Waitlisted

Just try getting a shrink in New York.

You’d better be suicidal if you don’t want to wait for months.

I don’t mean vague-plan-and-means suicidal – that won’t cut it. I know. I’m vague-plan-and-means suicidal and I’ve been waiting for a month and a half for my first appointment at a large, well-known clinic that serves New Yorkers with and without insurance.

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No, you need intent. You need to want to die. I know because whenever I call the intern who’s handling my case at the clinic to plead for an appointment he asks me about intent. At the time of the call I don’t want to die, so I say no. So he tells me I’ll have to wait, because it’s a walk-in clinic and there needs to be room for everyone. There are mornings, though, when I wake up hours after I meant to and my life feels outside of my control, when I look at my pill bottles and…

So a word to the wise: if you need help ham it up. Come in off the street with pills in your belly or self-inflicted cuts on your arms. Tear your clothes and shave your head. Make all the gestures, give all the cries for help I don’t give for fear of scaring the people who care about me.

Ham it up. And when you get help, tell me what it’s like.

The Weed Truck, Part II

This is the second installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month. Everything happened as described. Names have been changed. Nobody’s innocent.

Click here to read The Weed Truck, Part I

Panic comes flooding up my throat. It tasted like stomach acid.

“Chris Chris Chris Chris Chris,” I say.

Chris, my supervisor, strolls over. A bit older than me at 32 and fashionably dressed, he tries to keep his people calm and productive. He’s white, like I am.

“What’s the deal?” he says laconically.

I show him the note: “New CPS case re: Ms Tambora. Charges prostitution / drug use.”

“That’s not good,” he says. “Is it true?”

“It’s bullshit,” I say.

“Who’s the worker?”

I log into the computerized system that logs families’ Child Protective Services involvement – a catalogue of failure and suspicion. I navigate to Ms. Tambora’s new case.

“Patricia Black,” I say.

“I don’t know her,” Chris says.

The panic in my throat has receded somewhat, met in my throat by a generalized sadness, a despair mixed with acceptance that this is my life.

“Guess you’re about to,” I say.

* * * * * * * * *

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I take three deep breaths before dialing the phone.
The deep breaths never work.

Ring. Ring. “What.”

“Um hello, Ms. Black. This is [—] with [—]. I’m Ms. Tambora’s preventive worker.”

I don’t know why I’m so nervous. The panic is back.

“Oh yes, the prostitute.”

“Well, about that. She’s actually a very good mother. I don’t think – -”

“Do you need something?”

“I thought it would help if I joined you when you make a home visit to the family.”

“Fine. 3 o’ clock today.”

“Great. I’ll let Ms. Tambora know to expect us.”

“Please don’t. I like to catch families when they don’t expect me. I don’t want her having time to hide anything.”

“Fine.”

“3 o’clock. I’ll be wearing black.”

“Really?”

“Really what?”

“Nothing. See you at 3.”

I hang up the phone. The panic is gone again. This time it’s anger that’s pushing it down. A righteous, durable anger.

My next call is to Ms. Tambora.

* * * * * * * * *

I show up 30 minutes early to prepare Ms. Tambora, but when I knock on the door Ms. Black is already there. “Bitch,” I think. She’s standing above Ms. Tambora, who’s sitting at her kitchen table. A framed picture of her daughter is on a curio shelf behind her; as always, she’s clutching her daughter on her lap.

Ms. Black is younger than I expected – about my age, late twenties – white and, as she said, dressed entirely in black. I wonder if she was aware of the symbolism when she got dressed this morning – a woman in black, here to take your children.

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I try to remember the last time I thought of Child Protective Services as people who help.

Ms. Black doesn’t acknowledge me. She’s giving Ms. Tambora a release form. Like me, Child Protective Services workers need written permission from a caregiver before talking to a child’s provider. A strange facade of respect, I think – how odd what we choose to care about.

“Sign this so I can talk to Helena’s doctor,” she says.

“Ms. Tambora, is the doctor’s name filled in?” I ask.

She hesitates, looking at Ms. Black, then at me. “No.”

“Then signing that form would let her talk to anybody.”

Ms. Black bends down and scribbles on the form. “I was going to fill in the doctor’s name later, but whatever makes you happy,” she says.

Ms. Tambora signs the form.

* * * * * * * * *

Ms. Black is finally getting ready to leave.

“Can you tell me anything else about this family?” she says.

“Just that they seem to me like a great family. I’ve never seen a sign of drug use, prostitution or anything else.”

“Will Helena’s doctor tell me anything is wrong?”

“I haven’t spoken with her doctor yet.”

Ms. Black wags her finger. “It’s your job to communicate with the child’s providers, Mr. [—]. When Child Protective Services contracts a family out to your agency that’s one of our expectations.”

“Right, sorry. I’ve left the doctor messages.”

“Very well. The next step for Ms. Tambora will be to take a drug test. I’ll arrange that. See that she takes it.”

“She’ll take it.”

“Very well. Good bye.”

