Brought to you by the letters L and C.

1 08 2013

If you follow me on Twitter, or work with me, or are my Facebook friend, or if I ran into you at the gas station yesterday, you already know–I passed my LCSW exam. Thousands of clinical hours, hundreds of dollars, a pain in the ass application, and a really nerve wracking, long test that I did not allow myself a bathroom break during, and here I am.

There was this other exam happening on Tuesday, I heard. You might have as well, especially if you’re in your late 20s/early 30s, have an awareness of social media, and friends who made admittedly questionable grad school choices. If not, *spoiler alert* it was the bar exam. They only offer that a couple of times a year (or something, I wasn’t really listening) so it’s a bit of an event.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exams for the LMSW and LCSW are a little more low key. You can take them whenever you get an appointment, so it doesn’t make the papers. But you do still have to pay a lot of money for the privilege of taking it, turn out your pockets and roll up your sleeves to be searched for notes before you go in, and I think you get tased if you try to use the bathroom without an escort, so we know it’s legit.

People, aside from us weirdos, don’t talk a whole lot about this exam. When I was in a violent panic studying, I was perturbed by the lack of reliable information. You know how when you go into Barnes and Noble, assuming you’ve never heard of Amazon, there are rows of study books? Official looking tomes for the LSAT, MCAT, SAT, GRE, all that. Look for one from the ASWB. Find it? If you did, where? I couldn’t. I heard them saying this would “compromise the integrity of the test. Riiiight. Don’t worry. Charging $75 for a single online practice exam, though, is dripping with integrity.

So here are my tips, free of charge, exactly what they’re worth.

1.) Take is as soon as possible. The LMSW exam, you can take that almost immediately after you graduate. Do it, if at all possible financially. You might think you want some time to work, or relax after all that time in school. But months become years. Remember what you learned in tenth grade trigonometry? Yeah, me neither.

2.) “Don’t pay for a class! Join a study group. Do practice exams exclusively. I mean, take a class, that’s what you should do!”

Everyone will have a suggestion for you. By nature of taking this test, you’ve completed college and graduate school. You’ve taken standardized exams. You have probably learned what works for you. Do the thing that makes you comfortable and don’t care what other people say. I paid that goddamn $75 for the ASWB online practice exam. I had to! It’s how I learn, and passing that helped my hysteria subside. My coworker went to a Meet Up group. Personally, I’d rather supervise a Druidic ritual, but it was what worked for him.

3.) Don’t tell people when you’re taking it. If it goes well, you get to surprise and dazzle them. If it goes poorly, you get to reveal in your own time. You won’t have to hear, “Are you ready? It’s tomorrow, right?! How did it go?! DID YOU PASS?!?!” Tell your supervisor, tell your boyfriend, tell your dog (that was my way) but keep it elite.

4.) If your agency gives you the day to take the exam, schedule it for the morning. You’ll be happy to have the rest of the day to mourn/revel. Since you haven’t told anyone, if it doesn’t go well you can just tell your colleagues you were sick.

5.) Even if you’re an atheist, or an agnostic, or a Jehovah’s Witness, whatever, when your aunt offers to say a novena for you, let her.

6.) Don’t cram to memorize the DSM. You’ve either just gone to school, been working in the field, or both. You know more than you think. But remember a few crucial things, and when in doubt, pick them:
-Seek additional supervision.
-Explore your counter transference.
-Assess for suicidal ideation.
-Report suspected child abuse to the appropriate authorities.
-And for fuck’s sake, talk to your drunk coworker before ratting him out to the supervisor.

7.) Have a playlist ready. Chill on the way there, party on the way back. (Or, chill on the way back too.) Hint- for a celebratory trip home, Queen’s “We are the Champions” on repeat will suffice. You can replace “we” with your name for extra fun. Not that I did that. So lame. But get yourself as relaxed as possible with The Lumineers on the way there, and you’ll be more likely to sing along to Beyonce’s “Diva” on the way back.

8.) Remember that you’ll be fine. It’s a hard, tricky test and plenty of smart, competent people need to take it more than once. But you will pass, even if it takes a time or two.

And when you do, crank that playlist and celebrate the shit out of it.

“So I’ll come by at one?” “Yes, I’ll be home at two.”

8 01 2013

It really gets drilled into you in Police Academy 4 social work school. We need to treat our clients with respect, and earn their trust. The first, easiest way to do this is to be reliable. Show up on time. Call if you’ll be delayed. (But really, avoid being delayed.)

This also applies in your personal life. When my boyfriend said he would “call tomorrow” the night we met, and then actually did…pretty hot.

I took this seriously, and applied it to my work. It was easy for me. I’m accustomed to being on time. Anyone who has ever been taught by a nun knows better than to show up late. You want to walk into Sister Eileen’s class after it has started? No, no, my friend, I don’t think you do. They don’t hit you anymore, but words hurt.

