Postscript to why I hate field trips…

Part one and part two are here.

The next day, Penny was moved from our house to somewhere else.  Protective services felt that it was possible that the guys who were after her knew where she was and it was safest to move her.  I have to admit that I and my coworkers agreed.

Two days later I was attending a breakfast staff meeting for the other group home organization that I worked for (two part time jobs while still in college).  I was regaling them with the story of my terror.  Suddenly I hear my name called out across the restaurant.  I turned and there was Penny and her social worker having breakfast.  They waved me over.  As I approached, Penny jumped up and nearly broke my ribs with a hug.  Then her social worker, Mary did the same.  Mary said “Thank you so much for keeping her safe.”  All three of use teared up.  We chatted a little bit before I went back to my meeting. Then I found out more about the situation.

Penny had some sketchy friends.  The reason she’d not been allowed to use the phone was they were trying to keep her away from some of them.  There was this guy in particular.  Penny was convinced that he was a good friend and she had managed to call him and tell him we were going to the movies and that was why they showed up there.  Now, were they there to rescue her from the evil clutched of the group home?  Nope.  Her friend was using her as his “entrance fee” into a gang, lead by the Giant. The social worker told me that Penny would have become a commodity to be passed around and payed for.  Basically he wanted in to this gang and the price was one human life.

I’m really glad they didn’t take her and I’m really glad I’m still alive.

No.  I don’t like field trips.

Why I Hate Field Trips -or- The Scariest Thing That Ever Happened to Me (Part Two)

Part One is here.

“They’re trying to take her!”

Lisa had tears and snot running down her face and really looked terrified.  Mike actually went pale.  Before I could ask her who was trying to take who, Lisa yelled “She’s locked in the bathroom!” and then took off back the way she came.  Very much the last thing I expected to hear while out at the movies.  We didn’t run, but Mike and I walked pretty quickly to follow Lisa.

We were in the long, wide hallway, with three or four theatre doors on each side. The hallway was pretty empty, there were some people lingering a bit after their movies had let out.  About halfway down the hall, Lisa was kneeling in front of the door to a washroom, crying.  There were two young manager-type-guys in suits standing about twelve feet away from her, looking concerned but unsure what to do.  Lisa saw me approaching and called out “He’s coming, Geoff’s coming.”  Here’s what I noticed, but didn’t register until much later:  One of the manager guys began to move towards me.  Mike hustled over to Lisa.  A guy, a large guy was leaning against the wall across from the washroom; as I approached, he gave a little wave to another large guy who was standing much farther into the hallway.  Both the big guys were gone before I got to Lisa, Mike and Penny.  I really had noticed them, but nothing about them was important enough to intrude into my brain at that moment.  Something about them did cause me notice them though, I don’t think that I’d remember their presence there at all if it hadn’t.  Manager guy asked me if I was with the kids and I told him that I was.  I went to the door of the bathroom and asked Penny if she was ok.  She was crying but said that she was and several times told me not to leave.  I assured her that I wouldn’t go anywhere without her.  Manager guy proceeded to tell me, occasionally being interrupted by Lisa, that several men had entered the theatre, while the movie was playing, and began looking for someone.  Apparently one of them approached Lisa and Penny and then began to lead Penny out of the theatre.  Lisa added that he’d been Penny’s friend but then other guys showed up.  Manager guy said that he saw Penny talking to one man and that she got upset when she saw the other guys come towards them.  He hear Penny tell Lisa to “Get Geoff!” Lisa ran towards the lobby and Penny ran to the handicapped washroom and locked herself in.  That was when I remembered the two guys who’d been hanging around when I arrived.

Mike managed to calm Lisa down and Penny agreed to open the door once I explained that there was no one else there other than her friends, me and the managers.  Penny was white as a sheet and clearly terrified.  She cried softly and said she wanted to go home but was scared to leave.  I told her that there was an exit that led to the side of the  cinema and that I could pull my car up and we could leave that way, avoiding anyone who might be waiting out front.  The manager guys agreed to stay with Penny and Lisa while I did this.  Lisa joined Penny in the washroom and they locked the door again.  Mike and I went to the parking lot and got my car (an old ’91 Cavalier).

