Author Archives: kceci

Questions for my Would-Be Therapist

We do not take credit for our families’ successes and accomplishments, so why are we so quick to blame ourselves for their downfalls and breakdowns?

I’m going on two years in the field and I can say that my number one struggle remains to be setting and maintaining emotional boundaries.

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estabilishing personal boundaries can be really difficult

 

Already an issue due to the very personal way I approach the work, I find this separation almost impossible the longer I remain working alongside each family. Over time, due to the nature of the general preventive model, I am enmeshed in every way within my “strictly professional” relationships. From having a comprehensive understanding of their histories, their day to day realities to the hopes and dreams they carry for the future, it is not long before I begin to carry these as my own; before I pour my time, passion and effort into helping them achieve their goals because, damn it, they deserve it. Each and every one of them deserves a shot at stability and certainty; a moment for the chaos around them to release them from its grips, for the dust to settle so they can finally see and believe in their innate ability and self-worth. And I was put into their lives to help them with this, entering with promises already broken by virtue of my utter powerlessness to impact such entrenched patterns of injustice.

Walking alongside them day after day, I am overwhelmed in the face of the structural and cyclical blockades that threaten to strangle their capacity for self-determination. Ultimately it is all unbearably out of my control. How do I continue to pour myself into these hole-filled containers when so much of me already remains in puddles on the floor? How do I make a job sustainable that inherently triggers the failed efforts of my past to fix my own family?

I am starting to see that this is what likely leads to my feelings of personal failure when things go awry- the way they more than likely would have whether I was present in this capacity or not. Despite rationally knowing that I was not the cause of these breakdowns, my empathetic prowess works to my detriment in not allowing me to separate their devastation from my own.

It seems I care much too much. But how can I reconcile this with my fear of apathy and hopelessness jading and hardening my soul? How do I continue in this fight without allowing it to break me down in the process? How do I strike this fundamentally important balance?

I don’t have the answers here. Nor do I have the funds to afford a therapist that might be more able to guide me to them. So where am I to go? Despite my consistent efforts towards self-care- maintaining a vibrant social life, doing yoga, etc etc, I cannot seem to shake these deep questions I am confronted with each and every time I step back into the office. I try to write it out in my journal and reach out to professional contacts for advice, remind myself that I am planting seeds for individual impact and I will never truly know how far that impact will reverberate out. I repeat the golden mantra of social work that “All I can do is all I can do” but somehow through all that, it just never seems to be enough.

Ultimately, my fears extend far beyond my own personal mental health concerns/existential dilemmas regarding my purpose in life. There is a startling lack of support and flexibility given to most front-line staff making the conscious decision to dedicate their lives to these efforts. I believe that among the multitudes of egregious social injustices that need to be addressed, the high turnover rate within social welfare agencies due to widespread compassion fatigue and burn-out  is an important one to talk about because it systemically perpetuates many of the issues we set out to ameliorate. Statistically, a majority of social service providers choose this profession based on a strong personal identification with the population they serve. Thus, the inevitability of transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and other triggering experiences must be adequately supported to keep our fellow warriors in the fight instead of allowing it to break them down. If we are not given agency support and a safe space to collectively grapple with these emotional minefields, we are increasingly unable to provide this care to those we serve. In fact, the lack of consistency and apathy that prevails when these challenges go unacknowledged can result in disserving those we wish to help.

Much like what I believe my families could truly benefit from, I think we as direct practice staff need to coalesce for our common good. We need a safe and consistent space to come together to address and support each other through these trademark textbook symptoms that we face on a day to day basis that go on compounding like interest over time. Although I have yet to find the time and energy to formally channel these frustrations into a funnel of productivity, I aim to develop a curriculum to be used as a guide for us as a community of social workers to unpack the emotional baggage we so often carry alone in this line of work. A space where we share and acknowledge the burden we willingly accepted when we chose this as a profession. Where we come to realize and understand that while we made that choice alone initially, we are all in this fight together and need each other if we intend to make it out alive. Or if we simply want to avoid the additional cost of traditional therapy;)

Front-line workers need to support one another.

Front-line workers need to support one another.

So. Who’s with me?

