I used to think that life was all about advancement: ticking the right boxes, making the right contacts, doing the right things.
This is the story of how I learnt to connect with young people and why I came to value that connection above the need for acknowledgement.
We are all influenced by the culture of success and ambition. We feel pressured to achieve, to succeed and to move up the career ladder to give our lives meaning. It’s a pretty skewed philosophy.
I was one of the believers
I thought if I could just work hard enough and get ahead, then I would be saved. I often look back and am amazed and perhaps a bit surprised at my own single-mindedness. Everything else came a poor second to my ambitions.
When my academic job ended, I wasn’t sure what step to take or where to go. It was a volatile period of questioning every assumption I had and every value I held dear.
But it was also transformative
I had always had a niggling thought, perhaps a hope that I could one day become a counsellor. I thought about studying art therapy or psychology, but eventually chose social work.
For my final social work placement, I was based at a psychiatric inpatient service, working with young people. It was challenging and humbling to be an intern after my previous roles. This wasn’t a pathway many would have chosen to follow at my age, but I had chosen it because I wanted to make a difference to young people.
I just didn’t think it would be so painful
As the placement weeks unfolded, I became involved in the life of the hospital and was given a small case-load of young people. I became a valued part of the young people’s team and my practitioner self slowly blossomed as I came to let myself get involved in the things that really interested me.
As I grew in confidence, I realised that theory is only useful in so far as it can help us understand people. In my role, I often just connected with patients and talked to them as if they were human beings rather than manifestations of particular illnesses – or problems to be solved. What I lacked in experience, I made up for in genuine willingness to engage – and curiosity.
The young people I saw in this environment were often struggling with anxiety, grief and loneliness.
Underneath the surface of their illness, I could see other things – the lack of meaning, worth and value that seemed to have had such a devastating effect on their sense of self.
As part of my regular duties, I was asked to meet with *Lisa. I will never forget the feeling of walking into her room and seeing a beautiful, gentle young woman sitting on a bed lost in thought. Her sleeve, raveled by the bedclothes, exposed a slender wrist shiny with healed burns. I was shocked and fascinated, curious and a little intimidated by the thought of what emotions might be close to the surface.
It was a melange of feelings I confronted many times during my placement
My eyes diverted to the art books Lisa had resting on her table – this was something I could safely talk about. As I listened to her story, I felt like crying. It sounded so much like my own. After training in her chosen profession, she found herself unemployed. She had applied for over fifty positions and still couldn’t find work. It was a hard reality to face, one which many young people would find daunting, perhaps devastating. It had brought her face-to-face with her own fears and her lack of a stable sense of self. She was so genuine, so likeable and warm, that I wondered how she had missed out on so many jobs – the job market can be cruel. She told me that too many students had been graduated that year. She was part of a cohort who had ‘flooded the market.’ Employers were able to pick and choose, and people with no experience or contacts found themselves at the bottom of a very long list.
The lack of structure in her life presented a frightening echo of the lack of structure in her self – a black hole into which she fell – and fell apart.
She had come back to the hospital hoping that containment would stave off the devastating depression which had previously overcome her.
But if she got a job, would that really solve her underlying problems or would it just temporarily distract her from the real work that needed to be done?
There were times during the placement where I felt such strong emotions that I needed to take time out. I saw (and felt) people’s wounds, scars and emotional pain. My own wounds were close to the surface – sometimes that helped me to understand, but there were many times when it got in the way and there were many other times where I just didn’t have any answers.
I often tried to fill up the unknowable space with theory…
Hanging by my fingernails to some kind of structure when I felt myself at risk of getting lost in other people’s pain.
The months I spent at the hospital were a time of learning and reflection. I made many mistakes and I also felt challenged in every way that it is possible to be. It was an intense time, but it was also exciting. I found myself confronted by the internal worlds of young people who were struggling with the most fundamental problems. Some of them allowed me in, some didn’t, but to the ones who did, I will always be grateful. For all the effort and challenge of the time I spent in the hospital, I was more than rewarded by the young people I met.
They helped me discover what really matters.
*Please note that Lisa is not the patient’s real name, it has been changed for privacy purposes.