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Who do I want to be when I grow up?

I still want to be a novelist when I grow up. I want to write about people’s lives and about all of the things we don’t usually tell each other about ourselves. I want to connect. My favorite thing about social work is when people stop feeling judged and defensive, and can just tell their own stories, with all of the unique zigs and zags their lives have taken. I’m often surprised when people don’t realize how interesting their own stories are, and how unique their choices and circumstances have been. It’s like reading a really long, really good, book.

I still wish I could be a Mom and a wife, but that’s starting to seem unlikely. The thing is, both social work and writing put me in an observer role, and no matter how much I like my work, I still need some way to feel like my life, in itself, is important. I need the chance to be the star of my own story. Dogs definitely help with that. They seem to make everyone feel more central and more important. I’ve considered having a side practice focused on dogs, where we’d sit on the floor and I would give ear scratches and commiserate with the long journey each dog has had to go through. I would love that.

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“I have a lot to say!”

I’m still unclear about what actually constitutes growing up. I used to think that, at some point, I’d feel more secure and confident in myself, and my choices, and I’d finally feel like I have a clue how to live my life. This has clearly not happened to me yet, and it doesn’t really describe most of the people I know who would generally be considered grownups.

The more external signs of being grown up, to me, were always about career, and home ownership and parenthood. But as time goes by I’ve had to question those markers, because a lot of people do not own homes, or have children, and still seem like grownups to me. And, even though it’s less popular, or possible nowadays, a lot of women still seem very much like grownups to me, even if they never had a professional career outside of the home. It’s something in the way they take responsibility for themselves, or have authority over others, or seem to accept themselves for who they are at a basic level.

In my mind, being sick, with whatever it is I have, prevents me from being a grown up. Grownups are people who can do things all day and take on big responsibilities, not people who need three hour naps and wrap themselves in icy hot strips on a regular basis. Grownups know how to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of, and don’t have an excessive amount of anxiety wafting around them at all times.

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“You can fix it, Mommy.”

Cricket has no aspirations towards being a grown up. She’s focused on her daily needs for food, exercise, and love. She insists that being a grown up is overrated if it means spending too much time away from her.

It’s hard to argue with Cricket.

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“Why would you even try?”

 

 

More School

 

I am officially a part time graduate student in social work, which is why it will take me three and a half years to finish a two year program, but to me, this program feels like full time. I have classmates who are getting it all done in two years, while still working, and raising families, and I have no idea how they’re doing that. Part of my problem is that I insist on doing all of the reading for my classes, and writing multiple drafts for each assignment. I’ve been told that I’m a perfectionist, but I honestly don’t know how to do it any other way without setting off severe panic attacks that are much more disabling than the extra work. The other basic problem is that I don’t have the energy I’m supposed to have. Fourteen hours of internship a week, plus driving, is pretty much my limit, because I still have to do food shopping, and laundry, and maybe go to synagogue or a doctor’s appointment. I’m not hanging out at the mall during my downtime, I’m either napping, or doing schoolwork. Every once in a while I’m writing, but not anywhere near as often as I’d like.

It doesn’t help that large portions of my education have felt like busy work and endless repetition. There’s so much more I want to learn, and once I’m working, even part time, I won’t have the energy to read about, and train in, all of the techniques I want to learn. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing now. I would have loved to skip both statistics courses, or even scrub them from my memory. And I’d love to forget everything I’ve ever learned about writing in APA style while I’m at it.

Cricket and Butterfly both played a big role in my decision to pursue social work. Butterfly, because of her eight years in the puppy mill and her heart problems and diabetes, made me see that taking care of her made me feel whole and more myself, rather than more burdened. But she also made it much more clear to me that dogs can help heal people. Just by being around her, with her endless capacity for joy and strong sense of self, healed something in me, and I wanted to be able to share that with other people.

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Miss Butterfly, full of joy!

Miss Cricket is a different story. She is certainly a role model for speaking your truth and putting your needs first, but she also struggles with what I can only describe as a neurological disorder, an inability to tolerate her own emotions, as if they are magnified to a hundred times normal size. She is on high alert at all times, aware of dangers that no one else can see, and unable to recover easily from excitement, anger, or anxiety.