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Year one- The Aftermath

Hi Jess-

It has been awhile… what a whirlwind of a summer, huh? I’ve been doing all right for the most part… back to school definitely comes with a lot more work but its exciting since I have been preparing most of my families all summer and now we will see what comes of it. I’m trying to be hopeful. Unfortunately the last couple weeks have been extremely emotional and hard. I went to my first funeral on Tuesday for a child from a family that I had worked with before my medical leave. Her friends and family often called her Monsta. She had sickle cell anemia. She was 9.

Although I’m no longer working with the family, this whole experience has highlighted for me how truly batshit crazy of a job this is… that the unmatched vulnerable nature of my position is one that is simultaneously beautiful and ab-so-lutely terrifying.

I have realized that what we so often laxly refer to as “caseloads” are in reality an extended web of close and trusting relationships that do not end once a case is transferred or closed. That by virtue of entering into a family and getting to know them from the inside out the way we do, we will go on carrying that profound level of knowledge and understanding of who they are, where they came from and the obstacles they face- and with that- all of the dreams, hopes and compassion we develop with and for them over the course of that relationship. We come in rooting for them all, even though we know that statistically, many of them will not be able to achieve the heights we help them to aspire to- for reasons far too complicated to simply blame on individual failures or shortcomings. We find ourselves feeling frustratingly stagnant at times because of these invisible ceilings that our families are up against, and even more-so by the blatant blockages and limitations we are bogged down by as the workers slated to support them through these minefields of oppression, poverty and discrimination. But how are we to feel when sickness and death rip one of our soldiers out of the fight before she is even given the opportunity to confront it for herself? When we cannot point our fingers of blame at the ism’s society has seemingly maliciously created and unjustly imposed? Grief has the ability to swallow you whole because there is nothing and no one to blame for the unexpected loss of a child who suffered (although she would never show it) from a genetic disease.

To watch and be a part of the most raw and intimate moments of each family’s lifecycle thus far has been equal measures of wildly beautiful, inexplicably frustrating, and heart wrenchingly painful. I am but a little over a year in and I have this pleasure/curse of carrying with me the full spectrum of human emotion and experience, not only for myself, family, and friends, but extended now to 20+ sets of parents, grandparents and children- and that is overwhelming to say the least. Although I hate to describe it as baggage or weight that I carry, in moments like these it is hard to see it as anything but, and I must admit that this realization scares the shit out of me. Throughout the course of this year, my deep and far reaching empathetic capacity, something I initially thought would be a great asset and strength in this field, has simultaneously been my biggest downfall. And I’m not quite sure how to feel about that yet.

In order to make it through this first year as a child welfare warrior, I have had no choice but to (try to) come to terms with this limitation, and all limitations that get in the way of creating and fostering the lasting change that my families need to sustain in order to ensure the safe and nurtured development of their children. I thought I had mastered it- that the trick was simply in framing my role with the families that I work with as that of a modern day, female version of Johnny Appleseed (we’ll go with Jenny); planting small seeds of hope, motivation, accountability, and healing each time I had a conversation with my parents and their children. I told myself that like all seeds, they would take time and care and the right environment to flourish into saplings, let alone to begin taking root in the individuals I was asking to change. I told myself that what I so often felt as personal responsibility for my families’ lack of progress (I don’t have the clinical skills, for a start) was in fact beyond both my own or their control. That, despite my title as Preventive Case Planner, I could not, in fact, have prevented (or planned) many of the crises my families have experienced over the last year. When I recognized that this left me with the role of holding their hands through the crises, picking them up once the dust settled, and trying again to guide them in the right direction- a weight lifted off my shoulders. That, I could do. But to pick my own self up, to pick up and support my co-worker who has stood by them through it all in a way I honestly don’t think I could’ve handled, let alone how the family will even begin to pick up the shattered pieces of their universe after a tragedy so deep… this will be a constant struggle for us all.

Moving forward, which is all we can really do, I’m daunted to no end to think that this may be the first of many tragedies like this to impact me and the people that I work alongside and care about. At this point, it is impossible to say if my capacity to cope will only get stronger or if I will even be able to bear another.  Still yet, through the tears, I am driven to continue being a positive force for these families who are all too often socially isolated and disempowered and left to languish on the fringes of our society. Despite the baggage it brings, the endless complexity of human relationships still fascinates me unlike any other field of study, and this is not something I can easily turn my back on- this truly seems to be my soul’s purpose, and I fear that it would not be fulfilled if I ran away, even and especially if it was to protect myself.

