NPFP Guest Post: Who helps the helper?

Welcome to RMB’s Naked Pictures of Faceless People, a series of guest posts from diverse anonymous bloggers. (Read more about NPFP’s origins.) These are the posts that are jumping to get out of us, but for whatever reason — safety, embarrassment, conflict of interest, protection of loved ones’ reputations or feelings, or so on — we don’t or won’t or can’t post at our own blogs. Anyone is welcome to submit or discuss a potential post by emailing me at arwyn at raisingmyboychick dot com.

Who helps the helper?

I’ve posted this anonymously, to protect anyone I may come in contact with in my line of work. For that reason, some details of my work and family life are vastly reduced in this post.

Most of my friends and neighbors know I work in disabilities and that lately (for about two years) I’ve also been doing work with families who “need some extra support”.

But that is the nice version.

The less nice version is: I work for social services. I support parents who are on the verge of losing their children. There are many different reasons, and I have entered the process early (when social services are a “Let’s see if the care improves dramatically with a little support” thing), and late (“We should have done something ages ago, but at least we can send you in now while we rush this case to court”).

I work with my clients in their homes. I can come early in the morning to start their day, or in the evening to help them with a good rhythm for winding down. Sometimes I’m needed on a weekend to help fill it with something fun to do. My work is to guarantee the children’s basic rights are met according to the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to provide an emotionally secure adult while overseeing that their situation doesn’t get worse (and preferably gets a lot better).

But I feel I am always sent in too late. I communicate with the case workers and I suggest all kinds of additional support available to the families; but usually, they still end up with their children being placed with a foster family to guarantee their basic needs.

Maybe, I think, maybe an earlier intervention could have prevented this?

But often the social services didn’t even know there was a problem before it got really bad. It takes a lot for grown ups in the children’s lives to file a complaint, and a lot for parents to ask for the help of the social services. So the problem has often been brewing, festering, barely managed, barley contained. The two main reasons are the fear of humiliation and the fear of losing one’s children.

At least I don’t have to make that call. I don’t take the case to court. I don’t decide. The case worker talks to me and I tell them what I have seen, what we have accomplished along the way, how far the families have come with my help, and they then decide what the next step will be. And often, it is decided the children will be removed from their family home.

My work then changes, to supporting the parents in their quest to regain the skills and accountability they need to be seen fit to parent. In most cases they at least get to keep me, who have met them when they were a family and can see them as the parents they are. Someone they know, at least partially.

I have never met a parent who did not love their child. But parenting is a multifaceted task, especially in a complicated world. My wish is that every family would get the support they need to keep the family together, and their children safe from harm, neglect and/or emotional trauma.

Because sometimes both options open to the social services suck; leaving children with someone who has a history of basically not parenting them or separating them from the people they love and trust? The only parents they have ever known?

Both options will scar them for life. Both options are traumatic.

***

Now for the twist.

I am bipolar. I have a serious mood disorder.

I am a mother to a small child.

In my personal life, I am partnered with my child’s father, a stable man. I am currently stable myself, and even medication-free. I might not be for the rest of my life, and while I was on medication they worked fine for me. I would happily take my pills again if I needed to.

But what if disaster strikes? Life holds no guarantees. I could lose my partner or suffer some other destabilizing event. The meds might not work as well the next time. I have no family living close by. Since I work part-time for social services I don’t have a large salary or a large saving account. I could be on welfare very quickly. And those things combined — low economic resources, lack of support from family and documented mental illness, underachievement — are warning signs that social services look for. I know I sometimes modify my behavior to not fit my own subjective view on how people with bipolar type disorder behave: I take extra care of personal hygiene, I keep my workspace tidy, I show up for meetings with time to spare, I modulate my voice to be calm and the reasons for my opinions to be well formulated. I pride myself on handling stress, on average, very well. It is in my nature, but I often chose what I focus on: being a reasonable, competent and together person.

While I am in a position of power that supersedes the power of my clients, it is important to me to treat my clients as equals. I don’t see the parents I work with who have mental illnesses, neural development disorders, or traumatic childhood experiences (that make it difficult to parent their own children) as different. I don’t see them as being of “the others”. It’s not by any action of my own that I came to be bipolar; it is by no action of my own that I am not different in a way more stigmatized by society. I can, at times, congratulate myself on my great outcome so far — but only so far.