So Mike and I hopped into my car.  I have to say that Mike was being really awesome.  He was clearly freaked out a bit but stayed calm the whole time.  I pulled the car up to the stairs at the side door to the theatre.  One of the manager guys was there, holding the door open.  I waved to him and he went back in.  I left Mike in the car and went to the door.  Penny and Lisa were there when the door opened again.  I walked them quickly to the car and made sure they got in and settled.  Mike was in the front passenger seat and the girls in the back.  I got in and started the car.  At this point I remembered that I’d probably have to write something down about all this so I figured I’d need the names of the manager guys.  I’ll admit that I was pretty relaxed at this point.  The big guys weren’t around, and I had all three kids in my car.  After telling the kids what I was going to do, and that they needed to make sure they kept the doors locked, I hopped out of the car and went to get the names of the manager guys.

So, what had I done up to this point?

  • I’d made sure the kids in my care were accounted for and safe.
  • I’d calmed and reassured those same kids.
  • I spoken with the manager guys about what happened.
  • I made a plan to get out of there.

Here’s what I hadn’t done:

  • Called my supervisor for support or instructions.
  • CALLED THE POLICE.

That last one turned out to be kind of important.  As I turned from the manager guys, I noticed seven large guys walking towards my car.  Were they all actually large?  Yes.  Fucking huge.  My recollection may be coloured by terror, but seriously, fucking huge.  Not one of them looked happy.  They were farther from my car than I was, not by a lot though.  I moved to the car, without running.  Part of me thought that if I ran, that would up the ante somehow.  When the kids in the home were having trouble, you always tried to not show your fear and frustration, but remained calm and basically lead by example.  I figured this applied.

It was close.  I sat in the car and started it.  Got my belt on and put it into drive.  I reached out and started to pull the door closed.  Unfortunately, the door wouldn’t close.  This was because a giant had stepped up and was leaning against the inside of the door.  My first thought was that I had the car in drive and that a little tap on the gas would get us out of this.  My second thought was, that if I hit the gas, I probably kill the two men who were standing with their knees at my front bumper.  I didn’t think I was ready for vehicular killing just yet.  But as I said, it was close.

The girls were screaming.  Screaming and crying.  Mike was silently looking around the car, no colour left in his face.  I took a moment (one of those endless moments, like a slow motion pan around a scene in an action movie) to look out the other windows.  There were two guys at my rear bumper.  There was a guy at the rear passenger side door and another on the other side, plus the guy almost standing inside the car, next to me.  The giant leaded back against my door and rested a foot just inside the car, next to my seat.  He started telling Penny to get out of the car.  He was very calm about it, but he wasn’t asking and seemed to firmly believe that he was going to be obeyed.  The guy at the rear driver side door began to tap on the window with a ring on one of his fingers.  The girls were in an absolute panic.  Mike leaned back towards them and took their hands.  He told them that they’d be alright and just generally made soothing shhhh noises.  This kid, who could be one of the most obnoxious little fuckers I’d ever met, became my favourite person of all time (for like 3 seconds).  I started telling the giant that no one was going to get out of the car.  I told him that we were expected back and would be missed.  I alternated with trying to help Penny and Lisa calm down (they were really, really loud).  The giant, in no way, acknowledged my presence, initially.  I have no idea how long this went on.  It was probably no more than a minute, maybe two.  Honestly, in my heart, it feels like it was an hour or two.

I’m a pretty calm person.  That calm and an ability to deal with crisis were valuable in the group homes and were skills that got a lot of practice.  What else got practice was a particular tone of voice.  You bust it out when you need to be heard, but aren’t going to yell.  The taping on the window became banging.  The guy on the other side of the car also began to bang on the windows.  One of the two from the front of the car moved around to the passenger side of the car and started trying the doors.  The giant raised his voice and began demanding that Penny get out of the car.  I wasn’t feeling calm, but I was trying.  To the giant, I said “Look man, you need to calm down.”

