I just had my first four person social work group interview. All of the interviewees were white women ranging from 25 to 32 years old, brunette and attractive. The lead interviewer was an African American female reverend who was boisterous with a good sense of humor. When I revealed that I sewed the reverend asked me to walk her through sewing a hem, which I did.
The interview went as expected with each woman discussing how good they are at creating and sustaining lasting relationships with people. Everyone was “strengths-based”. Everyone was committed to serving the underserved. At some points the interview took a turn for the highly personal, as conversations with social workers do. The woman next to me revealed that her brother was developmentally challenged and that’s what brought her to the work, another woman discussed her father’s alcohol abuse, I disclosed the death of my brother and that it’s helped me realize myself as a social worker even more
During the interview we were all vulnerable. Social work is heavily based on the principal of the personal being political. In professional arenas we are always toeing the line of the professional versus personal, in our attempt to create authentic professional selves. But where does our compassion end? Is there only so much to go around? At the end of the interview the reverend asked us what we all needed from each other to end the group and I commented that I wanted to be friends on LinkedIn or somehow staying in touch with my fellow interviewees since we had all revealed so much to each other in the course of an hour and had been our most authentic professional selves. Upon making this remark the woman next to me rolled her eyes. Sometimes with social workers there is this need to show how “for the people” we are but these people have a certain face, they come from certain areas and if you are not them then you are often the enemy. Perhaps it is intrinsic in a field that is for the underdog that there has to be someone to be against. But how come social workers are often not for each other? Imagine how much could be done if we broaden our definition of who “the people” were and extended it to each other.
Silver Linings Playbook is an immensely appealing movie in which we root for the underdogs –in this case, two attractive, talented, albeit mentally unstable, young people. It is curious that so many people relate effortlessly to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters in Silver Linings Playbook but are less than tolerant of their off-screen counterparts. That is, the clients and patients we work with every day.
As a social work graduate student, I work in a high school where I recently had the honor of reading a college essay written by a senior with a history of psychiatric hospitalizations. He wrote poignantly about his sense of being cut off from society. He stated that the movie, Harold and Maude, and the book, The Bell Jar, gave him hope that he had compatriots out there in the world and that one day he would find them and feel less alone.
What is it about seeing a character work something out on screen, or reading about it in a book that allows us to be drawn in? Movies and books become vehicles for us feeling for characters who are quirky, wacky and messed up. They allow us to have a catharsis for the aspects of ourselves that are less than whole. Movies and books remove the buffers and lies. Movie and book characters are uninhibited and vulnerable, they show us the very parts we are taught to hide from each other. As a result, we get something out of movies that is often more human than our actual experiences with one another.
As I prepare to leave school for the real world, I am thinking about how I can help our clients feel there is a silver lining somewhere other than in the movies.
The summer after my first year of social work school I worked at a camp outside of New York City. I had never worked with 5th and 6th graders before but I was eager for a job and happy to be working with kids. It was at this camp that I met a 5th grader named Paige. Paige was tall and lanky for her age. She had blue bug-like eyes that almost jugged out of her head. Her mouth was full of metal as she spoke rapidly about the things that 5th grade girls like to talk about. She was almost cartoonish; upon reflection I believe that she looked identical to the young girl superhero from The Incredibles. If you’ve never seen it then please google Elastigirl.
While to me Paige resembled a superhero, Paige perceived herself as having the opposite of magical powers. The week before camp started I had the unpleasant job of reading all of the notes that parents had written about their kids. Paige’s file stood out to me because her mother had written “is very hard on herself” and “could use a self-esteem boost” all over Paige’s file. Comments like these often resonate with me because they are rare. Parents of 5th graders usually write about their kid’s allergies and send them on their way. However, I did not come to fully understand the comments until I got to know Paige a little better, during the final weeks of the summer.
