Thursday, September 19, 2013

Astronomical Rodeo Clown Burnout

I think I need a refresher course on Positive Approaches. I can’t speak for all social workers, but I know that for me I receive a cornucopia of trainings designed to help me be a better leader, resolve conflict and approach difficult situations positively. I sit. I glean and the scales tip disproportionately toward being a human services god. I walk out of some trainings and I’m Mother Theresa. I’m Nelson Mandela. I’m Mhatma Ghandi armed with a machine gun of Zen and positivism. I’m Lady Liberty. Bring me your tired, blah, blah, blah.
Yet, it’s a scale and with every client that calls to curse me out, bureaucratic eye of the needle I have to thread, mistake I make or misunderstanding parent (Disclaimer: I’m not insinuating all clients curse at me or all parents are misunderstanding or all bureaucracy is a needle. Okay. That last part I am saying. I’m saying this all happens eventually and occasionally and I’m human. So, it affects me.)
That scale starts to tip ever so slowly until I’m no longer the machine gun of goodness wielding Mhatma Ghandi. I’m a rodeo clown, hopping out to distract the destructive and dangerous bulls that are about to stampede their riders, leaping out of the way, back behind the fence just in time, before the bull takes us both out. Really, I’m only hoping that this whole shenanigan works and I’m looking ridiculous all the while. It’s when I get to rodeo clown level that I know I need to go back to the drawing board, tap into my resources and glean wisdom. This is known as a classic case of social worker burn out. It manifests itself in every social worker in a different way. Personally, I get Rodeoclownitis. (Disclaimer again: I’m in no way insinuating that the individuals I support are bulls. The bull might be the system, or a person or really anything. It’s a metaphor. Stop looking for something to be offended by. I’m onto you.)
Recently, my frustration has revolved around barriers in assisting consumers with achieving goals. Let’s be honest, the population of individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (I.D.) has often been made to believe they’re set up for failure or they’ve been set up for failure. When support systems (whether it be schools, social workers – myself included, families, friends, neighbors, health care providers, etc.) simply do for the individual instead of teaching the individual to do, it sends the message: “Let me do it. You will fail.” You know, teach a man to fish and all that jazz. I mean, I’m not saying send Bobby out with the keys to car and tell him to go get his own groceries or hand him his bottle of pills and say, “Take these. You’ll figure the dosage out.” I’m saying it’s difficult for all parties involved. Thank God we have support systems and I myself have to be mindful of the reality and pitfalls of setting my consumers up for failure or a lifetime of frustration. This is one barrier that’s a pickle to work through. Yet, it’s not insurmountable.
The stumbling block I’m struggling most with assisting my consumers through at the moment actually reminds me of myself in college. In college I had a couple of electives to take to fill out my semester and I jumped at the opportunity to take astronomy. I mean, hey, I love looking at the stars! I knew all the constellations. This was going to be great. The first day of class I walked in amid visions of planetariums and telescopes only to have the professor take a bat to my vision by dropping the knowledge bomb, “I will assume you have taken basic physics if you’re registered for this class as most of the course will encompass it.” Math and I are not friends. Nor do we plan to buddy-up anytime soon. (I know what you’re thinking; social worker who can’t do math: shocking. That’s stereotypical and wildly offensive and blatantly true in this circumstance, but still wildly offensive to everyone else. So, shut your pie hole.) You mean I can’t just look at the stars and talk about how they make me feel? I have to calculate them? This was unpoetic and an outrage. I never returned to the class. Nor did I appropriately withdraw. So, I carried around a scarlet “F” that took me semesters to counteract.
Recently I’ve felt like this with the individuals I support. I ask, “What can I help you achieve.” They respond with the equivalent to, “I want to be an astronomer.” To which, I say, “Oh wow! That’s great! Well, you know we’ll need to get you down to the college and sign you up for some classes like physics and other courses.”
“I don’t want to take physics.”
“Oh, man. I’m sorry. That’s part of it, but we could get you a tutor. I’ll help you through every step. We’ll make flash cards!”
“Nah. I don’t want to take physics, but I definitely want to be an astronomer.”
“Well, maybe you’d like to volunteer at a planetarium or…”
“Don’t patronize me.”
So, it goes, on and on.
“I want to move into my own apartment.”
“Right on! We can look online for a place or use the paper. I saw this phone number from a rent sign outside that neighborhood you like. How about I help you make the call.”
“I don’t want to call.”