Being on time was easy for me. It also made sense. We have kind of a lot to do. Scheduling appointments back to back is really the only way to get the work done. It’s what my doctors always do! Except they’re often, in my experience, jerks who don’t keep to their schedule and make everyone else wait. If I’m not like that, and make sure sessions keep to their allotted time, we’ll be fine.

Problem is, I’m not a doctor. People don’t have to see me to get their kids into school or camp, or because they’re afraid they might die. If they’re not in crisis, they’re often not interested. I don’t have the leverage that a doctor has. We don’t charge, so that’s out. And saying, “Well sorry, I won’t be able to see you!” would likely be ineffective, and would also make me feel like a terrible person.

So when people roll in thirty or forty minutes, or a day or two, late, we just kind of have to work with it, and try to address it. It’s often suggested that this is a form of resistance. Sometimes, I’m sure it is, but what if people are late to everything?

Recently, I scheduled a home visit with a client, and asked if I could come by at one pm. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be back by two.” We had to go through that a few times. With a new client, I showed up precisely at four for a home visit, just like I said I would. The second time this happened, she looked at me warily and said, “So you’re always right on time, huh?”

I didn’t know how to respond. When else should I be there?

I’ve been told that my punctuality is cultural. This is, no doubt, largely true. In my family, if we say Christmas dinner begins at 2 pm, you get there by 1:45. You don’t show up at 2:15. It simply isn’t done. When I went to a friend’s baby shower, she made a point of explaining to me that her family is Puerto Rican, and I was to resist the urge to show up on time. It was a struggle, but I got there two hours late. But it was worth it; I wasn’t the first one there. (I arrived after her mother. All other guests got there about an hour later than I.)

I’ve noticed that almost every nationality and race say that they operate on their own “time.” Costa Ricans have “Tico Time” (“Tico” is a neutral term, I can say it), my cousins say they run on “Navajo Time,” mostly older black people I know talk about “CPT” (that one I don’t say), and when I spent a semester in Ireland the Irish kids reminded us to meet them on “Irish time.” My cousin’s husband’s family even say that they have their own family time. I assume that this is because they are gingers.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the hell culture prides themselves on being on time, and have since been told it’s the Germans.

When it gets down to it, though, we need to be on time. For family parties, it’s fine to operate by your own cultural watch.It’s annoying, but not harmful, be that person who everyone tells to show up for brunch twenty minutes earlier than actual meeting time. But for work, for medical appointments, we need to be on time, or nothing will ever get done. And it makes your social worker slowly come undone.

Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I got into it about this, as the kids don’t say, with a coworker. A kid showed up for our summer program a half hour before the doors opened. I explained to him that he was welcome to wait outside, or walk the half block back to his house, until the doors opened.

A Cuban coworker of mine, who worked for another program at the center, and therefore would not be taking time away from her work to entertain this child, told me I should let him in. Against my better judgment, I explained my reasoning. No one was available to watch this kid. We had to set up breakfast. And, more importantly, it sets a bad precedent. The kids need to understand that there is a time they show up and a time that they leave, and that they don’t get whatever they want.

My coworker, by nature of being forty years older than me, I believe, dismissed everything I said. “Stop acting so American,” I was told.

I’m not particularly patriotic. Her snide tone didn’t make my ears fill with the sounds of our national anthem, or spur me to tell her about my ancestors who built this goddamn country. (I’m pretty sure they didn’t.) But it did prompt a good rant.

“How is doing my job and expecting people to show up at a particular time ‘acting American?’ Of course I act American. I am American, we’re currently in America, and I’m talking to an American child who has never left the country. If I let him in a half an hour early, can he leave twenty minutes late? Can he do that at school, or when he gets a job? Are you going to run this haphazard, arrive-and-depart-as-you-please summer program?!”

At this point, a teenage worker reminded me that it was time to count out the correct number of chocolate milks for breakfast. And also that my older coworker had gotten bored and walked away.

It’s a bit like howling at the moon, fighting againsta habit that’s been with someone for life so that you, the worker, can get what you need to get done. But I hold out hope. Because sometimes, at least, they call.

I was behind a client on line while buying Starbursts, does that count?

22 10 2012

When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, I was a stranger in a strange land. A young lady living alone in the frozen tundra of upstate New York. When it turned out that my landlady was, in fact, a deranged old woman, a coworker kindly took me in. This brought a variety of benefits. I didn’t have to pay rent anymore, (I know!) I had my friend to hang out with more often, and I lived within walking distance from my job.

Living very close to where you work is a little strange, especially when you work with kids. I found this out when I was enjoying a beer on the front steps one summer evening.