I suspect that the camp I worked at had stock in Mott’s because they served apple juice at least twice a day, during snack and at lunch. Inevitably one of the kids would pour apple juice all over themselves and the table during one or both of these meals. One day I was walking by Paige’s table as she accidentally poured apple juice on herself and a few other girls in her bunk. The other girls seemed to be over it pretty quickly but Paige began apologizing profusely and mumbling that she had ruined apple juice for everyone. She would not let it go and started bringing it up during random parts of the day. During kickball she said, “Remember when I ruined apple juice for everyone? I’m such a jerk.” While spinning pottery during arts and crafts Paige said, “The day is already over because I ruined apple juice for everyone, forever.” This was not a rare occurrence for Paige; she tended to get stuck on things and had trouble letting them go.
During an overnight camping trip Paige was the last person out of the tent while everyone was trying to pack up to leave the camping grounds. Her counselor asked her to make sure that everything was out of the tent before she left because she was the slowest person in the group. I remember hearing Paige sifting through the tent, looking in the tents pockets for things that campers may have forgotten. Then after a few minutes Paige came out of the tent with a juice box in her hand, looking horrified. She said, “If I didn’t ruin apple juice for everyone already, I sure as heck did now.” None of the girls paid her any attention. It became clear that the only person Paige ruined apple juice for was herself.
My own worries and obsessiveness mirrors that of Paige. However, instead of thinking that I ruined apple juice for everyone I become obsessed with comments I make to my friends. I mull over these comments for days and beat myself up over them, only to find out that my friends didn’t remember what I said or didn’t take offense to it.
It wasn’t until months after the summer ended that I began thinking about Paige. I imagined running into her and her mother on the Subway platform or on the Upper East Side. I imagined what I would say to her, things that I wished people would say to me. These imaginary conversations didn’t have words but rather warm feelings and were followed by a sense of understanding. I didn’t have words during these imaginary encounters because I was too deeply into my own worries to say what Paige needed to hear. Or maybe I didn’t have the words to talk to Paige on the imaginary Subway platform because I hadn’t yet told them to myself. Nevertheless, I knew the end result in my fantasy but didn’t know how to get there.
Through my experiences in my last year of social work school I am working on the words to say to Paige and myself. These days I am more mindful of my worries and obsessive thoughts. I can manage them better and keep them in check. Sometimes I wonder if Paige has, or if she’ll ever find salvation from her worries. Maybe one day I’ll work with Paige in another setting or maybe I’ll never see her again. I realize now that until I handled the Paige in me, I couldn’t help the real Paige. And I hope to have the opportunity to work with a kid like Paige again. Kids that are cool and funny and smart and a little neurotic, because with every passing Paige there is an opportunity for me to grow as a social worker and person.
So, I’m reading Gloria Steinem’s book Outrageous Acts and Every Day Rebellions and let me tell you, it is bomb ass. There is so much I didn’t know about her! And she has some really great and thought provoking quotes, which I happen to be a sucker for. Here are a few:
"Writers are notorious for using any reason to keep from working: over-researching, retyping, going to meetings, waxing the floors— anything. Organizing, fund raising, and working for Ms. magazine have given me much better excuses than any of those, and I’ve used them. As Jimmy Breslin said when he ran a symbolic campaign for a political office he didn’t want, "Anything that isn’t writing is easy." Looking back at an article that I published in 1965, though I was writing full-time and loving my profession, I see: "I don’t like to write, I like to have written."
For me, writing is the only thing that passes the three tests of metier: (1) when I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead; (2) it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride and (3) it’s frightening.”
One time my friend Emily saw a commercial (on TV) advising her to text a number that would in return text her one belly laugh (or hilarious joke) a day. And while I don’t remember the “belly laugh jokes” being very funny and I remember her having to pay close to 30 extra dollars on her cell phone bill that month, I have been thinking about why Emily was attracted to such an idea in the first place. Where have the belly laughs gone? In high school I remember laughing really hard at least once a day. Maybe laughs are always 20/20 but I feel like I don’t laugh like that anymore! So, where are your belly laughs coming from and will you text them to me?