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Grumpy Cricket

I’ve tried all of the traditional routes for helping a reactive dog, with training classes, and medications, and calming treats, and love and compassion, but she still struggles. I see people like her all the time, diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder and on and on. And I know that they can be helped, by medication and therapy and other interventions, and I wanted to learn more about those interventions, in the hope that they could be of help to Cricket.

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Cricket and Grandma, practicing Cricket’s favorite kind of therapy

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much support in graduate school for working with dogs, either as clients or as therapy supports. This seems like a huge hole in the curriculum. Cricket needs a boatload of therapy, but none of the techniques I’ve learned has really worked for her. Yes, I do my active listening and show compassion for her feelings, but then when I try to offer insight, she shuts me out. The fact is, not everyone can express themselves in words, though Cricket tries her best. Some people, and dogs, need other avenues of expression and support, but we haven’t really touched on that much in school. Phooey.

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We are both disappointed

I still have three more classes to finish before I can graduate, and then I have to take my licensing exam, so, there’s still about a year to go before I will be a licensed social worker. It feels like a lot, but it also feels like barely a moment. I’ve always wished I could have help figuring out how to use my writing to help with social work, and to build my writing career and social work career at the same time, without sacrificing either one. But I haven’t seen any courses in that yet.

This blog has been my saving grace throughout school, reminding me that I still have a self and my own stories to tell, but I miss writing fiction, and getting involved in long projects, and developing characters. I don’t miss sending my work out to endless rejections, that’s a soul killing enterprise, but writing itself is something different altogether. That’s where I can come to life and be fully myself and work though every different part of who I am.

And Cricket really wants me to write a mystery starring a brilliant little dog with a nose for clues. Hopefully we’ll be able to work on that someday soon.

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The Social Work Detective

 

I keep thinking about writing a mystery novel with a social worker as the protagonist. I never took a class in forensics or criminalistics (they weren’t offered at my schools), but I think one of the things that draws me to social work is the craving to be a detective; to find out the mystery of the person or family or couple sitting in front of me, telling me they have no idea what went wrong. My protagonist would be curious about everyone she meets, though, so I’d have to be careful to try to limit her focus to the people who are pertinent to the particular case at hand, or else the book will be never ending.

In real life, death and destruction, or any kind of physical pain or gore, horrifies me, but in a novel, murder calms me down. Maybe murder mysteries have the same paradoxical quality as Ritalin or caffeine: calming a hyperactive mind with a stimulant. The intensity of murder, in a novel, helps me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of on the thousands of priorities running through my mind: I need to lose weight, pay off my student loans, do my homework, find a second dog, get to work on time, keep up with friends, fix the world, and find the right outfit to wear on Thursday.

But would it be as calming to be the writer of the mystery instead of the reader? Would I have to do a ride along with the local police in order to get the details right? Would it be a cozy or a thriller? Would I have to kill off characters I like? Or worse, make one of my favorite characters into the murderer?

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Cricket, with the trowel, in the garden.

I don’t even know why I’m trying to plan a new novel right now, given all of the work I have to do for school. I feel swamped this year. The work seems harder and more all-encompassing, and the stakes seem to be higher too. But, it’s not so much that I want to write a mystery, it’s that my mind goes there on its own. Some part of my brain is always working on story ideas, and coming up with plot points and character names. Taking the time to put it all down on paper at least gives me some sense of order for these random thoughts, so that they don’t think they have to repeat themselves, endlessly, out of fear of being forgotten.

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“Listen to me!!!!!!”

The only thing I know for sure about my social work mystery is that there would have to be a dog in the book. This isn’t a social worker thing, just a me-thing. I would feel bereft trying to write a whole novel, or even a short story, without a dog in it. Cricket is auditioning for the role, but I’m worried she’d want to be the protagonist herself.

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“I am always the star of the show.”

 

Social Policy 2

My current social work course for my Masters in Social Work, is Social Policy 2. Social policy 1 was a history of social policies in the United States, from child protective laws to voting laws, to Medicare and Medicaid, to civil rights and food stamps. The current course, though, is about advocacy: learning how to advocate for changes in policy when you notice a problem in the system. First we have to choose a particular problem area, then we research endlessly, and articulate the problem and who is impacted by it, and then (we haven’t gotten to this part yet) we figure out who to badger to successfully make change.

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“I can badger! I’m a really good badgerer!”