“Miss SJ! Hey guys that’s Miss SJ!”
“Oh Jesus. Hi kids.”
“Want to take us to the park?”
“Not now, guys.”
“You live here? Do you live by yourself? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend? Where does your mom live? What are you hiding behind your back? It smells like my grandma.”

Social workers tend to have a head start on awkward, and running into clients in public, unexpectedly, really kicks it into gear. We started preparing for for this back in Comedy Central Presents social work school. It was always an ethical question. If you run into a client in public, how do you handle it? You don’t want to “out” someone as a person working with social services, and violate confidentiality. But you also don’t want them to think they’re ignoring you.

The rule of thumb was always to let the client approach you. If they want to say hi, that’s fine. If not, you cry in a corner and question everything you might have done wrong that is also cool. It’s their call.

It can be tempting to throw ethics out the window when you have requirements and quotas to meet.

I found this out when I was reading through notes as an intern. We were required to see all families at least twice per month. Apparently this worker had been struggling to see a particular child, as her note read, “SW saw the child across the street. SW waved to child, she waved back.” That was it.

I have been informed by my supervisor that such a note would be met with a “nice try.” Dammit.

There are some that work. I bumped into a thirteen year old client one day, out walking her dog and her brother. Walking the dog was this girl’s mother’s big request. She was at a loss as to why her daughter could not do this simple thing without being asked seven to ten times. I got to say, “Oh my goodness, are you walking the dog? Without your mom chasing you down the street?” And she was able to tell me, proudly, that she had remembered herself. Also, please notice that she was being nice to her brother. It was pretty much an impromptu, organic session. The thing we all dream of.

Other times, it’s not quite as clear. I heard my name being called while I was walking to the bus. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone. It seemed to be coming from above…and then a tiny ninja dropped down before me. Actually, it was an eight year old boy climbing on the scaffolding on his building. He just dropped in (see what I did there?) to say hi.

We didn’t discuss anything related to the case. But is dangling from a precarious structure with no adult in sight a safety concern, and therefore worthy of a note? Which box do I check for that one?

Then there are the times that you might have been able to count it as a contact, but you never find out. Because you go out of your way to hide. One chatty mother who lived down the block from the agency. She was the kind of client you can hardly get out the door. You let her know time is up, you stand to leave, your coworkers turn the lights off and lock the door, and she shares another anecdote. We’ve all had one.

I’m not proud of getting off the bus a stop early to avoid getting trapped. Or crossing the street, pretending to be more zoned out than I actually was. But I had to. I had other visits to get to in the next several hours.

This goes both ways. I’m sure a mom did this to me when she was out trick or treating with her kids. The casual “I’m going to stare across the street instead of in front of me for no reason!” It’s cool. We’ve all got places to go.

Sometimes, we run into people whose cases we had closed, who we thought we might never see again. This can be bittersweet. It’s almost always nice to see someone, with one or two notable exceptions. But people aren’t always doing well once we close.

I ran into a boy about a year after we closed his case. He approached me, which was nice. His main issue had been his constant marijuana use.

16 y/o: “Hey, SJ.”
SJ: “Hi! How are you guys doing?”
16 y/o: “We’re good. Mom’s good. In school.”
SJ: “That’s great. All right, good to see you. Nice shirt.”
16 y/o: “Huh? Oh, ha, thanks.”

If you guessed this, you win!

They’re not all bad. I ran into an eight year old who could barely sit still when we started working together, who showed me the candy he’d gotten as a reward (side note: probably not the best choice) for his good behavior in school. Of course that was soon after running into a mother at the bodega who happily showed me pictures of her newborn son, then mentioned that her teen daughter was at Rikers Island.

The absolute best, though, my ultimate grand victory, happened quite recently. A fourteen year old girl I had worked with last year came to visit me while on her way home from a half day of school. No reason, just wanted to say hi. I told her how awesome her uniform was, and she was so proud to tell me how well she’s doing in Catholic high school. (Did I mention she’s on a full scholarship? She’s on a full scholarship.) She and her mom were getting along, and she was on the student council. Apparently that exists outside of Happy Days. She gave me a hug and went on her way, probably not aware that she was just responsible for one of my favorite moments of my career.

Social work is a weird field. Our best work often gets done outside the office. In a school, in the home, you just kind of go where it takes you. Even if that’s while someone is dangling from some scaffolding.

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.

I use clips from The Breakfast Club in my work

12 07 2012

When you’re studying groupwork in Village of the Damned social work school, they prepare you for certain things. You know, the doorknob effect, mutual support, a lot about the importance of snacks. (Disclaimer: I was a casework major.) You learn about the need for each group to have defined goals, and a purpose.

I’ve run groups with the themes of self-esteem and communication, mostly. I tend to go with those because they kind of incorporate everything, so I can do what I want.

