A (small) ethical question

I’m in the midst of a lot of professional training, both for work and for my side hustle (“clinical supervision” doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely “side hustle”). I love continuing education: I love being with other social workers; I love reading case studies; I love doing exercises about theoretical framework. (It turns out I kind of miss being in graduate school). Because clinical social workers are required to have ethics training every two years, a lot of my recent continuing ed programming has involved some ethics credits. We start, always, with the most egregious examples of social work ethical dilemmas: stealing from your workplace (BAD); falsifying documentation (PRETTY BAD); having sex with a client (SO VERY BAD). Those ethical questions have straightforward answers: don’t do that shit. It’s the grayer stuff that I like to turn over. And today I’d like to turn a personal one over with you.

Don’t freak out! I am not involved in any egregiously bad activities! It’s definitely one of the gray ones.

I have a patient I really like: she’s bright and funny and interesting. She has a fascinating career. I’m sure that if we met in a different setting, I would strive to be her friend. But we haven’t met in a different setting; I’m offering her counseling, not friendship. And sometimes I find myself forgetting that.

I write often about use of self and counter-transference but I don’t think I’ve yet touched on this: what happens when we really like our clients? Obviously we like most of them; social workers typically like people. I’m talking about the unique problem of liking a client personally, the way you would like a new friend for instance, and how to manage that.

In my current job, I’ve met almost 300 different patients. Of those, there are maybe 3 that I’ve bent the rules for: seen them for a whole hour instead of the usual 30 minutes, provided a few more personal details than I normally do with my patients. See? Nothing egregious. But definitely gray.

I had a colleague once who told me, when I worked in hospice, that if you get attached to one out of every one hundred patients, you’re ok. Any more than that and you should take a good hard look at your practice. I’ve passed that advice along a dozen times, at least; it makes sense to me. I’m not causing any harm here, to my patients or to myself. I won’t overstep any boundaries: we won’t meet for coffee or see each other outside of this professional setting. But I do want to pause and consider what it means that these people get a little more from me than my other patients get. Being mindful of how much of ourselves we give is one of my favorite ethical questions. Do I give less to the patients that make my skin crawl? Do I give more to the ones that are pleasant and friendly? Do I give too much or too little based on my own feelings? And, ethically speaking, is it ok if there are (small) differences in the care I provide?

The cool and also deeply frustrating thing about ethics is that there are often no clear answers; there are multiple scenarios and variables to walk through. In this case, I lean towards the side of giving myself permission to be a human person who sometimes gives a little less or a little more, depending on the circumstance. Of course I’ll always examine my practice and look closely for signs of trouble. But I also want to allow myself that one in a hundred; it’s part of what makes the work worth doing.

Photo by  Dil  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dil on Unsplash

The gift of the work

I started off my day already over it. Yesterday only one of my five scheduled patients bothered to show up. This day was starting with a patient I had seen a year ago who told me the exact same story she was telling the first time we met. This was followed by another no-show and yet another frequent flyer patient who never wants to do anything to change. Overall, I was ready to leave the building.

My last scheduled appointment was a lady who didn’t really want to see me. Her son had cajoled her into coming and she went along with it because she’s a mother and sometimes we do things we don’t want to do. Granted, this woman’s son is in his 60s but still: you never stop being a mom. And your kids never stop wanting you to be well.

Still. This lady wanted no part of it. And I really couldn’t blame her. She’s depressed because she’s basically just waiting to die. She’s had a lot of loss, more than her fair share, as she says. And for awhile we just sat there staring at each other because she didn’t know what I could do for her. “Nothing’s going to change,” she kept saying. “What’s the point of talking about it?”

I was mentally cursing her son for not hearing his mother clearly say she didn’t want to come when suddenly something did change: she started to talk. We talked about what it means to get older, how much loss there is and how lonely it is. She talked about how even in her depression, she’s content with her life. She talked about the child and husband she’s had to bury and how she’s kept those losses tucked away in a little box that she hides from the outside world because she doesn’t want to disturb them. Then she talked about climbing trees when she was a little girl. She smiled. I did too. She said she’d think about coming back.

