I’m Not A Social Worker. (From the UnFunny Files).

by Lori Dwyer on May 23, 2010 · 14 comments

Inspired by the enigmatic Kristin at Wanderlust, who’s brilliant prose inspires me to write the serious stuff, and who inspires a passion in me for the craft of writing that I’d long forgotten I possessed.

Once upon a time, I was destined to be a social worker.

Truth be known, had I completed my university degree, I would have ended up as one of the Useless Social Workers Of The Martyr Variety. I found the idea of the profession comforting. The general cliched philosophies of helping people reach their full potential, of building better communities and making the world a happier place; all of that chimed simply and sweetly to the sensors of my soul.

I just didn’t expect it to be so damn sad.

I had visions, as I filled out my uni applications, of myself in suit pants and a turtle neck top, becoming wisps of hair escaping from my professional yet messy bun, clipboard in hand. Patient, long suffering, friendly. Tired, yet committed. Tussling with bureaucrats, evaporating red tape, conjuring minor miracles for the low income housing department estate where I not only worked, but was loved and revered. Respected, although the emotion would be masked by apathy, by the discordant youth. Accepted, after a hard won and gritty battle of wills, by the Elders- the long term unemployed, the drinking, thinking consciousness of the estate.

Hey, I may have even pictured a few musical interludes in there, Dangerous Minds style.

Cut me some slack. I was eighteen.

Two years of study later, and I was not quite yet jaded. The civil libertarian within was prodded and stirred into a state of social anxiety by the inflammatory debates that took place during lectures and tutorials. My own social consciousness was being shaped by the viewpoints of young, carefree consumers, many of whom would never have need nor want of the services of a social worker.

I was twenty years old when I attended my first ‘work placement’- on-the-job training for potential social, community and youth workers. The cynic in me believes two things- that this is an excellent way to embellish the work force of a profession crippled by chronic underfunding; and that this was, indeed, a baptism of fire. It is no coincidence that the drop out rate amongst social work students peaks sharply directly after the first scheduled work placement.

I was in for a bit of a shock.

It wasn’t that I was particularly sheltered, because I was not. I grew up in a small town, and then moved to another town that was not quite as small as the first. At sixteen years old, I relocated to a grungey, gritty city in Sydney’s outer west. As necessity dictated, I learnt quickly. I took a job, part time hours, at a small supermarket in a notorious area. On my third shift, a guy fell over in the first aisle. There was nothing wrong with him, so to speak. It was just that he was so ‘on the nod’ from the recent sting of a needle in his arm that he could not physically stand himself upright for the next twenty minutes.

I should have had some idea of what I was getting myself into. But, naivety being a primary personality trait of mine, I did not.

For the sake of confidentiality and anonymity, I’ll continue to gloss over details. Suffice to say, I think, that I was working with an organisation who attempted to provide some sense of community for teens who otherwise had none. To provide ‘wayward trouble makers’ with mentors and role models, to teach them new skills, and to referee games and activities to do in the late afternoon. The time of day when the local adults neither knew nor cared where the kids were, and options like graffiti tagging the local shops or setting fire to council play equipment started to seem like a fine idea.

The employees of this organization did good work, really. Sometimes, just sometimes, you could see kids absorbing things, taking things in. Occasionally you would see the positive effects- a downturn in local juvenile arrest rates, an uptake in the number of kids actually attending school and staying past roll call.

More often, though, you didn’t.

More often you saw a twelve year old girl who’d been asking you how make paper flowers the week before, now asking for help scheduling an abortion. Or you’d stop to break up a fight involving a kid who you knew was on his last warning, and his clock would start ticking in your mind.Or you’d witness the full scale humiliation of a social worker by a group of thirteen year old boys who’s trust he was futilely attempting to gain.

These things, in my youth and insecurity, only served to make me angry and indignant.

It took a different kind of incident to floor me altogether.

A particular client of the organisation I worked for- we’ll call him Micheal, that is far enough removed from his real name to not be comparable. Micheal was fourteen years old, with the lanky body of a teenager but the eyes and obscene language of a man twice his age. Having just been released from juvenile detention, he was assigned an individual worker to do home visits, to reconnect him with his family and his community. Lori, the unpaid labor with the ever widening eyes and gradually diminishing values, was thrown in for the ride.

