Halfway done with a 2-year Mental Health certificate program, with another 4 years of undergrad and 3 years of grad school to look forward to after that (if I want to get a “real” career and not have to beg for a couch to crash on ever again), and I’m already burning out. The dull and dry reading and writing assignments, the suspect perspectives being voiced in class discussions, the skewed theories that raise more questions than they answer; this wasn’t what I had signed up for.
But I was in too deep. I had left behind everything I’d ever found comfort in to get a new lease on life, and I wasn’t about to let anything deter me. I jokingly recited that line from the movie SLC Punk to some friends -“I didn’t sell out, I bought in”-but this wasn’t a joke to me. I was on a fucking mission. As with the dude from the aforementioned film, I had learned the hard way that declaring yourself a social outsider does nothing to improve the social ills that breed such alienation. Real change happens from the inside, and it was with this in mind that I dove into the belly of the beast.
One of my professors ran an agency which provided house calls to people with a variety of mental health ailments. She was impressed enough with my work to offer me a paid internship. Shortly after that, a friend who was working at a group home helped me get a job there as well. Suddenly, this wasn’t an abstract, theoretical game anymore. I was in the trenches now.
I’m not sure how to describe what I saw on the job. Obviously, I don’t want to reveal any particulars about the clients I worked with out of respect for their privacy, but what really makes this hard for me is that I’m reluctant to tell you about I was affected by this experience. I’m stoic as hell, but there were times when I was blinking back tears or angrily gnashing my teeth in front of my clients, for reasons both obvious and not-so-obvious. As distrustful as I was of what I had studied, I begrudgingly admit they were right about a few things. All the stuff they warned us aspiring professionals about: over-identifying with clients, vicarious traumatization, projection and transference-became difficult for me to deny (more about that later).
I worked with people ranging from their late teens to middle age, from high-functioning to debilitatingly disturbed. Bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, hoarding, depression, addiction, autism, various “personality disorders,” you name it. Most of them had been receiving treatment for many years, but few of them had anything to show for it. They did little more with their time than watch TV and get shuttled around to doctor’s appointments. They had been buried alive in a pharmaceutical fugue, inert and ineffectual, with no expectation of ever assimilating into mainstream society. They were contented with their impediments and saw no incentive to gain control over them.
This might seem perverse, but think about it: if you had been told from day one that your diagnosis exempts you from personal responsibility and entitles you to special attention, what would you do? Who doesn’t want to be coddled like a child sometimes (or all the time)?
It’s very telling that the few who made gains were the few who were fortunate enough to have supportive and stable families, the kind that can do more than just pawn their bad seeds off on doctors. Sadly, families like that are the exception, not the rule.
It made me wonder if my work mattered at all.