The rest of the day shifted in my mind. It’s been a long week and I was feeling useless and out of my depth and frustrated. I could hear myself being impatient with my other patients, wanting to rush them out of the office because I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I know what burnout looks like and I could see myself gliding towards the flames. This lovely lady brought me back, just by opening up a little bit and allowing me to listen.

Now I’m not saying that we should rely on our patients to keep us engaged and upbeat about our work. But I also can’t deny that success with one patient at the right time can make a world of difference. It is, I think, what keeps us in the work: watching people be helped, even just for a moment, and knowing that we are the helpers.

I’m also not denying that I’m nearing a burnout point; it’s time for a vacation, clearly. But I am relieved to know that I haven’t completely checked out. This is another gift of this work: the reminders that come from the grace of others, in letting us bear witness to their pain, even though we don’t have any magic answers. How lucky for me that this lady came along today, to remind me.

Photo by  Leone Venter  on  Unsplash

The wave of grief

My referrals seem to come in waves: one month it will be folks who need help managing their diabetes; the next will be a wave of young patients with anxiety. This is only anecdotal evidence of course, but it was like this in hospice too: you begin to notice some trends. This particular month, it’s grief.

I’m quick to say I lead a blessed life, but it has not been without great losses. My mom died three and a half years ago when I was pregnant with my older daughter. It was a terrible time, of course, but her death was not unexpected. In some ways it was a relief; she suffered for a long time. And since I was pregnant with a very wanted baby, there was a lot of joy intertwined with my devastating loss. When she first died, I still worked in hospice and I found that I was able to use my grief to help patients. Not every day of course, but sometimes the conversation opened the door to self-disclosure and it felt both clinically appropriate and personally beneficial.

More time has made it both easier and harder. Lately, the patients I’m seeing who are struggling with their grief are focused on how much time has passed. “It’s been two years,” one told me, “I should be better.” Should is a useless word, especially when it comes to how we feel. I describe grief to those patients as ocean waves: you can be standing at the shore for a long time and not notice them. Then suddenly one knocks you over without any warning. I know this as a clinician and I know it as a daughter without a mother, but still. Still. My own grief sometimes sits on my chest like a weight, making my breathing a little shallower. There is a pricking feeling behind my eyes that signals tears. In those moments, I am afraid that I won’t be able to hide it. I haven’t lost it yet but recently I have felt very close.

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This is grief, I remind myself. This is a big ocean wave. This is because I had a baby recenty and my 3 year old only knows my mom through pictures and because the holidays just passed and because now that I’m a mother, I understand her so much better but I can’t tell her that and because… Because. This is grief.

The question now is, what will I do with it? I’ve been guarding it like a secret but I know that sunlight is the best disinfectant. So here I am, bringing it into the light: I’m having a hard time. Now I’m going to be mindful and intentional and not let myself be swallowed whole. Self-care is sometimes stepping back and being well. And the occasional afternoon hot chocolate. I learned that one from my mom.

Expanding with creativity

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I’ve struggled to find my voice as a therapist. I’ve tried on some different hats: motivational interviewing, CBT, narrative therapy. Part of the challenge is that my role in this job has been nebulous to say the least: there’s no standardized practice yet so I’m just kind of… on my own. I also see such a variety of patients, I find myself constantly looking things up and reviewing interventions. It’s interesting in that way, but it also adds to the challenge of figuring out which intervention feels right, both for me as a clinician and for my patients. In order to provide the best care, clinicians need to be comfortable with the model we’re using. For a long time, I’ve shied away from being creative in my work because I felt uncomfortable. But the more I grow into this role, the more I see the benefit of some more creative thinking.

Social work lends itself to invention and innovation. There are all kinds of ways to get people to open up to you and for some patients, the outside-the-box stuff works best. I must admit, I’ve been resistant to using creativity in my practice for years. Colleagues of mine in hospice talked about using empty chairs to signify the presence of a departed loved one, or using art or music to help clients express their feelings. The thought of doing those things made me feel deeply awkward. I felt similarly as a grad student whenever we had to role play to practice our clinical skills; it felt silly and inauthentic. That feeling carried over into my work: it would be too uncomfortable for me to ask someone to talk to a chair and pretend their deceased loved one is in it; it would be too awkward for me to explore a piece of music with someone in therapy and ask what kind of emotions it brought up for them. Actually even writing that sentence feels awkward. But why is that? Why should my fear of feeling silly block out a large chunk of practice?