For the first time, the giant seemed to be aware that I was there.  He leaned down and brought his face down into my line of sight.  He brought his hand a couple of inches from my face and pointed at me.  “You don’t tell me to fucking calm down.”  That one sentence was dripping with menace.  I was pretty sure that I was going to die.  That seemed to break his calm as well.  He thumped the roof of my car and began to yell at Penny to get out of the car.

One of the guys moved to the giant and seemed to be trying to get him to calm down a bit.  I heard the guy tell the giant that maybe now wasn’t the best time.  The giant pushed his ‘friend’ away and then stepped towards him and began to argue.  He yelled “She needs to get out of the fucking car now!”  This was when I noticed a couple things.  The first was that I still had the car in drive and the second was that the voice-of-reason guy was no longer in front of the car.  So, I hit the gas.

I promptly got lost in the parking lot.  Seriously, you know when you think you can get through part of a parking lot, but there’s no exit and you have to backup to pick a different route?  That.  The whole time, I was convinced that I was about to take part in a real life dukes of hazard car chase.  It was while I was trying desperately to get out of the parking lot, that the adrenaline wore off and the panic kinda set in.  My knees went to jello and I felt like I had pins and needles in my hands and feet.  I’m pretty sure that I nearly killed us several times.  So convinced was I that we would be followed, I took a really long and circuitous route back to the home.

By the time we got there, the kids were calm.  The other residents were already in bed, so I had them head up as well.  I went down to out little office.  My coworker, Steph and the house supervisor, Bill were chilling in there.  Bill asked why we had been gone so long.  I had to kneel on the floor.  I wanted to vomit.  I wanted to pass out.  I’d never felt so shaky before. Slowly I told them everything that had happened.  They were pretty good.  They listened without interrupting, through most of the story. When I was done, I kind of lay down on the floor.  After a couple of seconds of silence, and a couple of shared looks between them, Bill and Steph started to laugh.  They couldn’t stop.  I’m pretty sure that Bill had tears streaming down his face.  It was infectious.  I started to laugh and couldn’t stop either.

All in all, it could have been worse.  I got everyone home and no one got hurt or died.  But, fuck no, I don’t want to go on a field trip!

Why I Hate Field Trips -or- The Scariest Thing That Ever Happened to Me

I really do hate field trips.  As a kid I didn’t mind them at all.  Away from school for the day? Excellent.  In theory, as an adult working with kids, being away from school for the day should still be excellent.  I can see the benefit of these trips.  I can see why we plan them.  I totally agree with the awesomeness of a good field trip.  However, it’s only awesome if I’m not going on the field trip.  It’s visceral.  When a teacher asks me if I want to help out on a field trip, my immediate and vehement reply is “Fuck no.”  I kind of joke it off, saying that I just don’t want to be responsible for that many kids at once or saying that I get worried that people will think that they’re mine (judging me harshly for being a, clearly, shitty parent.)  Here’s the thing…  recently I remembered that there’s an actual reason why I hate field trips.  This brought up two questions.  One:  Really?  It’s not just a sort of jaded laziness on my part?  Two:  How in the holy fuck did I forget this?  Before I worked in a school, I worked in Child Protection.  Prior to that I worked in group homes for teens.  It was in the group homes that I developed my distaste for field trips.

The home I spent the most time at was a coed emergency home.  This meant that it was boys and girls living together in short term ‘stabilization’ placements.  We helped get them settled and used to the group home thing before they moved to long term homes or with family.  See the links in the previous paragraph for some idea of what went on at the houses.  We worked on a level system for privileges.  Level one, you were pretty much in your room.  Level five, you had a fair amount of freedom to do what you wanted.  With kids on levels 4 or 5 we would sometimes go on outings, on the weekends.  I almost never got the opportunity to take kids on these outings as the more senior staff would snap them up.  Well on this particular weekend, we discovered that I was the senior staff.  There 4 kids in the house that weekend.  One of them was grounded on level one and the other three had the levels for an outing.  Not only that but I had some petty cash.  The kids suggested a movie.  Who wouldn’t want to go to the movies while at work?

