Driving to work yesterday, I listened (as is my habit) to the local Contemporary Christian radio station. A song began playing that I had heard many times…but never really paid heed to the words. That day they struck a chord.
You’re a good good father
it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am.
My mind began to unpack those comforting words. The writer meant to invoke the listener’s memories of what a good father meant to them and inject those qualities into a song about God’s deep love and committment for us.
But what if you had no frame of reference? What if you did not have a good father? How would you relate?
My own father was a good man. He loved me dearly, of which I have no doubt. But my father was damaged. He was broken by a series of events in his childhood, which he kept hidden like a shameful secret deep inside his heart, allowing it to slowly devour him from the inside. I watched as he abused alcohol for the majority of my youth and young adulthood, never knowing he was trying to chase away his own demons. He quit drinking in his 50’s after a heart attack. But he never dealt with the underlying issues. So, even sober, he remained shattered. In his later years, when I was an adult, he told me his secret, cringing silently as he waited to hear the shock..the shame..the blame. When I gently told him what happened to him was not his fault; he began to cry. Suddenly, the memories of 30 years as his daughter came flooding to me. And I understood. My father never abused me, never abandoned me. But he was emotionally unavailable to me. Because he was broken.
How does this relate to social work? My story is far more common than you may think. Often those who go into the helping professions do so from a place of restoration. Many social workers experienced adversity as a child. Out of the adversity, these workers, like me, developed a resilience..a determination to break the chains .and a strong desire to help others survive and thrive their own family issues.
So we went into the world of child welfare, charging forward; determined to right all the wrongs; heal all the hurts; and save all the children.
I watched as some workers progressed in their career with a fervor and then started to slow down; move without as much determination and some froze completely into inaction. I heard the complaints. I heard them called apathetic and uncaring. I heard them called lazy. But what I saw was the brokenness that comes from a lack of resiliency.
Resilience is the ability to rise up, transcend your own trauma and adversities and keep on the path to self fufillment. So how did these social workers become this way?
The vast majority of children we work with have been touched by trauma to varying degrees: some have been damaged, some broken and some beaten down by the experiences that they have lived with most of their lives. They carry their trauma around like a rucksack filled with stones: slowing them down emotionally, impeding their ability to bond or to develop lasting relationships. Often they give up trying to succeed and settle for trying to survive.
As social workers we know to look beyond the behavior to focus on the pain as we try and help them develop skills and abilities to transcend their experience to develop resiliency.
But pain and trauma has a way of paying it forward. Much like the flu, trauma can be contagious. As the social worker listens to so much pain and anger coming from abuse of the innocent, they begin to carry vicarious trauma. It’s almost like they come to the job with their own rucksack, empty and new. Each client who shares their pain, with emotions as sharp as a cut onion, hands them a rock to put in their sack. After only a few months, their bag feels a little heavy. After a year, it is slowing them down. Pretty soon, they can be bent over at the weight of vicarious trauma.
What is done for them? Nothing. The typical response is “give them a raise” and they will stay. I challenge that. While more money and lower caseloads are certainly needed and deserved in the social work profession, that will not make them more resilient.
Recognition of vicarious trauma (beyond the public lip service that it exists) must be accompanied by action. I would love to see child welfare and mental health agencies provide greater support to these champions. A free non stigmatized support group would be a start. A group where workers could go and unpack their russack, knowing it was a safe, non judgemental, place to ask for understanding and help. A place both supportive and educational regarding self care opportunities and shared experiences would go a long way to forging a community of hope and beginning a path for resiliency.
Until we can truly provide the kind of emotional, mental and educational resources to those workers staggering under the weight of vicarious trauma, only those who are innately resilient will be able to keep walking. It is up to agency leaders and innovators to come up with ideas and strategies to build resiliency.