Thoughts on Burnout, and my Social-Worky Soul
A few years ago, I was gainfully and happily(?) employed by 2 non-profits, in two full-time human service positions, very different from one another, but challenging, in a great way. I had been with both of these agencies for several years, in various capacities. I had the privilege of direct work with folks in one, and management in the second. Each supported the other by providing insider knowledge of the workings, barriers, and nuances of human service provision, from both sides of the coin. I was also actively pursuing a graduate degree in a demanding every-weekend-for-3-years-program, and was building the beginnings of a private practice. Yes, I had 3 jobs and was going to school. I was putting in about 90 hours per week. Yay me! I had no other life to speak of, and I had moved a very long commute away from my work and academic worlds (and personal supports), in order to achieve bliss during the rare moments, in which I actually got to live in the over-mortgaged home, I moved heaven and earth to possess, in an effort to achieve, said bliss. But that, is a different story entirely, one I will tell elsewhere. Oh, and I had just launched my then 19 year old ManChild. I spent the last 12 of his 19 years at that point, modelling what I thought at the time, was a good way to be in the world: Driven, striving, achieving, setting ever loftier goals, ever more impossible expectations for self, and inadvertently, those I served, including him. It was not pretty.
I was as driven by the injustices in the world, directed at me and the folks I consider my people, as I was by my own burning desire to prove certain people wrong, about whom and what I was, and I had many, many cheerleaders to fuel my passion. Go Marcela, we know you can, we know you can! Go go go, rah rah rah! Pom-Poms flying high, everyone I knew had my back, they were there for me! How I appreciated their appreciation! Adored their adoration! 2010 appeared to be a high point in my professional and academic life, I was already planning for the PhD. I could not, however, for the life of me, shake what had become a constant low-key discomfort, a knowing, that something, was very wrong. I thought out loud, about some of the following for the newsletter of one of my employers. It was never finished or printed, they were afraid, rightfully, for the funding that remained, I was afraid, rightfully, for my jobs. The foreboding, the dread in my heart, was bang on. It always is.
September, 2010 (edited, 2014):
I am passionate about my work. Anyone who knows me will agree with this statement. I am, admittedly, a social-worky type; I care deeply about human beings and human struggle. I want to do something that matters in my lifetime. I want more than anything, for struggling folks to have access to the resources that were available to me when I struggled. I believe, with all my heart, that even the most depraved, desperate and deprived souls, can be redeemed when we treat them with love, respect, and some measure of human dignity, but not, at the cost of losing or giving away our own. This is easier said than done. Humans in crisis are often difficult to love, I was. We must look beyond the obvious, beyond the attitude and defences, to their context, to understand their so-called choices. Our humanity must connect with their humanity, regardless of where they are, what they have done, to whom. This requires true grit, and unconditional positive regard; for them, and for us; who undertake the role of Sherpa, on what has become a gruelling trek, a mountaineering expedition, for too many ill-equipped, bare-footed, often inadvertent, hikers. For me it is not about us and them, it is we, together, trying to navigate unconscionable systems, booby-trapped at every turn with (more) bureaucratic quagmire, than even professional trail-blazers, social-worky types like yours truly, can stumble their way through, without sustaining serious injury to the body, spirit and psyche.
So, I continue to climb ever-steeper hills, traverse ever more treacherous mountains alongside the folks off whose misery I make a living. I try not to vomit every time someone says ‘oh good for you for helping those people,’ in a tone so patronizing and derogatory that the thought of gouging my eyeballs out with a rusty dinner fork, feels like so much fun. Those people; are my people, our people, human beings experiencing human struggle. Not one of them, not a single solitary one, raised their hand and said “this is where I want to be in life, this (insert human struggle of choice here) is what I aspire to,” when they were asked in grade one, what they want to be when they grow up. I know I didn’t.
Staunchly, stoic little social-worky type that I am, I trudge onward and upward, human dignity, social justice and plain old rebel adrenaline fueling my (com)passion and activist engines. The climb is more and more difficult, even for me, the energizer bunny’s jet-propelled twin sister, and I struggle to stay optimistic in the face of sweeping cuts to social (human) services. Cuts cleverly disguised as Community Development Ventures, Service Provision Efficiency Models, Transformation Projects and similarly ridiculous rhetoric and drivel, which at the core, is nothing more than the silo-ing and big-boxing of human services. It comes at the direct expense of society’s most vulnerable, stigmatized, marginalized, and barriered individuals, families and communities, and those of us sincerely engaged in creating meaningful change in their/our lives, and to the systems and structures oppressing us all. One cannot pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps when their boots have been taken away, and glass strewn on the ground they are to trudge on to do something with their lives. And us helpers, cannot help, how I despise that word, because our hands are tied behind our backs with restrictive/prescriptive and victim-blaming solutions, never mind the onslaught of one-size-fits-all of big-box human services. Pass me the rusty dinner fork, please, I am about to hurl!
