Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Brad and I were able to move back to Colorado, after I "landed" a job in social work with a government agency in Denver. I was a case worker with the P.R.O.U.D program. P.R.O.U.D. is an acronym (sort of) for the Prevention to Reduce the OverUtilization of Detox. Detox held many functions. One of those functions was to serve as a "drunk tank" for D.U.I. offenders, and the other was a sort of holding place for those who were seeking drug and/or alcohol treatment. The actual program was as a result of a person who sued the city government in Denver. Apparently, he was "a victim" of several DUI's and was never referred to a treatment center so he sued the city, as he and his attorney saw it as the fault of the city government that he was addicted to alcohol. So, in essence, I was able to move back to my beloved Colorado because this stooge found a loop hole in the legal system where he accused the system of being accountable for his DUI convictions, rather than taking the responsibility upon himself to get sober. Classic.
So, a client would be referred to PROUD when they had been brought to a Detox facility in Denver three times. There were about five of these facilities in Denver and to this day, I will never shake the smell that entered my nostrils the moment I stepped foot in one. It is amazing what you become desensitized to, and everything that I saw in there became fairly routine. It is just the smell that I could never shake.
Anyway, at least two or three times a week, I would do a client intake in Detox. When I look back on it now, I am amazed at how resilient I was. I am also amazed at how naive I was. The way a "seasoned" client would look at me, when I suggested he enter an out-patient rehab clinic, because of overcrowding in the in-patient treatment centers was priceless.
"I just need to get in somewhere until it's Spring, little girl. I have been living on the streets for over 40 years, I am not about to get rehabilitated now. I understand someone sued you and it is my Constitutional right to receive treatment or I can file a class action lawsuit that not only names your employer, but YOU, if you do not find a spot for me in an long-term, in-patient treatment center."
"Three hots and a cot," was another client's euphemism for a 28-day program. The same client laughed when he told me that he made "more money standing out on the side of the street in a day, then you make all week." I couldn't help it. I had to bite.
"How much do you make a day?" I asked nonchalantly.
"On average, about a hundred dollars, " he responded, "That's for about three hours work. If you can scrounge up a dog, you can make more. It kills me that skinny dogs bring more money than kids - every time."
I was speechless. That translated to five hundred a week and roughly $25,000 tax free. That is, if he did not work weekends. He beat me to the punch.
"Let me guess, sweetie, (sexual harassment was not a big deal to a guy who carried all of his personal possessions in an army knapsack) I'm guessin' you make around $20,000 a year, am I right?" I made $19,500. My new client threw his head back and laughed a hearty laugh, reveling many rotted and missing teeth as he exhaled smoke from his nostrils. "I can tell by that look on your face that I am right. What suckers you guys are. We done here?"
You realize that in order to become a social worker, you must have a Bachelor's degree and if you want to have any type of career, you need a Master's. I halted my Master's when I quit my job at the University that was funding my graduate school. I realized that I would be about $20,000 in debt at the beginning of a career that would yield at the most $30,000 to start. This is the situation that most licensed social workers find themselves in, after having accumulated an advanced degree and shitload of debt. Therefore, I just took the job in Denver to see if it was, in fact, the idealistic calling, that I presumed it was - before I made the huge educational commitment. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I learned more about life in that one year, than I did during my entire college experience.
In my opinion, there are four types of social workers. There is the saint, the idealist, the ambivalent, and the veteran. The Saint is a case worker who stays and actually excels at social work. They see everything they do as being for the greater good and they rarely get discouraged. They take everything in stride and they believe even the tiniest triumph to be a major development in the lives of their clients. They are invested in a healthy way, but do not take their work home with them unless they are working off the clock, which they often do, to ensure that a client who has very little motivation does not relapse or miss a visitation with their children. They are optimistic, yet realistic, and they move easily on to the next challenge, without being mired in the last. The saint often climbs quickly through the ranks of management. "Quickly," in social work terms, translates to a promotion every 5-7 years with a whopping $2,000 raise and double the responsibility.
The Idealist becomes disillusioned within six months, if they are lucky. The bonus of this, is that being a social worker makes such an impact on their lives, that their disillusionment not only lasts a lifetime, but permeates their personal lives and parenting skills. To this day, my young children know better than to encourage me to give a stranger holding a sign with the scrawled word "help" ONE PENNY at a stop light. The last time they protested, I gave them a speech worthy of the Republican National Convention. I had never seen three young people so stunned and bored at the same time. The idealist approaches their job, at first with a ton of zeal and expectations. They wear their heart on their sleeve and internalize each and every client's problems, as if they were their own. They burn out very quickly and with any insight, they change careers within a year. If this gives you any indication how disenchanted I was after being a case worker, I went directly into sales. My hook in my interviews was that if "I could sell sobriety, I could sell anything". If a person does not change careers, they become the Ambivalent.
The Ambivalent case worker is one that goes through the motions of being a social worker. They do not give a shit about their clients and they are working for their paycheck which is nothing. They keep up with their paperwork and they even get to the point where they start to fantasize during an intake about the way their new client will fail after they are provided with all of the opportunities and free services the government has to offer them. The Ambivalent has moved beyond cynicism into morbidity. On the upside, they are a blast at office parties. NOT.
Finally, the veteran is my favorite type of case worker. I shared an office with a Vet, and he was wonderful. He was a "recovering alcoholic and drug addict" and he did not take one OUNCE of shit from his clients. Where my clients were always playing me for free lunches and rides to their drug dealer's house, HE had his clients under control. Whenever they were trying to pull one over on him, whether it be promising they would not relapse on their way to the grocery in their old neighborhood, or lying to him about procuring a fix the night before as they are peeing into a cup, he would stare through them with his slightly jaundiced eyes and they would immediately stop whatever bullshit they were engaged in. I mean, this guy would put any character on The Wire to shame. He was the real deal and I am a better person for having known him.
When I was at the beginning of my "disillusioned phase", and I was venting one day to my veteran office mate, he confided in me that the reason why he relates so well to his clients is not only that he used to "use," but that he, too, was "just a paycheck away from being on the street."
"Yeah. I know what ya' mean," I said as I picked at my professionally manicured fingernails.
"No , you don't." he was staring at me with those piercing yellow-tinged eyes. He had my number, too, and I had brought it on myself by, as my Dad says, "trying to bullshit a bullshitter."
I have always said that I think everyone should be required to be a social worker and a waitress at some point in their lives. This is my recommendation today to you or your children. Realistically, you are not going to get your resume together this afternoon, but at the very least after reading my blogs regarding these two topics, you might be more empathetic. I realize that there are a lot of other worthy professions in this category (i.e. teacher), but these are the two careers in my life that have given me the most perspective. There is just no greater experience in life than having to work "all you can eat fajita night" or running a heroin addict through McDonald's drive thru after she has gotten freshly high and getting her a milkshake. Ask me if she had any money when we got up to the window. Go ahead, ask me.