Last week on my way home from work I stopped at the bar around the corner from my condo. It is a mostly quiet joint with a quirky cast of regulars, a place where all the bartenders know my name (and apparently my profession) and bring me a Maker’s Mark on the rocks before I even ask. As the first spicy hints of caramel and cinnamon pirouetted happily across my tongue, I took a long, deep breath.
I was exhausted from an exceedingly challenging work day. As a social worker in mental health and homeless services, tough days are far from a rare occurrence. But some days really put the cherry in the bourbon and this day was one of those days.
Before I even sipped my second taste I saw the bartender point at me and tell someone nearby, “She can help! She does it for a living.” I froze. A well-oiled, disheveled woman who had clearly been crying approached me and plopped down in the barstool directly next to mine. Without an introduction or even a second of pause, she launched into a wretched and convoluted story about the breakup of her most recent relationship.
We are all familiar with the experience of feeling trapped in a conversation in which we have no desire to participate in. But as a social worker I often wonder if my tolerant, open and empathetic nature opens me up to these unwanted conversations more often than the average Joe or Jane Sixpack.
Recently a colleague of mine told me that while social work is the profession he chooses, it seems that social work is who I am. I was flattered and I do not disagree. Social work and its tenants of empowerment, collective accountability, social justice, respect for diversity and strengths based principles are astutely in line with my core personality structure and perspective of the world. Besides, social work is the only profession I have ever known; I am not quite 30 years young and have almost a decade of experience in the field.
But although social work is a significant part of my identity and represents ‘who I am,’ it is not all-encompassing. I also identify as a young, single and empowered woman. As a writer. As a reader. As a dog mom. As a loyal friend. As a bourbon enthusiast. As a football fan. As a foodie. As a Colorado local. As an urban dweller. As a daughter.
So here is the honest truth. I only social work from 9-5 (actually 7-4:30). Though I possess the skills, abilities and knowledge to empathize with, support and counsel any messy bar patron or oversharing sad stranger, I actively choose to set and maintain solid and self-protective boundaries. When my work day ends, so does my obligation to actively listen to and empower vulnerable, disenfranchised and otherwise bummed out people.
This social worker drinks in peace. It’s just good self-care.