They say to write what you know. I’ve probably been spending too much time thinking about what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I should know. But I already wrote about that.
So, what do I know? I know it’s been almost a year since I lost that job. I know that seven and half years of field work doesn’t leave you quickly or quietly or at all.
I know that I was so burned out by the time I lost the job that I didn’t even look back that last day. I was so done, I didn’t even grieve. I just breathed. I came home and personally shredded the ghost files in my laptop bag. There’s so much paper that seems so important when you need to turn in the signature that day, when you need approval to bill like yesterday, when you sum up someone’s whole life in a file. So much paper that can just be destroyed with so little effort. That was the only act of catharsis I engaged in, besides a few phone conversations with a friend/former co-worker.
The toxic aspects of my work environment had made the job so unbearable that I didn’t have it in me to mourn the loss of a job that was burning me to the ground, and paying me minimum wage half the time it was doing that. That’s right, most of that paperwork I was shredding was done by this college graduate with seven and half years of professional mental health experience for minimum wage, because that’s the way they paid for non-billable work. It felt pretty good to shred the damn papers. I hope it highly inconvenienced someone above my pay grade that they didn’t bother to get my files from me. But then again, they must not value that work very much, since they didn’t bother paying much for it. That was one of the many things in my last few years there that drove me insane. How dare you pay me so little yet demand so much? How dare I accept that?
That position had a tiered rate of pay. Minimum wage for non-billable work (like service notes – clinical documentation that must be completed following each session), another rate (slightly higher) for training/PTO, and another (still slightly higher) rate for billable work. Thinking about it now, even the billable rate of pay was barely acceptable for the work that was being done. We were worth more than that. What we did was worth more than that. The people who’s lives we were trying to improve were worth more than that. Not that it mattered – our team never had enough billable work. Well, we didn’t have enough hours we were allowed to bill. There was work that could be done, but there’s a limit to what you can bill, per person, per day, per month. It was a rigged game that they kept telling us we could excel at if we could just be more efficient. Because efficiency when working with individuals with severe and persistent mental illness who are constantly in crisis, hungry, homeless, unmedicated, and without transportation is pretty easy to accomplish. All you really have to do is just ride your flying unicorn and carry your bag of magic answers that solves all the problems with you. It’s cake really. I’m not sure why they bothered paying us at all. Of course, once insurance for my family of 4 was taken out of my check, they pretty much weren’t paying me, so you know….But don’t worry, I was reminded multiple times by superiors that we should really just be happy to have jobs, regardless of how unhealthy the conditions or how unrealistic the expectations or how little the support or pay.
I’ve hesitated to write anything negative about my experience at that job because even though I don’t mention the agency, I don’t want to harm my chances at work in the future but I think this just has to be written about. We hear about the work conditions of teachers, law enforcement, social workers, and nurses and this is just another profession to add to that list.
I want to say this loud and clear: it wasn’t always like that and various entities bear the responsibility for the changes that were made and I can only speak to my own specific experience. I also want to say that I loved the work itself. I’d love to do something like that again, if the work environment was appropriate and healthy. When I first began the work, I told everyone that I would do it for free. That’s how much I loved it, that’s how much I believed in it. The work was good work. I think that’s what your teachers, law enforcement, social workers, and nurses would say about their jobs too- the work is good work, important work, work you can love. People who are drawn to this kind of work – this work that weaves you into the lives of others at critical moments in their lives – love the work, even though it can be hard and draining and stressful and invasive and heartbreaking. Because it is good work, it is necessary work, and it is something we have an ability and a desire to do. We know the work makes a difference. We know it changes lives. We want better for our communities and we want to offer this piece of ourselves. But that is not enough. It is not enough that we love the work and are willing to do it, despite the personal sacrifice it takes on us and our families. Because we are only human and we will burn out physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually, if we do not have the right work environment to continue our work. We must be replenished. We only have so many personal reserves and once our well has run dry, our work will suffer. It all starts to unravel if we aren’t able to gather the resources we need from our place of employment. And because the work we do is the work that educates children and protects citizens and provides medical care and treats people in crisis, once we can’t do our work, everything starts to unravel, everywhere.
I think all of us in these fields are willing to dig deep into our personal reserves and sacrifice for a season during the tough times at work, but none of us can do that indefinitely. We shouldn’t be expected to.
So, what was my work? My work as a Qualified Mental Health Professional was to provide services to individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. Over the time I was there, I worked on a variety of teams and had the opportunity to work with children, teens, adults, and seniors. Depending upon the team I was on and the population I was working with, the interventions varied. Regardless of the specific interventions, the idea was that I was on their side and I was there to help them reach their goals. I wasn’t there to tell them what they needed to do, or how they needed to live. I wasn’t there to do it for them. I wasn’t there to fix them or their problems. I was a partner in their path to recovery. And that meant something different to each person.
I’m not therapist or a social worker or a member of the clergy, but I did a lot of things along the lines of what you may think of when you think of those professions. Treatment plans, therapeutic interventions, education about their diagnosis, medication management, trips to Department of Social Services and the food pantry, housing applications, medicaid and social security applications, trying to find public transportation or alternatives in rural areas, vocational rehabilitation referrals, sobriety accountability, applying for community college, finding childcare, helping file restraining orders, dealing with legal issues and court dates/legal aid, finding ways to get prescription medication for someone with no income, job searching, crisis management, hospitalization, finding support groups or peer groups, reconnecting with family, getting to appointments, team meetings with other professionals involved, creative problem solving, lots of listening, lots of paperwork. Though I wasn’t their friend or sister or daughter or mother, I sometimes sat beside someone or across from them and held sacred space for those important people who were missing from their life. There are professional boundaries, but it is intimate work, even with boundaries in place.
And always, I delicately, carefully, intentionally, loved them as a human being and treated them as such. Their baggage was not my baggage, but I could acknowledge it and say, with the way I treated them and interacted with them, that their baggage did not negate nor define their worth.
That was the work that I loved the most. That’s just human work, not work you get paid for. It’s work that is an honor to have and a privilege to do. It is one of, if not the most, valuable skill I learned on the job – the ability to look at all the dark twisty places of a person and their life and just say “okay” and offer to walk with them towards the next part of their story.
They say to write what you know. I know the time I spent wasn’t wasted. The job I had was a dead-end, but the work I did was not.
And perhaps I can look at the dark twisty places of that job and say “okay” and walk towards the next part of this story.