So, I took these three kids out to the movies. Two girls and one boy.  Let’s call them Mike, Lisa and Penny.  Here’s what I remember.  Mike was 15 and a bit of a redneck.  He always wore a tank top and loved WWF (WWE now).  Lisa was blonde.  I remember that she could be really loud sometimes and was not very bright.  Penny was 15.  She made sure that she looked older as much as she could.  She had a make-up obsession.  This manifested most as compulsive retouches to her lip liner (this was the early oughts).  She was also involved with some not-so-nice people.  These other people were part of why she was in the home.  We, at the group home, didn’t know much (or enough as it turned out) about this.  She wasn’t allowed to use the phone and wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where she was living.  She’d been with us at least a month before the outing.  In the time that she’d been with us, she’d been well behaved and made no attempts to contact anyone.

At the theatre, there was no agreeing on a movie.  Mike was adamant that he would not go see whatever girly movie the girl wanted to see.  So I, in my infinite wisdom, I figured the girls could go see their movie and Mike and I would go see ‘splosions and such.  Their movie was a tad longer than ours, so I figured this’d be good, as we’d be out first and find them easily.

I wish, I wish that I could remember what the movies were.  I really think that this would add something to the story.  But, alas, I cannot.  Mike and I were waiting at the front doors.  There were lots of people around, in the lobby.  After waiting for a few minutes, suddenly Lisa runs through the crowd, sobbing and hyperventilating.  “They’re trying take her!” she screamed.

 

To the women who have been gracious enough to….

You know who you are, but I’m not sure that I’ve thanked you properly.  Your contributions, sometimes small, have been greatly appreciated and have informed who I am today.  Some of you have had a profound, or at least a lasting, impact on me.  If I have forgotten you (unlikely) or don’t mention you, this is not an intended slight;  what you did was help to reinforce the lessons already learned, help to prepare me for the final exam, so to speak.  I’m not sure that men spend enough time thinking about how lucky they are to have ever found a woman/girl who was willing to kiss them, much less touch their penises.  I want to remedy that, in my own small (not really that small) way.

#1  You were my first real kiss.  You were my first several things actually, but that kiss… wow.  I don’t know if my recollection is coloured by time, but damn that was awesome.  We knew the kiss was going to happen and slipped away from the school dance and found a dark little corner.  It had everything; anticipation, excitement, fear and serious wood. Part way through the dance, when I realized that you’d totally be ok with kissing me, eager even, wood occurred.  I may have even stayed hard through the rest of the eighth grade.  That may not have been your fault, more probably that was because I was a boy in grade eight.  You didn’t laugh at me, when I broke that kiss to ask you what kind of toothpaste you use.  You answered (Aim) and then kept going after I admitted that I was a Crest man.  With that, you were my girlfriend for the rest of the school year.  You were the first girl I’d ever seen completely nude and the first to see me the same way.  You were fun and free and I always hope for a little of you in every woman I’ve been with since.  Thank you.

#2  We were barely together at all.  To be honest, you were my girlfriend because you were friends with the girl I was sure I was meant to be with.  Is that horrible?  A bit, but I’m sure that happens all the time.  You were no less important to my development though.  With you I learned that going down on a girl did not mean kissing her where there was pubic hair.  At the time it seemed like a great idea.  This seems very odd to me now, though.  I mean, at this point I had a passing familiarity with what women had “going on” down below.  There had been a number of opportunities for manual exploration.  Yet, for some reason, I was sure that simply kissing the mons pubis area was what I needed to do with my mouth.  In my favour, it was the late 80s and you were wearing the tightest pair of jean shorts imaginable.  I clearly remember not being able to pull them down much, so maybe I just decided to kiss what I could reach and hope for the best.  I learned that what I had been doing was clearly not how it was done.  Thank you.