As I do my labor of love this thought often flutters through my mind: I could slip from helper into needing help. In this part of town I am the only one who does exactly this kind of work; my colleagues have slightly different jobs, or a more theoretical angle than I do. Who will then come for me? Who will look out for my child’s best interests?

Who helps the helper?

And also even if I never fall ill again: what if my clients found out? Would they trust me as much as they often do, if they knew of my mood disorder? Would they see it as “No big deal, we know you”? Or would they criticize the social services because “they sent someone crazy to help”? Would most of them see it a relief that I am not perfect either? Or would they be unsettled by the images of bipolar mood disorder in popular media and being required to put their faith into the hands of “someone like that”?

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9 Responses to NPFP Guest Post: Who helps the helper?

  1. (posting somewhat facelessly due to subject matter)

    You know, I’ve often wondered this sort of thing myself – my mother became a social worker (working for childrens’ services) because she was abused as a child. Her relationship with my father was…held together with bubble gum and duct tape until just a couple years ago when she walked out (once all us kids were “safely” in college and she was no longer working for the state). I think she would have left sooner if she didn’t think it’d be a problem with her job – if she didn’t think that the issues in our home would get back to her supervisors or clients.

    My younger brother #1 was abusive to everyone in reach, as long as he was at home – he was a perfect angel at school. He should probably have been to counselling as a child for anger issues, but we lived in a small town, and she worked with all the therapists in the county, so who could she take her out of control child to without endangering her job?

    She worried about working in our county – we went to school with kids on her caseload, people knew where she lived, and it was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone’s business.

    Younger brother #2 went to the only daycare center that had a bus that went to his elementary school. Things there were not good – on at least 2 occasions they should have been reported for abuse – but if she did, where would she take my brother? In first grade, they did latch-key, and it was so chaotic and unsafe that the family agreed that he was better off being home alone after school at 7 years old. Again, the sort of thing she wasn’t supposed to allow in her clients.

  2. My career background is on mental health and I knew of three co-workers (off the top of my head) who also had a mental illness, but who were just higher functioning than their clients (read: had better success with their meds and recovery.) I always thought that having that shared experience helped to make them better workers. But one day one of my co-workers got sick and needed to be hospitalized in the very place her clients were. So she had no choice but to come out of the closet. She received nothing but support. Now, her situation is slightly different than yours because her job was working with clients who needed to live in group homes and went in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. She didn’t mingle with the non-mentally ill in her client base too. I would venture to guess that if anything ever happened and you became ill again or your clients found out you have a mental illness, that they would appreciate knowing. It would also be a learning experience for them to see that you can be a high functioning member of society and that there is hope for others to get well. There are many faces to mental illness. The well faces are just as important as the sick one to reducing the stigma.
    But I understand what you’re asking and why you’re asking it. It’s strange though don’t you think? That we work so hard to reduce the stigma for our clients but work just as hard to hide our own problems so we can avoid that stigma we’re angry exists in the first place.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I have a pretty extensive history of psychiatric issues, and have contemplated going into social work, but have hesitated due to many of the concerns you’ve voiced.

    I’ve met many folks in the same or similar situations — therapists who are bipolar, social service agency supervisors who’ve been hospitalized — and they’ve been supported in those moments of crisis, rather than vilified. But I also totally “get” the pressure to prove how high-functioning and stable you are, particularly in your career.

    I also want to say thank you for doing the difficult but important job of child protective work. We need more sensitively-attuned folks in social services, for sure.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. I am certain that there are many people that I know, personally, who have struggled with mental illness without my knowledge. I can understand why they would hesitate to share their stories. But I think that every time we remove the stigma ‘other’, it is a help. So many of us find ourselves on the edge and struggling, and knowing that we are not alone when that happens is, I think, immensely helpful. Knowing that others share our experience can lessen the burden for many.

  5. I do believe I would get support in the acute stages of a crisis.

    But what would happen in the months to come? When I might feel ready to work again?

    I have read your comments, several times actually. Thank you so much for commenting.

  6. I work in a similar field and have long term major depression. When I was very sick last year with my 3 month old baby I was almost hospitalised. I was also very tired and made a couple of stupid mistakes. I was so scared (knowing how the system works) that I would be reported. That then sent me spiraling further.

    I am so glad that where you are you have positions like yours where you working on implementing systems before the child is removed.

