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A Bump in the Road

This week I commiserated with my friend Carla, who bemoaned the huge auto repair bill she had just received. As Carla told the story, she was driving down a rural route that was plagued with potholes. but also, a route she took daily. Because she was confident in her knowledge of the road, she carefully avoided all of the large ones she could spy as she traveled. Unfortunately, she didn't see the deep crevice, near the shoulder, that ultimately damaged the rear axle, thus requiring the repairs.

After loudly cursing the road as well as the county commission for not making better driving conditions (she was ranting in other words) she continued to drive, unaware of the hidden damage. But as she drove on, the car started to vibrate and pulled to the left. It was then, that she realized that she was in trouble.

She vented about the ordeal to me. Carla couldn't believe that one little bump in the road could cost her almost a thousand dollars. She made a statement that caused my mind to wonder (off in that allegorical direction that it likes to travel).

"It was just a bump in the road. I wasn't expecting it and didn't see it in time!"

And there it went (my imagination).

My friend thought she was doing a great job avoiding all of the hazards of her journey. After all she had traveled the road often and knew the going would be tough. When she started feeling comfortable in her progress, (Wham!) she fell into the pothole from hell! That experience cost her dearly. But it also made her doubt herself. She questioned whether or not she was paying attention or was driving distracted.

I cannot tell you how many times, I have fallen into invisible (to me) potholes in my Social Work career. There are so many hazards (physically and emotionally) faced every day that I became accustomed to the ones I normally faced and blind to the new ones that sometimes popped up to halt my progress.

I will be offering a three-part series on the potholes we face, and how to (if not avoid them) address them.

Let's start with the most obvious pothole a social worker will face.

Working with hurting people!

Most social workers choose this career as a way to make a difference in the lives of others. Success in our work can bring such validation but failure can cause real emotional distress.

In my early years of Child Welfare, I worked with a single mom (we will call Kate) who had two young children and a cocaine addiction. Kate lost custody of her two children due to her lifestyle and inability to provide supervision and care for her girls. I began working with Kate, establishing rapport and building trust. She was able to get into a treatment facility and made remarkable progress. Upon graduation from the program, Kate was so proud of herself and so grateful for the opportunity to be a mother to her girls. I remember attending her 6-month post-graduation celebration. We ate pizza and she talked about her bright future. I considered Kate's journey a success and felt validated for all of the time and effort spent with this family.

Three months later, I found out from a colleague that Kate had relapsed and lost custody of her children again. I was floored! She had done so well! What had gone wrong? How did I fail her? I found out that she had been evicted from her home due to having too many people (she, her children and her sister's family) in a home. With no place to go, she left her children with family members and lived with old friends (you guessed it, from her drug days). She didn't plan on relapsing, but surrounded by the easy escape, she gave in.

In hindsight, as a new social worker (I don't mind telling on myself) I bandaged a wound without taking out the bullet. You see, while Kate worked the program and stopped using, we never really delved into the reason she found cocaine such a crutch or coping mechanism. We never got to her Underlying Pain that cocaine made her forget.

So, I began working with Kate again, but this time focusing on "what lies beneath". We were able to address her past ACES and help her to develop appropriate coping skills to utilize when she came across a pothole of her own. It was a major eye-opening experience for me, teaching me the importance of getting to the real issues.

As with Kate's story, I realized that anytime you are working with families in crisis, there are hazards everywhere. Things may be so apparent on the surface, but then you discover those hidden barriers lurking beneath the murky water: family secrets, unreported trauma, deeply rooted childhood adverse experiences.

The easiest path to success with families is alleviating the crisis by applying "fixes" to the surface issues (drug addiction, domestic violence, mental illness). After all, these are the obvious culprits giving life to the current crisis. And in some cases, applying these fixes may actually work if the family wants the change and is compliant in all. But lasting change does not often come from applying fixes.

Throwing services (even really good services) at a family to help them out of the crisis is much like applying a gauze wrap to a bullet wound. It might stop the bleeding for a while, but unless you remove the bullet and clean it out, the wound festers and becomes even more toxic.

How many of you have worked with a family and applied all the services they needed to "get better"?. You developed a good rapport with them and were feeling really good about their progress?

Then they relapsed back into the same crisis and left you feeling bewildered? confused? disappointed? or even angry? This pothole had you questioning your decisions, your judgements or even your career choice? Did you think, "what is the point of putting your heart and soul into helping others if they are just going to fail?"

Been there.

Done that.

Wanted to Quit.

But I didn't.

So, how do you deal with the axle breaking potholes that come your way as a social worker? I have a few suggestions based on my 30 years of navigating bumpy roads. But I am also still learning every day.

  1. Preparing yourself for the ride: Anytime that you choose a career that involves working with others, there will always be potholes. Examine your motivation for the work you do and be prepared for the inevitable bumps that might make you doubt that choice. Affirm daily that you are compassionate, competent and can overcome the obstacles in your way with support and help.

  2. Identify potential potholes and develop a plan: As you work with families in crisis, be present and aware of the potential crises and discuss those potentials with your clients. Come up with a viable crisis plan based on "what could happen" and how they can react/perform if it does.

  3. Don't put a band aid on the wound: When you are working with hurting people, take the time to really find out what lies under the behavior (the drinking, the abuse, the poor decisions). Arguably the most difficult thing in practice is engaging and collaborating with the client to earn their trust and their honesty about what lies beneath. But I am encouraging you here and now that it is worth the effort. By uncovering the pain beneath the behavior can help you to really offer the help and support that the family needs to heal.

  4. Don't take it personally: When a client falls, don't take it personally. When they blame you: don't take it personally. When your plan falls through: don't take it personally. When you have done your best, tell yourself. People fall. The healing journey is not the same for everyone. Some people move quickly through and find their peace and others take a much more circuitous route. Blaming and self-doubt will derail you. Affirm yourself daily!

Working with families who are hurting can cause multiple potholes to impede our journey. But knowledge, experience and self-confidence are the tools you will need to keep on the road!

Next installment in Bumpy Road Series will deal with navigating a culture of negativity.

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