I received my very first writing award at the tender age of 10 when I won a second place ribbon for my essay, “What is beer and how can it hurt me?” I believe I received a $10 check from the American Legion or some such organization, but I’ll admit the details are fuzzy.
The writing accolades continued when a poem I wrote in 8th grade English was published in a South Dakota journal for elementary and middle school aged students. The poem was about a chair and it didn’t rhyme, so my very literal husband would call it a “descriptive paragraph” instead of an actual poem. But since only one of us has published poetry, he can keep his opinions to himself.
I was skipped over for the award of “All State Journalist” in high school, which was rather painful since I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and several of my fellow journalists and best friends were called to accept their awards one by one while I stayed at the banquet table and pretended not to care.
And now, 25 years later, my first novel, unprotected, has been chosen as a finalist in the Midwest Independent Publishers Association’s Midwest Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Fiction. I’m honored, to be sure, and excited for the opportunity to get buy a new pair of shoes and eat a fancy dinner. I’m also surprised since it’s the first nomination for anything that I have received since my high school journalism days.
As I was contemplating college majors, I vacillated between psychology and journalism. I had been writing stories in spiral notebooks in my bedroom as long as I could remember, so writing was familiar while psychology just seemed cool. I settled on psychology, which was the career that brought me to social work, and I left writing behind until much later.
Social work was the right choice for me, but while journalism and writing are full of opportunities for awards, social work goes largely unrecognized. Other than one organization that presents a Social Worker of the Year award, what could the accolades be? Best Court Testimony? Outstanding Ability to Remain Calm When Barraged with Verbal Insults? First Place in Safe and Successful Reunifications?
Most people never get any visible recognition in their careers, but some professions are more revered than others. Surgeons and fire fighters are respected, teachers and nurses are applauded, and lawyers are the butt of endless (and often hilarious) jokes. But how about factory workers and dishwashers? How about the dads who work for decades in miserable jobs because that’s what it takes to support a family? I would love to give some recognition to the people who stand for 10 hour shifts in checkout lines dealing with inpatient jerks. I wish I could give a medal to every phlebotomist who can do a painless blood draw, and to all the aides who never lose the energy to nod and smile at their nursing home residents.
But if there were rewards for everything, then there may as well be rewards for nothing. Appreciation is great, but most of us don’t do our jobs for the praise. If we did, most of us would have quit a long time ago.
I wrote unprotected because I love to write, and over the course of 12 years a novel spilled out. The affirmation for that story and for my writing is such an honor, but I holding my published book in my hand would has been reward enough. Win or lose, I will continue to enjoy the ride my book has provided, and I will remember all people, much more deserving than I, who never get the chance to be nominated for anything.
Buckle up. I’ve got some earth shattering revelations to share, so the faint of heart better head over to pinterest and divert with some inspirational quotes or fancy cupcakes.
The rest of you, are you ready? I’m going to reveal what I think is the biggest problem we seem to be facing in child protection. It’s a major part of many cases, and blows more lives apart than I care to count.
I know: Duh. Heroin kills. Crack destroys lives. Meth eats away at your face, your teeth, your brain. We’ve seen the billboards.
But I would like to talk about what we in Minnesota (Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers) do not want to talk about: Many (because I can’t bring myself to say most) of the deep end addicts do not get better. Ever.
I am a child protection social worker, so the law actually mandates that I focus on my clients’ strengths. I am also an optimist, despite 19 years at the job, so it is my natural tendency to believe that people can recover and change. Even my internal dialogue when I am with my clients is positive and hopeful.
So I am having a hard time writing this post because it feels wrong to admit it. Maybe this is burnout talking, but I don’t think so. I think I’m really trying to figure out what to do with all of this truth smacking me in the face. How do I reconcile optimism with the reality that there are many clients that I will never be able to fix, but I still have to pour all of my energy into trying. Isn’t the definition of crazy supposed to be doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result?