    Here we work on such constraints that families often only get services when its too late when the child is already significantly harmed (physically or psychologically) and they are removed immediately.

    I guess it comes down to insight. You obviously have it. You are also fortunate to have knowledge and understanding of services.

    Thank you for sharing and good luck.

  7. I understand the fear of having your child taken because I’ve feared it, too. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and I’ve had some bad times in my life. One of the worst was in the first few days after Rachel was born, though. I had her in a hospital and the birth experience itself was pretty good, but I lost a lot of blood in her delivery. She went to the NICU briefly after she was born and I was told not to get out of bed because I’d probably be very light headed and could fall. They brought her to me around 3am and when she started to cry, I buzzed for a nurse. It was several minutes before one came, and she snapped at me for not getting up myself. A little while later I had to use the washroom and I went on my own; I didn’t want to call a nurse again unless Rachel needed something. I fell in the bathroom when I got dizzy. When I buzzed for a nurse the next time that Rachel cried, I was yelled at for buzzing again.

    Everything was coming together inside me…the exhaustion, the uncertainty of being a first time mom, the demands of my child, the insensitivity of the nurses and my post-partum depression was just starting to rear its ugly head. On my second night, Rachel wouldn’t stop crying. I kept trying to nurse her and didn’t know why she was still so upset. I buzzed and buzzed, but no one came. I finally stumbled down the hallway, completely in tears, needing someone to help me to help her.

    The next day they called a social worker to come in and talk with me. I thought it was a good thing and she seemed so nice. I talked to her and she said she understood how I was feeling and that she could see I was doing a good job with Rachel. She said she wanted to give me some resources to help me after I went home and asked if it was ok for her to contact Children’s Aid on my behalf. I was nervous about the idea, because as a teacher the only experience I had had with Children’s Aid was that they took abused kids away from their parents. She assured me that that wasn’t what this was about and that they would just give me some phone numbers and places where I could go for help nursing and to meet other mothers and stuff like that, so I said yes.

    By the time they called, I was home and my mom was with me. I felt better and when the man asked when he could set up an appointment to see me, I said I didn’t really need the support after all. He said it didn’t work that way. I had been reported and he had to come to make sure everything was ok. I’ve never been so scared in my life. Everything from the house being messy to my history of depression and anxiety and my husband’s history (he was put in a mental ward of a hospital for a month once several years ago for depression and suicidal thoughts) was a huge black mark against us.

    I haven’t thought about this in so long, but I can’t stop crying now, remembering that feeling that everything I was would be examined under a microscope and that somehow, I could be found unfit to raise the daughter I had only just brought home. I suppose it didn’t help that I was already feeling completely incompetent since I was struggling with nursing and kept realizing that there were more baby things that I needed but didn’t have yet.

    Thankfully, it went well. He confirmed with my doctor that I was getting treatment for my post-partum depression and he was glad to see my mom was staying with us to help, and he said he’d be closing the case. I can understand WHY CAS needs to make sure everything is ok, but it’s just such an awful, scary feeling to be the person they are checking out. None of it would even have happened if the nurses had helped when they were supposed to. I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed; I could have dropped Rachel if I had fainted. Instead my tears and asking for help were interpreted as me being an unfit mother.

    I realize that I’ve gone on a tangent here. Your paragraph about “what happens if” and signs that social services look for just blasted me back to those days after Rachel was born. I guess I still had a lot of pain and anger inside of me over those days. I hope you don’t mind too much that I’ve strayed from your original article.

  8. Sheri: I appreciated reading your story. Thank you.

    Do you have anyone that could listen to you while you work this pain and anger out? I feel such emotions are often ignored as soon as the case is closed. But being reported can be traumatic to anyone.

    Because having your personal life scrutinized is scary, scary business.

  9. Reading Sheri’s story reminds me that another reason I’m scared to have a baby is bc there are so many opportunities to NOT TRUST the woman. To betray and belittle her, and I would totally f’n lose it. Big LOVE to you, I’m crying right along with you and for all the women that have to summon godly amounts of power and strength just to survive abusive systems designed to profit off our moments of weakness. (the only weakness being losing lots of blood)
    I’m waiting and waiting until I’m sure I can have a midwife, doula and an army of supporters that will protect me and my baby from the kinds of idiots that Sheri encountered.

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