Life After Social Work

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

At the age of 20, the ink still smudgeable on my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I secured a job administering Behavioral Therapy to children on the Autism spectrum. Even when getting bit by their frustrated little teeth, I loved the work. Thus began my career, a journey that led me to a license in social work.

Over the past ten years I have worked on an inpatient psychiatric unit, with individuals diagnosed with serious and pervasive mental illness, in a homeless shelter and on a suicide hotline. At present I work with chronically homeless individuals to minimize the impact that their mental health symptoms, substance use and trauma histories have on housing stability and overall quality of life.

Social work has always felt meaningful and mostly worthwhile. Over the years I have come to understand gratitude, joy, triumph, perseverance and personal development on the deepest possible level. I have come to understand suffering, sadness, despair, hopelessness and darkness in the same way. Social work has granted me unfettered access into the most instinctive and evolved parts of our human condition. Last summer I wrote a blog post about what it really means to be a social worker, but most of all being a social worker taught me what it really means to be a human.

I once worked with a client that had experienced homelessness for so long, she did not know how to unlock the door of her apartment on the day she moved in. I took this woman’s hand in mine and showed her how to turn the lock, an act that remains one of my life’s most substantial experiences. And in truth, I have had more of these significant and impactful interactions than I can ever recall. My practice of social work has shaped me into my current construct, molded me like a pan does a Bundt cake.

But now, at the age of almost 30, with the ink long dry on my Master’s degree, I am tired. My eyes have seen a decade’s worth of trauma. My ears desire to unhear many of the tales they have been told. My heart is stuffed so full with the sad stories and suffering of others that its rupture seems imminent.

It’s starting to seem that too much of my identity is tied to this profession. I feel more like a social worker and less like a living, breathing being. I feel more like a social worker than I do like a woman, a writer, a friend.

And I know what everyone is thinking—that I am burned out, that I need to take some time off, that I must examine and improve my self-care skills. In reality, I am not burned out. I just did (and often do) take some time off. And if a bar can be a metaphor for self-care, then mine is stocked with top-shelf shit.

After a decade of sweat and tears (and lots of blood but none of mine) I know what burnout feels like. I have been there before. And I know what compassion fatigue feels like. I have been there before, too. This is neither of those. This is also not a get more rest, take deep breaths, find hobbies, do not bring work home situation.

I have spent my entire adult life in service to others. I have not one regret. In the struggles, I found my voice. In strife, I used it. With enough bizarre, disappointing and inspiring anecdotes to fill an entire novel, it feels time to move on and begin again.

I know that I am a great social worker. But I may also be a great forensic scientist, bartender, real estate agent, clown or interior designer. There is only one way to find out.

If anyone needs me I’ll be here, wondering about life after social work.

5 thoughts on “Life After Social Work

  1. You’re making a very wise and insightful choice for yourself and those in your life who love and care for you. I have enjoyed your writings and while our field will miss you immeasurably, I have no doubt you will make a success of whatever you do next! Well done and I will remember your words with gratitude. Take care and enjoy living your life.:)

  2. Hey Natalie, you have done many great deeds and helped a countless number of people. I admire you very much. I have missed you since the letters from Cincinnati, OH. Please email me at [email protected] when you have time.

  3. You are still so young and plenty of years to live. I ran across your article and found very interesting, as I can relate to it. I am a social worker myself and with a Masters Degree in Social work. Like you, I have also experienced feeling “burnt out” however this time, I don’t feel burnt out and again like you, I have this feeling of the need to do something else unrelated to social worker, and somehow I am feeling the energy pulling me away from Social Work and into a different unknown direction. And I am actually okay with it and not at all scared or doubtful. I have faith and I know everything will turn out as it should and as it was designed by the higher power above us. I may not know you personally to tell you anything, but Because I believe that everything we want in life is already there awaiting us, We just gotta grab it and go for it, and that’s what you are already doing. How wonderful 🙂 don’t ever hope or wish for anything. It’s already yours. Best to you!!! Thanks for writing this article. It’s nice to hear that other social workers also feel the same as I do. Thank you!

  4. I don’t know how I found this page but it’s refreshing and uplifting. The words above is an echo of my life. Im not at a cross roads, just looking around. I know just like Maslow, reaching the pinical of Social Work means bowing out not burnt out. So as I open my eyes of destiny the blindness of my past becomes clear. That I’m standing on achievement eventhough I have not fully acknowledged it’s greatness. Those of you who reads these words and grasps my position are now saved “not lost”. Having found the balance between living and lived gives you the freedom, like I to now know the meaning of life. It is time to leave the classroom and walk in the wilderness amongst people. Your legacy has now began and it’s time to write your own biography. Ecomical success is wonderful, but it can never replace one’s soul. Be at peace and learn to sleep, see your family and not just a body and roles. I suppose that by me joining in this conversation at 1am in the morning, the social work hour, as our minds never really and truly rest. I have discovered that I am not alone and change is for the many not the few.

  5. You story resonates with me so much. I am about a year out of the social work life and am a new human. I just made a decision to prioritize my self growth and my family and that meant a new career and view on life was necessary. My identity was so intwined with being a person who helps others and makes the world better. It was time I give time and attention to who I am and what I want 10 years later. I started to consider that the reason social work made sense for me 10 years ago may not be a reason to continue today. I missed parts of myself that started to die – freeness, creativity, exploration. All of these have come back to me now a year into my next evolution. I hope that yours is going well too 🙂

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