Sunday, June 22, 2008

why is it so wrong to care?

I may be new at my job, but I am not naive. I am not "not hardened". I am not hiding from reality. I just happen to care. The job I have now isn't my first experience with the population, far from it. I've seen it all before (well, not all, new and weird stuff happens everyday, but still, it's not "new"). And I still care.

A woman, who came in to IPDA (the drunk tank) as a Jane Doe (and probably should have gone to the hospital not us), had gone for a swim in our city's gross, disgusting and COLD river and was picked up extremely intoxicated with no pants on. When I went in to wake her up there was a puddle of urine on her cell floor and it took me a HARD shoulder pinch to wake her up. I would have gone for knuckles to the sternum next, but rolling her over would have landed her in the urine. And you know something. I felt bad for her.

I was talking about it with a coworker, and my coworker felt no sympathy for her what so ever and gave me a bit of a lecture about the fact that I had some. She pointed out that people are responsible for their actions, and that these are the consequences of her actions. Get drunk, party loudly, do stupid things, wind up in the tank. Plain and simple. And it is, I firmly believe that people are responsible for their actions. I don't think that has to stop me from feeling bad for them. It takes a lot before a person winds up half naked and dragged in. I have no idea what her life story is. But you know something, it doesn't matter. Because what matters is what I see before me. A wet, smelly, dirty, intoxicated, half naked woman. And I feel for her.

I don't think that makes me a bad social worker. I really don't. I'm writing about her tonight not because I'm "taking her home" with me, but because I'm pondering the thoughts of my coworker. She will not keep me up tonight. I don't think I let my sympathy get in the way of my empathy either. If I had been there when she was released I certainly wouldn't have bent over backwards to excuse her behaviour, but I would listen, find her some try clothes and try and connect her with any needed resources. I would try and understand what brought her to that point. And if she didn't want to talk, that's fine too.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that I want to care about people. I think that is a big part of who I am, and I can't see that changing anytime soon. When I can't care about and feel some sense of sorrow for the people I work with, then I don't think I should be doing this work. On the other side of the coin, if I start caring too much, I start obsessing and despairing on a regular basis, that's bad too. If it effects my work so that I'm breaking rules and messing with the policies, that's a very bad sign. Right now though I feel like I have a healthy balance, and I pray that as I continue, I'll be able to maintain it.


Burned Out Betsy said...

It is not wrong to a matter of fact, I have come to believe you can't be effective if you don't care. But you also have to keep this in mind, YOU cannot change the individuals you work with. You can provide them with the tools and opportunities, but only THEY can make the commitment to change. Dont' forget that.

cb said...

I couldn't have put it better than Betsy. You seem to me, to be a very thoughtful and effective social worker - ok, granted that its from afar but being able to reflect on the decisions and work you do and know why and what is motivating your actions is a very important part of the work.

People are responsible for the outcomes of their actions for sure but we aren't judges of morality. That's the way I see it anyway. Not on a one-off capacity with someone who you don't know. And everyone has the right to be treated with respect.
As for the caring too much, it's something I think I had more of a difficulty with when I was starting out but again, I'll lean back on Betsy's answers - look at what you can change and affect (and part of that is about respect for the individual) and then don't fret about the things that you can't.
I know its easier said than done.
I'm babbling now.. but basically everything you say makes me think you'd be the kind of person I'd like to come across if I was homeless on the streets of wherever-you-live..
Some people can become jaded with the work - but I always said if I stop caring then that's the day I'll quit to become an accountant..

Still Dreaming said...

Thanks for the thoughts. I agree. I think one of the frustrating things about work is that we see the same people over and over, that the same people have slept in the shelter day in and day out for years. It's something I'm learning to take one day at a time. To start by building relationships and then take it from there.