It’s not an overnight change. Little pieces have been creeping in over the past year as I try to figure out how to work with patients who really want solutions. I’m somewhat limited because my role is short-term but there are options. For instance, I sometimes encourage my patients to create a Tree of Life (a narrative therapy tool) so they have a visual expression of their values and goals. It’s an exercise I’ve done myself and I think that’s key: we have to be comfortable with what we’re asking others to do. Most recently I attended a training about psychodrama and sociometry and used one of the exercises (a locogram/floor check) in my supervision group. We all got a chance to move around a little and talk about what skills we have, which we want to develop, and why we’re drawn to/avoid some populations.

I’m excited to stretch in this way. I’ve written in the past about how frustrated I’ve been in transitioning to this job and this is a great way to get unstuck from that. Using my brain in a different way helps me reorient to what I love about this work: every day is a new and different challenge.

Racism, anxiety, and discomfort

This was a difficult subject to tackle; I’ve started and restarted it a few times. It certainly isn’t a deep dive into race relations or cultural competence in therapy. It’s just one experience that I keep turning over in my mind. What follows is the best I can do and I’m afraid it’s still not a perfect evaluation. Still, it is with me and I just have to keep talking about it.

The other day, a doctor gave me a referral for a patient suffering from anxiety and depression. She has a long psych history and mostly needed to be reconnected to care. Simple enough. But when we met and started talking about her increasingly anxious feelings, a lot more came pouring out than I was prepared for.

I want to be respectful of my client’s right to privacy so I’m not going to write the details of what she told me about. The basics are these: she is a young black woman with sons and she struggles with anxiety about how they will be treated in the world. She faces racism daily, in big ways and small. She knows that her sons will face it too, especially as black men. She is afraid to send them on the bus; she is afraid to call the police if she’s been the victim of a crime; she is afraid.

Lots of my clients suffer from anxiety. They tell me about fears they have that keep them up at night, about the pervasive nervousness that is with them all the time. Generally, we focus on utilizing some CBT and a little bit of mindfulness practice. I teach them strategies to examine their thoughts and worries and use their more rational brain. I teach them deep breathing and some basics of mindfulness, telling them that stress can be controlled. But in this case…what can I do when my client’s fears are not irrational? And also, am I the right person to help her?

I’m white. I was raised in an upper-middle class household and I live firmly in the middle class now, with a lot of privilege. There is no way I could totally understand my client’s experiences as a black woman and as a black mother. I validated her feelings, of course; I explored with her how watching the news increases her anxiety, how some people are unaware of or do not believe in the micro aggressions she and her sons experience on a daily basis. But I cannot truly understand those experiences, not at the cellular level that she does. And honestly, I can’t help her examine her fears for irrationality because racism exists.

I referred her to another therapist, because her mental health history demanded a more intensive therapy than I can provide in my current role. But I keep thinking about her. I keep thinking about what it must be like to fear for your children, in a very different way than I fear for mine, because the dangers they face are different than the ones my kids will face. I keep wondering if I could be an effective therapist for her, were my role to provide that kind of long-term therapy. It’s a question I vaguely remember from graduate school about cultural competence and how we work with clients who have cultural differences that we may or may not understand. This woman and I live in the same town; we are both mothers; we are around the same age. And yet, her lived experience is radically different than my own. In short, I can help her but I wonder if the help would lack something essential.

As usual, I end with few answers and more questions. The good news is, I’ll get to see her the next time she visits her primary doctor, so at least I’ll know how she’s doing. I hope she finds the right therapist. And I hope (corny though it may sound) that things keep getting better so her fears become unfounded ones.