I have been overwhelmed by the research part so far. In one week, I read thirty articles, wrote eighteen pages, and did at least ten drafts to whittle that down to a two (and a half) page proposal for my project. My focus: the gaps in Medicare, both as a result of the 80/20 split between what Medicare covers and what the beneficiary is responsible for, and in what is covered (not dental, vision, hearing aids, or long term care). Why is long term care designated to Medicaid (the health coverage meant for low-income individuals), rather than to Medicare (which is meant for the elderly and disabled)?

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“This is exhausting.”

This all led me into the weeds of Medicaid, which is one of the primary targets for budget cuts, both of the current presidential administration and the Republican House and Senate plans to replace Obamacare. Many of the billions of dollars they plan to cut from Medicaid will inevitably come from long term care services for the elderly and disabled.

This led me to the backdoor legal schemes people are allowed to use to hide their income and/or assets, in order to qualify for Medicaid, and the difficulty of those low income people, who are not low-income enough, to afford the elder care lawyers who can competently advise them on the different types of trusts available.

If you have absolutely nothing ($845 a month income, for 2017), Medicaid will catch you when you start to fall through the safety net. But if you have even a drop more than nothing, you are screwed. There is the option of a spend-down plan, where you must incur medical bills in the amount of the difference between your income and the Medicaid income cap every month, in order to get Medicaid coverage, a month at a time. But publicly financed advisors (AKA Free) are not allowed to advise you on the trusts that could hide your extra income, and don’t have enough hours in the day to help each person who needs help to organize a viable spend down plan.

This leaves a lot of seniors without dental, vision, hearing aids, long term care or medical transportation, and in fear of the 20% of any doctor visit or procedure that is not covered by Medicare. Which leads people to skip even the services that Medicare covers, because they can’t afford the fifteen dollars for a cab, or the fifty dollar copay for even routine appointments.

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“You mean I could skip going to the doctor?”

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“I really don’t want to go to the dentist, Mommy. Ever.”

There is a campaign slowly going around the United States called Medicare-For-All, with a version that passed in Vermont, and one that made it through the New York State Assembly three or four times now (but has not been able to pass the state senate), and one in California too. What interests me is that what they are calling Medicare-For-All is really not Medicare as we know it. Someone decided that in order to create universal health care, we’d have to fill in the gaps in Medicare as it is, adding dental, vision, and long term care, and limiting co-pays.

So my question is, even if we as a country are not ready to pursue universal health care for everyone in the form of Medicare for all (and it seems obvious that we are not there yet), could we be ready to fill the holes in the health care system that covers the elderly and disabled among us? Is that a step we could tolerate?

Once I fix Medicare and Medicaid, my next project will be to figure out how to add pets onto our existing health insurance plans. Because, really, my dogs are family members. If human children get to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, to make sure they can earn a living on their own before they have to buy their own insurance, surely my puppies, who will never be allowed to work for a living (anti-puppy prejudice!), should be covered by their family’s health insurance too. No?

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Cricket is not excited by this idea.

The Secret Keepers

 

One of the primary concerns in social work is confidentiality. It is important for clients to feel secure enough with their social worker to share difficult information, and many social workers make a point of telling clients, right away, that anything they say will be kept private, expect in cases of danger to self or others. In the case of a social work intern, though, confidentiality has to include a few more caveats: What you tell me is just between you and me, and my supervisor, and my coworkers, and my teachers, and my classmates. You don’t mind, do you?

I read instructions from a social work class, at another school, where they specifically told the students to camouflage not just the name of the client they were writing about, but also identifying details in their physicality, personality, and life circumstances. We were not told to be that thorough in our classes. My fellow classmates and I tend to use initials in our assignments, if identification of a client is necessary, under the assumption that since we do not work at the same agencies the initials will not be identifiable to fellow students. But some people choose to use false names instead, to make the prose flow more smoothly. I’ve been tempted to go whole hog and use “Cookie Monster” or “Voldemort” for some of my class assignments, just to see if people are actually paying attention, but I haven’t done that, yet.

I don’t think dogs care about confidentiality, but I’m not sure. I’m hoping my dogs don’t care, because I share an awful lot of their personal information online. Cricket doesn’t seem to experience shame when her behavioral quirks are uncovered, like pooping on the mat by the front door overnight, or peeing in the quilting area in the back of the living room (though that could be because she believes it is my fault, because I failed to get up when she asked for an outing at three o’clock in the morning). Butterfly is unconcerned with her missing teeth, or any leftover poopy on her butt, when she goes outside to meet new people.

