Thursday, October 18, 2007

Leaving existence for the experience (UPDATED)

*Originally Posted April 2006, 1.5 years ago... update follows...

I think its been too long since I've posted here...I know there are a select few of my friends who are reading this, and have probably already heard this story, but, I said I was going to post it, so, I will...

I gave notice at my job, and my last day will be May 5th. This began as an internship position working as a counselor/case manager with clients who have developmental disabilities. I had intended for the position to end in May, as the internship is supposed to, along with my classes.

Well, that is not how things worked out. I guess I was fortunate to be offered a position with the agency, when months ago one of my supervisors gave me the offer. A bit before, I had seen this coming, and did some searching within myself about what this would mean.

I came to the agency energized, excited, and expected to be incredibly happy doing the work I had felt was literally my "purpose"--for those who know me, I believe we are here for a reason, and are always searching for what that may be. I think the reasons can be numerous, but I believe my advocacy work is one of them.

I had been with the agency for awhile when I just remember feeling not as excited to go to work, distracted at work, angry with the way the system was set up, and the role I was playing in the flawed system I felt my agency had.

My job is to counsel clients who are mentally retarded (we prefer the term developmentally disabled, but for those who may not know...) and have some sort of mental illness on top of their disability. These are clients that I have grown to adore, have become a part of my life in some small way, have changed how I think, and who depend on me. Yet, I here I would be in a session with them feeling like they were being cheated and screwed by the system.

Many of the clients have behavioral problems due to their disability. They're stuck in a world where they aren't valued, where people make remarks and jokes about them, where they are treated like children, and not respected. More often than not their family is not around, they have been abused, and are in need of validation, love, respect and somebody who cares.

The agency does a lot of good for our clients, but after working with them on-on-one, I began to see a pattern. Most of them are on Medi-Cal and low income, so they cannot afford the best medical care. Their group home (where most of them live) can't put up with the behavior issues--which really are just the client's cry for attention, love and a result of not being able to communicate their emotions/needs to the rest of us. What then happens? They get "labeled" with some mental illness, and placed on numerous drugs, and referred to counseling with me. The difference between the clients on medication and not on meds is amazing. Yes, some of them really do need medication to function, but often times I see it used as the easy fix. The behavior modification programs--proven to work--cost too much. So there I am, in a counseling session with a client who is so sedated on medication that they are falling asleep and cannot benefit at all from therapy. We get to bill for it though, so it all comes down to the money, whether they need it or not. My clients--and this is very few-who are not medicated are lively, alert, have wonderful personalities that they show us all. They are the ones I see progress with and who are living their lives.

I wondered if this was something I could continue to take part in. The physicians who prescribe the meds often do not take any advice, and are honestly offended by a social worker telling then the client is over-medicated, so, there we are stuck to work with a client who cannot reach their full potential. What this is really all about is society not wanting to deal with something/somebody abnormal. The medication keeps many of them hidden, quiet, and unnoticed. It is not something I blame the agency for, it is a much larger societal issue of us only being accepting of the norm, the average, and often the boring...In the process we miss lessons to be learned, and moments to make us think...

I questioned whether I was simply not wanting to take this position for the money (the pay scale is very low compared to other jobs), but, that was only part of it. I can be confident in saying I could not compromise my beliefs and continue to work with these clients that I feel deserved so much more.

What is my ideal job? I used to think this would be it. I got caught up in the fantasy on not dealing with beurocracy though. This is the unfortunate aspect I have come to realize, is that it most likely will come down to me compromising my beliefs in someway to make a living. Does it have to? I do not know the answer to that... but it greatly saddens me to think that this is what so many of us must do every day. For those that don't, you are very lucky, you have been given a wonderful thing in life.


I sit here, now nearly a year and a half later after that original blog post. At the time, I did not know the ramifications of my difficult decision I had made. I had saved enough money to pay my rent/expense for a few months in San Jose while looking for another job. I was completely sure this would happen. Great experience. Advanced degree. Great resume. Not shy of the interview process. This however did not happen, and so I moved to the last place I thought I'd be living again--Santa Cruz, and to my parents house. All I told myself was "this is temporary". It turned into long-term temporary. I volunteered a lot to make sure my resume had no gaps while interviewing, but continually was turned down for jobs I was more than qualified for, while my fellow students had for the most part found jobs right away after school. I became a bit disenchanted at the work I'd put into getting where I wanted to be. After a recent friend (who has a similar disability) had the same problems getting into the career world, after graduating with a masters from UC Berkeley, I was left with the sad thought that of all the fields I had chosen to go into, social work really was not as open as it claimed to be to somebody like myself who has a disability. I vowed that I wasn't going to settle for a job I'd be miserable at or that wasn't worthy of having me. I finally stopped applying for every job I fit the qualifications for, and became more selective, but this meant less interviews.

Here I am, now the middle of October. My patience and determination have since paid off. I have been working as a case manager now (ie "social worker") in what I never realized would become pretty close to "ideal" job, as a social worker anyways--at least for a first job out of graduate school. I was offered this job after volunteering at a place that mainstreams developmentally disabled clients into the community--into their own apartments (with assistance), and helps them to be as independent as possible. We empower them. After only a short time as a case manager, the director of our agency handed me a job description of a supervisor position for a new program we will be opening up (basically, an awesome position), I said it looked great but may add something in about what sort of detailed educational background she was looking for. She looked at me and said "well I don't want anybody else who I've considered and who wants the job, the job is yours if you want it. " Stunned I kinda sat there, completely and unexpectedly grateful for this opportunity that I did not see coming.

Now, in the first part of 2008, I will be starting my new position, and finally will have settled into what has become a town where I thought I would never stay in for long again. I have established too much to leave here right now, I'm single so have no person to move for, and I will finally be able to comfortably afford to live how I want to live-in my own place again. Santa Cruz won't be my forever home is my guess (considering I'd like to buy a home) but for now its become a place that has its arms around me and doesn't seem to want me to go.

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