 

Photo by Evan Kirby, Unsplash

Every conversation is clinical

My first experience with providing clinical supervision was about a year and a half ago, supervising an advanced-standing graduate student during her internship. The student's MSW program provided 6 sessions of training for new clinical supervisors (free CEUs!). One theme we kept returning to was the complaint from the student that their placement wasn't "clinical enough." I empathized with this; I recall expressing the exact same complaint as a grad student. I hated my first placement deeply, partly because I felt like it wasn't "clinical." (There were other reasons of course but that's a drama for another day). I was inclined then, at this training, to side with the students on this point. Some placements just don't seem to be given to enhancing clinical skills. But my trainors reminded me of a simple and true fact about being a social worker: every conversation you have with a client is a clinical conversation. Every. Single. One.

That was by no means the first time I ever heard someone make that point. But prior to that training, I didn't really believe it. When I was doing case management, for instance, it was easy to forget the clinical piece because so much of my job was about providing concrete resources to people in crisis. I often got caught up in the (sometimes very complicated) surface issues: pending evictions, drug or alcohol relapses, medication compliance. I sometimes forgot that I could utilize my clinical skills during these conversations because I was focused on what I could do right that minute.

I burned out of that job pretty quickly because I felt like all I did was put Band-Aids on broken legs. Now, several more years into my career, with different experiences and more education, I think about that job differently. Knowing what I know now, I think I could have been better at it. This feels especially true as I learn new skills, like motivational interviewing. When I was case managing, stuck in the weeds of constant crisis, I often forgot to use my clinical skills to tease out the underlying issues. Why, for instance, would someone relapse after a year of successful sobriety? Why did this one client, who seemed to have a reasonable income, constantly end up on the brink of eviction? Maybe I asked the client that, but not in a skillful way that elicited a thoughtful conversation. I focused on the resources I could provide and forgot, sometimes, the clinical skills I learned as a student.

It's easy to do that, when we are pressed for time and have limited tangible help we can offer our clients. But we have tools at our disposal that are unique to this profession: we know how to look deeper at what is said and not said in a client meeting. As soon as we start a conversation with a client, we are doing clinical work: assessing body language, physical presentation, affect, what they're saying and what they may actually mean. Don't be fooled by the weeds you sometimes get into: every conversation is clinical because this work is complicated. And your skills are growing every time you interact with someone. 

Happy Social Work Month! Do good work and be proud of it.

The case for cutting someone off

It will possibly surprise people who know me in real life, but when I'm working with a client, I am very good at being silent. It's not that I'm not an innately good listener; it's a skill I've honed over time as a clinician. I've written before about using silence in my work. Sometimes it's the only way to get the client to open up. Most people don't like to sit awkwardly not speaking for a long period of time so they'll start talking just to fill the void. It's a very useful clinical tool. But this blog post is about the opposite and sometimes necessary approach of making people STOP talking.

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I generally work with older patients. Forgive me for generalizing, but sometimes they kind of... ramble. They're often socially isolated and their trip to the doctor is part of their socialization. I'm happy to fill that role a little bit; isolation leads to depression and anxiety, which I'm often helping the patient learn to manage. But sometimes (twice this past Thursday, actually), allowing the patient to just go on and on (and ON) about random topics is a detriment to the therapeutic process. 

There's such a focus on active listening in this profession that I think we sometimes forget that we don't have to let patients go on about nothing for an hour. We don't have to listen politely to some long story about the broken washing machine someone's mother refused to replace five years ago (not kidding, this particular anecdote was like ten minutes long). Especially in my role, where the focus is meant to be 20-30 minute sessions that address strategies for how to cope with a specific issue, it's not a good use of the patient's time. 

But asking clients to stop talking is a tricky proposition. This past Thursday, faced with two different patients who couldn't seem to get to the point, I must admit that I hesitated to cut them off. I often write about the importance of building rapport. How can I build rapport if I cut someone off and say, "Ok but why are you here?" And yet, I need to know! What is the problem? Not the long list of grievances you have against every single member of your family (that took up nearly an entire hour) but the problem you are facing right this minute. Is it insomnia? Depression? Anxiety? We have limited time; let's use it to DO something. 

I think a lot of social work roles are like this. Our time is limited; case loads are high. We are tasked with building trust immediately so we can dive into the main issue and look for solutions. Unless you're doing long-term psychotherapy, there usually isn't time to begin from the beginning.

