Summary of the Book
Excerpt from the prologue
Life stories: A collection of wisdom
...As Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us, "everybody is a story." Stories contain important grains of wisdom and together they can build castles of knowledge about the world. We are rediscovering the importance of stories. Without stories we lose important wisdom about who we are. There is indeed value in "kitchen table wisdom," as we pass stories along to each other. Remen invites us to take a seat at lifeís kitchen table. This book is about a kitchen table that is surrounded by social workers, each telling a story about their life. And while we have much information about how to be a professional social worker; what about how to live as a social worker? What can we learn from this perspective?
As social workers describe their life stories and the life stories of others, we learn about the mysteries of life. And although many of the social workers' clients have painful and sad stories, they are stories with meaning and life lessons. They provide a perspective that puts oneís own life into a unique frame of reference. "Listening to stories can be healing. A deep trust of life often emerges when you listen to other peopleís stories. You realize youíre not alone; youíre traveling in wonderful company. Ordinary people living ordinary lives often are heroes," says Remen. Sometimes I think Iím done, Iím not going back, but then I have a special case and I realize how important this work is. I recently talked to a woman on the phone and she seemed to be in crisis. I do the lethality assessment. There are no drugs. There are no weapons in the house. There is no alcohol. One thing I didnít ask was how jealous he is. I blew it. I made a mistake. I didnít assess how obsessive he was. I could hear him in the background.. "Tell her about the cop you slept with. Tell her about the cop you slept with." I just had a funny feeling and I hung up the phone and I called the Sheriffís department and I said, "Look. I donít know. I got a funny feeling so just go out and check for me." The woman drives off and the man follows her with a gun. He is driving down the road to kill this lady. He has a firearm at this point and tries to shoot her in the head. She manages to swerve and gets on the cell phone and calls 911.There were 80 hairs from her head attached to that bullet. According to everything the docs said she should have been dead. Had I not called the police... you know.....I could have lost her. One of these days I will lose a client and I donít want to screw up.
Carol Bly argues that the power in a story is the "experience of the other." Have you ever wondered what a social worker does? What it is like to be a social worker? Who are these merchants of morality that commit their lives to solving the ills of society? Who peer into the darkest human basement. Social workers know and understand the depths of the human experience. They are present when abused children are removed from parents, when husbands batter their wives, when 12 year old girls report they are pregnant.
From the life stories
...I also work with kids that have to be removed from the home because of Child Protective Services. I have kids who are sitting in my car crying because they have to leave for the 7th time in six months. Iím like, "this has got to stop." Itís not going to happen in my lifetime or several lifetimes from now but you know this is not OK. A lot of people donít know itís not legal for me to put my hands on you without your permission. Well, why? They say, "when I was a kid my father slapped me around and I turned out OK." So, a lot of my work is changing peopleís mind. "Well, Mr. Smith, perhaps there might be a more effective way to do that and get the same results but without having to go through all that heartache."
Sometimes I think Iím done, Iím not going back, but then I have a special case and I realize how important this work is. I recently talked to a woman on the phone and she seemed to be in crisis. I do the lethality assessment. There are no drugs. There are no weapons in the house. There is no alcohol. One thing I didnít ask was how jealous he is. I blew it. I made a mistake. I didnít assess how obsessive he was. I could hear him in the background.. "Tell her about the cop you slept with. Tell her about the cop you slept with." I just had a funny feeling and I hung up the phone and I called the Sheriffís department and I said, "Look. I donít know. I got a funny feeling so just go out and check for me." The woman drives off and the man follows her with a gun. He is driving down the road to kill this lady. He has a firearm at this point and tries to shoot her in the head. She manages to swerve and gets on the cell phone and calls 911.There were 80 hairs from her head attached to that bullet. According to everything the docs said she should have been dead. Had I not called the police... you know.....I could have lost her. One of these days I will lose a client and I donít want to screw up.
...There are good things about my job, and good things about social work. It kind of cycles. I want to do the work that I was trained to do and the work that I know I do well and is in my heart and head. In medicine, I think you have to be tough. Personality is a very strong factor in the environment. Those poor medical students have to have a very thick skin and a strong stomach. They are grilled in front of each other and humiliated in front of others. It is a tough place, and it's not unusual that attending physicians are shut down to human needs. They have had to shut themselves down, essentially, to survive. Also, they are the creme_de_la_creme in our society. They are the smartest, they have the money, or know how to get it, to get to medical school. They are young and healthy. They don't know what it is to wear a medical gown and have their rear end hanging out naked. They don't know what it's like being stuck with needles or frightened by a diagnosis that hasn't been explained well.
I shudder to think what would happen here if there were no social workers. A co-worker once said that we are the soul of the hospital. That may be very egotistical, but there is truth in it. I sometimes feel that I bring a certain humanity to a patient's experience in the hospital. When patients are frightened and uninformed and have no idea what is happening and they think that their life is at risk, I can come in and demystify the experience a little. If I can do that once a day, then I really feel like I've done a good job.
