I couldn't last as a social worker but the children will haunt me forever
Posted on 9/12/2016 by
Acute stress ended my career but I’m not sorry I tried – and am in awe of the work my colleagues still do
Lying in a hospital bed, staring at my bleeding bowel on the screen above my head, was a defining moment in my social work career. It marked the end of it. After just two short years I was done. Burnt out. Exhausted. Finished.
At 33, I had developed high blood pressure, chronic stomach problems and had not slept properly in months. Now, one year on, I can talk about it. I can see old colleagues without having palpitations. I have survived something that nearly took me down.
Although I’m free of the formidable paperwork and endless visits, I remain haunted by the children on my caseload. I still dream about them and wonder how they are getting on – did they ever return home or were they adopted? Are they receiving the care I so much wanted them to have? I will never know.
Social work was a career change for me; why I chose it I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps all the awful stories I heard over the years of children suffering violence and sexual abuse triggered my interest, or perhaps after the case of Peter Connolly I was naive enough to believe I could do a better job.
I started out in a long-term child protection team in a London borough, keen to take on tougher cases and asking for a challenge. I regretted it almost immediately. Alcoholism, drug addiction and psychosis became my daily reality. But I managed. I was interested in people’s lives, their stories.
Like thousands of other social workers, in my first year I had a succession of different managers and a complete lack of supervision. An amazing head of service offered guidance; a family support worker kept my spirits up with office gossip and cups of tea.
Alcoholism, drug addiction and psychosis became my daily reality.
Then I moved to the front line. As a duty worker I saw families first and initially found it exhilarating. But within weeks I was fed up – tired of meeting violent offenders, staring into the beaming face of a child beaten by his father, listening to hours of anguish.
My team were amazing: always laughing, always supportive. My manager was frantic but tried her best. Then, at the end of a long Tuesday, I was sent to do a welfare check where I was met with mental health problems, neglect and aggression. It was a typical social work story. The police were called, my colleague prevented me from being assaulted, children were removed. Weeks of verbal abuse from the mother followed: I was told I would die, my family would die, my unborn children would die in my womb, that I was the devil.
In the following week I did 17 hours of overtime. I wrote pages and pages of court statements. I stopped sleeping and lived on coffee and crisps. By this stage the physical symptoms of stress had started. My stomach was a mess and I cried continually. I had nightmares and chest pains. I was in such a state I made a doctor’s appointment, not realising stress could manifest itself in such a visceral way. My GP told me I needed to resign. After months of anti-depressants, I finally handed in my notice.
No one batted an eyelid. My team had witnessed my deterioration from a confident, caring social worker into a sleep-deprived, anxious wreck. As much as they tried to support me, it was too late. I was just another in a long line of social workers who had cracked under the pressure.
It was a long and painful journey deciding that social work wasn’t for me. Had I obeyed the voice in my head arguing that I ought to stay on, I know I would have ended up on long-term sick leave.
But while my confidence was shattered by the bleak, unrelenting world of child protection, I gained invaluable tools for survival. Once you have experienced the stress of social work, very little can faze you. My health is now back to normal and my anxiety is under control.
I have sworn I’ll never go back. But I feel considerable regret and sadness that I could not do what thousands of committed and resilient social workers do, day in and day out. Was I not good enough? Why couldn’t I separate work from my own life?
For those who continue to deal with child protection cases, relentless bureaucracy and the sheer panic those entail on a daily basis, I have nothing but respect. I envy their resilience. But my embarrassment and shame at leaving has passed. I want my experiences to serve as a warning for those who try to fight the constant pressure and nerves.
Although it’s doubtful I’ll ever practise again, my de-registration forms remain unsigned. And those children, the hapless victims of circumstance, will stay with me forever.
I might not have lasted as a social worker but I’m not sorry I tried.
Source: The Guardian