Work

Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it
Buddha

Work has always been very complicated for me. My identity is hugely wrapped up in my work and I can be very passionate about it. I give my heart and soul to most things that I do. I am always incredibly enthusiastic at the beginning, working hard and having incredibly high and unsustainable expectations of myself. So when the shine wears off and I can’t sustain the level of energy I started with I move on. So I am in a position where I have lots of skills and knowledge in a number of different areas but I’ve never become particularly experienced in any one thing. I am a bit of a magpie, I collect all sorts of skills, training and qualification. I also feel like a bit of a fraud, most of the time.

So a brief history from age 15 until now; Waitress, yoghurt maker, BSc psychology and neuroscience, bar staff, tutor, residential key worker for children with epilepsy, call centre worker, family support worker, Pgdip Social work, child protection social worker, pasty cooker, parent family worker, dinner lady, infant mental health worker, adoption support social worker, childminder, Pgdip Early years teaching, CAMHS mental health practitioner and I am currently childminding again.

I’m good at interviews and very good at spinning this into a lot of really good experience. But the reality is that the longest I have spent with one employer was between the ages of 15 and 18 at my local pub. This used to be ok but I’m 37 now so it’s not working so brilliantly any more. Some of the changes are for entirely legitimate and acceptable reasons like study, having children and career progression. But some of these jobs have come to an end due to my mental health. The truth is that two of these jobs in particular have significantly hurt me.

Being a child protection social worker broke me in ways that has taken years to repair. Looking back, I can see that I was already unwell. I often found it difficult to function, staying in bed all day. I was struggling with friendships and felt very lonely and isolated (not that anyone would have known). I felt completely out of my depth a lot of the time and I was certainly experiencing some worrying symptoms like depersonalisation (feeling detached from ones life or like an observer to your own life). Of course, I had been hiding/ignoring some of these things for years so I genuinely didn’t know what was happening. But after an unacceptably stressful time at work where the expectations were too high and there was no support, I crashed.

More recently I was working in a CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health) team. I was so excited about this role. I was feeling strong, ready to return to work outside of home and really hopeful and enthusiastic that I might have found my niche. Working in a mental health service should be good right – I could be honest about my mental health and I would be supported. And yes that did happen…but I also felt overwhelmed; I started to have panic attacks (a new symptom) and I started to shut down again. It felt like this happened very quickly but reflecting back on it I was probably struggling for months.

In order to cope with the stress, pressure and emotional nature of working with mentally unwell children, I had to shut down all of my emotional responses. It’s not possible to selectively feel emotions, so by trying to stop myself feeling the bad ones, I also lost my joy. And I crashed.

Of course, depression is very good at making you believe that everything is your fault. That you can’t manage, that you aren’t strong enough, that you aren’t good enough. That’s what I believed. That it was my fault for not managing my stress better, for not being resilient enough. The sense of failure was enormous. With social work, it took several years before I could really let go of that failure and see it for what it was. With CAMHS I have bounced back much quicker although that is still a work in progress.

Both of these jobs are impossible. The system in which social workers and mental health workers is broken, the pressures and demands are ridiculous and the stakes are too high. As a social worker I would go to work in the morning and not relax until I was sure that none of the children on my caseload had been killed. In CAMHS it was similar except I was hoping that no one had died by suicide. After that initial phew, it would then be on with the day of too many children to see, too much paperwork to do and always having to leave things undone. And then going home knowing that you had not given the children what they need or deserve. I didn’t fail, I protected myself. By leaving these jobs I have made a choice to prioritise my own life and health and that of my family, which is hardly a failure.

The irony is that the qualities that make me really good at these kinds of jobs are exactly the sorts of things that make them impossible. I care, (too much I was once told). I build excellent relationships that children and young people and their families value but then don’t have the time to sustain them. I am a deep and creative thinker but never have time to think. My depression means that although I may have more time off than some, I work damn hard the rest of the time.

So what I am left with is anger. Anger at the system that fails children but also fails me. I have such a lot of offer but as yet I haven’t found a way to give it without it hurting me too.

So for now I am happy being a childminder. I get to spend time with some wonderful children, including my own. I get to provide a service to my friends helping them to do their work without worrying about their children. I get to go to sleep at night knowing I’ve done a good job and I get to wake up and not have to worry about what the day might bring.

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