i work six days a week.
this is new. i didn’t always do this, and adjusting has been somewhat challenging.
in 9 months, i will graduate with my masters in social work (msw). this means that when i sign my name, i put extra letters after it. also, it qualifies me to do clinical work with humans, meaning i get to have a lot of really deep talks.
to that end, i have begun a 45 week internship at a local hospital, which involves talking.
social workers do a whole lot of things. i get asked often: “so. you’re a social worker. what does that really mean?” i typically nod my head and say, “it means i talk to anybody about anything. i specialize in awkward conversations and ask a lot of difficult questions.” i said this to a high school kid the other day and her eyes widened in horror. “that sounds like my personal hell.” she stated.
not everybody can talk about stuff that’s hard.
i had this realization last week when i visited a patient in their hospital room and introduced myself. after explaining that we were about to have a conversation in which personal questions would be asked, his family members informed me, very firmly: “we don’t talk about those things.”
that is not entirely uncommon, i have decided.
on a continuum, there are those who talk entirely too much about everything (but little of it is important), and there are those who never talk about anything at all (even when it is very important). and, of course, everywhere in between.
a lot of the patients that i speak with at the hospital are there because they attempted suicide.
and the social worker’s job is to speak with them.
it hit me like a punch in the face. the first time that i walked into a hospital room and listened to my supervisor say to a patient, very gently, “i’m here to talk with you. do you know why?” and the patient looked at her without blinking, responding, “yes. it’s because i tried to kill myself and wasn’t successful.”
my heart was racing a million miles an hour. calmly, my supervisor proceeded with a very thorough assessment of functioning that lasted an hour. i was supposed to be taking notes and learning how, so i could eventually model my own work after her.
but i sat there, numbly, with hot pinpricks of tears burning behind my eyes that i was afraid to release.
i remember thinking that my insides were aching. looking at this patient who had completely lost all hope, the compassion welling up in my being caused my stomach to hurt and my heart to race. offering solutions felt too hollow, extending sympathy felt too simplistic. what could i possibly offer?
after, my supervisor methodically debriefed the scenario. i asked appropriate questions and managed to absorb enough information to present as intelligent. then, i excused myself to the restroom. leaning over the sink and staring at myself in the mirror, i took more deep breaths than i could count. all of my words felt insufficient in that moment, and i was horrified that i might eventually present somebody in that situation with words that were empty.
this was 8 weeks ago.
i have improved. i have gotten better. well, sort of.
there are moments, such as the one with the family members who don’t talk, when i find myself remembering my initial response. and, for just a brief second, i want to nod slowly and say, “yes. i can see why.”
i can understand why people don’t talk about certain stuff. why they don’t want to hear it.
because it’s so hard.
i come back to the word HOPE all the time. like the turntable records that my older brother used to play when i was a kid, getting stuck on a scratch and replaying the same words and tune over and over. but it’s so crucial.
sitting down across from someone who feels hopeless is scary. especially if you love them and there is a lot of lose. i think that’s why clinical folks like me are able to talk about stuff that other people can’t. because i am a stranger and i have nothing to lose. if you truly love the person that is sitting across from you, it’s more intimidating. you know them. they know you. and the ramifications of saying the wrong thing are looming like a dark raincloud.
so what’s the solution?
do we resort to empty conversations? some do.
i have known people in my life that never talk about stuff that really matters. they talk about the weather, about celebrities, about new shoes and about an excellent workout regime that builds good abs. and i enjoy talking about those things [well, sometimes]. but it’s interesting to me because i will sometimes tilt my head and present a very real question, just to see if it has an place to land.
“lately i’ve been feeling a bit down. you know, kind of depressed. have you ever felt that way?”
and i am asking because i genuinely want to know, just to clarify. i’m not trying to trap them. i really want to know if we can have this conversation. not because i don’t want to have a good time. i love to laugh. it’s one of my favorite things. but i also want people to know that if they want to talk about real stuff, i can do that. it doesn’t scare me. but i can tell that it scares them, and maybe they don’t know how to talk about those things.
i made a comment to a coworker the other day after she asked me if i was following something in the news. i said, “honestly, these days most of the things i talk about leave me one notch above clinically depressed, so i am trying to focus on joyful things.”
that wasn’t a joke, even though it kind of sounded like one. i have to balance. talk about serious things, talk about joyful things. regardless, i don’t want my conversations to be empty: void of substance, honesty, and truth. my goal is not to always talk about serious, heavy topics. that’s sad, and it makes you no fun to hang out with. my goal is to talk about things that matter. and if they matter because they bring joy, that’s okay too.
last week, i was the hospital when my coworker and i received the news that [another] celebrity had committed suicide. that news, combined with the daunting number of patients that we had on our roster for the day, hit a bit hard.
looking at each other, we both sighed and i fought discouragement.
“i wish that everybody had somebody to talk to.” i said. “or maybe they have people, it’s just that those people aren’t willing to listen. or maybe the problem is that some people are afraid to present areas of weakness to others, because it’s too vulnerable and scary.”
my coworker watched me wax all of these philosophies, then stated, “nobody likes weakness.”
i was inclined to agree. whether it’s within ourselves or within others, weakness is difficult. some people don’t want to seem needy, so they pretend like everything is fine. others don’t want to be needed, because it’s too time-consuming and it can be exhausting, so they pretend like the people in their life are just dandy.
at this point, i live in a world of honesty and exhaustion, which means i am extraordinarily comfortable with both.
i recognize that not everybody can say this.
i’ve always been a huge fan of To Write Love On Her Arms, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and support for self-harm and suicide [which are in the same general family, but not the same]. this new role has given me even more appreciation than ever before, and i’d like to share a quote from its founder, Jamie Tworkowski.
i just want people to talk about how difficult this life can be.
there might not be an easy solution, or even any solution at all. but sometimes the most reassuring thing that anybody can hear is: