The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to where
who knows where?
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry
He aint heavy
He’s my brother.
Bobby Scott and Bob Russell
I am going to date myself, but when I was a young girl, I heard this ballad covered by the Osmonds (Yes, I was a huge Donnie Osmond fan…Dont judge me). Even though I didn’t truly understand all the underlying nuances in the lyrics, I loved the song. It resonated with me even then.
Flash forward many years, I heard the song play on the “oldies” station and the true meaning of the words struck me, warming my heart. I had just become a social worker and thought, “what a validation of my career chouce.” Researching the origins of the song, I found a poignant story attached.
The song originated from The Book of Parables, written in 1884 by James Wells. Wells recounts the story of a little girl struggling to carry a big baby boy up a long, winding road. . Seeing her , someone asked if she wasn’t tired. With surprise she replied: “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother“.
How simple her reasoning yet how profound.
When I was a young field worker for child welfare, I had some very complex cases, often working with very difficult families. I wish I could brag that I never waivered in my mission. I would love to say that I always liked the families I helped. But that would be a lie. So here is an epiphany for all you brand new social workers.
Some people are downright unlikable!!!
Yes I said it! I had clients that
I JUST DID NOT LIKE!!!
Those families…you have worked with them. Nothing you say or do is ever good enough. No service is the right one. They are openly combative in their attitude. They want you to fix their circumstances, but they do not want to cooperate or participate in any measures to do so. You miss dinner with your own family because they will only meet with you at 6pm.
You know them.
Dont you just wish you could throw up your hands and just let them fail if they are so determined to do so?
I had a particularly difficult client when I worked in family Preservation. The mother had three children (all girls) ranging from 10 to 2 years of age. My client, (we will call her Betty Smith) came to the attention of the department when, in a drunken state and enraged, she beat her 10 year old severely with an extension cord for not having dinner ready on time. The girls came into foster care while mother attended rehab for her severe alcohol addiction. After rehab, mother relapsed once and had to repeat the inpatient stay. Finally after maintaining sobriety for 6 months, her children were returned to her. The case was transferred to Family Preservation and assigned to me.
Betty was uncooperative, angry at the department and downright belligerent to me. Every time I visited, she berated my program and me for messing up her life and her children. She accused us of “changing” her children in foster care. She felt they were less obedient, more outspoken and had forgotten who was boss. She had zero insight to her own role in the behavior of her children. As I said, She Was Angry. I was the safe target for that anger every visit. It was something I had not experienced before. I usually had such good rapport with my clients.
Something was wrong with this one.
She was not worth all the effort ai had put in.
I didn’t like her.
I went to my supervisor, trying to get her to reassign the case, explaining that Betty hated me and would not cooperate. I argued that I was ineffective at helping this family due to Betty’s feelings towards me.I will never forget what my supervisor told me next.
Betty doesn’t hate you. Betty hates herself. All that effort she exhibits to alienate you stems from her fear that you will see behind the mask, revealing someone hurting and lost.
Wow. Those words penetrated my brain and for some reason, the lyrics to the song floated across my consciousness. I realized that in my zeal to “fix Betty”, I had not put in the effort to really know her own underlying issues because her frontal, aggressive verbal attacks kept me at bay. Her coping skill of…The best defense is a good offense…had worked. I wanted to leave her alone.
And she wanted that as well.
From that point on, I took a different approach with Betty. I stopped showing up armed with new therapies, services and classes for her to take. Slowing down a bit, I started listening for her cues. Listening to her anger without taking it on personally. And let me tell you, it wasn’t quick or easy to engage her around what she wanted for her family as opposed to what I thought she needed. Acknowledging her feelings, her anger and her hurt..I was slowly gaining a different picture of Betty.
Betty had lost her own mother at the age of 10 due to Domestic Violence. She was raised by an alcoholic father, who beat her when he was drunk.
She asked me where I was then?
I told her how sorry I was that no one was there for her. She looked surprised and nodded her head. She began drinking at age of 12 to cope with her family life. At 16, she ran away with the father of her now 11 year old, but found her life had not changed. He also drank heavily and beat her. She went through a series of unhealthy relationships before she found herself alone with three children. She continued to drink and to perpetuate the cycle of violence she had come to view as a way of life.
After many months of listening to Betty and helping her to realize her own trauma played a huge part in her relationship with her children, she was ready for change. She no longer berated me or the department (at least not in every encounter). She started a journey of real recovery.
Working with difficult people with complex issues can weigh heavy on your shoulders. It is normal to want to shove those cases and those people onto someone else’s shoulders.
It is normal to not like difficult people.
It is normal to take their disrespect personally.
But you can’t. You must not. Because they, like all people are worthy of dignity and respect. They are our “brothers” and therefore focusing on how heavy they are only goads us to care less, try less and give up earlier.
I had wanted to give up the burden that was Betty Smith. I had wanted my supervisor to recognize how heavy she was and let someone else carry that for a while. But I am so thankful that my supervisor would not let me give up. By rethinking of Betty as a worthy human rather than an onerous burden, I was able to see her with different eyes.
The resulting outcome was worth it. Not only did Betty begin her path to healing and positive change, but I learned a valuable lesson I kept with me from that moment on.
The Osmonds were right. “He ain’t heavy…He’s my brother.