The Power of “Me Too”

One of the most powerful feelings in the world is that moment when you realize that something you thought just happened to you, that only you understood or experienced (often with fear and/or shame), also happened to someone you know. Somehow sharing the experience changes how you feel about it. It shifts the burden from you to some universal truth — this is a thing that happens to people, not just me. 

It needs to not just be “me” in order to take away some of the shame. To that end I often self-disclose with my clients that I also suffer from depression. Me, too. So when I talk about how its the little things — the laundry, recycling, dishes, and trash piling up; the constant need for distraction and inability to focus on anything; the sleeping binges and insomniac binges; the appetite that refuses to stay consistent — they nod their heads. Oh yeah, that happens to me, too.

On social media, there is a trend happening right now of women saying “me too.” It is a way for them to share that they have also experienced sexual harassment and/or assault, to show how common the problem is (and is a throwback to #yesallwomen, popularized in 2014 as a response to #NotAllMen). But for me at least, it is having a secondary effect of showing me just how not alone I have been in my own experiences. It is showing me that whatever I have gone through, someone else has gone through something similar, and that means I can feel a little less ashamed about my own experiences, a little less convinced I somehow did something wrong, inadvertently “asked for it” in some way, or had something specifically wrong with me that invited other people’s bad behavior. Instead, I can see more directly how the culture at large is to blame, how systemic the issue is, how real rape culture (and the way it contributes to mass harassment) is.

For me, the power of “me too” in this instance is that it helps me continue to chip away at the shame I have had about my body since I was a little girl and was “made to feel funny” by adult men paying too much of the wrong kind of attention to me. My body was remarked on, my looks analyzed, my freedom curtailed because my very femaleness meant I would forever be a target. Pretty little girls don’t get to go play outside by themselves. I was taught that a healthy amount of fear would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that a certain amount of modesty would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that not wrestling with the boys would keep me safe. Not only did that not help, eventually learning self defense by “wrestling with the boys” was the only thing that did help me feel safer as an adult.

Every “me too” I saw on my timeline made me feel a combination of sad — and relieved. I wish the problem wasn’t so prevalent. But at the same time, I feel reassured that this was never just about me but about all girls and women. This was never just my problem — it was all of ours.

And I feel better still after reading wonderful messages of support from my male friends. A secondary trend of posting “yes I have” has popped up, with men sharing their own stories of giving in to rape culture and being complicit in the behavior of others, or participating in that behavior themselves. Their confessions and heartfelt apologies mean the world to me, because they come with a pledge to do better. It’s another version of “me too” that carries the same kind of power — we have all done things we are ashamed of. The first step is recognizing the problem. Together, we have a chance of changing things.

The Framing of Tragedy

The numbers keep going up. At this point, it’s 59 people killed, and over 500 injured after another American mass shooting

When I was a journalism student, I learned about the power of framing a story. The best way to understand it is to think of taking a picture — there is only so much that can be captured by the lens. The frame is how much you zoom in or out, and what part of any given view you focus on. You can achieve the same effect with the words you use to describe an event.

Words matter. Describe a mass shooter as a terrorist, and one kind of narrative is created. Describe a mass shooter as a “lone wolf” and another kind of narrative is created. Is this a story about the enemies of America, or about the way a single, misunderstood and troubled man chose to act out? 

In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history, different groups of people scrambled for a framing device for the story. In the immediate aftermath, before anything was known about the man who shot into a crowd of concert goers on the Las Vegas strip with high-powered automatic assault rifles, a group of alt-right followers were busy spreading fake news that the shooter was an anti-Trump democrat. Search engine algorithms picked up the story, and, as the saying goes, the lie got half-way around the world before the truth got its pants on. For those alt-right folks and the people who reposted them, this was a narrative that at least, to them, made sense.

As Monica Hesse writes in the Washington Post, every tragedy inevitably becomes a political tool, and no one is exempt from using it as thus: 

What “Don’t politicize this” often means is, Don’t politicize this if the shooter belongs to meAs personal details about the gunman begin to come out — old voting records, Facebook rants — “Don’t politicize this” is the placeholder statement we use while figuring out exactly which political knives need to be sharpened.