Each group tends to take on a theme of its own, in addition to what I had planned, which guides and tweaks our curriculum. In the first group I ran, the girls were all obsessed with losing their virginity. It bordered on teen movie style fanaticism. So that group was my introduction to the importance of sex ed, and was the first time I asked a room full of people if they knew where their uterus was. Another group, the girls jokingly called “gay club.” By the second day, 80% of them came out as gay or bisexual. So we went with that, talked about dating, dealing with parents…also Naya Rivera came up a lot, but that’s neither here nor there. My last group could have had the Maury Povich style title “I hate my stepfather!” All of the girls were dealing with their mother’s husband or boyfriend, and he was always a massive tool. We spent a lot of time role playing different scenarios, and trying to figure out what would make Mom listen.

In the fiery pits of Mordor social work school, we also learn about the various roles group members take on. There might be a scapegoat, a ringleader, a deviant…whatever. (Again, casework major.) These roles certainly make sense in a group setting. But I’ve noticed some other titles that pretty much always apply. Boy bands and eighties movies need types, and so do girls’ groups.

1) The Good Student. This is the one who all the girls use on their Human Bingo cards for “I love to read.” Very often she has a somewhat quirky interest that the other girls don’t quite get, like anime or death metal. She needs to be encouraged to stop raising her hand before talking.

2) The Comedian. This is the one who must make others laugh in order to know she exists. Everyone loves to laugh, but it’s not the best when you’re trying to lead a group bonding activity or someone is revealing their history of sexual abuse. Great for breaking the ice, not too helpful in staying on task. (See also: SJ, ninth grade.)

3) The Cuckoo Bananas One. This girl reads things on the internet, and believes them. To a degree that’s alarming even for an adolescent. Like, more so than that aunt of yours who keeps forwarding you $250 cookie recipes, or warnings about how murderers are using recorded crying baby sounds to lure women to their deaths. (Snopes is giving out “don’t look ridiculous” for free, people.)

But really. Did you know the government is going to move us all into tiny compounds by the end of the year? And of course 9/11 was an inside job. You can see the strings, people!

At first I thought this was just one wacky girl in my first group. But it’s continued over the years, and I think it belongs in a textbook.

4) The Youngest Child. This one may or may not be the youngest in the group, or even the youngest in their family. They’re just perceive themselves to be at risk of being left out at all times, and as a result laugh a little too hard at the Comedian’s jokes and agree a little too quickly with Cuckoo Bananas’ theories…and then with the people who disagree with her. She needs to be assured that people like her for her, then learn that it doesn’t matter as much as she thinks.

5) The Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching. This girl might be a little bit older, have done a group before, or just be a little more experienced than the other girls in the group. She fancies herself a bit of a mentor, which is great until she gives advice like, “you should just do sex once to get it over with” or “make him wash it off first.” (Those are actual quotes. Actual.)

6) The One Who Drives You Insane, Out Of Love. Oh wait, that’s all of them. They love Chris Brown, they idolize Snooki (“she’s herself!” Yeah, and her self is terrible) they disappear for a couple of weeks and return seemingly minus all the progress they’ve made.

But you keep going, welcoming them back and telling them you’re thrilled to see them (because you are!) and remember that, while it’s way too trite and Hallmark movie to say, “you get even more out of group than they do”–the Comedian does make you laugh, the Good Student gives you hope for the future, Cuckoo Bananas keeps you on your toes and comes out with a gem every so often, the Youngest Child is endearing as hell, and the Teacher You Wish Would Stop Teaching just wants to help her friends and is actually learning.

Also, there are always snacks.

All the cool kids are cranky about ethics

21 06 2012

Julea Ward, a counseling (not social work) student in Michigan with an unfortunately misspelled name (I’m annoyed with her, I can be petty) got rather tetchy when asked to see a certain client during her internship. This was no ordinary client, you see. The young man was a…homosexual.

Are we all scandalized? Have your pearls been sufficiently clutched?

Ms. Ward said she couldn’t “affirm homosexuality” because it “goes against the bible.” And why shouldn’t she be able to avoid gay people all her life, including in her work? She’s not going to be a counselor at a Broadway musical or roller derby event, for god’s sake! It’s not as though the gays are three dimensional individuals you might encounter in, say, a high school, where Ms. Ward would like to work.

Now, Michigan has taken it upon themselves to say that anyone studying in a “counseling, social work, or psychology program” doesn’t have to deal with people who engage in behaviors that go against their sincerely held beliefs. Legislators, they know better than us silly helping professionals! It’s similar to how much I enjoy it when a judge tells me how I ought to be engaging a child in counseling.

Are we all done laughing?

Ms. Ward was not studying to be a social worker. But this ridiculous law extends to us. Even though it violates our own code of ethics. That makes it fair game for my righteous anger and sarcasm.