“If you’d like to move we need to get your stuff together. Can I help you pack some boxes?”
“Hang a shower curtain?”
“Shop for a sofa?”
“But you definitely want to move?”
“Hmmm. What would you like to do then to prepare?”
“Lets go get dinner.”
“I want to get my drivers license.”
“Awesome. So, here are the steps for getting your license. Lets break those down so they’re not so overwhelming and I’ll help you get each one done. You’ll need to study some on your own. I can help you study when we’re working together. Then, when you feel ready, you can take the practice test.”
…One week later…
“Did you study while I was gone?”
My job also includes figuring out if what they’re telling me they want is actually the thing they want, trouble shooting their hesitations and working together to complete the small tasks that encompass reaching the larger goal. So many hesitations revolve around fear and cultivating self-confidence. Bottom line: newness is scary.
Often I’m working with a whole team of family members, staff and health care providers to understand and bring to fruition the goal. Sometimes, though, no matter how amazing the team is, we still feel as though we come up empty handed.
All this isn’t to say that this is always the way it is in the I.D. community or as a social worker in the I.D. community. You can’t box in a community that way. For every individual who, for whatever reason, plants his/her heels in the mud upon expressing a desire to more forward, there is another who knows exactly what he/she wants and will get there come hell or high water if only someone will shine a light on the way to go. (My other blog entries are full of such stories.). The same dichotomy exists in each and every community because we’re all people, driven by whom we are. This is neither good, nor bad. It just is.
The truth is that their journey to reach their goals is entwined with my journey to become the best teacher I can be. The best teachers walk the path of self-realization with others, merely illuminating the signs that appear along the way, making it easier for the student to read and self-actualize. They become their own greatest explorer – uncovering a vast new territory of themselves. In the end, we are Isabella – funding the trip, the provider of the ships, the one who reaffirms, “Go!”. Then, not unlike Columbus, the journeyman often goes a completely different route, discovering something life altering and extremely important. Thus proving that the point, all along, was rarely to arrive at “Point B”, but to always move forward in the best way one knows how. There, in the baby steps of forward motion, we see what reveals itself along the way.

- Posted using BlogPress from my device for distraction and ironic social detachment.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Personal Space

I had a refreshingly positive experience in Wawa the other day. Julian was inline to pay for his chips and soda and I stood off to the side- present enough to step in if he misses a step (like actually forgetting to hand money to the cashier before walking away with the scanned items), but out of the way enough for him to not be able to rely on me giving him cues.
Next inline was a little girl with her dad behind her. She did what all little kids do: twirl and generally not have any clue as to what's transpiring around them.
Julian began to struggle as he could not focus on the denomination of dollars in his wallet. This wasn't the little girls fault. Checkout lines have always been a toughie. Just imagine you can't focus. That's as simple as it gets. Your brain is made in a way that it is constantly on overload processing information. You hear every conversation, see every detail and its all amplified to the power of ten. Now, put that version of yourself in a place where you have something you want in your hands. You have to stand in a line and wait for it to actually become yours though you can't completely understand why. There are a million people talking and darting around. There's music playing overhead and everywhere you look there's a sign, an ad, shiny displays with moving parts, bells and whistles. The person in front of you has a shrill voice. The person behind you has a kid that's twirling around and keeps bumping into your calf. You hate to be touched. The song just changed. The line just moved. Someone knocked over a bag of potato chips. So there aren't five bags anymore. There are four. You hate the number four. Is it your turn yet? You start listing in your mind all the albums the singer of the overhead song ever released and their correlating release dates. Someone three people behind in line just sneezed. That always throws you off. Start the list over again.
This is a glimpse into Julian's world.
Finally, it was his turn and he got hung up on the money exchange. I stepped in as the cashier was saying numbers and he blindly fished around his wallet and guessed at what she could want even though he can actually count and figure it out. He was so far into his own world I had to do an uncommon amount of intervening.
Most of the time people in line sympathize with his struggle and wait patiently and those that don't, I mentally dare to make a remark. "Your fuckin cheese puffs and hoagie can wait one minute for my friend here to figure this out."

As Julian finished and moved aside, the gentleman with his twirling kid pulled her a little closer, but not out of fear of the six foot two inch giant. The man said to me, "She was in his personal space.", In a kind way.
I was elated to hear a stranger honestly consider Julian's needs (or possibly anyone's) when out in the community and in a way that was not patronizing or diminishing. People are generally kind to him, but this guy "got it". I thanked him and explained what a rare treat it was to find someone so perceptive to those around him.

So much of our work in the intellectually disabled community revolves around helping the individual understand the world around them and what is expected of them. Yet, it truly goes both ways. This is a 50/50 deal. In as much as we teach the individuals we work with we must always teach the community to be mindful of their fellow man. People fear what they do not understand and sadly fear is what I see in many people. It has gotten better though, as more integration has occurred in schools, more services have been provided and as these individuals are seen as fixtures of the community and the community has been educated. Stigmas are being torn down, but we are in the infant stages of progress. The community is still learning to not look with pity, but with equality. We move forward.

- Posted using BlogPress from my device for distraction and ironic social detachment.