Thirteen years ago I was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia and hospitalised. I was assigned a social worker and a community psychiatric nurse, who then worked with me for about five years. They were part of the Early Intervention in Psychosis unit, and shouldn’t have worked with me for longer than about a year, but because I made progress and they were wonderful people, they held onto me, and supported me through a lot.
Thus was born my desire to help people in the same way, and work with people in a similar capacity. I started a Social Work Ma about four years ago, to that end, but wasn’t able to complete it due to inordinately high stress levels bringing on negative symptoms. I spent a few weeks licking my wounds and reflecting, and then went out and got a job as a support worker working with people with learning disabilities, which whilst being rewarding wasn’t precisely the role I was looking for.
In Late 2016 I started volunteering for a Homelessness Charity based in London, in two of their different schemes, one in Sutton and one in Croydon. This was the kind of position I had been holding out for; or the kind of organisation I had been dreaming of working for. I was offered a full-time position at the Sutton scheme, after volunteering there for about 8 months, and started working early last September on a nine month contract.
This was the first time in thirteen years I had worked full time; the first time I had earned my own living, and come off of benefits almost entirely. I started paying my own rent, dealing with the early morning commute and living with the sensation of being tired all of the time. It’s been a ride; and minus a few minor hiccups it hasn’t been too bad.
I had a few stress related incidents where it felt as though I wasn’t able to do the job; I didn’t know enough, didn’t have the skills or wasn’t able to handle the extreme responsibility the position encompassed. But I worked through them, and made it through each minor set-back in basically one piece.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it hasn’t been a learning curve of the most epic proportions.
I don’t mean learning to deal with rush hour chaos without developing grey hairs, or how to deal with office politics, or how to make it out of the flat in the morning in 15 minutes clean and dressed and with both shoes on. I mean, learning that the idea I had of support work, or social work, was vastly misinformed: that the ideal I had of what the job entailed, and how a good support worker/social worker should conduct themselves, was very much born in the theoretical, and missing the constraints real life inevitably puts onto the role.
I’d read a ton of Social Work theory books before starting the Social Work Ma, and was informed by the likes of Carl Rogers to consider warmth, genuineness and empathy as the key three factors in any support worker/client relationship. Person centred approaches state that the work done in a persons life must always centre around the individual, rather than previous cases, available resources or time constraints.
I had ideas that I wanted to sympathise with the clients, make them feel as though their issues and their versions of events were valid and justifiable; I wanted to work with people in a way which was as meaningful as the way my Social Worker and CPN worked with me all those years ago.
What I have learnt, over the course of the last nine months, is that this is practically, and (I am starting to realise) logistically impossible.
This seems, on the face of of it, a negative realisation. It seems like something which would get me down, or would make me lose enthusiasm and commitment to the role.
I’d read papers and chapters on the fact that high case loads, and long working hours and unresponsive clients make social workers lose their vision; lose their core values and become cynical and inflexible in the way that they do their jobs and interact with and relate to clients. I read this with a dull sense of horror- I didn’t want to go through this; I would hold onto my principles, because the idea of losing that fire, losing that sense of purpose and mission seemed unthinkable.
Nine months on- and I’ve realised that basing the large part of a belief system, and a way of thinking and approaching a role, out of knowledge and ideas I have gleaned mainly from books, isn’t realistic
I am, at heart, an English Literature student- so this process of realisation and learning that ideas can’t always take precedence, hasn’t been easy. I want to use this series of posts to explore the ways in which my ideas of social work and support working have been challenged and undermined, and why, in the end, I have come to the conclusion that this isn’t a bad thing.
I haven’t lost my fire and my drive- I’ve just learnt better ways to harness both those traits, and put them into practise in a practical setting
(Continued in section 2..)