The is the story of Karen.
Karen was a Social Worker.
Karen was a Trauma Professional.
Karen helped families and children find physical and mental well-being, work through crisis and find permanence.
And, like almost one quarter of all social workers, therapists and such…Karen was a child from a dysfunctional family.
Her parents, Rick and Prita, married in their teens, drawn to each other by Rick’s charm and charisma and by Prita’s fiery personality. Eyes full of stars and pre-conceived notions blinded them both to the baggage trailing behind like a stench cloud of exhaust. Both were exceptional people with unique intellects, talents and personalities that made them stand out. And like so many, many people, they, too, came from dysfunction.
Both carried their own pain, hidden away in a private place, invisible to other eyes. In singularity, Rick and Prita were remarkable. Together, over time, the love they shared became like ashes in their mouths, spewing out at times like an angry volcano covering Karen and her siblings with the debris.
No, Karen was not physically or sexually abused as a child. As a matter of fact, her early memories were quite pleasant. As a very young child, she enjoyed having fun parents, unaware of the subtle disharmony creeping into their lives. However, as Karen entered her tween years, that blissful ignorance metamorphized into an awareness of the pall of anger, blaming and anxiety that had enveloped their home. And she, ever watchful-ever ready, resided in state of heightened unease, craving peace and stability.
Her siblings, affected as well, turned their feelings inward, planting the seeds that would threaten to eat them alive from the inside. But Karen, never one to shy away from expression, turned her feelings outward, blaming both parents quite equally for the chaos that became her life. Once in an heightened state of frustration, she blurted to her father that he was killing the family with his drinking. She cringed, waiting for the fallout of her outburst. Rick’s face, when she dared to look, crumpled into a mask of sadness. The fact that he didn’t get mad or blow up should have alerted her (albeit she was too young to understand) that his self-medicating with alcohol had much more to do with his own childhood trauma and self-loathing than any malevolent purpose.
Full of her own resentments, Karen went a little crazy in high school. Not DSM crazy, but behaviorally she acted out her own confusion, unaware that she was cycling the trauma-behavior-consequences-trauma…pattern; It was not until she got perilously close to the edge did her Cerebral Cortex tap her on the shoulder alerting her to the danger.
Karen listened, begrudgingly, as the frontal lobe gently questioned her.
“Is this really the life you want?
Is this the cycle you want to repeat?”
A miraculous “aha moment” enlightened her to the fact that she had free will, and did not have to be like the Pompeii victims, frozen in the ash that covered them. She chose to not be defined by her past or her mistakes. She decided that it was time for to grow up.
After high school graduation, the psychology field seemed the most obvious choice. Like many others who drifted into the field, she wanted to find the answer as to why people break and why broken people break others. However, the answers she got didn’t seem to fit the whole picture. Psychology seemed, to her, to be the science of diagnosing individuals with specific mental and emotional behavior, labeling them with that deficit as causation for their pain and their actions. She knew there had to be more to the big picture. But she trudged on, hoping for answers. Finally, three years into her Psychology degree, the University contracted with a practicing psychologist to teach the Abnormal Psychology class. The professor, charming, vibrant and entertaining really drew her in, reminding her of her own father. However, his outlook, jaded by the decades of practice, demonstrated very little hope of mental health healing. He seemed to be fixated on spirituality, blaming faith and religion for most personality disorders and irreverently wove several GDs into every lecture. By the end of the semester, she realized that she just didn’t buy what her professor was selling. It just felt so hopeless.
At the time, Karen didn’t understand that psychology and social work go hand in hand to create the whole picture. To be honest, she didn’t even really know much about Social Work. With psychology, she only saw the dark side of the profession. The sheer weight of it all became too much and she decided to move Psychology to her minor (she had enough credits) and switched majors in her Senior year to English.
No more trying to fix her past, her parents, her siblings. No, Karen decided to be the next poet laureate of the United States or the next great American novelist. Focusing on mental illness and psychopharmacology had not uplifted her. So, instead, she would dwell on Emerson’s essays or Whitman, running through the woods in his altogether.
Senior year passed quickly culminating in the relief of graduation. Afterwards, she discovered the consequences of changing majors. Guess how many paying careers are open for a poet laureate? Well, since there is only one appointed yearly by Congress, she knew that her chances of becoming a wealthy bohemian were not great. It was time, once again, to grow up.
Joining the employment service, she took the first job offer she could get; an investigator with the Child Services. Walking in blind, she had no idea where this job would lead her. But, she later reflected that it was in that moment…in that position…for which she was totally untrained and unprepared to undertake, that her life begin to take on the meaning and the direction for which she was born.
Becoming a social worker opened her mind. Karen saw firsthand that environment, circumstances and other external factors (not just individual deficits) fueled by adverse childhood events, worked in conjunction to create the perfect storm of chaos and dysfunction that is the cycle of trauma. The more she discovered, the more she wanted to discover. Her calling became to help others trapped in a cycle of trauma. As she traveled on the path, the experiences of her life matured Karen from a calf to a full grown camel. But the development spanned two decades, with multiple life-lessons and self healing occurring along the way. Besides the knowledge, skills and abilities she gained, came self-awareness and the glimpse into her own strengths and underlying healing needs. Without the culmination of all of the above, along with a great support system and specific self-care strategies, Karen could not have endured the secondary trauma associated with helping others.
I tell you her very long story, because it is the common story of many who enter into the helping profession, weighed down by past burdens, heading blindly into a life of service with stars in their eyes, their only intent: Saving the world. My one word of advice to all of those starry eyed heroes: Make peace with how you came to this point. Then buckle up your seatbelts, its a wildly bumpy ride!
If you’ve decided to become a social worker (a therapist, a helping professional), that tells me that your desire to make a difference in the lives of others must have overshadowed your desire to become rich. First, I applaud you. Secondly, I warn you. Look within and have a clear understanding of how you got to this point. How did you arrive at this decision? I reiterate, almost 25% of those entering the behavioral health and social work fields, came from a place of abuse, neglect or dysfunction. That may not seem like a lot to you. However, compared to the 2% of those entering the business field experiencing the trauma, you can see that the numbers are significant. But how can you take on the pain of others, when you haven’t dealt with your own?
Believe me, I am not trying to steer you away from social work. It is a wide open field of need and opportunity to make a difference. And people from hard places need you. I just want to make sure you walk forward with your eyes wide open, having explored your own strengths and needs, with a clear plan for self-care. That way, helping others to heal wont end up hurting you.
This is only part one of a series of the Journey from Calf to Camel. Next blog: How to prepare to help others without losing yourself. Let’s look at some things we can do as we prepare to enter the helping field.