I think about the young Aboriginal woman on my case-load, the one whose file I was forced to close, who will not see her child, the child who will not see his mother, because a funding contract has come to an end, and no other planning has occurred that will ensure their rights, their human dignity, maintain their mother-child bond and relationship. It appears that not much has changed in 500 years for her and her people; and anyone else who has the misfortune of a life context and experience that does not fit the box. I am tired. Tired of the victim blaming, tired of preaching to the converted, and above all, tired of convincing my people, that things will be OK, and that I will be there for them, that I’ve got their back, when the truth is, a month from now; I might not have a job. I see the steamroller coming but continue to stoically stand in its path, trying desperately to believe that good and evil are but silly concepts in a Harry Potter book, and that justice will prevail. I have to believe that the steamroller will not hit me, us. And I ask myself; stoic or stupid?
Fast-forward to June 2011:
The steamroller hits full on. I am flattened to the ground, melted into a puddle of toxic human-service waste. Lit on fire with the only spark that remains: self-loathing and a personal refrain screaming inside me: You failed! You were not strong enough! You did not know enough, did not do enough, you did not try hard enough! You are not enough! Burn.
One job went the way of a massive lay-off following sweeping funding cuts to the Province’s human service sector, as it pertained to child protective and related community services. These cuts to contracts induced the permanent folding of one of the very organizations that had a pivotal role in my personal success, so many years ago; one of the reasons I am in this work, stayed clean, got the kid back, got letters behind my name, made something of my wretched existence, and similar bla bla… . I know something about personal struggle. I have come through the other side of multiple life traumas (MoP&PP), harmful survival responses and systemic barriers, waded through more shit than many have flushed, all of which had reduced me, for a time, to what much of mainstream culture treats like so much manure on the bottom of their well-heeled feet.
The other job, the management position, the one it felt as though I had bled my soul into for the better part of 6 years, went the way of complete and utter burnout, and workplace bullying. Both were fuelled in a large part by the massive funding structure changes, the slashing of financial contracts to crucial programs, and a ‘new and improved,’ funder imposed, model of service provision. One that would see the organization morph from it’s against-all-odds-successful-grass roots-methods, to just another boxed program that in no way, shape or form, could work for the folks we trudged alongside, or for us, the professional trudgers with the benefit of lived experience, and privilege of letters behind our names. I was bullied by someone I had hired to help me, and then I was fired because I had fried to a crisp and was too broken to a) do my job well, and b), too tired to notice that I was being bullied and broken, until it was too late, on both counts. I take full responsibility for the parts that were mine, but I will encourage you to think about this from Vikki Reynolds. She is the first person to have articulated, well, my thoughts, position, confusion, about the internally and externally perpetuated myths on burnout, in the milieus and worlds I occupy, as a human helper-type:
Ideas of burnout sound like we’re not doing enough yoga or drinking enough water- and those are important things I do yoga and I drink water- but self-care is not enough to offset the issues of poverty, violence, and basic dignity people struggle with. Self-care puts the burden of working in unjust contexts onto the backs of us as individual workers. Work alongside people with more money, resources and status is less likely to result in what gets called burnout and can make those workers look more professional, when in fact all people’s pain is real, and we don’t want to be pitted against each other as workers. The problem of staying alive in the work gets constructed as a very individual project. Yet the issues are social and require collective actions and accountability.
This, and Vikki’s other various writings on this topic remind me of why I despise the term front-line, as a descriptor for direct work with folks in pain: it implies, rather explicitly, that they are the enemy I, and others like me, are fighting. When in truth, our enemy is a mutual one, regardless of any individual’s, family’s, or group’s personal or collective struggle. The enemy is the systems and structures of a world that is neither benign, nor fair, and nothing like, just.
Fast-forward to February 2014:
The bulk of my income for the past several years has come from self-employment in private practice, as a Registered Social Worker and Family Development Counsellor. My work includes negotiation, access supervision and documentation in child protection and/or custody and access disputes, mediation, counselling, group and individual life skills work, and compassionate interventions. It might, but might not; involve working hand in hand with the Child Protection System, the Legal System and/or Corrections. The only common denominator for all of this work is that the client pays me, not the systems. There is no specific demographic group; my people come from all walks of life and socio-economic statuses, levels of education, in all colours and ethnicities, and from all corners of the world. No, and no, they are not all sex workers and drug addicts. I know you were wondering. I charge sliding scale/income based fees, I subsidize the poor with the rich. Some days I feel like Robin Hood-ette, others, I just cringe that this is what the systems have devolved to: in some instances, I am the only game in town for someone to be able to spend more than one hour per week with their child(ren), and try to prove to their detractors, whom-ever they be, that they are worthy as parents.
