By SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW
(Editor's Note: This article is reproduced with permission from NASW's Private Practice Section Connection, Issue One, 2010.)
I have often wondered what drives us. By that I mean those of us who continue day after day and year after year to work in the most difficult and draining settings, persist, and keep at it. I would bet that those reading this have had many days like I have. Days when we return home and can barely move. Days when we are too tired to make dinner or even read. Days when there is absolutely nothing left to give to our own families.
Yet, somehow, someway, we continue to do what we can until the homework of our own kids is checked (hopefully, or if not, they get the message that they can do it themselves), a story is read to them (maybe, and if not, they still know they are loved), and we can finally fall into bed…
But then, unable to sleep, we are haunted by what we have seen in the lives of our clients, and how little a difference we often feel we can really make as we support them in the fight for their own lives and address the inadequacies of the systems of so-called “helping professions” that are often insufficient to meet their needs.
For the past 30 years, in addition to my private practice, I have had a pro bono practice, where city resources, such as the DA’s office, probation department, school counselors, teachers, as well as clients proud of their accomplishments refer individuals, couples, and families. Like you, I have seen horrors. I have entered homes and seen rats as large as kittens, and I’ve been bitten from head to foot by lice and bedbugs that have infested the chairs and sofas my clients sleep on as their only beds.
Like you, I have waited in crowded courtrooms to testify for my clients and gone to school meetings on their behalf. Like you, I am available 24/7 for my most difficult cases. I will not be manipulated, but when clients have a bottle of pills or a gun - saying that they cannot take the pain of life any longer - I drop everything, and I am there. For I understand well these situations that erode the first floor of one’s emotional home can be removed at these times of crisis. Or soon after, when they are very fresh. These are the moments when “being there” allows pain, anguish, rage, and terror to be released. These are moments when, finally, what I call “an emotional sense of direction” can begin to be planted.
I have often wished those who give up on our young people could be there when a high school dropout who has turned to drugs to dull his pain discusses Socrates’ words about an unexamined life. And how he or she, with the support and sharing of a therapy group, comes to realize that the father or mother, who abused them, was once treated the same way. I wish these same people could be there to see clients come to an understanding that forgiveness does not mean one condones the acts, but instead reflects and understands where they have come from.
I am a fortunate social worker. After my first marriage ended and I was a single parent for three years, I married a man who completely shares home responsibilities with me. He has never expected wonderful dinners after we both work hard, long hours. Cereal or eggs are fine with him for dinner, and, as the kids were growing up, so were hot dogs, spaghetti, and whatever else we could pull together.
I want to know why other social workers do it, why you hang in…Here is why I do. For me this work is not really a job. It is something I cannot stop. The haunting eyes of my clients have a hold on me that I have come to understand, and like the waves of the ocean, I have no choice but to give in to them, and hold on, until something I can do or say, or someone my clients meet in a therapy group, or outside in their real world, can give them hope.
You see, as a child I watched my mother’s endless suffering in an ill-fated and disastrous marriage. But there was no way out for her. In the 1950s few women could support themselves, and thus few could consider divorce. Plus, we were Orthodox Jews and the concept of divorce for a woman was not an option. And so my mother, late at night, as we drank tea, year after year, from my early childhood, poured her heart out to me. And later, alone in my room and helpless, I would hear her tears and her fear shake the foundation of life as we lived it…And then, as I grew older, I had a choice: to leave this “home” or to stay…I left, an act my mother never was able to forgive…
I know intellectually, of course, that I did what was right for me. But I also know that it was totally wrong for her. And I believe that her death, long before her time, was caused because her immune system just gave out.
So now, year after year, I hang on, doing what I can for others. I do for them what I was unable to do for her. And when I have those little successes that social workers know so well, I look up to the heavens. I see my mother’s beautiful face, and liquid brown eyes, and I say: “This one is for you.”
Please tell me why you do it. Why you hang on, refusing to give up, why for you social work is not only a profession, but a promise kept, despite everything…I would cherish knowing.
SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pennsylvania chapter of NASW, and the 2013 NASW Media Award for Best Article. SaraKay is the best-selling author of Whoever Said Life Is Fair and Setting YourSelf Free.