Sink or Swim

I used to work for an agency that offered support services to parents in at-risk families.  Our program offered a variety of in-home services including (but not limited to) counseling, parenting classes, and referrals to other types of community aid.

When I first began, I had very little training.  My background was in teaching, not social work.  It was a “sink or swim” situation – and let me tell you, I was a rock, sinking straight to the bottom of the murkiest sea you could imagine.

Emotionally, I was overwhelmed.  Each day of work was an opportunity to experience secondary trauma, as I sat and listened to my clients tell me stories of heartbreak and neglect.  The parents I worked with were scared and angry.  Many of them had endured horrific childhoods of their own, and now were at a loss to appropriately parent their own children.  Some were trying to recover from drug addiction.  Others were in jail.  A few of them lived in the filthiest homes I had ever seen; others had homes far more beautiful than my own.  Often they lived average middle class lives, in houses with well tended lawns – but they were struggling with the inability to control a teenager in the full swing of rebellion, or they were foundering in an abyss of debilitating mental health issues.

And I was supposed to help them.  Unfortunately, I had no idea how to do that.  I was completely unprepared for the stories I heard and the situations I found myself in.  I had no idea how to help anyone, and because of that, I hated my job.

I began searching for other work immediately, but I couldn’t find anything that paid well enough.  Back then, Brian was still attending school full time, pursuing the education necessary to become a pastor.  He worked part time as well, but it was necessary for me to earn enough money to carry the family finances, regardless of my personal feelings toward my job.

At first, every day was torture.  I was dangerously inept at my new job.  I would practice writing my resignation letter in my head as I drove to work in the morning, even though I knew I couldn’t turn it in until I had a new job lined up.  Unfortunately, all this did was put me in a bad mood by the time my car rolled into the parking lot to start the day.  When I drove home each day, I prayed for God to send me a new job.  Sometimes my prayers were shouted; other times they were sprinkled with tears.  But the days rolled by, and I still couldn’t find a different opportunity.

I was often advised by well-meaning folks to view my job as a ministry.  They said it was a ministry to work a job I hated to support my husband’s call, and that it was a ministry to help families “in need.”  It was a ministry to live like a single mom all week, working full time and running the house, while my husband was in seminary.  It was a ministry to put my family first, over my personal feelings.  This was supposed to inspire me, I think, to “take up my cross” like a Good Christian would – but really all it did was make me hate ministry.  People kept trying to tell me how blessed I was to have a job at all, but all I could think of was running away to live in my own apartment where I would drink margaritas at lunch and visit my kids on the weekends like a divorced dad on television would.  Since I love my husband and children, these fantasies would always send me on an extended guilt trip.

So…even in my fantasy world I still felt terrible.

After six months of detesting my job, I went to the doctor for a physical.  When the doctor asked me how I was doing, I immediately burst into tears.  I told him how I hated my job, how I had gained weight from stress eating, and how generally miserable I was.  He told me to lose weight, and then he wrote a prescription for Happy Pills, which he said would magically make me feel better again.

Okay, that’s probably not what he said, but that’s what I heard.

I took the Happy Pills for a week, and felt like my head was going to explode.  I felt jittery and nervous all the time, and I couldn’t sleep.  I was afraid I was heading for a full blown anxiety attack.  I don’t know if the pills were the reason, or if I would have felt like that anyway.  I do know that when my doctor wrote me that script all I could think was, “Oh my God, there really is something wrong with me” and I went straight into panic mode.

I was freaking out.

When the side effects worsened, I decided to read the pharmacy sheet listing all the drug warnings.  I read that, in rare instances, some people suffered seizures when taking these particular Happy Pills.  From then on, I was certain all my symptoms were a precursor to a grand mal event, so I stopped taking the pills.  My doctor offered me a different medication, but I turned him down.  I just knew that  when I read the sheet that came with the new pills, I would probably develop all those side effects as well.