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“The pee was up to my eyeballs, what did you expect me to do?”

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“What? I think I look great!”

Dogs are the ultimate secret keepers, actually. Cricket has never told anyone information she alone was privy to about me. And Butterfly lets people think that I am strong and confident and secure, even though she knows different. The dogs accept me as I am, with all of my facets intact. They’ve never suggested that I should be fired as a dog Mom because I have this or that imperfection, though they do expect me to make it up to them in extra chicken treats.

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“Secrets are yummy!”

Maybe we should all go to doggy therapists, instead of the human kind, and then we’d never have to worry about confidentiality (unless you believe that dogs are capable of speech, and are just barking to keep up the ruse that they are dependent on us, and there is actually a secret network of doggy spies collecting information about their humans to send to the doggy version of the NSA, or the real NSA).

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“You’ll never know.”

The fact is, humans are not built for unconditional positive regard, even though that’s what therapist’s try to offer to their clients. Even the most generous-hearted therapist will find herself looking askance at a client for one or two of his decisions. Most dogs, though, have unconditional positive regard down pat. Human therapists carefully guard their boundaries, conscious of how physical behaviors, and offers of support, can be misconstrued by people in desperate need. Dogs don’t do this. Human therapists are also taught to hide their own needs and vulnerabilities from their clients, both to protect themselves and to protect clients from feeling responsible for meeting the therapist’s needs. Dogs have no problem walking up to someone, even someone in deep and unrelenting pain, and asking for affection, and offering affection in return.

Dogs listen openly and without an agenda, whereas most human therapists have a goal in mind for each session: to find out the client’s story, to uncover the blocks in their life, and to offer healthy options for forward movement. Dogs don’t interrupt; they are more classically Freudian in their approach, allowing the client to free associate, and just know that someone is listening to them.

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“We’re listening.”

But, there are a few ways that human therapists can be more helpful than dogs, especially when you are ready to move past the venting stage of the work. It’s possible that, while the unconditional positive regard of a dog can be healing, you may take the positive regard of a human more seriously, because you know that their regard is conditional and you must have done something right to be winning their approval. Human therapists are also more knowledgeable about problem solving, unless the problem you need to solve is where to find the best place to pee, or how to fully appreciate the sounds of the backyard.

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“I can help with that!”

 

The fact is, human therapists are more than just secret keepers, or a safe place to confess the things you don’t want anyone else to know, they are bridges and teachers and support systems to help you make the connections to the life you really want to be living. A life in which, hopefully, you will have a faithful dog at your side to give you unconditional love.

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Phone Calls

One of the things I dreaded most about going to school to become a social worker, were all of the logistical details I would have to deal with: looking for resources, making phone calls, filling out forms, and doing general paperwork. I’ve never been good at those things. When I get a letter in the mail, I get nervous; even if it’s a regular bank statement, or a credit card offer, I worry. And when I have to make a phone call or look at bills, I want to hide under the bed, but Cricket is already there and she growls at me for invading her space.

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“This hiding spot is taken.”

This year, I’ve had to do a lot of paperwork and phone calls for clients at my internship. At first I wanted to hide under the desk – which was wide open because Cricket is not allowed to come to work with me – but I didn’t want to let people down, so I made the phone calls and helped with the paperwork. After a while, probably months, these behaviors started to seep into my real life. I didn’t try to make deals with my Mom anymore, like, I’ll clean the whole apartment and scrub the bathtub with a toothbrush, if you will just call this doctor’s office for me and find out why they sent me a bill for fourteen dollars.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I refused to even have a telephone in my bedroom, for fear I might accidentally answer it, and end up having to talk to an actual person. Caller ID has reduced some of my anxiety. I get at least a few seconds to prepare before picking up the phone, instead of feeling like I’m playing Russian Roulette each time the phone rings.

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“I don’t think you should answer the phone, like, ever.”

I still hate making phone calls, don’t get me wrong. I worry that every word I say on the phone, and every word I write on an official form, will make the world blow up, or get me sent to jail; but now I take the risk and do it anyway, fingers crossed.

