Want a quick way to kill the buzz, turn off a cute date, or completely murder any conversation in a social setting? Just say, “I’m a social worker.”
“Oh, so you like take people’s kids and shit?”
“Man, that’s so crazy. Wow. So crazy.”
“Are you analyzing me right now?”
For nearly a decade, I have repeatedly faced these and a million other questions (whoever said there are “no stupid questions” was…well, probably stupid). Granted, over the years I have learned that I cannot expect people to understand what social work is, what social workers do, or why I am so deeply committed to such a demanding profession.
The profession of social work is grossly misrepresented and poorly portrayed in mainstream media. It is not surprising that most people are completely clueless. Though most days I still feel pretty clueless myself, here is my attempt to put into words what being a social worker means to me.
It means having an honest dialogue with people. It means talking openly about trauma, addiction, suicide, homicide, rape, abuse, homelessness, mental illness, poverty, sexual deviance, criminal activity, racism, sexism, aging, illness, abortion, marriage equality, religious freedom, euthanasia, finances, issues related to military combat, and gender identity—among other topics. It means discussing these matters in the complete absence of judgement.
It means early mornings, late nights, and hours spent sitting next to someone who mostly cannot stand you in an emergency room, a food bank, or at the Department of Human Services. It means finding a bed bug crawling on your pants, having your car tire slashed in a dangerous neighborhood, and finding a needle in an unconscious person’s arm. It means watching two years of sobriety get washed down with cheap vodka or go up in smoke.
It means going to sleep on a cold night thinking about the people not lucky enough to have found shelter in time. It means waking up to learn about the man that died of hypothermia while you slept peacefully in a warm bed. It means someone jumped in front of a train, or hung himself in a forest, or shot himself in a parking lot.
It means no longer finding it strange when people talk to themselves, or talk to people you cannot see, or style their hair in front of a mirror that does not exist with an invisible curling iron. It means that a woman engaged in sex work will think you are competition and chase you out of an apartment complex.
It means that you will spend your day surrounded by the profound suffering, deep sorrow, and unbearable pain of others. It means acknowledging that many problems have absolutely no solution. It means accepting that not all people want, nor need, the help of a social worker.
It means accompanying a human that you never would have met had you chosen a different profession on their powerful life journey. It means building meaningful connection with resilient and fascinating individuals. It means the precious opportunity to learn from people very different than you. It means experiencing the struggle with someone who so generously trusts you. It means sitting quietly next to someone in a moment of hardship and realizing that you do not need words to feel someone’s intense gratitude for your presence.
It means watching someone unlock the front door of her new apartment after twenty years on the streets. It means being present for someone’s first step toward recovery. And all the missteps along the way. It means being lucky enough to show up for someone in need when no one else would. It means being a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.
It means learning to treasure success, however small. It means constantly seeking to uncover the inherent strengths of others. It means triumph and transformation. It means always keeping the faith and never giving up hope.
It means asking yourself, “who am I not to change the world?” It means believing that you can, and do, make a difference every single day.
Social work means getting to fully experience the vast richness and the strange, exquisite beauty found in the rawest parts of our human condition.