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.

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