But how do we do it without putting the patient on the defensive? I vote for being compassionate but also goal-focused. "Wow, it seems like you have a lot going on. What specifically brought you in today?" This typically works. Of course, there are always patients who just aren't redirectable: their anxiety is overwhelming or they're just bad communicators. On Thursday, with one patient who really wandered from topic to topic with barely a breath in between, I finally interrupted her and said, "You seem really scattered today. Let's try focusing on what you want to work on right this minute." She wasn't particularly pleased with my assessment but she did focus: she had a goal in mind and she wanted to start figuring out how to accomplish it. Yes! That's why we're here! 

We should err on the side of active listening and compassionate presence. But we should also not let patients steamroll us with rambling thoughts that lead nowhere. Part of our role is to clarify what people are saying and help them start the steps that lead to meaningful change. Sometimes that means a gentle interruption: let's talk about what we can do today.

Relearning the work

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I keep a postcard at my desk at work that I got at a conference when I was in graduate school. I've had it for years but I haven't had an office in so long, it's most recently been hanging out in our guest room (to inspire my guests, I suppose). It says: "I cannot learn other people's lessons for them. They must do the work themselves, and they will do it when they are ready." I have read it a million times but I don't always retain it. Do you know what I mean? It's similar to that social work joke (yeah, I'm telling it): how many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one but the lightbulb has to want to change. Groan away but the point stands. And whether it's a bad joke or my little postcard, I know this lesson to be true. I know it from personal and professional experience. So why do I sometimes forget it?

Here's a good example. When I was a medical case manager I had a lot of clients who were constantly in crisis, usually financially. Every month we would talk about where their money went and how to budget and I would help them fill out forms to get services. Every month I would say, "you should have enough money if you do x, y, and z." And they would agree. Then we would do it all again the following month.

The thing is, I was doing it wrong. I didn't allow my clients to come up with their own goals; I told them what the goal should be. I'm reading about motivational interviewing right now, which is a strategy that can be really useful in changing behavior. One of the tenets about MI that really speaks to me was that no one wants to fail. No one wants to set an unachievable goal but often that's what we're asking patients to do: we've decided what their goal should be so we've also come up with the solution to acheiving it. It's a theme I sometimes saw in hospice too: for months or years, patients had been told to "fight" their disease. Then suddenly, we told them to accept their death. We didn't give them a choice to change their goal so much as tell them the goal had changed while they were doing something different.

I think most helping professionals like to consider themselves good listeners; I know I pride myself on it. But I'm not sure we always hear what our clients are saying. We walk in with a goal already in mind and that leads our visit. Motivational interviewing encourages the practitioner to help the client name their own goal. It's difficult to want to achieve something you have no stake in. Helping clients name their own goals and helping them see what changes they can make to accomplish those goals makes them stake-holders, not just people who get lectured and then feel guilty when their problems don't go away. 

Now, in this new role, I keep looking at my postcard. Not only can I not do someone else's work for them, I can't tell them what the work should be. I became a social worker because I wanted to help people. It's been a long journey of reminding myself that I can only help people who want to be helped. And even then, I can only do so much. 

Can crying be part of practice?

I'm reading a lovely book about narrative therapy called "Retelling the Stories of Our Lives," by David Denborough. So much of it is surprisingly moving to me: not just the case studies but also how he describes the practice of retelling our stories in order to regain some control over our lives. One particular passage just struck me as I was reading. Dr. Denborough recounted a situation where the client began to sob during a phone call; this display of emotion brought Dr. Denborough to tears. That's all he says about it: his client was overcome with emotion and he was as well. I was both charmed and startled by this anecdote. Charmed because it is the great joy of our work to be deeply moved by our patients; and startled because this is something I think about a lot. Specifically, I often wonder about how much we should share with our clients and when and how we can do it effectively.

Crying with my patients is particularly interesting to me, not least because I just spent the last five years doing hospice work. A supervisor I had in my graduate school internship once told me that it's ok to cry in front of your patients, as long as you aren't crying more than they are. To that end, I'm usually able to maintain a certain amount of distance in emotionally charged visits while also remaining compassionate and open. But once in awhile, someone's story moves me unexpectedly and I feel those little pinpricks behind my eyes that signal the start of tears. Is it ok then if my eyes well up during a visit? Is there a way to be (slightly) tearful and have it be therapeutic for the client? Is there an appropriate amount of tears? Are any tears acceptable?

