Boundaries

I think (and write) a lot about boundary setting in my work. It was a thornier issue for me when I worked in hospice; being in people’s homes makes the lines all the more blurry and the boundaries rather flexible, in my experience. Now that I’m in a doctor’s office, it’s easier to draw some firmer lines. No one is offering me food, for instance. I’m not sitting on the edge of someone’s bed. I visit with patients in empty exam rooms; there aren’t any pictures of my family or any personal artifacts. Still, the balance of building rapport while keeping firm boundaries remains.

Take, for instance, a regular patient of mine. We’ve seen each other off and on since I started this job a year ago. We’re actually nearing the termination process now, much to his chagrin. He’s a nice guy; I like him a lot. But lately he’s been a little more familiar with me and I’m struggling with whether or not to push back.

Familiar feels like an odd word to use here but it’s sort of the only way to describe it. He’s not outwardly inappropriate; there’s nothing he’s said or done that I could point to and tell him to knock it off. It’s been an insidious little bit of boundary pushing. It started with an increase in cursing during our sessions. (Which honestly, if you’ve spoken to me for more than five minutes, you know that I have a foul mouth. I come by it honestly: my mother swore like a sailor). The words don’t bother me per se; it’s more that he used to watch what he said. My patients often apologize for swearing during a session, to which I answer that I’ve heard all the words before. I even allow myself the occasional “this is shitty” or something to that effect, if the relationship is there. But this patient’s frequent use of heavy curse words feels more boundary pushing than before.

Maybe I wouldn’t even have noticed except that the swearing comes along with a little more… flirting, for lack of a better word. Again, nothing so outrageous that I could give a firm, “not appropriate, knock it off.” More a subtle change in his tone of voice, a casual remark here or there. I have a feeling my female friends know exactly what I’m describing. If I mentioned it to him, he’d surely say he didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s subtle and honestly, I’m not totally sure he realizes he’s doing it. Which is partly why I’m struggling with what to do about it.

I should state here that I don’t feel unsafe; that’s a different topic for a different day. My discomfort is more about how I’m reacting to his boundary pushing. I’ve found myself coming back with a little attitude. For instance, he asked why I won’t be at work on a particular day (we were scheduling an appointment) and I jokingly replied, “None of your business.” We have a good rapport, so he laughed and said he was only kidding. It was a deeply awkward moment though. It’s the kind of response I’d give to a guy in a bar, not to a patient. But because I kind of let the boundaries blur, I let things get away from me.

That being said, this is not unsalvageable. And it’s possible that some of the over familiarity on his part is because we’re terminating our relationship soon and he has some feelings about that. Whether we’re going to address them the next time we meet really depends on how the session goes. I can consider different reactions to different things but I cannot predict the future (sadly) so I’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

In the meantime, I’m considering how I relate to my patients and if I need to take a more clinical approach. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here; it’s a case by case approach. I think what’s really needed is a little more self reflection and maybe a little pulling back. I guess we’ll see how hard he pushes and therefore, how hard I’ll have to pull.

Ah, clinical social work: where every interaction is deeply weighted! I guess it’s part of the charm of the work. Right??

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On to the next

Today is my last day as a hospice social worker. I have done this work for more than five years. In those five years I have gotten married, bought a house, struggled with infertility, lost my mom, had a baby, and suffered a miscarriage.  Throughout experiencing all those joys and losses, I have had a team at work that has supported me like a member of their family. They threw me a baby shower; they came to my mom’s funeral; they arrived with food when I had a newborn and barely knew what time it was. They have listened (and listened and listened) as I have talked (and talked and talked) through my joy and my grief, all the while helping me to see how I could continue to do this work.

This heavy and rewarding work. What is there to say about it that will capture the complexity of the last five years? It’s hard, of course, but also more full of joy than I imagined when I started. I have been so blessed by this experience, by the opportunity to meet people facing the unknown and help to bring them a little peace. I have also been frustrated, tearful, anxious, troubled, and stressed out. I have been lucky that those feelings have been balanced by gratitude; by the kindness I have been privileged to witness; by the team I have worked alongside; and by the families I have been privileged to follow. When the balance between gratitude and stress started to tip too far in the wrong direction, I knew it was time to move forward.

I’ll continue writing and reflecting on my experiences in my new role as a behavioral health consultant. I hope you’ll continue reading. This blog has become part of my self-care routine in a way I did not expect and your comments and kindness keep me moving. Thank you, dear reader, for joining me. On to the next!

