For most of my adult life, I have worked in the fields of disability, mental health and child protection. I work with people when they are at their most vulnerable, going through their bleakest times. They invite me into their homes and tell me their darkest secrets. I get to see people as they are, unadorned and unarmoured. When lives are at stake, everything is out on the table. I am endlessly humbled and privileged to be in this position.
I am so very aware of the power I hold – the power to share my knowledge and skills, power to instill hope and show compassion, power to hear their heartbreaking stories and to sit beside them in their pain. I also have the power to help people turn their lives around radically, to access money and services that they may not be aware of. So often, I am the conduit between them and a better set of circumstances. Like I said, it is a humbling position to be in.
But caring professions are hard, really hard. I have to be the strong, calm and rational presence amidst the crisis. I have to hold onto hope when there doesn’t seem to be any left. I have to listen and try to understand people’s narratives. I have to bear witness to some truly sad and horrific stories. People look to me for reassurance, for answers, for help. People offload their troubles on me, they sometimes unleash their anger on me, and sometimes they beg me for answers that I can’t provide. It’s no easy task to witness people’s desperation when their children have been removed, or when their child is trying to kill themselves, or when they’ve been abused.
As someone with bipolar, there have been many times when I have questioned my ability to work in these fields. How can a crazy person help another crazy person? How can a crazy person help other people who are struggling? At the time of my diagnosis, I was having extreme bipolar symptoms and working with young people with mental health issues. I was working with teens who had eating disorders, who were being bullied, who had attempted or witnessed suicide, who were self-harming and who were traumatised. I felt like a deceitful fraud, a charlatan, sitting there calm and collected, taking careful notes, asking measured questions, providing advice and reassurance. I sat there with my calm and professional demeanor and I did a damn good job. And then I went home to chaos and dysfunction, feeding my codeine addiction and my fixation on sex, happily riding the highs of mania with abandon. I felt like I was fooling my clients and I felt ashamed. I was terrified of being found out. How was I helping people to manage their own addictions and mental health problems when I was struggling to manage my own?
I felt like a deceitful fraud, a charlatan, sitting there calm and collected, taking careful notes, asking measured questions, providing advice and reassurance.
This might sound like I am being unauthentic in my work and that might seem unfair to my clients who bare their all to me. But I have made some sort of uneasy peace with my role and my facade because it allows me to do some good work. I have to conjure up this professional persona so that I can help people. I don’t really see this as a facade, so much as a different side of myself. Even on days when I’m having bipolar symptoms, I find a way to reign it in, compose myself and conduct my appointments. Sometimes I might call my sister and vent and cry, take a tablet to soothe my anxiety or do a mindfulness meditation to ground myself. It’s like stepping into the eye of the storm in order to get my work done. This helps me to set my own issues aside so I can be present for my clients. I think it helps them to have faith in me too because by doing this, I can be reliable and consistent which is what you need from someone who is supporting you. And it also protects me. I set my own vulnerabilities aside when I’m at work and this helps me to withstand the trauma I hear, like a shield.
Of course, it is not always that simple. There have been times when clients have triggered me or I haven’t been able to compose myself properly to do an appointment. A client with bipolar who is agitated or elevated can really trigger the same feelings in me if I’m not completely stable at the time. I can have intense emotions watching people go through things that I have also experienced – domestic violence, depression, unfaithful partners, emotional abuse. Once I worked with a mother who kicked her 15-year-old son out of home and all I could think about was how I felt when that happened to me. I was enraged by this mother and had a difficult time working with her after that. But again, I have good processes in place to manage these situations. I use a lot of reflective practice and supervision, which is basically talking to a senior worker about what is happening and unpacking your thoughts, feelings and actions.
I can have intense emotions watching people go through things that I have also experienced.
And there are benefits to my own mental health and childhood trauma experiences too. As a professional, I find that I have a lot more patience with clients than some of my colleagues. When they see a lazy person, I see someone struggling with depression and motivation. When they get frustrated by someone making irresponsible decisions, I see someone struggling with impulsiveness because of their bipolar. When they find it exasperating that someone won’t take their medications, I understand that sometimes symptoms are preferable over side effects. When they struggle to understand why a child wants to stay with their abusive parent, I understand completely that you can still love someone who abuses you. When they are bewildered by a person choosing drugs over their family, I see a person in emotional pain who feels like they have no choice.
So I don’t question my ability or my right to work as a social worker or mental health worker anymore. And one day I will fulfill my dreams to be a neuropsychologist. I don’t struggle so much anymore with the idea of putting on a professional persona who is more functional and steady than the person I am at home. I work hard to continually evaluate my performance so that I am taking the best care of myself and my clients. My life experiences provide me with a unique perspective and greater empathy. There is so much value in that! I still have the occasional day that my mental health overwhelms me and on these days, I try not to have any contact with clients. I have bipolar disorder, I have addictions and I’ve been abused throughout my life. These are all different aspects of me, just like my professional persona is just another facet of me.