The house was a squalor. That much I was prepared for. Six children of various ages, states of cleanliness and undress tore through the lounge room, at various times laughing and screeching, contributing to the general din that was the backdrop of Micheal’s daily life. Micheal’s mother was large, warm and friendly women, who undeniably loved her children and did her best by them, with the limited financial funds and emotional reserves she had available to her.

Micheal’s’ father was a whole different kettle of fish.

There is something powerful about charismatic people, is there not? And this man was charismatic. He appeared as king of his castle, pillar of the family. He spoke loudly, with an upward infliction and a tenor pitch. It seemed impossible, viewing him from this regal perch on a rickety kitchen chair, that this family could be as discordant and shattered as it was, with this man at the helm.

It took me two or three visits before the veneer of Micheal’s father began to crack. Quite literally, to shake and slur, for the air of him to be tainted with odor of stale beer. The piles of Victoria Bitters cans I had seen, but not absorbed as important, now became a prop for this man’s confidence, the fuel behind his words of reason, optimism and regret. The blueprint of his plans for his family.

All these facts and opinions I have presented, they play as a sideshow in my head, a murky unraveled time line of events and emotions. They all lead to this point here.

We are in the small kitchen- the worker, Micheal, his mother, father and I. Micheal’s father is is monologuing, the energy and attention in the room skewed toward him and his big, booming voice. Micheal ignores him, he says. Micheal berates him. He is just a father trying to do his best by his children, his wife.

I sit, my eyes wandering, numbed and bored by his stream of words, the punctuations of importance he places on nothing at all.

It is then that my gaze locks with Micheal, standing across the room, leaning on the doorway. His face set, his mouth motionless, his eyes glazed with what I initially mistook for vapid indifference. It is only now that I face the emotion for what it is-a deep, unyielding sadness.

And he sees me, Micheal, fourteen years old and not quite yet a man. Looks right into me and sees me, as very few people ever have. He points, one finger outstretched like some kind of unripened god, to a discarded beer can laying on the bench of the kitchen (how have I not seen, when they are everywhere here, in this house…?). And without breaking my gaze, the trust he is lacing within the space between us, hi
s pointed finger shifts to his father, and he gives an almost imperceptible nod.

My heart breaks.

To this day, I am not sure why.

Maybe because I know what he is saying, without speaking a word.

That his father drinks, and has done for a long, long time, as long as he can remember. And that the words his father is crowing, the personality traits he is blithely accusing his son of, are a direct result of his father’s intimate relationship with Victoria Bitters. There are no excuses here, this man-child is not trying to dismiss the things he has done, things I really know so little about, things that have led to my being here, a young woman from an existence that is only 20 minutes away from Micheal’s, but may as well be a lifetime.

He is just letting me know. That perhaps, what his father is saying is not quite true. And he wants to make sure that I see things as they are.

Maybe that is what shattered me. The vulnerability of it. A boy, not quite yet a man, who cared what I thought, who was still young enough to believe that one woman’s individual opinion mattered, that what one person within the whole twisted game thought of him actually had any consequence at all. Young enough that he had not yet been dessicated, sucked dry by the system, despite where he had been.

I left Micheal’s house that day a different person. Older. Sadder. Stronger, maybe. Maybe not.

I left there no longing wanting to be a social worker. My dream, my vision, in tatters. It had taken one person’s lack of a dream, of a perceptible future, to show me the futility of my own.

If this were a movie, or a novel that you find in the bargain bin outside the newsagents, there would be a happy ending here. A point where I ran into Micheal, years down the track, and found him to be accomplished, successful, to have reached a place of peacefulness with himself and his world. If we were following that first dream of mine, he would even remember me, thank me, name his first born child after me.

But this isn’t a movie, this isn’t a novel. This is the submissive melancholy of everyday life.