Our code of ethics calls upon us to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to” lots of things, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We also are not to “practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Nothing in that code of ethics says, “unless the religion you choose to follow says not to. Then forget it, run as fast as your legs may carry you, but you can still totes be one of us!” No. We’ve got a profession to uphold. If you simply want to talk nicely to people and help them feel better, then do it on your own time without a title. As social workers, we don’t discriminate.

We’re also not supposed to discriminate based on religion, some clever, outside-the-box thinker always brings up. (I know I’ve been punching you in the face for hours, but you hit me back. That’s bullying!)

Ms. Ward’s beliefs were not being discriminated against. She can hold whatever misguided views she wants to. But she wants to be a professional and attend an accredited institution. Which means she can’t turn and run whenever a gay person walks in the door. What if the person isn’t totally gay, but experimented a little at a Boy Scout Jamboree? I mean, where exactly is the line? What if the person is being held as a slave and isn’t obeying his master, (Ephesians 6:5), would Ms. Ward still be willing to counsel that person? I’m just wondering, because she says she doesn’t go against the bible.

Not to mention that no one is telling a Christian counselor at a public agency or school to “affirm homosexuality.” It doesn’t need affirming, it just is. Ms. Ward was not being asked to sit with this client gabbing about his latest date, saying, “Ah, guy on guy action. Yes. Way to go!” She was supposed to help him in managing his depression. (Which I’m sure this debacle worked wonders for.) Even if his sexual orientation was a part of what he was working through, it doesn’t matter. You don’t say that you won’t deal with someone because a part of who they are just isn’t good enough for you. If a social work intern told me that they wouldn’t work with a Dominican family, or an interracial couple, I would think they were in the wrong profession. Just as I think Ms. Ward is.

I don’t have religious beliefs. But I have values. Violence, particularly against a weaker, defenseless person, goes against my values. Exploiting someone’s addiction goes against my values. Helping a child to decorate her jacket with Justin Bieber paraphernalia goes against my values. However, these are things that I have to work with.

We don’t get to be all that picky in our work. For one thing, the people who truly need our help typically have, you know, problems. Drug addiction, anger management, mental illness…you know, the kind of people Jesus would shun.

I’m being told that’s actually the opposite of what Jesus would do.

Clinical social workers, and other clinicians in private practice, can choose who they’re going to take on and who they won’t. They can have their reasons. They should be in line with our code of ethics, of course, but they have some leeway and control in terms of what populations they specialize in and who they take on. Every social worker, particularly every social work student, I know works for an agency. Ms. Ward, as I mentioned, planned to be a school counselor.

No big deal. Most high schools have at least fifteen different counselors, so someone could pick up the cases that Ms. Ward felt squeamish about. Right?

Oh, no. That’s not how it works. In this field you get what you get, and you do the work on yourself to make sure you can deal with it. I didn’t think I would be able to work with sexually abused children. I wouldn’t go to an agency that serves this specific population exclusively. But I’m part of a team, and this is an issue that comes up all the time. I can’t say, “sorry, I don’t do that. I’m special and I get to choose.” I got my shit together, and I do my job.

We can’t say that we’re only going to work with people who do things our way. Of course we try to help people to change their harmful behaviors. But if you think living openly as the gay person you were born to be is harmful, then you need to do some research. Research that isn’t sponsored by Focus on the Family or the National Organization of Marriage. Research by or supported and accepted by the organizations you supposedly have enough respect for that you want to attend their accredited institutions and be a part of their body of professionals–National Association of Social Workers, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, all those guys.

That’s what pisses me off, in addition to the blatant homophobia hidden in religion. Educate me, legitimize my work, but let me do whatever I damn well please, because I have beliefs. No. You can’t have it both ways.

We know our profession, and we know our values. We need to have enough respect for it to stand up for it to those who don’t.

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.

Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

When I was fresh out of a pineapple under the sea social work school, I was 25 years old. I worked for two years after undergrad as a child wrangler coordinator of an elementary after school program, so I wasn’t one of those brutally obnoxious 23 year olds, but I was close. I had also always been a year younger than everyone in my grade, either due to being a genius, or born on January 1st. My brother and most of my cousins are older than I am. In short, I’ve been rather accustomed to being one of the youngest, wherever I go, for quite some time now.

But of course, things change.

There’s a lot of turnover in social work, particularly in the field of child welfare. I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed that everyone in child welfare seems to have either been in the field for fewer than three years, or more than thirty. There’s not much in between. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s a high burnout field. People get into it when they’re young and energetic. A lot of the time, that doesn’t last. For some, work in child welfare is like me every year the day after the New York City marathon. I think, why don’t I do that? It seems amazing and like lots of fun. Then I run for three miles and remember that I don’t really care for it.

