Soon I will be celebrating ten years of working in social services. I plan to spend at least another ten in the same field. I have worked in a shelter, a crisis child care center, the child welfare system, with women, with kids, with men, with individuals and with families. The funny thing is, I’m one of the few people “in the industry” with a degree in it. I finished my master’s degree in social work three years ago—and I’m thankful for it because learned things that have helped me to navigate this world in ways that I sometimes find other people I work with don’t have. Then again, there are also the things that they just don’t teach you in therapy school.
You will cry. You will keen for strangers with whom you have shared bizarrely intense moments. You will cry when they start shooting heroin again. You will sob ugly sobs when you find out they are dead. You will wonder if it’s okay to mourn them—someone you have barely known. You will choke a little sob back when their kids graduate high school. When they buy a car. Or a house.
You will feel so incredibly guilty. When you drink alcohol when you support clients in recovery. When you spend $5 on coffee but work with people who have nothing. When you spend $5 on coffee but you also work for next to nothing. When you do something fun for the weekend or the evening and suddenly remember the people who you work with who have done nothing to deserve the lives they have been dealt. You will think horrible, ugly, racist, sexist thoughts and feel overwhelmingly guilty. Or you won’t feel guilty. It’s worse when you don’t.
You will question others’ intentions constantly. You will question your own. Others will question you. No one gets into helping professions because it is a nice hobby that turned into a career. You do it because of a mission—a personal tragedy or triumph or both. Everyone feels like they have the only right way to fix people. You will fight your co-workers over clients you believe deserve another chance. You will fight over ones you think don’t.
You will worry. You will make yourself sick with worry hoping and praying that a client made it through the night.
You will find yourself participating in the same systems you sought to destroy, recreating the same problems you want to fix. You will enforce rules you think are utter and complete bullshit. You will tell people that they have to work hard and play by the rules and things will work out for them even though you know there is not a more false thing you have ever said in your whole goddamn life. But they have to believe it—and you have to too, somedays—because if we don’t believe it we can’t ever make it true for some people sometimes.
You will be constantly under-prepared, under-resourced, and under-trained.
You will question your own decision-making skills. You will berate yourself for thinking you could play god.
You will set boundaries that feel incredibly cruel—like refusing money out of your own pocket to help a client get home from your appointment.
You will fail. Constantly. You will have days and weeks and months when you wonder if you are possibly the very worst person to ever try to help another person.
You will be wrong. You will have taught yourself to be tuned in to human beings—to sense their bullshit and see what others don’t. And then you will be the one who doesn’t see it.
You might lose every single thing you believed in that compelled you to work in the field. Sometimes you move to a new field. Sometimes you find new reasons to stay.
You will learn to face your own demons. You will learn to pick your battles. You will learn to trust yourself. Because if you don’t, you will burn out—and you won’t be able to be good for anyone—including yourself.