She goes on to describe the potential narratives that could come out and how different groups might respond to them. Facts, as they become available, help shape the narrative and frame the picture, but as always, how those facts are seen and used will vary dramatically from group to group: Hesse writes, “We waited, because knowing who [the shooter] was would cue Americans how to respond.”

Human beings are hard-wired to make tragedy make sense. The idea that a man would take 23 weapons into a hotel, break open the window, and open fire on a crowd, doesn’t make sense unless we name the hate we assume he must have felt. In the aftermath of horrible events like this, people look to blame something they feel safe blaming. People don’t actually want to change their world view after tragedy. Instead, they reframe the event so that it matches the views they already hold. 

There is a social work joke that I go back to on a regular basis: “how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

As much as I’d like to think that yet another record-breaking mass shooting will change hearts and minds, I know that those hearts and minds have to want to be changed in order for these new facts to be seen in a new way. 

Things are not okay. They have not been okay. They will not be okay for likely a very long time. And no amount of thoughts and prayers will make them okay. There is no magic framing device that can erase the bullets that went into bodies, and the blood and tears that followed. People need to be willing to let those pictures change them in order for them to be willing to do something to prevent another mass shooting from happening.

Far too many people will zoom out, shift the frame, adjust the focus, and see what they want to see. They will chose a false narrative over a view-altering truth. They will insist that nothing has to change, that nothing can be changed. But the truth is that we have a mass shooting epidemic in America, and there is a solution to it (change gun laws, reevaluate safety standards, increase access to mental health care, and have a national conversation about how mass shootings could be avoided in the future)– if people are willing to see it.  

As satire site The Onion writes: “At press time, Americans nationwide agreed that years of taking no measures whatsoever to prevent mass shootings may finally be paying off.” 

We can keep our heads in the sand, and hope that somehow by doing nothing bullets will stop flying, and bodies will stop falling. Or we can look beyond the frame and see what is actually contributing to mass shootings — and finally, collectively, work to end them. 

Relatively Speaking

 

I have been thinking a lot about relative experience.

“Relatively speaking” is a phrase we toss around casually, an improvised rescaling of any given comparison. Hidden in the phrase is an acknowledgement that the scale of comparison has been significantly reduced to include a limited range of possible experiences or perceptions of reality, and that range is defined by a supposedly shared context—both speaker and audience must acknowledge some general truths about the things being compared.  But it can also be a catch all, a brief acknowledgement that the context is not the same from one person to the next, that “the worst day ever!” in one life cannot be appropriately compared to the “worst day ever!” in another.

In my relatively limited (there’s that word again!) understanding of economics, I am able to grasp at least this concept: an apple does not cost the same to everyone who buys it. While the price of the apple may be fixed, the cost of that apple relative to the income of the individual buying it is not. Things can get more complicated when you don’t just compare income (we each make the same amount of money, so the apple should cost the same to both of us) but expenses as well: if we each make the same income, but your rent is higher than mine, that apple will be a greater percentage of your food allowance than it will be of mine. In that way, the apple could relatively cost you more. 

This sort of relative cost idea can be translated to experience as well, so that any given experience can cost or benefit any individual relative to the other experiences in their life — everything needs context. A fender bender on a day where everything else is going well most likely won’t be perceived as negatively as if it happened on a day when several things seem to be going wrong. However, the context that a person operates in is not daily, but cumulative: even if nothing else is going wrong today, things have been going wrong all week, all month, all year, for the past decade. Any new experience is measured against previous experiences in order to determine its particular impact, positive or negative.

And yet, “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Without this comparison, any given experience could theoretically stand on its own. It wouldn’t be good or bad, relatively speaking, but simply good or bad, inherently. Or, in what I imagine as Buddhist thinking, neither good nor bad, but simply existing, ideally without impact, without contributing to some greater context, acknowledged and let go. If we could escape our contexts, maybe we could escape relative thinking. In theory, that is how to escape suffering.