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This is a tricky question for me. I think that part of what draws people to social work and other helping professions is a certain amount of sensitivity to others. In fact, we need to be sensitive and vulnerable with our patients in order to allow them to be vulnerable with us. However, we also have to protect our clients and ourselves. We cannot cry at every sad story; if that's happening, it's a bright red flag of compassion fatigue. At the same time, we are only human. There will be moments when we feel overwhelmed with emotions. My question is, what do we do at those times?

As with most things, there are lots of variables. Regarding Dr. Denborough's example, there are two indicators that crying was appropriate in this case. First, this was a client he had a fairly long relationship with; therefore he would have been able to judge how his own feelings would impact his client. In this case, I suspect the client felt validated and touched by his therapist's tears. Second, this took place during a phone call. Not being in the same physical place is a good thing here, so that the therapist could be discreet about his reaction if the client was startled or upset by it.

I'm always interested to hear about how other people handle this. When I worked in hospice, my own rule of thumb was to take a deep breath when I felt those pinpricks and examine my reaction later. I suspect the same rule will apply in my new role. But I reserve no judgment for practitioners that allow a little tear here and there. Tell me, is crying ever a part of your practice?

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.

Meet them where they are?

 

I don’t remember if it’s the very first thing you hear in an MSW program, but I do remember hearing it frequently: “meet the client where they are.” I think of it as a chant, said in unison, ad nauseum, because it was said so often. But that’s because it is one of the most important foundations of our work. We cannot force our patients or clients to do what we think they should do; rather, we have to join them where they are, in their addiction, their illness, their family struggle, and help them find a way forward.

The thing is, that can be hard to do sometimes.

The other day I went to a house to do hospice consents. This is a big part of my job: I explain what hospice can provide at home and discuss with the patient and family what their goals of care are and if we can help them meet those goals with hospice. Not everyone I talk to is ready for hospice; some people can’t get over the word itself or there’s one more treatment they want to try. On the flip side, every so often, I enter a home where the patient is already beginning to die. Hospice can help, but it’s a little late in the game. It also adds a layer of complexity to the admission conversation; if I don’t already have a relationship with the family, how can I begin to tell them that their loved one is going to die?

This particular consent signing was one of those late admissions. This patient had been receiving palliative home care and the family was reluctant to start hospice. There were a lot of emails from management about treading lightly, especially because the patient wanted to continue some treatments that were not benefitting her anymore. I walked into the house already a little anxious, feeling the pressure from above to get the paperwork signed by a hesitant family. Then I met the patient and could see very quickly she was nearing the end of her life.

“Meet them where they are” is a fine sentiment. I agree with it whole heartedly. But standing in front of that patient and her husband, talking about hospice at home and continuing medications that were probably not going to help her anymore, I was torn. Someone would have to tell them that she was dying. Not to be cruel or pushy, but because part of our job as hospice workers is to help people prepare for death. And this woman did not have a lot of time left.

But could I be the one to tell them? I had never met this woman before; I’m not a nurse or a doctor. I’ve been doing this for five years and I’m quite confident that I know what dying looks like. But those emails stuck in my mind; this family wasn’t there yet.

And so, I tread lightly. I spoke with the husband about keeping her at home, in a hospital bed, rather than calling 911 when her heart stopped. He agreed to that. I called the nurse and asked her to visit as soon as possible. I made delicate statements like, “it seems like things are changing.” He agreed. When the patient’s son asked me how much time I thought was left, I gently told him I didn’t think it would be long. The look on his face devastated me.

She died a couple of days later, peacefully and at home, after the nurse and another social worker visited to offer the family some support and help them prepare. I think the family was ready, or as ready as anyone ever is. But I keep thinking about them. Should I have been more aggressive? Is there a place in between “meet them where they are” and “tell the hard truth?”

