Snyder Lakes cirque, Glacier.

Our case management office (bullpen, as I like to call it in homage to The West Wing [watch the whole clip]) is one big room on the second floor.  It makes for a humor and congenial, if occasionally loud workplace, what with seven not entirely sedate or normal people working there.  So long as we can steal coffee from the family based office down the hall, no one tries to make popcorn while someone else is on the phone, and anything bawdy is erased from the whiteboard before visitors arrive life is free and easy.  I frown upon the tendency to call anyone who is also in the building.  It’s more civilized to talk face to face, and better exercise.  On one of my numerous trips back up the stairs I found that my usual two-at-a-time pace was only sustainable with the invisible yet distinct sensation of steam coming off my thighs.  Which is a reliable sign that I did a good job training/playing this weekend.

A while ago skimo racer and nerd Brian Harder wrote about non-training stress and its role in endurance training, eloquently summarizing a few things I’ve thought for quite some time.  Stress in the physical sense of exercise and stress in the sense of work and family are peculiar bedfellows; both alike and different in fluid ways, the relationship staying emphatically not consistent over the course of a year.  I could say all I want about my particular findings, like the growing taut lightness in my core muscle which finally signals the onset of decent fitness, but they may not generalize at all well to anyone else.  The important lessons are first, that the give and take of turning the navigation of daily living into concrete achievement must be viewed holistically, and second, that for all the vagaries inherent in this process certain subtle markers seem to endure from year to year.

I also agree with Mr. Harder that a lot of folks under-rest.  One reason I try to avoid using alarm clocks unless there is no recourse.

I still struggle to ski without looking like a fool. Mphoto.

The other side of the stress/rest equation, when discussing how the two are transported between work and leisure, is the crucial role of recreational stress in being able to survive a serious job in a sustainable and coherent fashion.  I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve been asked, in social situations, how I manage to do what I do for work and stay sane.  There is no simple answer, and I’ve seen plenty of folks go off the rez with ugly results, but it is not so different than what most of you are obliged to do.  It seems to me that having a meaningful job means it will be stressful, which in turn means that on regular occasions you’ll wonder why the fuck you aren’t making pizzas/shelving books/something else very different for a/the living.  The same, perhaps identical thing goes for recreation: most of the things which people regularly report as fun in a non-shallow, life-involving way are stressful.  At least occasionally.

For my own part, the only way I can get the professional side of my stress out of head is to be immersed in something else.  Thankfully, I’ve never found that hard to do.  Which is the number one way to stay sane as a social worker: have a life.  If your life is worth living only because of what you do for other people, you will likely sooner than later run out of compelling reasons to get out of bed.

A new category

It is only in the last few years, as a direct result of backpacking, that I’ve been able to go to sleep without reading.  I can’t recall learning to read, just I can’t recall being able to sleep without reading at least a few pages.  It’s a blessing and a curse that my mind does not like to rest.

Sometimes I wish that it would, at least a bit easier.  My job as a social worker is one of interminable and perpetual loose ends; on even the most staid and boring days at the office there is an endless series of deeds to consider and reconsider.  I deal with fragile human lives during some of their most formative months, and staying sane for the long haul requires balancing a humble appraisal of my own capacity to effect change with a careful weighing of the enormous influence I can have in crucial moments.  A while ago a client with whom I’d been working for a very modest amount of time committed a series of probation violations and was sent to juvenile detention, and in due time the justice system ground on as it does inexorably, never responding to the transitory needs of human drama, and my client had her/his day in court.  A later conversation with a probation officer revealed that the 2/3 page letter I had written on request, discussing my knowledge of the situation of exceedingly circumspect recommendation for placement was the material of the trial.  The court was prepared to lean on me, the sole mental health professional involved, and take my modest recommendation whole-heartedly.  I have no regrets regarding that particular instance, but I’ve thought about it on many occasions since.

I’ve also been thinking, for quite some time, of what it would take to be able to write about my work here.  It seems almost disingenuous, writing a blurb about gear after a long day when so many other things are running through my head.  It’s not as simple as doing full justice to the tortured confines of inter and intrasubjective relations in crisis, there are weighty issues of confidentiality involved.  The Flathead Valley is not a big place, and the world of the web so very small in so many ways.  An anonymous blog, as so many health professions write, was one way to go, but I like the diversity of all my thoughts under one roof, and the integrity of having to public own all their many warts.  So I’m going to try and see if discretion on my burden as a professional can be melded with my self-standards as a writer, and most of all with the necessity of doing justice to the lives and spirit of the people with whom I’ve worked over the year.

Like the anecdote above, they’ll have to be general, removed somewhat in time and space, and lacking in common identifiers like gender, and with others like age obfuscated when possible or necessary.  Social justice work is not only one of the major parts of my life, it’s an important part of modern life which almost always goes unnoticed in the shadows.

Apgar Range, Glacier.

One of my professors in grad school, Janet Finn, prefers to call the profession of Jane Addams and Frances Perkins social justice work, correctly in my view imbued it inextricably with cultural, economic, and political over and undertones.  For me today, as a case manager for emotionally disturbed and mentally ill children and adolescents, this most directly means that what can be very generally termed mental illness has a strong cultural and hereditary component.  I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to isolate diagnoses to a mere gene, yet it’s clear that two hypothetical children with vaguely comparable predispositions to anxiety and depression will express those capacities in vastly different ways, and that taken as an exceeding broad and general whole, problematic social, familial, environmental, and parent influences become more prevalent as one goes further down the socioeconomic ladder.

What this often means in the daily practice of my job is designing and implementing treatment based around and dealing with hereditary mental illness and problematic behavior.  Not hereditary in the genetic sense (necessarily), but hereditary in the nurture sense.  A parent whose child is having similar behavior problems to those which they themselves had 25 years earlier (young parents is a topic for another day), because even though they escaped and ran from their own troubled childhoods, and learned to become capable adults against tremendous odds, never learned anything other than the most troubling parenting skills.

So to serve this end, I have the second new category (of posts) in three weeks.  Expect more social justice work in the near future, as I sort out how this might work.