Except an apple doesn’t cost the same to everyone. “Expensive” is a relative concept. So is safe, and healthy, and successful, and all the things we end up having to measure for ourselves, individually. I read in Loneliness (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008) that people even have a biological set point for their need for social connection, varying from one person to another. Even our biology forces relativity on us.

So we seek out contexts similar to our own, or as close as possible. We look for people with similar experiences, similar perspectives, similar measurement scales. This is how I make sense of a world where otherwise nice-seeming people don’t seem to grasp the pain and suffering of others. Their experiences are so far removed from those different than them that they have no reference point of comparison. For example, a white person living in an all-white community may not have had any direct experience with seeing a friend or loved one deal with racism and have trouble believing either that it exists or that it is as systemic as it is. It’s the way that many men don’t seem to get sexism until it impacts their daughters. If we are all stuck comparing everyone else’s experiences to our own, relatively speaking, we all start to think that apples cost the same to everyone, and that other people are just complaining for no reason — or are incapable of understanding the true value of an apple. It takes concerted effort to try to see the world through someone else’s lens, and to understand how their cumulative experiences shape any given moment in their lives, to understand, for example, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere but is for that person the result of the straw that broke the camels back. 

Our internal scales can be powerful forces. But we can change those scales, and alter what we measure all of our experiences against; change the thinking, change the comparison, build compassion. In the meantime, if we resize our experiences, as Munroe said, to fit the scales in our head, it might be worth noting that other people have their own scales, too. And that we can’t erase someone else’s experiences just because we have no reference point to compare them to. We’re not all buying the same apples with the same money, and we aren’t all carrying the same straws on our backs. For those of us with privilege, the apples are always going to cost a little less, and we’re going to start off with less straws to carry. For those without relative privilege, apples will always cost more, and their camels have been pre-loaded with burdens.

It really is all relative. And context is everything.

Strength Undefeatable

I can’t remember if my mom picked it out for me, or if I found it myself. I am pretty sure the appeal of the poster was that it was long and narrow, perfect for putting on the back of a college dorm-room door. The colors were pastel-bright and dreamy, that vague 90’s swirly artwork of stars or flowers or something like it served as the background, and all in all it screamed: young girl leaving home to go to college.

On the poster were the words:

I’d done a grade-school project on Anne Sullivan, the woman credited with dramatically changing Hellen Keller’s life. That you could be deaf and blind and still connect to the world amazed me. That you could see past someone’s isolated and nearly savage exterior and believe that there was a person worth connecting to still amazes me. I knew there was wisdom in the words of the poster, and over the next four years, I’d find myself going back to them over and over.

And then my brother died in 2001, and I felt completely lost.

I would feel lost for years. I would bounce from job to job completely unsatisfied. Panic about spending my time well made me waste it. I had this need to not only live my life, but the life he might have lived as well. I became more reckless. I felt restless. I dreamed up and dropped plan after plan after plan, trying to find one that might fit, that might make my life worthy of the word “life”. I didn’t fully understand survivor’s guilt then. I didn’t have the words “complicated grief” to describe the way my mother withdrew into herself. I was trying to be a free spirit. I was trying to find my strength undefeatable. I was trying to make every moment count, and feeling like no moment was good enough, would ever be good enough. I was trying to find myself; that’s what people in their 20s do, even if they don’t start the decade with losing their older brother.

I didn’t understand what strong was. I didn’t understand that creating a hard shell wasn’t the way to go. Undefeatable strength shone like a diamond — cold, bright, beautiful.

And then…

I found a new path, one that would take me to a new city, a new career, and a new outlook on life. I started to soften. I started to read about shame, about vulnerability. I discovered Brené Brown, a social worker who spoke about what it means to “dare greatly” in life, and what we need to do so:

“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.”

So I started to try to enter the arena of my life as I was, and not wait until I was that perfect hard diamond I thought I needed to be.

And then…

My mother died. All my instincts said to go hard again. All my instincts told me the world was a cruel place that will take things from you unpredictably, or when you are on the verge of accomplishment, or starting a new, promising path. It will wait until you have your guard down, and it will strike, so you should never have your guard down. I was in the presence of fate again, and I needed to be strong.