Then there are others who just never seem to leave. Many are talented, and dedicated to the field. They rise within the agency and make changes from the top. Some just stick around long enough and wind up getting promoted because…seniority, or something. No one really knows.

I’m coming up on three years, so I guess we’ll find out which category I fall into.

My first year as an intern, I worked with homebound senior citizens. These are the people we ominously call the “oldest old.” 85 and up, for the most part. They looked at fresh-faced little SJ as though a fetus had been sent to their home. They asked how old I was and reminded me to wear a coat.

The next year, I began working with families. It seemed that all we talked about in supervision and in class was the fact that I, like many of my student contemporaries, appeared to be about 12. Would this be insulting or troubling to families? I mean, who is this kid, telling me how to raise my kids? Would the teens walk all over me because I’m obviously not a real grown up?

For the most part, it was never a terrible issue with clients. Most people seemed willing to take me on merit. What held me back was not my age, but my inexperience. I lacked confidence in my abilities, because you know, I didn’t have much in the way of abilities yet. (By the way, students–it’s fine. Everyone has to learn, and there’s no other way.)

It was, however, a bit of an issue for coworkers, at times. I had a supervisor who condescendingly told me she was too nervous to send me out on home visits, because I looked like I could be her daughter. Cool, I’ll just put my feet up, I guess. People felt free to ask how old I was, which I think is a little rude, unless you’re trying to set that person up on a playdate. My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often met with a laugh and an, “Oh, you’ll see how it is after a few years!” Will I? Tell me how it will be, soothsayer, I wish to know the future too!

Like I said, though, things change.

I’m 28 now. I’ve always looked young, but I’m old enough now that people who think I’m a teenager are either under eight, over 80, or a little deranged. Last week I did a school visit, and was scolded for not having my school ID. I patiently (or something) explained that I was a social worker, not a student, and was allowed up to the office after a minimally invasive metal detector wanding. (Imagine going through the equivalent of airport security every day, just to go to high school. Ugh.) When I got up to the guidance counselor’s office, I was immediately asked if I was Miguel’s mom.

I have no idea who Miguel is, but I know that he’s not my child, and that he’s a high school student. Meaning that it seemed that I had aged about twenty years on the staircase.

I’m not the youngest around the office anymore. There is a crop of 24 and 25 year olds starting up, and I’m suddenly in the strange position of being considered one of the seasoned workers. (Mmm, paprika!) These new workers are more idealistic and energetic than me. They might even be cuter than me…I’m pretty sure they’re not cuter than me. But it’s weird to no longer have that, hey, I’m the youthful new gal thing to fall back on. I’m legit now. People come to me with questions about paperwork and benefits, and very often I know the answers. They come to me for advice when they’re stuck with a client. The assumption there is that I know what I’m doing, which can be a little scary to live up to.

While I’m still mistaken for a teen or a parent during school visits, at some point it will only be parent. And that will make sense. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.

But I’m pretty sure I will freak the fuck out when I turn 30.

Safety First…well, maybe third

23 02 2012

Recently, I was reading an article by a fellow social work blogger. DorleeM interviewed a former police officer who worked in the mental health field, on the topic of social worker safety.

Safety is an important topic in social work. We work in volatile situations with people who have difficulty controlling themselves. We often work in high crime areas. Very often, we have parents who worry about us. (Who can maybe skip over this post.)

Upon coming across this article, I thought, “What could this guy possibly have to teach me? No one would mess with that hat and mustache combo. What could he know about being a lone white girl wandering into situations where she’s not wanted?”

In a moment usually reserved for mandatory trainings, I got something out of it when I wasn’t expecting to. The best thing he did was confirm what I knew.

Be aware of your surroundings. Listen to your instincts. Get out of the situation if you feel unsafe.

When I was eight, some puppets came to my elementary school to teach us how not to get molested. They talked about the importance of listening to what you’re feeling. They termed it the “uh-oh feeling” that you get in your tummy. The one that caused Arnold Drummond to book it out of that bicycle shop.

Oh Dudley, why didn’t you listen?

But that’s essentially what listening to your instincts is. This situation feels weird…why is that? Maybe I should figure it out and be on my way.

I have had some mildly scary sessions. Homes where domestic violence is present are always a bit dangerous. Mentall illness is, by nature, unpredictable.

I once had “white dick sucking bitch!” yelled at me by a client’s adult son. This was shortly after he was released from prison for attempted murder.

In my head, I was thinking, “Watch your adjective placement, you’re saying something slightly different than you intend to. Also, I object to your slut shaming tone. Sexual behaviors are not relevant here.” In practice, I listened to his mother and left the apartment with her.

Those scary experiences with clients are pretty limited, for me. More often, I get nervous on the street.