I did see Micheal again, once more. At the supermarket where I was still working, part time, fending off shoplifters and kids opening lollies in the fifth aisle. Micheal was with his mother, her stomach swollen with another life. She purchased him a packet of cigarettes. The trolley was half full of two minute noodles and white cardboard packages of party pies, plastic bags of fry chips. Micheal and his mother, they argued as she paid for the groceries, her eyes ticking with the strain of mentally calculating this week’s grocercies against this week’s bills.

And that is all.

I’m not a social worker, and I have no desire to become one.

The implicit pain and fraught suffering of others, unquantifiable and unimaginable to me, proved too much of a blinding reality for my somewhat tender soul; too harsh for the naive and inflated faith I have in humanity.

I was far more suited to being a clown.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Hear Mum Roar June 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm

It is a very sad day when we are young, and realise we can't save the entire world and every single person in it. That's the day we become adults.


notdrowning June 11, 2010 at 2:02 pm

A beautiful post, Lori.


Megan June 1, 2010 at 3:53 pm

What an amazing post, Lori. So beautifully written, I could picture everything and was right at your side through it all.

I guess everything happens for a reason, and seeing these things must have been a part of making you the person you are today.


Lisa May 25, 2010 at 9:01 am

Aww, I can't post a comment on your Disqus post if I don't enter an email address. I don't want to give out my email address. Can't sign in with a Google ID, either, and I don't have any of the other ID's.



Brenda May 24, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Oh Lori, you know I am not really into heavy stuff. But that one was just so beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it.xoxo


lori May 24, 2010 at 10:47 am

This was a sad story well told. I couldn't work in that line of work either. I like the happy endings like in Blind Side. I know most don't turn out that way but the few that do are the ones that give hope to those who work in social services, I would think. The few success stories would be the only thing keeping them going.


alliecat May 24, 2010 at 10:42 am

I liked this one from the unfunny files. A raw and honest insight. I could never be a social worker either, dealing with underfunding and beaurocracy alone would be enough to do my head in. Stories like Michaels are so sad, as it seems like there isn't much you can do to break the cycle.

Great post.


Amy xxoo May 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

And you said you weren't a writer….


Wanderlust May 24, 2010 at 5:30 am

Lori, several responses to this. First, I'm thrilled that I can be your muse! I love your serious writing.

Second, I think all of us with notions of helping others begin with somewhat grandiose expectations, thinking we can turn someone's life around. However, that is a huge and often impossible task. What we can do, though, is be a moment of light in a dark existence, that they will remember and call upon for strength. I bet Michael cared what you thought because he respected you and was honored that someone, anyone, cared enough to take an interest in his well being. How rare that must have been in his life.

And unripened god, that's brilliant. I love that.

Finally, I wrote a post a while back about why I moved from the front lines of nonprofit work to the back offices. Different reasons, but some similarities:


Teacher Mommy May 24, 2010 at 5:23 am

This is beautiful and heartbreaking alike. My sister also found it almost unbearably sad to work as a Social Worker. She still works in the field, but not in this sort of arena. She told me it became so clear to her early on why so many SWs become bitter, cynical, jaded, broken.

I teach in a public high school. I see some of this, just not at the home end of it. In ten years of teaching, I've almost burned out three times.

It's the children like this who both nearly break me and make me want to hold on.

But I don't have to go into their homes.


Ed Pilolla May 24, 2010 at 5:20 am

you write so movingly about your internal journey. this read half as long as it was. deep. solid.


Lucy May 24, 2010 at 1:38 am

Your unfunny had me captivated. For a whole host of reasons. I am crying inside for Michael, and for the thousands of others.



Holly Homemaker May 24, 2010 at 9:40 am

So sad. That story is so common where I come from out in the South West too.

A girlfriend of mine, fresh out of uni, got her first job running meetings at Odyessey House. She confessed to me later that no amount of study could have prepared her for that. She was counselling people she went to school with, people younger than her (at 22), people from all walks of life for ice addiction.

Having to do a job like that would just break me, I don't know how people do it.


Christie HomeGrown May 23, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Your unfunny stuff is amazing Lori. That was a beautiful and sad read.


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