I always thought choice was about action, about taking a path as literally as walking in the woods, and that every path had an inevitable destination. So every choice came to me dripping with expectation, great blobs of insecurity dropping all over me.

It now occurs to me that choices aren’t always linked to action, like hopping from stone to stone. Choices aren’t always about where you are going, but about who you choose to be in the here and now. Not how you set up the next moment, but about how you experience this one. Into all this self-reflection and reframing came other words:

A plant has deep roots and is strong because of them, able to withstand storm and damage and regrow again and again. And I thought, now that’s strength undefeatable.

The world has gotten scary again, and once again I am struck with feelings of loss, of confusion, of fear about the future. Once again I must face the reality that life will always be filled with changes, tragic or otherwise, and that the only thing I can control is whether I try to be a diamond or a plant — cold and hard, or fragile and vulnerable.

Strong and vulnerable do not seem to go together, and yet…

To keep our faces toward change, to be good human beings by staying open, and to to embrace the vulnerability of engagement – that is the strongest stance any of us can take.

Here’s to staying engaged…

Everything That is Not An Elephant

I am notoriously bad at remembering the source of stories, so I can’t remember where I heard this story first. I have been using it, and telling this particular version of it, for as long as I can remember. This is the version I tell:

There was a master sculptor and an apprentice sculptor, and one day the Master set a huge block of marble down in front of the Apprentice.

“Apprentice,” he said, “I want you to carve me an elephant.”

“But Master,” said the Apprentice, “I don’t know how to carve an elephant.”

“It’s simple,” the Master replied. “Simply start by carving away everything that is NOT an elephant.”

The moral, I tell people, just in case they have missed it, is that sometimes the best way to figure out what we are is to start by carving away everything we are not.

 

(When I looked up the story to try to find the origins, I found many versions, several attributed to Michelangelo about carving “David” by carving away everything that was not “David”. In some ways that’s an even more apt analogy than the version I tell, but I’ll stick with mine because I like elephants and not everyone wants to try to carve out themselves as a Greek version of the perfect man.)

I break out this story whenever people talk about mistakes. “Feedback, not failure” was a popular motto at one of my old jobs. Every time we find a way toward a goal that doesn’t work, and every time we carve away some part of ourselves that is “not an elephant”, we get closer and closer to success, and to finding who we really are. Mistakes, for better or for worse, shape us.

Most people will be starting the new year with a list of resolutions. In therapy, I prefer to use the word “intention” because it doesn’t have that same “do or fail” feeling to it. While resolutions often feel like a destination, intentions are about the journey. Intentions make room for all that wonderful feedback that will come from finding all the attempts at change that don’t work.

Here is my other grand piece of advice: motivation will fail you. Trust structure. If you want to change your life, reshape your day, and build into that day space for the habits that will lead to change. Start with one habit a week — eating breakfast, going to bed an hour earlier, stretching. Keep in mind that your day is already filled with those things you currently think of as bad habits, so you will have to replace an old habit with a new one if you want to actually change. Sleeping instead of more time on social media. Exercise instead of that extra hour of TV a day. If you want to know what changes you actually will be able to make, start with a list of things you are willing to give up in your current routine. Carve away everything that is not part of the kind of day you want to have. Fill the space with your elephant of choice. And be prepared for finding lots and lots of ways that replacing “bad” habits doesn’t work, until you finally find the way that does work (personalized to you).

For the record, none of this is as simple as it seems. Change always seems simple to someone who has mastered it, and terrifyingly difficult to the apprentices just starting out. And it seems like every turn of a new year makes apprentices of us all.

Happy carving everyone!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on 1/3/17

Science Fiction: A Bastion of Hope

Social work, I tell people, is about holding hope for others when they are unable to hold it for themselves. More often than not, I meet people when they are in the midst of some sort of crisis. That crisis has painted their world pretty dark, and optimistic isn’t very high on the list of things they are feeling. And yet, the very act of going to therapy is an act of hope — it’s taking a chance that there may be another way to feel, another way to live life. They come with a spark, and it’s my job to help them nurture and grow that spark. I help them see the strengths they already have, and learn to accept that being human means having imperfection. When all else fails, I sit with them in their darkness until they can contemplate the existence of light again.