Attending M’s funeral this week was one of the more difficult experiences of my already tumultuous life. But it wasn’t about me. It was about her family and friends, all of us as a community of souls who were blessed to have known her smile, coming together to show our support and send out our incredible amounts of love and appreciation that we knew her while we could, because what else can we possibly do? All of us, no matter what we choose as a profession, are given chances every day to share our light with those around us that need it, sometimes desperately. And we can all agree that this world could use a little more light. I’d like to think that through the hardships I will be able to remind myself that this is not only a worthy endeavor but a pretty damn cool job description at that.

Although I am still reeling from the loss of a vibrant and incredible baby girl I had the pleasure to know during her short stay in this life, I look forward to the birth of yet another just around the corner that awaits another family in my ever extending web. Life is absurd in its endlessly fleeting and unpredictable nature- in both its light and darkness.

Only together, as brothers and sisters of the human race, will we be able to fully embrace it, celebrate it, mourn it, grow with it and triumph over it.

With love and a forever bleeding heart,

K

PS. Guess we might as well turn this into a blog post, eh?

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A Secret Art of Thinking

 “For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect…

meditationWithin Siddhartha there slowly grew and ripened the knowledge of what wisdom really was and the goal of his long seeking. It was nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life. ” – Herman Hesse

So I’m sure by this point each of us has become all too closely acquainted with the fact that change is not easy… for anyone. In fact we are so averse to the concept that it is quite possibly the hardest thing anyone could ask us to do. In life, we are all faced daily with a glaring contradiction between this culturally induced, irrational fear and the knowledge that life and all that it is comprised of is as transitory as transitory can be. A series of changes has brought each and every one of us to the point we now stand and will continue to push us with varying degrees of force to propel us forward on this winding path. When we resist rather than confront the inevitable changes of our lives, we preclude ourselves from embracing them as lessons and opportunities that the universe is purposely setting into place for us to overcome in order to become. To change is to grow; to live, and the faster we could all come to terms with this the better off we would be. Obviously easier said then done, I have found that deliberately doing AND saying things that are consistent with this natural law of life often makes it easier to accept over time. Perhaps that is why the inward change I recently experienced was welcomed rather than met with opposition.  Uncannily enough, this deep perspective shift happened to coincide with my completion of Siddhartha, so, naturally, I was compelled to write a blog post about it;)

I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say that something simply clicked within me throughout the course of this week and I feel drenched – as though everything is sinking into my porous and unquenchable spongy self. I’m really (finally) settling in to myself and my job and my life here in the concrete jungle I was initially very quick to renounce. To me, it was pretty damn ironic I had somehow ended up living and working in a city that I was weary of from the outset- quick to determine that I did not vibe with the trash ridden urban sprawl of New York’s boroughs, nor with its overwhelming millions of hasty, corporate-minded and consumerist residents. With its pockets of immense wealth juxtaposed to the rampant homelessness among many other blatant reminders of societal abandonment in other, less rummaged, ones, I found it hard to reconcile my face-value judgments with the image of New York held by the international imaginary as the ultimate testing ground for immigrants’ high hopes nestled in the American meritocracy. It is no secret that people the world 0ver subscribe to the belief that New York is the cradle of hope and opportunity, Wall St. and Broadway. Of course, I was definitely drawn by the appeal of its alternate persona- the hundred years of history, art and culture produced in the Harlem Renaissance and the incredible and timeless feats of civil rights activism that occurred on the very streets I casually stroll daily.  I cannot deny that my new place of residence lives up to its reputation as the most lively, diverse cultural hotbed for incredible musicians, artists, 20-something activists and entrepreneurs from all walks of life drawn together in this one anomalous place. I tried to convince myself that there truly was no better time than my post-grad point in life to experience this (despite the fact that I’m broker than broke), that it wouldn’t make sense to go hole up in Rural, Nowheresville… no matter how badly I missed (miss)  trees. But my strong convictions called for far more than just a little convincing. The entire process of slowly digging beyond this outsider perspective involved whopping amounts of reframing on my part, forcibly re-angling my vantage points and squinting like mad to discover new ways of appreciating the nuances operating behind and emanating from the nonstop chaos in the streets and the towering trash piles and even in the various smells that waft from every direction in this city of nightmare-esque dreams.