There are no benefits involved, I have not been to the dentist in almost 4 years, no sick days with pay, no paid holidays, and other than the amazing woman I pay for clinical supervision/counselling, no support from an organization’s team leader, or team members/colleagues. At times, not even the police have my back when the shit hits the fan. And it does. I have had complaints filed against me to the BC College of Social Workers more than once, always by folks who did not receive the glowing documentation that they thought they were paying for. I am registered with the College by choice, because I believe that everyone in this work, regardless of your academic title or background, needs to be accountable to something other than self. And while I have never feared that the College would find me guilty of the crimes I purportedly committed against these folks, the process is time-consuming, laborious, and one that places the onus squarely on my shoulders, to prove my innocence.
On the flip side, this work is as challenging, in a great way, as any other in the realm of supporting other folks get to a better place, watching someone’s face light up because they ‘get it,’ and my clients’ success rate, is considered high. I attribute this to a very human and pragmatic style of practice, which places human dignity in the number one position in terms of practice principles, and taking context into account in the number two, along with the obvious best interests and safety of children, in cases where little people are involved. My sole purpose and goal in any new client/case I take on, is to work myself out of a job. Not great job security, but as far as I’m concerned, the only ethical outcome possible, is to support folks to get to a place where they do not require my services any more, and not to Social-Work or Therapize them to death for the sake of a continuing pay-cheque.
My job is never the same two days in a row, often takes place in several communities in the course of a day, and sometimes, I even get to do the job the way I believe it needs to be done. The money is better than in the non-profits per hour, but there is a very high financial, physical, and emotional output, and I certainly will not be able to retire any time soon. Most likely, not at all, there is also no pension plan. The cheerleaders refrain (go back a paragraph or two), turned a long time ago, from Go Marcela! to noises like ‘you have taken on too much, you should learn to slow down, have a hot bath, do some yoga, drink more water, you thrive on drama, and that client probably threatened you because you pushed his buttons or you did not write them a favourable report, provide the testimony they needed… .’ Let me be clear: I do not get paid to report, write, counsel, testify about what anyone wants to hear, I get paid to tell the truth, and if that truth sucks, I expect folks to change it, according to the plan we have collaboratively worked out, so that I can leave, knowing they are safer, stronger, than when I got there. Mostly though, the cheerleaders left when I crashed and burned. It appears, that a good chunk of my rah-rah team was a bunch of fair-weather friends, turned frightened-guinea fowl when the flames got too high, and the heat in my kitchen threatened to singe their happy perceptions of what my success and their support ought to look like. How unfortunate, that my reality blew up your fantasy. One of them hung around long enough to help me put out the blaze, start the next rise out of the ashes, but she’s gone now too. Please, do not misunderstand, I am neither bitter nor hurt, any more, just a little leery of what comes next.
For I am feeling it again, rumblings of 2010. I sense an anxiety that I am unable to shake, even when I turn my phones off before I walk into my safety zone(s), and set rigid boundaries around checking work email, doing paper work or making work calls from said zone(s). It, the anxiety, made an entrance a few weeks ago, and has become omnipresent in recent days, and fuelled by an incident with someone I have not even met. Someone I have refused to work with, because everything I know about violence was screaming inside me while talking to them on the phone. Someone who feels it is within their rights to threaten me (and others) to the point where I’m watching my back and looking for a certain vehicle around every bend. I have been here before. Literally.
To respond to the well-meaning but fairly misguided community professional I spoke with about this recently; yes, this is the work I have chosen, and yes, there is some risk involved, but that risk should not include the negative social responses and victim blaming language (Centre for Response Based Therapy) and comments I am subjected to on a daily basis; about the people I trudge alongside, about me and why and how I do this work. I repeat; let me be clear: most days, it is NOT the so-called clients that I lose sleep over, it is the response of so-called normal folks, and the oppressively convoluted systems and structures that shackle my hands behind my back, while they ask me to serve, and then remove the boots off my people’s feet, and mine, as we trudge, the ever more precarious trails and terrain of human pain and (com)passion. It seems to me, that I should not feel the need to defend everyone’s right to human dignity and personal safety, including my own.
Almost 4 years later, I still lose sleep over, I still pray for, I still think, I still wonder, about the young Aboriginal woman, about her child, about them, about their people, about my people, about their chances, about ours, about my part, about doing and being, enough. And once again, I ask myself: Stoic or stupid?
Yours, as always, Marcela: unfiltered.
February 14, 2014.
Postscript: I have thought recently, out loud and internally, that I need to be done fighting against, fighting for, fighting with, need to be finished, once and for all, with survival. And, I need be done supporting others in their survival. I must re-focus my energies on a quieter, gentler (Я)evolution, with a view toward thriving, living and working, guided by an ethic of love (bell hooks). Like her below, my favourite tree, stoic, but not stupid, unassuming, she still stands there, strong, despite, or perhaps because of, the carnage around her. I will visit her again, soon.