I’m confident that I did my job: I started the conversation that my team members eventually finished. That is, after all, why we work together in a team; these are not one and done conversations. I was still and present; I used silence and held the space so that the family could ask difficult questions. Should I have pushed harder? Said more? When we meet the client where they are, does that mean we shouldn’t push to move them forward?

I suspect the answers to these questions depend on the situation. Still, this is a case that will be on my mind for a while yet. Examining our practice is an important part of our work. I’ll keep turning it over in my mind from time to time, adding it to the other cases I wonder about. What are some of yours?

Counter-transference, a very fancy word

The first time I heard about counter-transference was in college, in my social work practice class. I was immediately intrigued and also nervous; could this happen to me? It seemed like a clearly negative experience at the time. However, many years after my first understanding of counter-transference, I’m beginning to see the importance of it as a clinical tool.

First, a quick definition of the two-dollar word I’m using. Essentially, counter-transference refers to how clinicians react to what patients project on to them during the therapeutic process. It refers to how a clinician’s personal goals and desires can shape her feelings towards a patient (and change the course of the therapeutic intervention). It can also be about what populations a clinician is drawn to or conversely wants to avoid. Fairly straight forward, right?

A word I associate with counter-transference is boundaries. It’s become a weirdly trendy buzz word over the past few years but it’s a real thing! In my job, where I’m generally walking into people’s homes, boundaries can be tough to define. Being in the home setting is less sterile than the office setting and definitely less structured. When I’m sitting at someone’s kitchen table or in their bedroom, a certain intimacy grows. It can be harder to maintain firm boundaries in these situations. Patients and families want to offer me coffee or food; they want to know about me since I’m with them at such an intimate time in their lives.

And part of what I want to do in this role is form intimate connections with people at their bedside so that the conversation can open up beyond the superficial and into difficult discussions about goals of care and illness and death. As a result, I sometimes become aware of this experience of counter-transference: strong emotions elicited during a visit that can be a detriment to my practice. However, those feelings can also elicit some good work for me as well as within the bounds of the therapeutic relationship. Further, it’s always wonderful when clinicians are able to acknowledge their limitations as well as their strengths in practice. I think recognizing the counter-transference we experience in our practice, or the blurring of boundaries, or just the discomfort sometimes of being with someone who is dying, can aid us in enhancing our clinical skills.

What I’m getting at here is that we can use counter-transference in our practice. We are, after all, only human. There have been times when I have been in a visit and felt a rush of anger so hot and charged that I’ve had to take a deep breath and clench my toes to keep from screaming. That’s a scary feeling for a social worker. But instead of pushing it down and forgetting it, I try to examine it. If I’m feeling so angry, what is the patient feeling? The family? Likewise, I’ve found myself feeling so friendly with a patient (someone near my age, to be fair) that I kind of forget my clinical role. That needs to be examined closely too. it’s dangerous when the boundaries blur too much.

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This is where good supervision is necessary. The supervision relationship helps us to look at our practice with a clinical eye. Sometimes we may not realize how counter-transference is affecting us. It takes a supervisor to reflect back what we’re saying and feeling. To do that effectively though, the supervision relationship needs to have the same kind of vulnerability as the clinical relationship.

I have a lot more to say on this subject but I’ll leave it here for now. Visit me in the next few weeks for some more posts about counter-transference with young patients, enhancing clinical skills, and growing the supervision relationship. As always, thank you for reading. Please leave some feedback! I’d love to write about something of interest or importance to you.

 

Use of Self

I am kind of an over sharer. I have a tendency to spill out my life story when someone asks me a fairly benign question. For instance, a question about what brought me back to Philadelphia after going to school out of state sends me into a long, complicated tale with details about a protracted break up and a deep sense of homesickness (in case you were interested). I will tell almost anyone almost anything. My co-workers know far more details about my personal life than I think they want to, but that's just the way I am. 

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With my patients though, I often wonder how much to divulge. I want to recognize and respect that I'm meeting people in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, in their intimate spaces, and asking them deeply personal questions. It's only natural that the boundaries between us are a little blurrier than they would be in an office setting. I don't mind answering a few personal questions: am I married, do I have children? I ask these of my patients; they're fairly benign. What gives me pause is when people hit a nerve they don't realize they're hitting. 