#3  You were one of my best friends.  We were not dating, in fact you had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend.  We shared one kiss.  It was unexpected and a bit panicky when we noticed what was going on, but it was also, to my adolescent brain, amazing.  Neither of them were at the dance, so we went together. Clearly I had a huge crush on you.  Of course in grade 8, I think I had a crush on every girl who was willing to speak to me.  This was an important kiss though, here’s why.  From you I learned to pay attention.  To what? You ask.  Well, body language and nuance.  Why did we both lean in to kiss at about the same time?  Because we figured out that we wanted to.  Yes, we were dancing to a slow song, so there was the whole teenage boy and girl in close proximity thing.  But we were talking too.  It had something to do with how much we liked being friends and how important that was to us.  There was subtext there, unspoken stuff.  Thereafter I made sure to pay attention to the signals that fly around when it comes to guys and girls.  It was a great kiss too, so thank you.  (It was only marred by your panicked “Ohmygod! We shouldn’t have done that! I have a boyfriend!”  Still, awesome kiss.)

#4    To my best friend, at the time.  You were always who I’d wanted to be with, but being friends was pretty amazing too.  From you, I learned to pine from afar. I learned to hate every boyfriend you ever had and to be just a little unsatisfied with whoever I was dating.  You did walk around, in front of me, in your underwear once and that was fantastic, so thanks.

#5    You let me touch your boobs.  They were awesome.  We went on one actual date.  You lent me a mix tape that had Hotel California on it.  I only saw you a second time because you wanted your tape back.  With you I learned that begging will get you absolutely nowhere.  Thank you.

#6   I lost my virginity to you.  That’s not something I learned, so much as did.  With you I learned to apply some of the things I’d learned.  I learned that you can accomplish a lot with patience and some attention to detail (yes, “those” details.)  With you I learned or at least was able to see that guys and girls were both sexual beings and could both, not only enjoy sex, but crave it and experiment with it.  That was eye opening.  I loved our teenage attempts to please each other, and keep those lessons with me as well.  The actual viriginity losing part was kind of meh.  We kind of knew it was going to happen.  I wasn’t your first,and the whole thing didn’t seem all that big (shut up) to you.  If I’m being honest, I think you wanted it to happen, simply so that I could say I was no longer a virgin.  It was over way too quickly and was not at all as special as I’d hoped for.  You were kinda bossy about really.  However, from you I learned to take direction.  I also learned that sometimes he who hesitates, really is lost and that some times you just have to go for it.  Thank you.

This turned out to be very much about a lot of firsts.  Clearly there needs to be a part two.  Seriously, who doesn’t want to hear about my sex life?

Burn out, I think

Broadly speaking, I’m good with angry people.  Dealing with anger and conflict and high emotions (and no small amount of stupid) were things I spent a lot of time doing, professionally.  Need some calm in the storm?  Some quiet, steady support?  Direct intervention?  These are things I always try to provide.

I used to work in child protection.  I spent six and a half years with the local child protection agency.  Simply put, my job was to supervise visits between parents and their children.  I would document most everything they said or did and prepare reports on each visit for the protection workers involved.  During the visits, depending on the ages of the children and the protection concerns, I would provide parenting advice/instruction and also demonstrate or model how the parents could deal with difficult behaviours from their children.

A lot of the parents I worked with were very,very angry.  I sympathize, to an extent.  If I had to come to an office building and be supervised in order to see my kid, I’d be pretty pissed too, although I’d pick my spots; I’d do my best to show my kid how happy I was to see her and how all the other concerns in my life were left at the door, when I arrived for the visit.  So, I had to deal with a lot of unhappy people.  I also dealt with a lot of happy people.  People who were grateful for the chance to visit their kids.  Grateful for any help we could offer them.  It was a pretty even split.  Prior to working at the protection agency, I worked in group homes, mostly with teens.  Calming people and diffusing volatile situations was something I got good at.  I was really good with the angry parents and so I’d often be assigned some of the more volatile clients.  I’d been with the agency for about 4 years, when I was assigned this particular case.  It was nothing special or out of the ordinary.  I was to supervise a dad with his children.