You know that whole grace period you give yourself to acclimate after a huge life transition? I feel like some of them end more subtly than others. Since the moment I moved to New York, I have been engaged in this agonizingly gradual process of habituation- consistently trying to reflect on all of these face-value reactions, thoughts and consequent opinions I’ve been forming and collecting. I repeat the spiel in my head, the premeditated mantras I give to those that ask me how I am adjusting, what I am doing now, and why. As I have a ridiculous amount of commute time, I often find myself reflecting on them in a sea of sleep-deprived strangers that, for however brief a period of time, are all forced together in that small physical and temporal space; each one a different and complicated protagonist in the play of their own lives. Plays in which we all only stand in as momentary extras that odds say will probably never be seen again. It is strange, but I began to realize that this precise setting, one that I so easily denounced as an annoying inconvenience, was actually a rich and nutrient environment in which to plant small seeds of appreciation.

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From within the hurried crowds began to sprout small saplings of recognition that certain preconceptions I was using as defenses no longer rang true. At some point or another I had, in fact, completely out-grown the opinions I had clung to so strongly before. I began to recognize that the very same principles I had been operating within professionally were also starting to apply to the deepest depths of my own personal development.

Through a series of serendipitous and organic moments of connection, and conversely- disconnection (read: singing and dancing in the Times Square subway station and truly paying no mind to anyone else around me), I found that I deeply appreciated how liberated in the anonymity I was beginning to feel. Being my “grit and bear it” type self, I honestly was not anticipating ever reaching a point where I would be able to say this about any aspect of New York. But my preconceived notions about myself and the people and place around me were the only things that managed to delay this realization of the beauty, value and freedom in the bustling life all around me here. I have come to find that my days are filled to the brim with such constant, new and genuinely diverse and incredible stimulation everywhere I turn, and in that so many opportunities to connect with the people who supply it; to surprise them; to make their day just by acknowledging their worth and our sameness despite the fact that we are strangers that happen to be in completely different walks of life… I had a hankering from the start but every moment of my days here really just emphasizes the mere fact that we are ALL THE DAMN SAME. With each his own but glaringly similar “vanities, desires and trivialities”. It’s actually sad to see how taken aback people are when I just take the time to ask them about themselves or their families, to simply listen and try to convey how genuinely thankful I am for whatever interaction or transaction we share, even if it’s just being open to chat as we wait for the subway at 3am. And then to see it reciprocated every time (mostly in the form of free food, which has been awesome) just solidifies how grateful they are to be recognized as human- to not be devalued just because of their job or position in society, something, I have found, that is not taken for granted here in the city.

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And wouldn’t ya know, all of this just so happens to relate to the most basic and amazing aspect of our roles within the world of Social Work. This pure drive to humanize and empower families simply by showing them empathy, respect, and letting them know that they are not alone in what they face, no matter how much our individualistic culture forces them to believe otherwise. I am of the belief that this egalitarian approach to humanity as one unified and powerful community organism can and should be spread beyond the families that we work with in our professional context, for both their and our own sakes. It is something that has easily bled into my perceptions in a lot of ways and its exciting to be in such an anomalous place that allows me to practice it daily and with everyone that the universe puts me into contact with- for however long or short a time. To have so many opportunities to share all these powerful moments of warmth and positivity with people allowed me to realize how my spirit could be nourished, rather than defaced, by the bountiful ecology of New York City. It basically felt as though I had discovered the most perfectly fabulous pair of prescription sunglasses at the Salvation Army- the ones that allow me to see and experience the world in the perfect tint of appreciation and acceptance (which turns out to be this lovely and iridescent shade of tangerine). In more ways than I can explain, this has helped me to deal with this crazy transition into my adult life as a Preventive Case Planner in Harlem- not only helping to quell the random bouts of loneliness and emotional distress but simultaneously allowing myself to remove the barricades I think we all surround ourselves in to be able to share in that consciousness of unity and oneness that envelopes the world. Sure, I’m cohabitating with mice in an 8′ by 14′ office space and I’m stressing about the realizations I have slowly been making about this field and our limited role within it. But, all in all, that seems like a pretty palatable corollary of mastering this secret and sacred art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of this fleetingly beautiful life.

perspective

Perspective

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