I have come to realize after doing this work fo a few years, that about every six months I hit a valley. It is what we in the biz call "Compassion Fatigue." Really, that's just the polite way of saying that I am so tired of being shat on from every direction (very graphic, I know). I am always hesitant to actually speak about the work that I do, because I feel there is a danger of making me look like a saint or a martyr. This is not what I want. I did not choose this work, I feel. It chose me. A friend of mine recently wrote to me (paraphrased and taken entirely out of context) "Casey, you've been through alot of shit in your life." I have, there's no way around that. And because of this, my head works in a different way than it otherwise would. I am ever-aware of the sadness and desperation around me and at times if feels like I am drowning in it. And I have used my work as a means to learn how to swim, or to at least tread water.
I wrote this a few weeks ago...
According to our friends at Wikipedia (who know everything) "[compassion fatigue] results from the taxing nature of showing compassion for someone whose suffering is continuous and unresolvable. One may still care for the person as required by policy, however, the natural human desire to help them is no longer there." I don't know if this actually describes what I'm feeling, but it's a bit of this. I'll give you an example, albeit an extreme example, of one of my days. A couple of weeks ago, I went to work at my full-time job and did that, openly discussed the perceived mental illness of a patient who I believe to have been manipulating me for weeks and others in the system for years, was told that the fact that I am reserved and not that social with my co-workers makes me a bad social worker, and then went home to take a nap before going to my second job. Then an hour later, I woke up and went to work. At work that night I picked up four people from the street and took them to shelters, some of these places among the most horrific I've ever seen. Then I went home and slept for a couple of hours, and as this was Saturday I went to work at my food coop. Instead of my office job, I ended up working at a soup kitchen which was drastically understaffed. After working two hours longer than I was scheduled to, I went to get on the train to go see friends in Hoboken to watch a football game that UT would then lose. As I was swiping my card to get on the train, a man asked me if I had a quarter. I did not and I said so honestly. He asked me if I had anything else, and I reached into my pocket where I had three pennies. I said "All I've got is three pennies." and I handed it to him. I do understand that three pennies is very little to give someone, and it really won't get you much of anything, but still it is something. But as I walked away, I heard the man throw my pennies on the ground and walk away to ask someone else for a quarter. I was furious. I may or may not have called him an asshole. I don't know if this is excusable or not, but that was my breaking point. I had spent roughly 24 of the previous 36 hours working with the homeless. I was terribly exhausted, as I had slept about 4 hours in that time. And I had more than once been told that what I was giving was not enough when I knew most assuredly that I could give no more.
And then the valley got a bit deeper and I lost it a little. I yelled at my boss (my version of yelling, which isn't really yelling as I don't yell). I heaved and sobbed, within an inch of quitting my job. And then I started, once again, looking for new work. As I am a part-time worker at my second job, I am weekly meeting new people. I am a fresh set of ears to listen to the struggles of this start-up and of many of the young people that work there, and have heard the things that I feel almost constantly in my day-to-day job.
"This shouldn't be so hard."
"Why are social workers so crazy?"
"I can't really survive on what they're paying me."
"I don't know how much longer I can do this. I really wanted to help, but I feel like I'm getting no where."
And so now, this is what I would say if I were to speak to the NYU School of Social Work Class of 2008.
(1) Know that this work will always be difficult, but there are days when it is amazing. Store those up for when things seem impossible. But know that it's okay to move on to a different kind of work. Social work has a million different facets. Try something new, but don't give up. If you feel compelled to struggle on, the profession needs you.
(2) I have no idea why social workers are so crazy. I hope and pray that I don't turn, but think it may have already happened.
(3) I have decided, in my advanced age (I turn 29 next month), that there are very few people in the world who are paid what they are actually worth. Some are paid far too much for the work they do, but most are paid far too little. Know that you are in good company. And keep looking for a second job (or wealthy spouse) with which to pay off your student loans.
(4) As said in #1, know that if you feel compelled to struggle on, we need you here. When we stop feeling the need to fight back for the good of our clients, that is when we need to find a different career all together. I've met many people along the way who have reach this point and kept on going, because this is their chosen career and they are looking for nothing but security. They are the people who create the social work battlefields. All of us dodging the bullets of negativity, and distrust, the arbitrary choosing who is friend and who is foe. And making us all feel like we're going crazy. Know that you are not alone here. And that once I am a supervisor there will be a day of reckoning [=)], and you can all come work for me. Or for some of my wonderful social service friends and mentors. There are a few us left fighting the good fight.