If I accept that some percentage of addicts are unfixable (*shudder* ….I am not supposed to use that word…) how far do we have to back up this train to finally get on a new track? When was their addiction fixable? And how will I ever know who is really getting better, and who will be back in a year or two?
I know enough to know that I don’t know. But I do have some thoughts that might help a little.
First, a lot of lives could be saved if heroin, crack, and meth became obsolete. (Hey, I said I’m an optimist.) These drugs are wildly addictive and can function like an eggbeater on the pleasure centers of the brain, so much so that these addicts can’t do anything but chase the high. While there is such a thing as episodic use of these “street” drugs, the path toward addiction and fast and straight, so I think every dollar spent to get rid of these drugs probably saves ten, not to mention saving lives.
Second, Vicodin, Percoset, Xanax, and Valium (and all of their drug cousins) are highly effective, the first two for managing pain and the second for managing anxiety. I am the last person to say that I think people should have to grit their teeth through either. But it is staggering how many doctors readily and frequently prescribe these addicting meds to addicts. Any doctors out there? Please add hypnosis, therapy, meditation, non-narcotics, acupuncture, acupressure, healing touch, or anything else to your prescription pad that might save your patient the hassle of 28 days later on.
And finally, I wish somebody could figure out which people can manage a few glasses of wine, and who will go on the roller coaster ride of pancreatitis/inpatient treatment/moderate stint of sobriety/ downward spiral/alcoholic cirrhosis/back to treatment…and so on. For some, alcohol is every bit as dangerous, toxic, and life threatening as heroin.
Addiction sucks, friends. I wish I could put a bow on it and offer a tidy solution, but it hasn’t been that kind of week. All I can say is that I’m grateful to all those who keep fighting the good fight on behalf of the ones who make it, and the ones who don’t.
I wish there were more magic in social work. I see it here and there…when a child really connects with an adult for the first time, or when alcohol treatment works the eighth time when it didn’t sink in after the first seven attempts. When the hopeless becomes hopeful.
Somewhere around my tenth year as a child protection social worker, I learned a skill that is as close to magic as I may ever get, and I use it in every area of my life. I tried it the first time with my middle daughter when she was just under two years old.
My kids have always been sensitive and emotional, and my Gracie is no exception. As a toddler she also developed the charming tendency to strip all of her clothes off when she was upset. She was our third child, so we thought we knew a little something about parenting by this time, but we had never dealt with angry nakedness before…at least not in a toddler.
One Saturday, we had friends visit and Gracie had a blast playing with their son, so much so that she missed her nap and was deliriously tired by the time they left early in the evening. Trying to wave goodbye dissolved into a full blown meltdown, and within minutes she was tugging at her little stretchy pants and diaper. I scooped her up and carried her to her room, telling her that our friends were leaving and it was time for bed. She was tiny but a fighter, so she got a few punches and kicks in with her spindly arms and legs. I laid her in her bed and sat in her room against the door so she couldn’t get out.
“I wanna go downstairs!” she wailed.
“I know Gracie, but it’s time for bed.”
“I wanna go downstairs!”
“I’m sorry, you can’t go downstairs.”
I also learned that day that Gracie has stamina, and for the next 40 minutes she nakedly raged around her room, throwing stuffed animals at the door, pulling at my shoulders, grabbing at the doorknob, all while screeching, “I wanna go downstairs!”
I tried everything I could think of. I tried to read her books, but she grabbed them out of my hand and threw them. I tried to distract her with toys, but she kicked them away. I was gentle, then stern. I ignored her for at least 10 of those 40 minutes, but the tantrum raged on.
“I wanna go downstairs!”
Finally, I remembered a session at a conference on validation, which is essentially the ability to communicate that the person’s thoughts and feelings are valid and legitimate. Sometimes validation can be as easy as repeating what a person feels without judgment. After 40 minutes of screaming I was ready to try anything.
“I wanna go downstairs!” she screeched with an intensity that had barely waned.
“Gracie wants to go downstairs,” I repeated.
She turned, barely three feet tall, regarded me, and sat. “I wanna go downstairs,” she whimpered.