The world feels very scary to a great deal many people in my life right now. Here in the US, the electoral college just elected a man that the majority of the nation did not vote for, and he is pushing for policy most of us oppose. I have teenage clients being told by bullying classmates that they will be deported, Jewish clients being threatened with swastikas, trans clients terrified for their safety, and countless female clients terrified for their rights (including the right to not be sexually assaulted). Facts are being re-branded as opinions, and science dismissed as an elitist and biased view. People don’t know how to tell if the stories they are reading are real or fake — and too many people don’t even care. If it sounds like the truth (or rather, like what they already believe), that’s good enough.

It’s times like this that I hold on to one of my first and greatest loves: science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have covered all this territory before. I think I have managed to read a story or see a movie about every kind of terrible thing that humanity can do to itself, or have done to them by some greater power. I have read every kind of ending as well, from the dark and nihilistic, to the fiercely optimistic. The most recent was the latest Star Wars movie, whose tag line is this:

While I can’t assume to know the motivation of every author out there, I can’t help but think that the reason why so many writers create such dark worlds is to show people a way through that darkness. However big the odds, there are always heroes willing to take them on. However hard the path, there are feet willing to walk it, and however horrible the consequences, there are people willing to risk it all. For hope.

Hope is one of the great themes of science fiction: where it lives, how it endures, what it can accomplish, what happens when it dies. You cannot tell a story about human beings without also talking about their hopes and dreams. My particular interest in science fiction and fantasy is the way it can take the human condition to the furthest stretch of “what if” and provide a possible answer to what humans would do then. And more often than not, what humans will do, whenever given even the tiniest chance, is hope.

Like many others, I found 2016 to be a very challenging year. I don’t know if we all just collectively only focused on the bad and missed the good (though a lot good happened as well), but it seemed like the year when a lot of people realized, as the great William Goldman (of The Princess Bride) said: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” None of us are buying this year.

Still, it’s my job to hold hope. The only reason I have been able to is that I spent my childhood practicing this skill. I usually needed it about midway through a book when everything in the story started getting darker and darker. I definitely needed it right before the end, when it seemed like any sort of happy ending would be impossible. But I stuck with it (and didn’t skip ahead) and even if all the characters would not survive the story, one thing almost always did: hope.

So I’d pick up the next book, and the next, and the next, and get the same message again and again. However dark the world, there were good people in it. However horrible humanity could be, there were other humans willing to stand up for the weak, for the innocent, and for the best in all of us.

And that is why I can look at 2016 and understand — the story is not over yet. I don’t know if 2017 will be a dark chapter or not, but I do know that in the end, however long this series goes, the good will win. We just have to keep flipping the pages, and we’ll get there eventually.

*originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog.

A Moment of Discord

What makes a person change?

This is the question that fills my life — my life as a therapist, and my life as a writer. How does a person grow and evolve? What makes them change their minds, their hearts, their views? According to Wikipedia, “a character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”

In fiction, the character arc — and the general plot of the story — begins with the inciting incident, or the thing that starts the whole plot rolling. Without this incident, there would be no conflict, no push forward. Without the inciting incident putting events into motion, there would be no reason for the character to have an arc, for the character to change.

Real life rarely has a linear plot, and so it’s really hard to find inciting incidents in it. Sometimes big events happen that force people to deal with them, like death or moving, or gaining or losing a job. And yet the event itself doesn’t necessarily lead to any sort of lasting change. Events come and go in a life, and it is how people respond to those events that actually lead to change or not.

From what I’ve seen, the most common event in a person’s life is a moment of discord — a moment where something that someone thought, believed, or knew as an absolute truth gets challenged. In fiction this might be something as big as aliens landing on Earth, or a character seeing a ghost. In real life the moments tend to be smaller and much more frequent, like hearing a story that surprises you about your friend, or meeting someone from a group you were sure you knew everything about and discovering they are nothing like you imagined they would be.

