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.

More Than a Day Job

I didn’t start out life wanting to be a social worker. Honestly, I had no idea what a social worker did, and certainly never had any aspirations to pursue a career in the field. I had graduated with a dual degree in English (creative writing) and Journalism, and was convinced that I was on the Jack London/Hemingway journalist-to-novelist path.

Life, of course, had other plans, and where I eventually ended up was public relations. I am sure there are people for whom public relations is the right career. I am not that person. I was searching for something more than the long list of crappy day jobs I’d held throughout my twenties, something different than the marketing-focused writing I was doing, and someone suggested that social work might be the right way for me to go. It was a two-year professional masters degree. There were licenses to earn that would eventually put me at the “can have a private practice” level, and all my experience working in various types of jobs over the years would be an asset in the field.

So I did my research and discovered that social work was actually a very interesting and varied field, with clinical work, community organizing work, and even jobs in the for-profit sector. There were tons of different populations I could work with, in a huge range of job titles, but it was the clinical parts that appealed to me. Social work has been described as psychology meets sociology, or possibly, applied psychology. Clinical social workers are less interested in how people got to where they are than helping them make the changes they need to make for a successful future. Most social workers want to put themselves out of work. That is, the goal is to get our clients to a point where they no longer need our services because whatever goal they came to us with has been achieved.

For me it ended up being the ultimate day job, because it doesn’t feel like a day job. I currently work for an agency that serves families who are at risk of having their children placed into foster care. I do family therapy; it is the most challenging work I have ever done. And yes, it is rewarding, but not in the way most people think of. Like being a writer, the moments that make it all worth it are more sporadic than people want to admit. But they are there, and they are amazing.

Whenever I told people I was a freelance writer, they would sort of nod along and ask me how it was going with a tone that suggested that it probably wasn’t going very well. To be fair, in my case they were probably right. Now, when I tell people I am a social worker, those who have a sense of the field usually make some sort of comment along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.” There is usually a sense of oh, you’re one of those really socially minded people who like, helps other people. Well,  yes. I am. And yes, it is hard. But also, it’s a job. I’m not a saint. I collect a paycheck, too.

But if it sounds impressive, I’ll take it. 😉