I had a pretty lengthy couple of paragraphs here, detailing a bit about the father, trying to give a flavour to our interactions, trying to provide some context for everything that come next.  I cut them out.  This was because I started telling his story.  This isn’t his story; it’s mine.  That I first went with telling his story is a rather telling little detail about me and those like me.  What I will tell you is that he had a temper and tried to be intimidating when he was angry.  Generally he and I got along quite well and sometimes he even seemed to listen to me.  He began to have problems with arriving on time, if at all.  If a parent starts showing up late for visits, we can decide to cancel the visit.  Basically, if they’re 15min late without calling to let us know that they were on their way, we cancel the visit.  This was a pretty common event with some files.  This wasn’t done lightly, but it was done.  I explained all of this to the father.  The social worker explained this to the father.  The social worker and I explained it to him, together.  He’d assure us that he’d get better.  He didn’t.  So I began cancelling his visits.  So he threatened to blow up the building.

One day, he arrived 30min late for his visit.  I’d already cancelled the visit.  He was furious.  He ranted and raved and paced around the lobby.  He swore, in a breathtaking mixture of English, French and Creole.  I steered him away from busy areas and did what I could to calm him down (very little).  During his rage, he turned to me and his voice dropped so low, he was basically hissing.  He told me that he was going to set off a bomb and kill everyone in the building.  Not for a moment did I believe him.  All of my history with him, all of my dealings with him, as a parent and as a very angry man, told me that he was angry and nothing more.  I remember telling him that it was a really bad idea to say things like that and that someone could make a very big deal out of it and could easily involve the police.  He continues to yell and swear and made no further mention of his bomb idea.  If I’m being honest, I barely registered the threat, as a threat.  I didn’t rush off to tell anyone, or call my supervisor.  I made sure he was relatively calm and had him leave the property.  On his way out, he apologized for getting so angry.  He told me that he’d never hurt anyone.  And then he left.  I sat down and began writing down everything that had been said, while it was fresh; I then made my way upstairs to drop my shit off and then go for a smoke.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was, surprised by the reactions to his threat.  I stopped by my supervisor’s office to let her know that I had cancelled the visit, and to let her know about the threat.  Though I didn’t take the threat seriously, I did know that the powers-that-be needed to know about it.  Within a couple minutes she had the worker assigned to the file, their supervisor and her own supervisor, down in the office.  Needless to say, my smoke had to wait.  I filled them all in several times.  I was clear about the context of what he’d said, his tone and manner throughout and also gave them my take on the seriousness of the threat.  I was listened to and supported.  I was asked several times if I was ok and offered access to the EAP: Employee Assistance Program (counselling sessions).  This was really strange to me.  Why wouldn’t I be ok?  I dealt with angry and (let’s be honest) kinda stupid people all the time, this was just one of those times.  It was agreed that his access would be suspended for the time being and that I would need to fill out an incident report for the police.  I saw all of these things as necessary;  though I didn’t think he was dangerous but you just can’t say shit like that.  I went for my smoke and went on with my day.  Lots of my coworkers had heard about the threat and asked me about it.  People were all really curious and concerned.  Other than people asking me about it, I wasn’t giving it a second thought.

Much later in the day, I had some time away from clients and sat at my desk to try and get some paperwork done.  That’s when I began to think, for the first time really, about the bomb threat.  I tend to put myself in the other person’s shoes a lot of the time, it’s part of how I deal with people, especially when they’re upset or angry.  I could see how the father would be upset.  I could see how the entire experience, of being involved with child protection services, would colour all interactions and responses that came after.  The other half of my brain is always reminding the understanding part of my brain, that there are very good reasons for the involvement of child protection and that despite the father’s affability, he was not a particularly nice or well balanced guy.  The balance I generally strike between the two parts of my brain works well.  I can help the parents work through some of their feelings about what’s happening to their family and at the same time work on keeping them grounded in the reality of the situation and focussed on what they have to do to get out of it.

Over the course of several days, as I thought about the father and his reaction to the cancelled visit, I began to get angry and a little upset.  In none of my empathy could I find a place where I would say that to another person, even if I didn’t mean it.  It was alien to me.  Obviously I realize that the reason for this is basically the same reason that I wasn’t a parent in his situation.  It wouldn’t occur to me to make a threat like that, any more than it would occur to me that hitting my wife is a good idea.  He and I were coming from very different places.  On a academic level, I was fully aware of this.  The problem was that I began to respond to this viscerally.  Questions began to bang around in my head, demanding answers:

“Who would say that?”  