With every moment of discord comes a choice — either a person can double down on what they thought they knew to be true, or embrace the discomfort and move to change. Often, in fiction, it takes several beats and/or chapters to get from an inciting incident to the thing that locks the character into the plot and toward the course of change. Even in fiction, we recognize the human need to resist change, to cling to old ideas or ways of being. We deny the ghosts in front of our eyes, the aliens walking down the street, or even the possibility that our long-held view of the world could be anything but right and true. It takes  more discord, more discomfort to lodge us from the path we were already walking and lead us toward something new.

Some people never lock in to their action, never embrace the change. They stay constant in how they act, in how they see the world, regardless of what events unfold in front of them. They likely don’t make very good protagonists, since their arcs look more like straight lines.

I don’t see many of those types in therapy, since the act of going to a therapist is about actively seeking some sort of change. But even if people want to change, it doesn’t mean they don’t resist it. There are barriers, there is push back, there are relapses and setbacks. In a story, this is the series of conflicts that creates tension while driving the story forward. In real life, these are the things that drive people crazy.

Change in a story comes at exactly the point the author needs it to come so that there is some sort of resolution. Change in a life is a process that may or may not have a definitive end. Both types of change take commitment, time, and perspective.

So what makes a person change? I’m still not sure. Lives are scattered with inciting incidents and moments of discord nearly every day. Events don’t change people — people change themselves.

In the end I think it comes back to my favorite social work joke: how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Everything else is just the story of how.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang on December 6th, 2016. 

Work-Life Balance

Dear Readers,

When I first started this particular version of my blog, I had such high hopes of making and keeping to a regular posting schedule. The more time that passed from my last blog post, the more guilt I felt, and the harder it was to come up with a topic to write about. Every sentence I typed felt like it sucked, and I developed a keen sense of self-consciousness that no one wanted to hear anything that I had to say anyway.

I work in a very demanding profession, and the past several months have been brutal for me. I have some new very complicated cases that are stretching my capabilities to their breaking points. I am behind on paperwork, which while being a constant, makes me feel like any time spent writing should be spent writing progress notes. I am feeling very burned out, in general.

During the past several months I also had to go through and edit my book after it came back from the editor, and while I started the process feeling optimistic and excited, I quickly found myself drowning in doubt in that area as well. What had I written? Why would I think anyone would want to read it?

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I suffer from depression, and that my symptoms are easily triggered whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, when I feel things starting to slip away from me. In the last months, I took on a second job, and a time-consuming volunteer opportunity — along with the challenging cases and the book edits — and it was way more than I could chew. I became very symptomatic, which meant I spent more energy avoiding things than doing things.

So how do you come back from that and be like, hi! I’m blogging again! Hope you keep reading! Do you acknowledge the lapse or ignore it and hope everyone else does too? Do you talk about your depression? Do you talk about how being a part-time writer with a full-time job is super challenging? I somehow doubt that’s the way to connect with fans and sell books. And yet…

Hi! I’m blogging again! I am going to a cider festival this weekend, of which I will be writing a review. I want to talk about the exciting things other authors in the Blue Zephyr Press group are doing. I want to say that my book cover is almost done and I can’t wait to share it with everyone once the final touches are done. I want to talk about other cool book-related things and life related things. And I will!

But first I wanted to write this: writing of any kind is a practice in vulnerability. I have spent enough time in my past life as a marketing person and public relations executive to know that a public image is something that should be carefully cultivated and maintained. There isn’t a lot of room in that cultivation for genuine vulnerability. But I think it is my fear of being vulnerable in this space that is holding me back from the very thing I want to do as a writer — connect with readers. So in the name of vulnerability and connection, I can’t just start this blog up again without any explanation of why it has been months since my last post.

And the explanation is this: a work-life (or sometimes, work and other-more-creative-work) balance is very hard to maintain. I am working on doing a better job with that balance, and I hope you follow along my journey as I do.

Till next week!