Not long ago, I was walking to the bus after work, and noticed something was off. A minute later, everyone started running and my brain processed, “they’re going to start shooting.” I essentially did a cartoon double take–THEY’RE GOING TO START SHOOTING!!! A bus driver saw me running towards the stop and waited for me, the modern day Bronx equivalent of a knight riding up on a noble steed, and I was perfectly safe.

Safety is, supposedly, an important topic to our directors and supervisors. They often remind us to “be careful.” (Thanks. What they fuck does that entail?) Or to bring along a coworker if we feel unsafe. (Because they all have so much free time.)

We need to figure out ways to make ourselves feel safe. So, like any sensible lady, I’ve procured some pepper spray and invested in comfy shoes.

I’m familiar with the area. I know when something’s out of place. I’ve seen people get their phones ripped off them enough times to know what someone who is about to do some mugging looks like. If you’re dressing in a manner that doesn’t let me see your face, I’ll grant you that privacy and book it.

I’m so aware of my surroundings you might think I have some sort of weird eye twitch. I also always have my head phones on, so I can ignore you, but they’re on low, so I can hear you. It’s only mildly crafty, but it works for me.

I also know who I can trust. I have been in the neighborhood long enough and forged enough positive relationships that I know where I can run to, need be. One of my moms adores and is always really sweet to me, but I’ve seen her talk to people she feels have “messed with her” and she’s fucking scary. Her door is always open. The deli and bodega guys have sent their kids to summer camp on my Starbursts purchases, so they’re always willing to help. My supervisor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, and has street smarts and experience that I just don’t. If I plan ahead, she’s happy to work being my back up into her busy schedule. (I’ve only used this once, but it’s good to know it’s an option.)

There was a time in my life when I gave a shit about looking like a crazy person, or insulting someone, by crossing the street when I saw them coming. That time is long gone. As annoying as it is, often the shortest way home is not the safest. I will walk out of my way in order to take the busier, better lit route. Even if I’m racing home to catch Glee.

Note: taking the deserted, poorly lit, shorter route to make it home in time for my favorite show was an actual internal debate I had at one point.

I recently canceled a home visit for the first time ever due to safety concerns. This was the home of my young boy who was shot. The building is awful and run by a gang on a normal day. I’ve had one issue, in which some charmingly terrrifying dude on the elevator yelled at me as I got off, “ACS bitches gonna die!”

Again, my inner monologue was quite sassy. “I’m not ACS, and we’re all gonna die one day, sir. Bitch…I’ll let you have that one.” Again, in practice, I hid behind someone’s mom. My dear client was waiting for me at her door, shot Elevator Tough Guy a look, and there were no further issues.

Aside from that, everyone in that building knows me and greets me like I’m a beloved regular. When I walk in the front door, people hanging out or waiting for the elevator tell me if my client is in.

But that day, I had the uh-oh feeling. There were no creepy bike shop owners trying to ply me with liquor (I really hope you all watched Diff’rent Strokes) but I felt weird about the guys on the elevator.

I got on, though, because I didn’t want people to think I was scared, and I wanted to make my appointment in time, and those elevators suck. You know, those things that seem important at the time?

That feeling crept up on me again, when going to visit my littlest shooting victim. So my badass supervisor came with me, and the day was without incident.

We don’t want to listen to that feeling. One client told me how her son’s court appointed drug counselor was terrified to go to their building. “And I told her, Miss SJ walks right in! Miss SJ is bold.” In that moment, I was proud. I’m bold! I’m not scared.

I’m not bold. I’m dumb. Sometimes you get so used to a place you don’t see it from the outside. I have moments when I’m walking to the train in the dark, wondering what my parents would think if they saw me. My mind essentially replays the scene from Armageddon when Liv Tyler is crying at the TV monitor, begging her father not to go.

I got in a little debate about safety with a fellow student back in la-la land social work school about child protection workers bringing police officers to do removals. This fellow student, a well-intentioned lunatic, said that she didn’t think it was right. “Our clients don’t get police escorts home!”

Um, no shit. Because they’re going to their home. We’re going into someone else’s home. Obviously it’s still dangerous to live in these high crime areas, but there’s a difference between belonging there and being a good-doing interloper. Especially if you’re there to take someone’s kid. You might feel like you belong, as I often did at the building I mentioned earlier. But I was reminded that I actually don’t, by those helpful elevator assholes.

The “one of these things that’s not like the other” is the easiest to pick out, and sometimes, we look like targets. (That’s far from exclusively a race thing, by the way.) We need to remember that feelings of unconditional positive regard and an understanding of the socioeconomic factors that lead to gang violence aren’t going to protect us.

So let’s buddy up, check in, tighten those shoelaces, and make sure your mace is facing away from you.