Butterfly tries to help me with my paperwork phobia by offering to chew any difficult letters I might receive. I have to make a point of not giving in to that pleading look in her eyes – Oh, that paper looks so tasty, and I’m sure you don’t really want to answer that Jury Duty summons, Mommy. She’s never offered to make a phone call for me though. Cricket, on the other hand, would love to be the one to call an insurance company and dispute a charge. If I would just dial the number for her, place the phone on the floor, and step back, she could handle everything. Though I might end up with lawyer letters next, and those, I’m sure, would make Butterfly’s eyes explode. Oh my God, is that a MANILA envelope?

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“You wanted me to eat these papers, right?”

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“I can make phone calls?!”

            I’ve always been braver fighting for other people than for myself. I feel like I’m on more solid ground with altruism (which explains my choice of second career). My hope, though, is that all of this fighting for other people, and reminding them that they matter and deserve the help, will eventually sink in to my very stubborn brain. Maybe if I wore my work clothes at home when I made phone calls for myself, some of that work bravery would rub off on my home-self. But Cricket is skeptical. Work clothes are a very bad sign in her world.

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“Where are you going, and how will I survive?”

The Work of Memory

 

One of the most anxiety producing parts of being a social work intern is having to write process recordings every week. Some schools have moved onto a much simpler format for these, with two pages of basic description (and evaluation) of a meeting with a client, but my school, and many others, still use a long form that includes: a word for word (approximately) transcript of the conversation, a column to point out the skills the student tried to use, a column for the analysis of events that happened, and a column for the feelings and doubts of the student throughout the interview. On the first page of the process recording, there’s also a section for a description of the who, what, when, where, and why of the meeting, and on the last page there are questions to help you analyze the meeting’s success overall.

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“What is she talking about?”

My early process recordings averaged 13 pages, for one client meeting, and one was up to eighteen pages (my supervisor was not in love with that). The hardest part, for me, is the word for word transcript. Obviously it’s not an exact record of what the client and I said, because I don’t tape my meetings and because I don’t have that kind of memory. In fact, each transcript takes me three or four passes, at least, to get it into the semblance of a back and forth conversation similar to what really happened (though, given that each of my meetings is an hour or so, a lot still gets left out).

I can’t imagine Cricket or Butterfly trying to reconstruct a word for word, or bark for bark, transcript of their day. Their sense of time is, to say the least, imprecise. Cricket forgets how long it’s been since she last saw Grandma. A minute could have passed since Grandma went downstairs for the mail, but when she returns, Cricket greets her as if she’s been gone for days. If she tried to record that event, there would probably be twenty pages in the middle, filled with despair and resentment, as if she’d been lost in the desert without water, for years.

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“Oh my God! Oh my God! Where were you?!!!!!”

For official purposes at my internship, I have to write out a summary of each of my meetings, and that gives me a general record to start from for the process recordings. For those reports, I describe what we talked about in the meeting, and what we resolved for the client to do by next week, etc. But to get those notes into dialogue form, I need to pull a lot more from my memory, and fill in the transitions between topics, and focus on particularly difficult moments: how we get from topic A to topic Z; what order things came up in; Did I say something to bring this up, or did it come out of nowhere; when I was overwhelmed and unsure what to say; when I thought I did well.

I often wonder if the work of remembering is this hard for everyone, or if it’s a specific problem for me, because my brain seems to store things out of order and scattered in various corners instead of in a more linear fashion. I dread doing these process recordings every week, but once they’re done, I feel like I really learned something, about myself, about the client, and about how I want to proceed. I resent having to do them, and yet I hope we don’t switch to the short form, because this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.

Ideally, I would become so practiced that I could knock off a process recording in an hour. Then I could do one on every client meeting, or on my own therapy sessions, or on the news shows that drive me nuts. I could write out each of my interactions with the dogs to see where I’m going wrong: like, why is Butterfly still so stubborn about who should be in charge of her leash (I think it’s me, and she thinks I’m wrong)? Maybe there’s a secret hidden in plain sight, and if I could just diagram every moment, I could figure out what I’ve been missing.

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“I will stay right here, looking adorable, until I get what I want.”

Maybe that’s what Cricket is really doing while she seems to be chewing on her feet: she’s processing, and analyzing, and deciding how she wants to handle things the next time I do something that bothers her – like when I say No, or Quiet, or I fail to give her treats when she wants them. Maybe she’s doing this all day long, and sharing her realizations with her sister, and that’s why they keep outsmarting me. That could also explain why they are so exhausted all the time.

It’s a theory.

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“Getting Mommy to do everything we want, every day, is exhausting.”