you know the rest)

2 08 2010

The most nerve wracking part of starting social work school is finding out your first field placement. The internship.  Free labor for various social service agencies, in exchange for credit and the privilege of writing process recordings. If you’ve never written a process recording, give it a try–remember that hour long conversation you had today? Write it down. Word for word. When you’re done crying, analyze the discussion. How were you feeling? What conversational technique were you utilizing? Have your supervisor dissect it in front of you. Run screaming. Repeat 2-3 times per week.

When I got my field placement information that first year, I cried.

I was to  provide case management services to homebound senior citizens. Essentially I had to go to elderly people’s homes, take their psychosocial information (which is not nearly as wild and crazy as it sounds) and help them to get the services they need.

Does that sound like a party or what?

I wanted to work with kids. It’s what I went into social work to do. It’s what most people I knew went into social work for. I had only ever worked with kids. I knew how to engage them by folding origami cootie-catchers, I knew what they were talking about when they babbled on about SpongeBob and Webkinz. I had patience and was amused by their bizarre behavior.

I didn’t know seniors. I didn’t have grandparents. There was an old man who lived on the corner growing up who yelled at us for walking too fast by his house after school. That was my image of the elderly.

So I was shocked when I loved them.

Old people are hilarious. Especially the “oldest old,” those over 85. Most of them were well aware, and comfortable with the fact that they didn’t have much time left. They took what time they did have to get their affairs in order, spoil their grandchildren, and say and do whatever the hell they way.

Zero filter with these people. “Maybe if you took that ring out of your face you’d have a husband.” “You know you should wear a skirt, show it off a little, trust me, it won’t last forever.” I knew it came from love.

My personal favorite was an 86 year old gentleman, who I only got to meet once. I visited him at the end of my internship year, with my replacement intern in tow for training. We always had to ask the clients about their eating habits. This man told us that he had a light breakfast and lunch, and then “at 5, it’s happy hour.”

I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?

Oh yes. Every evening at 5, this World War II vet broke out the martinis and shrimp cocktail, and had himself a little party.

I could hardly contain my love.

The reaction from my fellow intern was decidedly different.

“I noticed that he said that he has a drink every day. That could be a health risk.”

You’re right. This man survived the Depression, the fuhrer, fifty-two years of marriage and two hip replacements.  It’s time to lecture him on eliminating one of the only remaining joys in his life. I like to think I talked her into a different direction.

I had numerous Holocaust survivors take me through their agonizing histories. I sat with people as they cried over their parents who had died forty years earlier. I saw more class pictures and dance recital videos than I can possibly remember. And, of course, I got to hear amazing stories that cracked me up beyond belief.

I’m back to working with kids (let’s face it, that’s where the millions are) but I hope to return to working with seniors at some point. It’s a field in a lot of need, and I really recommend it. If nothing else, you get to be served cookies on home visits and be a surrogate grandchild every so often.

And you walk away with some great stories.