–Jennae

 

 

Social Work and Connection

I have a social work crush. A few years back, when I was first starting out as a social worker, I discovered this TED Talk:

[ted id=1042 lang=en]

Not only did I completely connect with Brené Brown’s ideas, I found a role model for the type of social worker I wanted to be, the kind that could create/discover an idea that everyone could benefit from. Brené talks about wanting to study connection and vulnerability as an attempt to solve her own struggles with those things. I think most social workers come to the profession with a secret goal to fix something in themselves, in their families, in their neighborhoods, or in their communities. They come to social work because they see themselves in the populations they serve, and they want to make a difference.

The longer I do this work, the more I fully embrace Brené’s ideas about vulnerability, shame, and the need for connection. In fact, the biggest problem I see most of my families face is isolation — they lack the natural supports that other people have, the proverbial village that helps raise a child. Without a natural village, a village of professionals and systems come in to support the family. Instead of extended family that can help provide child care, there are child care vouchers for day-care centers. Instead of a relative staying with the family to help with the kids or the house, homemaking services come in to offer support to overwhelmed parents. These families don’t have a lot of reliable friends. They tend not to be active in religious communities. They mostly don’t work so there aren’t supportive co-workers to help pick up any slack either. Sometimes they live in shelters, a housing system that forces isolation on families as a way to ensure that they don’t get too comfortable.

I spend most of my time with families trying to connect them to systems and seeing if they can possibly find a way to connect, or reconnect with those supports they do have, build on the connections they already have in their families, friends, and communities. The heart of family therapy is about strengthening the connections within the family to help the family function, as a whole, better.

Then there is this article on drug addiction:

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

Connection, again, is key. But the inherent struggle of connection is that it presupposes that you are worthy of it. Many of the individuals and families I encounter don’t feel worthy of connection. It’s part of what keeps them isolated (I strongly recommend you watch the above video in its entirety).

Next week, for social worker month, my co-workers and I will be participating in Secret Social Worker (even though among us we also have Marriage and Family Counselors and Mental Health Counselors – a collective of clinical helping professionals). We will draw names and randomly get assigned someone to do little things for every day for a week, before revealing our identities. We do these things not just because they are fun (and trust me, they are), but because it helps us all connect a little more to each other. As those whose job it is to help others connect, it is vitally important that we too stay connected to whatever supports we can muster.

This month is also the month I lost two vital members of my personal village, my grandmother and my mother, and so I would like to take a moment to recognize all my other connections, my friends, family, and especially those friends who have become family. These are the people I can be vulnerable with, who tell me I am a worthy person. While I do this work to help other people connect, I only CAN do this work because of the connections that sustain me.

So I will close of National Social Work Month with big huge thank you! Thank you Brené Brown for helping inspire my working philosophy, and thank you to all the connections in my life that keep me grounded and cared for. I literally couldn’t do this without you!

 

For All the Amazing Women in My Life

This month is National Social Work Month, which is something that probably only social workers and people who work with social workers know about, let alone celebrate. It is also Women’s History Month. Not so coincidentally, the social work profession is dominated by women — 82% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a lot of different explanations for this, from the fact that women were instrumental in creating social work as a field, to the idea that social work is women’s work (which some men want to change). All I know is that I happen to be surrounded by women most of the time in my daily work and this month I get to celebrate them twice.

I also happen to be part of an all-female writing group. This wasn’t by design — this was just the writing group that I ended up in after years of being part of various other writing groups. But one of the things that all the women in my group have in common is the desire to read and write about smart, capable, and complex female characters. And that is in part because we wanted to read characters that felt more like the women we actually know. Okay, so maybe the women in our day-to-day lives weren’t involved in secret all-women spy agencies, other world conflict surrounding a teen girl, or San Juan Island murder mysteries, but they are all smart, capable, and complex.

The other thing that this month holds for me, personally, is the reminder of some of the amazing women I have lost along the way, including my grandmother and mother, both who died in March (though in different years). There may be more blog entries this month than I normally would schedule just to try to get a chance to talk about everything that March holds for me: celebration, community, grief, and legacy.

I am very grateful to be a part of these communities, and to be surrounded by amazing women as a social worker, a writer, and a friend. The women in my life have shaped who I am in ways I am still discovering. They have taught me to be kind to myself, to take risks, to push boundaries. They have lead by example, and made me want to be an example as well.

So to each and everyone of them I say: thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.