A few days later, out of the blue, a funny thing happened:  I suddenly felt a lot better about both my job and my life.  Not magically better, just able to accept my life the way it was at that moment.  An old friend of mine used to like to say, “It is what it is.”  That’s how I felt.  I don’t know why – call it a miracle or an epiphany or whatever you like– but a feeling of calm washed over me, and, for the first time ever, I began to see myself in my clients, in the faces of the people I worked with each day.

I saw how my anxiety could have spiraled into more extreme behaviors – behaviors that would seriously affect my ability to parent well.  I realized that I had been so wrapped in my own problems that I wasn’t being the best mom to my own children, who I love dearly.  Once I realized that, I stopped thinking of the parents I worked with as “those people” and I started to just think of them as people who, just like me, are doing the best they can with what they have.  I started thinking of them as “mine” – as in “I have a mom who lives on that side of town” or “one of my dads is trying to get a job there.”

I stopped sinking, and I started swimming.

I believe that was when my job really did become a ministry to me.  Not the kind of ministry where you hand out bible tracts or lead people in the Sinner’s Prayer.  No, I’m talking about something different altogether.  I mean the kind of ministry where you love someone who isn’t all that loveable – someone who maybe has a dirty home and lice in their hair, or maybe someone with an abrasive personality who tells you they think your shoes are ugly, and that you should lose weight.

I started to think about my job as the kind of street level activism I think Jesus modeled for us, where I would just go to their homes and listen to people talk, and accept them and try to love them because that is the only thing that will ever change the world.  It was weird, because when I did that, people would ask me to help them change where before they didn’t want to hear my advice.  I think maybe it was because I started doing more listening than talking, understanding all the while that if I had been in this person’s shoes and lived through the same trauma and pain they had, I would have done all the same things and maybe worse.

I’m not saying it was a miracle cure, because it wasn’t.  I still got frustrated, and sometimes if a session went poorly I would go back to my office and bitch and complain, and slam stuff around because I was angry with my families for not getting it together the way I wanted them to.  There were times I didn’t want to go to people’s homes because I was afraid I would bring cockroaches home in my purse, or because I knew my hair and clothes would smell bad when I left.  But I would go anyway, and it never was as bad as I thought it was going to be…except when it was worse than I thought it would be, and I would realize how much they needed help, and I would end up going there twice as often as I had planned to.

I ended up loving that job, although it never got easier.  When I would have a bad day – and there were many of them, days filled with Jerry Springer moments where I felt like I was trapped in terrible reality show – I would take a deep breath and sit down for a moment.  I would think of the words of Jesus, and how he told us to love others as ourselves.  And then I would realize that, because of my job, I was starting to get the barest inkling of what that meant.

After working there for six years, we moved when my husband took his first call.  By then, I was so attached to “my families” that I cried when I left.   You see, God never answered my prayers for a new job.

But that’s okay, because in the end I got something even better: a new heart.

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14 thoughts on “Sink or Swim

  1. Wow! Kristine, in case you were thinking of getting me a Christmas gift…consider it gotten and received with untold gratitude. This post is all the gift I need. Even if I don’t get anything else from anyone else. This is all the gift I need: “If I had been in that person’s shoes…” That’s it. I get it! That’s the way to love like Jesus loves. Thank you for giving me that gift.

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    1. Dear Betsy, thank you as always for your wonderful words. Your heartfelt comments and encouragement mean the world to me, and if reading this touched you positively — I’m happy! You will forgive me if I still give you the smallest little something for Christmas, won’t you?

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  3. Kristine—Thank you for sharing your story! I learned today in MOPS how we are all story tellers and our tales of what God has brought us through can bring others hope. Even though I no longer worker in the social work field either, I appreciate your honesty and encouragement. Loving the way Jesus does applies, no matter what the job.

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  4. As your mom, this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for caring about “your people” when all I could do was worry for your safety. I’m sure you made a positive difference in some lives and this is priceless.

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