“Yeah… Gracie wants to go downstairs.” And with that, my naked, exhausted daughter crawled into my lap and was asleep within 30 seconds.
Magic? It felt like it that day. Nothing else had worked, and she showed no sign of slowing down. But when I stopped telling her she couldn’t go downstairs and just focused on what she was trying to tell me, she stopped fighting.
So I started using the same approach at work. Most child protection clients are angry (understatement of the year), and we usually can’t get very far until we can get past the anger. So instead of arguing or justifying or rehashing the case, I let my clients vent. And then I say something like, “It makes sense that you’re mad.”
Through that lens of validation, I started seeing invalidation everywhere: “Don’t cry” “It’s not that bad” “What’s the big deal?” “Look at the bright side” “Don’t be scared” “At least you’re not…” Invalidation can be well intentioned or heartless, but anything that discounts a person’s feelings or gives the message that they shoudn’t feel that way is invalidation.
There is great power in having a positive attitude, but pushing away and discounting negative feelings isn’t the way to get there. Part of invalidation comes from our own discomfort in tolerating other people’s grief, anger or pain.
And so I have learned that trust grows when I can tolerate my clients’ (or my children’s, or my friends’) difficult emotions and not try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel that way. “Yep, this sucks,” I have said to teenagers. “Of course you’re upset,” to the mom who needs to return to inpatient treatment. It doesn’t change the situation, but it usually helps them move on. Then, depending on my role, I might give a gentle push toward looking at a situation differently or letting go.
Not exactly pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it helps. The naked sleeping toddler in my lap was proof.
Adverbs are not your friend admonishes Stephen King, author extraordinaire.
I’m sure he’s right. The rule is that instead of using adverbs, writers are supposed to find a better verb: He walked silently. vs. He crept.
The problem with the rule is that it shuts down my writing. The feedback I usually receive about my first novel, “unprotected”, is that people love the characters, and they were so excited about the story that they couldn’t put down. I am incredibly flattered and grateful for their kind feedback. But I have never, ever had anyone compliment my writing itself.
My writing is adequate. It tells the story, it keeps people engaged, and I’m reasonably certain that it isn’t terrible. But I will never be accused of writing lyrical prose. I’m not even sure what that is.
In college I was an English minor for two quarters, until I could barely muster a B in a basic, required Intro to Poetry class. We had to write weekly papers analyzing poems, and I’ll be damned if I could ever find the point. It was an eight o’clock class, so the forces of nature were against me from the start. But when I got a D on a paper with the professor commenting that I had completely missed the theme, I knew I was in trouble and stuck with my Psychology major.
For me, writing is not about which words I put on the page. It is about the characters and telling their stories. As a child protection social worker, there is so much in my job that is unresolved, or if resolutions come, they may be much different than I had hoped. So I wanted to tell a painfully real story with compelling characters, and I wanted to demonstrate that even if Bad Things happen, people can survive.
While I am deeply grateful to be published, and especially to my supporters who read my book and shared it with others, I wonder if this is really what I was working toward. Did I really need people to read what I wrote? If a book’s only home is on my laptop, does it really exist at all?
During the 12 years it took to write my novel, I gave very little thought to whether anyone would ever read it. I’m sure that many writers want to be the next J.K. Rowling, and yep, making gazillions doing what I love to do would be awfully nice. But I can honestly say that I didn’t write this book for anyone but me. There was a story in my head that spilled out onto paper, and that could have been the end of the story.
I am halfway through the sequel to “unprotected”, and I’m having a blast figuring out what comes next. Getting the story on paper out of my head and onto the page is where the satisfaction comes, and knowing that has given me permission to just write. I don’t need to worry about being a bit too cliche, or about how I should be finding the better verb. The critic in my head doesn’t care about those things. What I want is to let the words find their way to the page and develop my story. Adverbs and all.
P.S. If you are keeping track, dear reader, you will find 17 adverbs in this post alone. And that makes me immeasurably happy, Mr. King.