Now I have to give you a little more information--I'll try not to overdo it but it's important to this particular post. My mom died on hospice two years ago. She was comfortable and we had an enormous amount of support from the staff and from our friends and family. All that being said, I am still grieving and maybe will be for the rest of my life. 

I'm sure it's clear to you how this effects my clinical work, in this particular field. I frequently meet families that struggle with making end of life decisions. They hesitate to give medication or sign a do-not-resuscitate order or choose hospice at all. I have been asked sometimes, "What would you do, if it was your mom?" That's the nerve they (unknowingly) hit.

This is where I struggle with use of self. I have to ask myself, in the brief moment I can pause before it becomes too pregnant a pause, what am I willing to divulge? What will be therapeutic? What does this family need to hear? Sometimes I simply say, "If it was my mom, I would want her to be comfortable." Only recently have I been able to say, "I have been through this and I know it is incredibly difficult." And you know what? I don't know if that's the right thing to say. That's the thing about use of self, or about any part of therapy: one size does not fit all. There are so many variables.

This work has a science to it, of course. We use evidence-based theories to help people. But there is also a true use of instinct and intuition. We would not have become social workers if we weren't sensitive to other people's moods and body language. And so, when faced with this question that tugs at my heart in a very profound way, I must rely not only on my training about use of self and the therapeutic benefit, but also what my gut tells me. Sometimes it's wrong. Sometimes people's compassion for me derails the conversation and it's hard to get it back on track. But sometimes they are able to see the bridge I've laid out in front of them and thank me; they can trust what I'm telling them.

As always, I end this with no real answers. (Notice a theme here?) But I do believe it's an interesting question: how much do we divulge? How sharp should our boundaries be? What is self-serving and what is client-centered? Food for thought. Or, better yet, tell me your answers! I love to hear your feedback and look forward to it. Until next time, let's keep talking. 

How much time is left?/Questions I don't want to answer

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Several times a week, a patient or family member asks me this question that immediately stresses me out: “How much time do you think is left?”

The short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer is still I don’t know but I can add some variables. There are signs that tell us the body is shutting down: changes in breathing, mottling of the hands and feet, a fever, etc. But there’s no exact science to determine how long the dying process can go on. I tell people that I’m wrong as often as I’m right. Still, people want to know.

Usually I answer that question with a question of my own: what would you do differently if you knew how much time was left? Generally, the answer is nothing. Occasionally there are some practical concerns (taking time off work, for instance). But on the whole, this is a question borne of anxiety: what should I say? What should I be doing? There are no magic answers to these questions.

That being said, I did read once that there are only four things you need to say when someone is dying: I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you, and thank you. Sometimes I tell my families this. I remind them that even if their loved one isn’t answering, they can hear; hearing is the last sense to leave us. But mostly, when faced with this question, I reinforce that everyone is doing everything right, and how much time doesn’t really matter.

This makes me think about all the questions we get asked as social workers that we really don’t want to answer or that we simply can’t answer. Early on in my practice, I was not great at fielding these questions. I so wanted to have an answer to everything that I sometimes forgot to pause and consider my words before I spoke. Sometimes I would answer before I really knew what I was saying because I was so anxious to fill the silence, to reassure the patient or the family, to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. I quickly learned the power and importance of taking a breath before speaking. Sometimes this makes family members nervous and they say, “You can say it, it’s ok, what are you thinking?” Then I have to explain that I’m not trying to hide anything, I just want to give them a thoughtful answer.

I hate not being an expert at something. It’s a flaw of mine. But one thing this job has taught me is that you don’t need an answer to every question. I often consider why I chose this work. Ultimately, I became a social worker to fix problems. But that’s not my role. My role is to guide people on the path and point out the landmarks along the way. I don’t have to have all the answers. Which is a relief, because some questions, like how much time is left, aren’t answerable. Once I got comfortable with that, I stopped trying to be the most knowledgeable person in the room and worked on being the calmest. What our patients and clients really need is someone to be still and hear them. Which honestly, may be what we all need: not an answer, but someone to sit with us and witness and tell us that we are doing the right thing.