Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why I became a "social worker"... especially for Alexis

If you had asked me back in 1997 what I planned to do with the rest of my life, I probably would have told you I had plans to become a chef.  I really enjoy cooking and have a real knack for it.  Actually, I have a knack for making comfort food.  Sadly, it shows.  If you'd asked me what I wanted to do back in 1990, I would have told you I wanted to be a writer.  I have always loved writing and it comes easily and naturally to me.  Back in the 80s, I dreamt of training horses for a living.  If you asked me today what I probably should have tried to be, I would tell you I wish I'd tried my hand at music.  I have music in my blood and I can really sing.  I always kind of squelched that talent, though, for reasons that would take too long to explain in this post.  By the time I started to develop it, it seemed unwise to try to be a professional musician.

Anyway, in 1997 I had just finished two years in the Peace Corps.  I had gone in the Peace Corps in an attempt to escape... and maybe to "find myself" somehow.  While I was in the Peace Corps, I got to use several God given talents I can't deny that I have, narcissistic as it may sound.  Although my time in Armenia was educational and occasionally rewarding, overall it was very hard.  I came home from abroad depressed and wondering what I should do next.

In March 1998, I got a job waiting tables in a nice restaurant.  I hated waiting tables, but that job, tough as it was, did some things for me.  For one thing, it drove me to therapy, which I desperately needed.  Over the years, a lot of well-meaning as well as extremely rude people have told me I shouldn't talk about seeing a therapist.  I take a different view.  The time I spent in therapy probably saved my ass.  There is such a stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues.  People should talk about it.  Seeing a therapist is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength.  And the more people talk about seeking help for mental health issues, the less stigmatized it is bound to become.

In any case, back in 1998, I was very angry, overwhelmed, and sad and I was about to give up on life.  Despite that, I functioned reasonably well.  I got dressed and went to work.  I paid my bills.  But I was very unhappy and felt like my life wasn't worth living.  If I had gotten more depressed, I might have killed myself.  Indeed, by November 1998, despite having spent several months in therapy and on antidepressants, I was about to take that step.  I was so frustrated and felt paralyzed... like I was just stuck.  I felt like I was a failure and had nothing to offer the world.  Sometimes I still feel that way, though not nearly as intensely as I did back then.  It's really shitty to feel like that when you're in your 20s and the world should be your oyster.

Fortunately for me, in December 1998, I changed medications and suddenly felt much, much better.  I decided I had to make some serious changes.  I had to move out of my parents' house and get on with my life.  I figured graduate school was the best way to launch myself into something.  I wondered how I was going to pay for school.  Because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I qualified for some fellowships.  I looked at the list of available fellowships.  Most of them were for fields that didn't interest me that much.

The University of South Carolina offered a dual master's degree program in social work and public health.  At the time, they were offering a Peace Corps fellowship that would pay for my tuition, pay me a stipend, and require me to work in South Carolina for four years after graduation.  As it turned out, USC discontinued that particular program the year I matriculated.  It was a good thing, too, since I ended up meeting my husband and it would have cramped our style if I'd had to work in South Carolina until 2006.  I decided I wanted to go to school anyway, and took out a shitload of loans, had a part time job, and worked as a graduate assistant instead.  

I chose to enter the dual degree program in social work and public health after I reflected on what I'd just been through with depression.  I decided that maybe I should go into a field where maybe I could help people with that problem.  I didn't know the first thing about social work, and like a lot of people, thought it was mostly about counseling people, facilitating adoptions, and taking kids from abusive parents.  The reality is that social work encompasses a lot of different things.  And Alexis, the first thing I will tell you is that if I were practicing social work, I probably wouldn't be counseling anyone.

The dual degree program I completed required that I specialize in health administration and macro social work.  Health administration is all about policy and management, though I would be earning an MPH in health administration and not the more valuable and relevant MHA.  I probably would have had serious issues in the MHA program, because it requires accounting.  Macro social work is basically working with organizations and communities and in management.  I would not be a clinical social worker.  I would be trained to manage social workers and organize social programs... write grants and research.  

I did fine in the program and enjoyed many aspects of it.  I actually liked the public health side more, though I did find my internship in medical social work very rewarding.  I fully planned to use that education after I finished school and probably would have if I hadn't met my husband and become an Army wife.  But don't misunderstand me.  I wouldn't trade ten years in the rat race for the ten years I've spent with my husband.  I love being married to him and I love the life we've made, for the most part.

During the short time I did work with clients as a social worker, I made an effort to focus on the client as much as possible.  In that sense, I'd say I did compartmentalize things that happened to me personally.  Or at least I tried to.  But honestly, most of my work in public health and social work has been in grant writing and research.  In retrospect, I should have taken more time to decide what I really wanted to do and found out what I needed to do to get there.  But as it turned out, it probably wouldn't have mattered regardless.  Moving every couple of years, especially when the economy blows, isn't conducive for developing a burgeoning career or reputation.  What I needed to do in the late 1990s was get out on my own.  Graduate school provided the vehicle to do that and move on with my life.  It didn't provide me with the living I expected, but it did help provide me with a living I can live with for now.

It's turned out that I'm doing what I wanted to do in the first place.  I don't yet make a living wage doing it, but I do make something.  And I do use my education... just not in the way I planned... at least not right now.  I don't know what I'll do when my husband retires.  I can't imagine anyone will want to hire me as a public health social worker, though.  We'll see what happens.

Does that answer your question, Alexis?


  1. I'm sure you'd make a fine social worker. I know a few here. Biggest problem for social workers is burn out from the stress and workload. Many leave and turn their hand to teaching.

    Still waiting to hear that voice.

  2. I tried teaching as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I have no desire to do it ever again, even though that teaching is not like American style teaching. Actually, I think I'd prefer Peace Corps style teaching to American school teaching.

    As for social work, again, it's likely I wouldn't have been a "hands on" social worker, at least not for long. I'd be in management, writing grants, fundraising, and such. And it's likely I would have tried to lean more toward public health because I liked it better. Both of my assistantships I got through the school of public health because they had more money than social work did.

    As for "that voice", I will have to figure out a way... and overcome my bashfulness.

    1. I'll be nagging you every now and then to do it.

      They should bring back those old booths where you could cut your own vinyl records. That's how Elvis got started.

    2. Okay, I found a way... I'll post on my music blog...


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