Termination

One of my first social work classes was an undergraduate course. It was a basic overview of the field really, some practice theories, a brief history, etc. I recall that my professor started the course by talking about termination. He told us that termination should start at your very first meeting with a client. It was not the last time I heard this point, of course. Termination is the goal for social workers; the therapeutic relationship has an end date. Sometimes it's because of the barriers of the agency; sometimes it's because the treatment goal has been met; and sometimes, as for me right now, it's because the social worker is changing jobs.

I'm not great at terminating. I also haven't typically had to do it for five years. In hospice, our patients die and bereavement takes over to help the families through their first year after a loss. I make condolence calls but it's understood from my first visit with a patient and family that I won't be there forever.

Now I'm leaving hospice to start a job as a therapist in a doctor's office, where termination will be a much more regular experience. I'm excited to change jobs and nervous and anxious and all the rest. But I'm also really struggling with terminating my current patient relationships.

Photo by  Giulia Bertelli  on  Unsplash

There are two issues for me here. One, quite frankly, is that some of my patients are near death. It doesn't seem right to tell them I'm leaving after next week if they probably are too. However, I have no crystal ball (see previous blog posts) and I could be wrong in my assessment. Then I've done them a disservice by suddenly saying, "Ok, this is our last visit, see ya!" Proper termination allows for some time. That's why the golden rule is to talk about it at your first visit, as well as throughout the therapeutic relationship. I'm not sure how to handle this thorny time issue; I'm kind of just going with my gut.

The other issue at hand is my own discomfort at letting people down. I've worked hard to build relationships with these patients and their families. And now I'm going to unceremoniously end these relationships just because I want a new job. I'm struggling with the idea that I'm being selfish, even though I know that's a silly thought. Still, it's a thought I'm having. I'm going to meet myself where I am about it.

So what do I do? I've been telling patients in person, when I can, straight forwardly and with kindness, I think. I've accepted congratulations and shouldered comments like, "I'm heartbroken!" I've assured them that they will have a social worker, it just won't be me. Honestly, most of them aren't that worried about it. As with most things, my anxiety about their reaction far outweighs their actual reaction. Still, I have to keep saying the words over and over again and it's really weighing on me. That's my last point about termination: it's hard on the social worker too. We are, as I am constantly reminding myself, only human. I feel attached to some of my patients. It's hard for me to say goodbye.

But here I am. I hope my next blog post about termination is about how I figured out the secret formula to doing it right. I suspect I have a ways to go before that one. For now, I'm going to do it the best way I can.

Doorknob Communications

In our last supervision, my student told me one of her patients surprised her with a “doorknob communication.” It was their last visit and the patient chose that moment to confess some secrets she had been holding in from everyone. My student was startled but also proud, I think, to bear witness to the darkness this woman had been keeping inside. We talked about termination and what it can mean for a client. Another social worker is going to replace my student in this case so we talked about how to communicate everything to the new social worker while also respecting how difficult it was for the patient to divulge.

Photo by  Nick Tiemeyer  on  Unsplash

Photo by Nick Tiemeyer on Unsplash

The phrase doorknob communication was new to me; I understood what she meant from context but I had never heard the phrase before. Because I kept thinking about it long after our supervision was over, I went immediately to Google for answers. (How anyone did social work before the internet is an ongoing mystery to me. I’m told there were rolodexes and calls from pay phones). According to the good old search engine, it’s just what it sounds like: a client sometimes reveals a huge piece of information to the clinician while they are leaving a final session, with their hand on the proverbial or literal doorknob.

So why do clients do this? There is a safety, I think, in knowing that you won’t be seeing your therapist again. There’s little risk involved in laying out your deepest secrets while you’re walking out the door. The therapeutic relationship can build a deep trust but still, we all keep some parts of ourselves hidden. I think sometimes it’s simply too hard to divulge everything, even in a long-standing relationship. Dropping bombshells while walking out the door must feel liberating in a way: here, hold this; we don’t have to talk about it again.

I wonder more about what we as clinicians do when we are faced with the doorknob communication or, perhaps more aptly, confession. Termination is supposed to feel like a nice, neat bow on the end of a therapeutic relationship: we’ve reached our goal together and the client should feel better somehow. Does it feel like a failure if someone has a sort of breakthrough on the way out? Should we look back on our practice and try to figure out if we could have elicited it sooner? Should we not terminate after all?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. For what it’s worth (and if she’s reading) I don’t think my student failed this patient at all. I think she opened the door for this woman to release some deep sadness that she was carrying with her. And the patient couldn’t do that until their very last minute together. Those last minutes are a theme in my work in hospice. They carry a lot of meaning for the survivors and for the dying as well. That patient gave my student something precious to hold; in that way, this doorknob communication, confession, whatever you call it, was a gift.

What are your thoughts? Better yet, what doorknob confessions are you holding on to?