“What kind of person even thinks of that?”

“What the fuck!?”

This wasn’t a sudden thing.  It started as I was sitting there doing my paperwork.  It sort of percolated there in my brain.  Every time that someone asked me about it, or every time I thought of it on my own, the questions became a little more insistent.  What were the answers?

I’m almost never angry on the outside.  I get annoyed pretty easily, but it’s not really the same thing.  I’ll rant a bit about stupidity, usually throwing humour in there; often that’s enough to help me sort of refocus.  Sometimes I seem to have bottomless well of patience, at least professionally (Home life is always different, because that’s where we’re safest and can let some of it out).  I began to notice that the patience wasn’t there as much as I needed it.  Inside, I began to focus on the awful things some of the parents that I worked with had done.  Part of me began to hate them a little.

“Who would say that?”  

“What kind of person even think of that?”

“What the fuck!?”

I began wanting answers to those questions for each and every one of my clients.  I stopped being able to see things from their side of things.  I got really, really angry.  And I kept getting angry.  It wasn’t constant, but it was pretty steady.  At some point during the day I’d find myself getting emotional or upset, for no apparent reason and then I’d get angry.  Angry at the stupid people that made my job necessary.  Angry at myself for letting it bother me.  Angry at coworkers whom I thought didn’t do their job well enough.  Angry at my supervisors for not knowing who was good at their job and who wasn’t.  Angry at the system.  Angry at the world.  Angry at the stupid, little man who threatened to blow up the building.

Being that I had been with the child protection agency for a few years at that point, focussing on the incidents, excuses, lies and circumstances of my clients was not a road you wanted to walk if you’d lost the ability, as I had, to keep them in context and to work with them as opposed to against them.  Things started to spin a bit for me.  Even if I wasn’t actively angry, there was an undercurrent of it there all the time, and I was utterly distracted, all the time.  Half my job was paperwork.  Reports that would become a part of the client’s file detailing their work with the agency.  These reports help give the protection workers a view of their clients as parents and an idea of what they need to work on and what they do well.  My reports would be used as evidence in files that went to court.  The reports were important.  I stopped doing them.  They became harder and harder to do.  I began to resent them.  There was a certain amount of despair involved.  I began to ask “What’s the point?”  My reasoning being along the lines that these people sucked and we’re not going to fix them, so why was I busting my ass to help them?  As with my anger, this was not constant, but steady.  My job performance began to suffer.  Apparently I still worked well with the clients, directly, but the administrative part of my job flagged and then began to get noticed.  I also began to call in sick on a regular basis.

The slide only took a couple of weeks to come to a head.  One of my files was going to court in a few months, and I would be called to testify.  As we prepared for court, it became clear that there was a lot of paperwork not done.  I had my handwritten notes, which are vital, but if I didn’t submit them with a summary, there was every chance that both the protection worker and our lawyers would never see them.  I was reprimanded, in writing, which is a pretty big deal.  It’s the first nail in a coffin that could lead to getting fired.  Getting fired was not an option.  This was my career.  My life line and the life line of my family.

It was while I was talking with my supervisor about my job performance, that it was suggested that I speak to a counsellor through the EAP.  I agreed, reluctantly.  I met with a psychiatrist, who’s name I do not remember.  I outlined what I did for a living and all that it entailed.  I then laid out for him everything that I’d been feeling regarding my job and my clients.  He was excellent, I really liked him and his manner.  It was a very casual conversation and I really appreciated that.  After we talked, he set me up on a computer to fill out a pretty detailed questionnaire.  Before I started, he told me that he was pretty sure what the results would be, but wanted me to complete it anyway.

