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.

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