Enough about you…

2 02 2012

On my first day in my casework class, back in Narnia social work school, we got right down to business. (After introducing ourselves, and sharing one thing about ourselves that people would never guess. I thought it was too early for serial killer jokes, and that is an opportunity I will never get back.)

We were, for the most part, inexperienced in the field. There are plenty of people who go to social work school while working in what are essentially social work positions, but there didn’t happen to be any of them in this class. Any questions we were answering or thoughts we were sharing were those of unskilled, uneducated do-gooders.

Which, we all know, are the worst.

The professor posed a hypothetical situation–someone comes in to see you, depressed over the death of a relative. What can you say?

We all kind of froze. No one wants to be the idiot who gets the answer wrong, perfectly illustrating that they are in no way suited for the job that they are training for, on the first day of class.

Finally, someone spoke up. I think he called on, actually, because it got that bad, but that’s not the point. He said what was obviously the first thing to pop into his head. “Maybe you could tell them how you can relate? Like, tell them about a relative that you had that died?”

We spent the remaining hour of the class discussing why this should never happen.

Come on, you know you all jumped out of your seats and yelled, “WRONG!” just like Dana Carvey in the old SNL McLaughlin Group skits. (Do yourself a favor and YouTube that shit.)

I can understand why that guy said it, though. It’s what people do.

“I’m so depressed, my cat just died.”
“Oh, I know how you feel, I was a wreck when I lost my hamster.”

“I feel awful, my aunt has cancer.”
“Ugh, it’s the worst, my sister is just recovering from that.”

“My life is over. A hot air balloon landed in my neighbor’s yard, knocking over his fig tree and crushing my foot as I lounged in my hammock.”

Despite being the go-to response in non-therapeutic settings, “I know how you feel, listen to my story” has rarely made anyone feel better.

1.) You can’t relate to everything.

As shown  in our foot-death-by-hot-air-balloon story, not everyone has every experience. You might not have lost a parent, or maybe you hate cats and can’t imagine someone getting so worked up other loss of a pet. (Who the hell are you, you monster?) That doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic, and listen to someone when they’re in distress. But if, “Hey, me too!” is the only trick in your bag, you’re going to be scrambling when that situation presents itself.

2.) Oh, I’m sorry, let’s talk about you.

See, I thought I was sharing something that I was going through. Apparently, this brought up your need to talk about something that you’ve been dealing with, but had somehow forgotten about until I started talking.

In an effort to be sympathetic, and show that they understand, people often take over the conversation. Next think you know, you’re comforting the friend you called on for support.

“I know, you’ve had those Chucks forever, I can’t believe the sole finally wore through. But…remember when I said I got fired?”

3.) No, you don’t know how I feel.

This is a big one. When you are dealing with something, tragic, unfair, or just sad in your life, no one else understands. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been through the exact same thing. Your feelings are unique, no one has ever felt sadness the way you do.

I’m not saying this sarcastically. This is how people feel, and it’s fine. (For a while.)

When I was in college, a boy I had known for a long time overdosed and died. Not only was I devastated, I was living in a new city with people I hardly knew. Eventually I told them, and one of the people in my house suggested we pray for this boy. I explained that I wasn’t quite there. He smiled and said, “I know how you feel.”

He went on to tell me about his friend who had committed suicide, and how she was burning in hell, just like my friend who had overdosed, so we really ought to be praying for them.

I won’t get into exactly how it all ended, though there were tears, screaming, and locked doors involved. But the entire time he was talking, I just remember thinking, “I wish you would fucking die” “You know how I feel? I don’t know how I feel.”

Keep it to yourself.

Sidenote: telling someone that the person they’re missing is being tortured by fire and pitchforks? Something else you should keep to yourself.

4.) There’s no award for oneupsmanship.

You don’t win for being the most miserable. Unless there was some kind of “Asshole Award,” and now that I think about it, there probably is. I don’t think most people are consciously trying to one up someone who is in distress, but it seems to turn into that.

“My boyfriend is back in rehab.”
“Been there. My dad was always in and out of rehab. When he wasn’t beating the shit out of me.”

You might have it worse than the person you’re talking to. Such things are difficult to quantify, but I think we can all agree that the Baudelaire children had it worse than Goldilocks. But let’s imagine Goldilocks came to them, saying, “Violet, this has been the worst day. I caught a cold from sampling porridge from strangers, my nap was interrupted, and I got chased out of a house by some grizzlies.” A response of, “Well, our parents are dead, everything we own was destroyed in a fire, we’re being chased by an evil madman, and everything we love turns to shit” would not make anyone feel better.

I don’t usually leave it to Craig Ferguson to wrap things up, but in this instance I will. Let’s all ask ourselves:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?

Happy empathy, everybody.