At our next meeting, the Doc told me that I am, what he refers to as, a smiling depressive.  I had to laugh at the name.  He proceeded to explain that I had what’s described as, low-grade chronic depression.  He said it’s the kind of thing that flies under the radar most of the time, and that it’d probably been with me for a very long time (that’s the chronic part).  We talked a bit about my time in school and on through to the present.  He also mentioned that he didn’t think that I would get much out of ongoing therapy.  I’ll admit that I was totally ok with that.  I didn’t want to dig any deeper.  He did tell me that medication tends to work well for this kind of depression.  He told me to talk to my GP and tell him what we’d talked about and see what he thought.  I thanked him for his time.  He told me that if I did feel I needed to talk more, that he’d be available.

My family doctor agreed with the shrink.  He listened carefully to what I told him about what had been going on and to what the psychiatrist had told me.  He then told me that what I had was called Dysthimia. By the way, dysthimia used to be called “a depressive personality”.  He suggested anti-depressant medication.  I said sure.  I didn’t like the idea of taking meds, but thought that I really had nothing to lose by trying.

Change was gradual.  I don’t recall any particular moment where I knew I was better.  I managed, with a lot of support, to get my paperwork back on track.  I didn’t have to go to court to testify, which was a relief.  Things got better over several months.  About the same amount of time it took for things to get really shitty in the first place.  The meds gave me the opportunity I needed to get things back on track.  Things at work got much better and I began to enjoy my job again.  I haven’t even touched on how everything affected my home life, but my wife began to find me a lot more agreeable to be around as well.  The whole incident forced me to examine my feelings and my life in more detail than I had, in a long time.  I realized that the bomb threat was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Things had been a long time coming, but I’d had no idea.  I don’t think many people do, especially in social services.  We tend to be givers.  We tend to put the needs of others ahead of our own.  It’s incredibly hard not to do that and there’s always this fine line that we walk: doing the most good for others and the least harm to ourselves.

I was let go from the agency about two and a half years later. I’d been there for six and a half years total.  I was let go due to a combination of restructuring, and what I now believe to be a kind of burn out.  I think that I stopped really caring about the work and it became a job.  If I had to put a name to it, I’d call it compassion fatigue.  I never stopped enjoying aspects of the work, but I know now that it wore me down.  It was a slow sort of burn, that started back around the time of the bomb threat. I’ve been away from that job for the better part of six years now.  I’m glad I’m not there anymore.  Not at all because I didn’t love it.  Overall, I really did.  I clearly saw the value of the work and I was good at it, which really does make you feel better about yourself.  I’m not sure where I’d be, or what I’d be doing if I’d stayed.  After I was let go, I decided to completely change directions.  I tried my hand at being a photographer, professionally.  After a very lean year of that, an amazing former coworker (who will forever have a place in my heart for doing this) recommended me for a job, in social services.  I ended up getting the job and spent a year and a half working with some truly remarkable people.  When funding for the position ran out, I returned to photography.  Despite my love of and talent for photography, I realized that I wasn’t wired for being my own boss and I really did miss the other work.  After another, very lean, year I got a job working for a school board as an educational assistant.  I’m loving the work beyond my expectations.  I’m very glad to be back in my chosen field.

I feel fresh.  I feel able.  It feels like home.

A Quickie

This will be a quickie post.  I just need to break the seal.  I let this blog lie fallow throughout the summer, while I was off.  I’m not sure why I did that.  It felt like I wasn’t inspired or moved to share anything.  The summer was very chill and very relaxed.  Now that school has started and I’m back in the swing of things at work, I’m finding myself moved to write again.

Other than being back at work, there was an actual prompt that got me thinking about a new post.  An old friend of mine, who is also a youth worker, is struggling with burn out.  She reached out to a bunch of us former coworkers and friends and asked if any of us had ever dealt with burn out in our field.  She asked if we’d be willing to write it down and share it with her.  She wanted to see the differences and similarities between our experiences. She may even try to compile them into a book of some kind.  I loved the idea, so I began to draft my own story.  It’s a struggle.  A) it’s been a while since I flexed this muscle.  B) I don’t have a clear answer about whether or to I’ve burned out.  C)  the story I’ve decide to relate, is longer than I expected and more involved and far deeper that I expected.

I guess, what I’m saying is that it’s not the smoothest of deliveries.  I’ll keep you posted.

G.