They say that when you work in mental health it is important to not take the job home with you or else you will risk your own mental stability. They also say that you have to be crazy to work with crazy people. I say that I disagree with both theories.
A month ago, my job sent me to a conference on Trauma-Informed Care. Those that spoke at the conference were doctors, social workers, and occupational therapists and they presented on a multitude of approaches to incorporate in mental health settings (hospitals, schools, etc.) with the end goal being to minimize or eliminate the use of restraint and seclusion. The overall theme was to have a better understanding of how traumatic experiences physiologically change one’s reaction to their environment. In an 8 hour day, it was one small statement that came to be the most profound in rekindling my love and desire for my career. A man named Jay Indik, LICSW from Cutchins Program for Children and Families in Northampton, MA stood in front of the audience and began his part of the presentation by posing a question: “How many of you are here because your job exposes you to traumatic experiences because you care about the well-being of others and want them to live meaningful lives?”
That statement is what bridged the gap between myself and my clients. They have been exposed to trauma at least once, but most likely many times throughout their lives. In turn, they have learned maladaptive ways of attempting to get their needs met. These strategies, whether it be self-harm, verbal violence, or physical violence manifest themselves while they are on the unit and I choose to be there and endure the trauma that they are then inflicting upon me. But this is not a bad thing. This is the learning moment that separates those that can handle working in an acute care setting and those that can not. Those that can not are unable to oppose the tendency to feel helpless when traumatized. Those that can make it in this field are the ones that take their own trauma, put it in a crystal jar, analyze it and use it for positive change in themselves and others.
I have been verbally abused day in and day out, even physically assaulted, but the day that I felt the most knocked down was when a client called in to question my ability to do my job effectively. She witnessed an interaction between myself and another client that triggered her. She was sobbing, shaking, and visibly anxious and she told me that I was wrong. I took a deep breath, put aside my own insecurities that she was calling into question, and I apologized. I apologized and I truly meant it. I then went into the office and burst into tears. I felt hopeless. I felt like I had failed. But I did not fail because I took that moment and I learned from it. By using my moments of vulnerability as learning tools, I model for my clients an appropriate way to cope and to move forward and to be stronger.
Yes, my job is stressful and at times utterly depressing, but despite the frustrations and the fear that my line of work rouses within me, I have come to a deeper sense of self through my interactions with clients and peers.
They are wrong. I am not crazy for wanting to work with this particular clientele. I am one of the few that truly believes that what binds all of us together in this messy world is the need for unconditional love and acceptance. I take my work home with me every day because I feel grateful and fortunate for my life and I think it would be a disservice to not share my strengths with others in order to minimize their struggle. I take work home with me and I think about how I can improve on myself in order to better serve others. Most likely they will walk out the door of the hospital and never think of me again, and that is beautiful. I don’t expect or strive to be anyone’s hero. I want them to find that hero within themselves.