...We have a 4 year old in what we call the littlest group, our 3 to 6 year old group. He is here because his father died. About 6 months into their being here his favorite uncle was shot in a drug related incident. So they were here about a year and a half. We always tell our parents that we encourage them to let the children let them know when it's time to leave the group. Parents say, "Well how am I going to know?" We usually say that they'll start acting a little different or want to do something else but they'll let you know in their own way. Well this little guy was at Children to Children and while he was here he did some recurring play with some of our medical stuff in our playroom each time he came. He was also real active in our volcano room. He had kind of a routine. He would go between the two rooms doing some things around being a doctor and making the volunteers die and get well and going in the volcano room and just punching on the punching bag. One morning at breakfast he looked at his mom and he pulled his fingers a little bit apart and he said, "You know mom I only have this much hurt left in my heart. I don't think we have to go to Children to Children anymore." His mom came to the next meeting saying, "You guys told me he would do this but I didn't realize it." It isn't usually that dramatic. But for children to be able to say "Yes, I'm done here" is an important part of the process.
...I've seen a lot of people die of alcoholism. I went to a funeral last Saturday for a person who came through our detox program. She struggled with recovery, relapsed and was murdered. She was 31 years old. She left three children. It's sad. But Iíve seen successes too. One of the patients at the hospital was in a coma from alcohol related complications. Probably he had end stage liver disease--I don't remember his diagnosis--but he was dying from alcoholism. We were going to do an involuntary commitment to get him into a treatment center and the doctor said, "Don't bother. He's probably not going to make it through the night." His family prayed and did some ceremonies for him and the next day he became conscious. The judge came over to his hospital room to do the involuntary commitment and sent him off to a halfway house for nine months. He sobered up and started working at some tribal jobs. Over the years he progressed up the career ladder and one day I was at J.C. Pennyís and he was shopping for a suit. I said. "What are you doing?" "Getting a suit for the governorís inaugural?" He said, "I was elected to the council. I've come a long way in seven years." Then he shook my hand.
...Another time at a domestic violence shelter I got a call from a victim. She was hit across her face with what he thought was a slap. He ended up moving her spine so many inches it caused internal trauma. She didn't realize what happened until 2 days later when it was very painful and just gradually broke down her system because no spinal fluid would go through her spine. The spinal fluid leaked into her brain. It was gradual. A process of months until eventually she suffered neurological damage and slowly deteriorated. . She called the women's counseling center and I thought she was drunk or on drugs just by the way that she spoke. Then she told me what happened and it took forever for her to get through even one sentence. She couldn't complete sentences. She would go from one thought to another. I spent about 4 hours with this woman on the phone until I could finally understand what she needed to do and what we needed to work on. I went to court with her a few times and helped her with the prosecution of the defendant. I helped her get an order of protection. I advocated for her in every which way with hospitals, insurances, her apartment. She had no money because she was self-employed, and now she was unable to work and out of business.
Excerpt from the epilogue
Six themes are reflected in the life stories of social workers. In some manner, one or more of these themes were present and offer some guidance for what provides meaning and purpose in being a social worker.
Seeing privilege and honor in helping others
As I listen to these life stories I realize that doing this type of work is indeed a significant privilege. The care of an abused child, the last words of a dying AIDS patient, the joy of an adoption, the life decision of a teenageróthese are profound events in peopleís lives, and social workers get the privilege of entering and participating in these private affairs. The social worker knows the life of the homeless person, he or she has experienced hundreds of homeless lives. The struggle, the barriers to happiness are repeated in many peopleís life stories. It makes sense that they should derive some meaning out of this experience.
Melinda Oliver reflected on her role as a social worker after attending the funeral of one of her elderly clients. In spite of the difficulties in working with this irascible client it became clear to her that she assisted this person in preserving her dignity, she helped her achieve her goal. She observed, "It struck home in my heartĖthis is the purpose of what I am doing. It is to give people a good life." In a similar manner, Michael Pesce reflects on the simple but meaningful experience of having a child say "thank you" when he was removed from an abusive home. Cathy Sammons talks about the importance of informing parents about their childís developmental disability and her desire to be the person to do this because she wanted it done in an appropriate, respectful and sensitive manner. "I would look into the eyes of a parent and while I was telling them this terrible news and my heart was heavy with sadness, I wanted to be the one to tell them.
Social workers who enjoy what that they do see the honor and privilege in sharing such in-depth human experiences. A lot of our day-to-day lives exists at the mundane level. When we ask our friends, "what have you been doing?" a common response is "nothing". The people social workers are helping are not doing "nothing". They are at the crossroads of life, searching for direction and meaning. What honor to be able to assist them in their struggle. To talk with them in a time of need. To assist them in obtaining resources. To hold their hand as they lay dying. To share some of lifeís biggest moments. Certainly this work is filled with lots of sadness. But sadness can bring meaning and purpose to life.