She says good bye to me, of course – not to Ms. Tambora. Then she leaves.

Ms. Tambora is still clutching Helena, tighter than ever. She looks terrified.

“I can’t take the drug test,” she whispers, even though we’re alone.

“Why not?”

“I’ve been going to the weed truck.”

To be continued

The Weed Truck, Part I

This is the first installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month.

Ms. Tambora had had enough – of me, of the system. But I didn’t know it yet.

I don’t think she knew it either.

Ms. Tambora isn’t polite – she and her partner, Mr. Greene, are obsequious. When she answers the door, 18-month-old baby in her arms, she looks like an abused child that doesn’t know if she’s in for a hug or a beating. Sweet, kind, mild Ms. Tambora.

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Despite her demeanor I don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of her. I’m here to help.

I’m a preventive worker. I occupy a gray area between child protective services and traditional therapists. CPS contracts with my agency to provide services to families that have been reported for child abuse or neglect but who have been allowed to keep their kids. In theory, my services are accepted voluntarily. In practice, it’s often a choice between working with me or losing your children.

She lets me in, as always, with a nervous smile on her face. “Good morning, Ms. Tambora!” I say cheerily. “How are you?”

Ms. Tambora pauses for a moment, thinking. “I’m good,” she finally says.

In theory my services are voluntary. In practice it’s often a choice beween working with me or losing your child.

Today we’re talking about a domestic violence program Ms. Tambora is trying to sign up for. As we’re talking I notice she seems uncomfortable.

“You look worried.”

“I’m worried they’re going to take Helena,” she says, holding up her daughter, whom she’s clutched in her arms since I arrived.

“They’re not going to take Helena. You’re too good a mother.”

“But they took Joseph.”

I still don’t understand how Ms. Tambora lost custody of her older son, Joseph, who’s now 8. Ms. Tambora doesn’t understand it either. She only knows that a child protective services worker and two cops showed up at her door one day and “made me sign something.” The worker picked Joseph up and left. The cops blocked Ms. Tambora when she tried to follow.

Later she learned that Joseph’s father had accused her of drug use and prostitution.

The father now has custody of the child.

I know from previous visits to be careful around this topic because, five years later, discussing it still makes Ms. Tambora tearful. I like to think of myself as a traveling therapist, but honestly, I just don’t have the energy today.

“We really should figure out how to get you into this program,” I say, holding up a pile of intake documents for the the domestic violence program. “If they accept you we’ll continue this discussion, OK?”

Ms. Tambora dries her eyes with a tissue. “OK,” she says.

We finish the application and I feel satisfied when I leave. Ms. Tambora has a real shot at getting into this program, which provides domestic violence counseling, rent subsidies, legal assistance and more. They receive so many applications they basically draw winning names out of a hat.

I get to the office and I mail the application. I flirt a bit with a coworker I’d never see outside of work. I’m humming a bit when I sit down at my desk.

There’s a sticky note with a message in the receptionist’s handwriting.

“Oh Christ no.”

Ms. Tambora had been reported to child protective services for drug use and prostitution.

Blood

My bosses were oddly sympathetic – they didn’t just want to know why I kept coming in late for work but why I was having so much trouble sleeping at night. I didn’t know, so I just looked at the floor, feeling my cheeks flush.

Which is why I’m on medical leave now. Timetable? “Open-ended.”

This time I ask the question, and once again a room falls silent. After a moment the guy leading the support group leans towards me and says, softly, “You know, a lot of us have nightmares.”

Something connects inside me. Nightmares. Goddamn right.

Like when I woke up that morning to a guy climbing into my bed, getting ready to punch me. I sat up and in a moment he was gone, taking the fear with him.

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Courtesy of Matthew Hall, The Noun Project

Some nightmares are imaginary and some nightmares are real.

A year earlier I was a social worker in the Bronx. I’m in the lobby of an apartment building waiting to meet with a family I work with. A teenage girl comes in, then a guy. The guy corners the girl. She tells the guy to leave her alone. “It sounds like you’d better go,” I say. “Mind your fucking business,” the guy says. I’m between them. The guy has his fist cocked back but all I see in his eyes is fear. “Move or I’ll punch you.”

I make him to be about 16.

I’m on the floor. Blood is pouring out of a busted lip. There’s something so wrong about the feeling of a busted lip.

I must have blacked out. My head hurt. The girl was still there. The guy was gone.

These are the things I remember, usually at night. Fear is such a funny thing. The memories come at night, the fear comes in the day.

I remember a teenage girl on a bench near a park in the Bronx, two other teenagers above her, raining down on her with their fists. There’s so much blood. You can’t pull the two girls off, they’re like magnets, but they run when a cop shows up. The cop just shrugs when I offer to give a statement so I leave; I’m late to see a family.

I remember a cop talking about how the neighborhood used to be when white people lived there; he’s nostalgic. I’m thinking, you racist bastard.

I remember a guy hitting a cop with a two-by-four, two blocks from my office.

A funny thing. Sometimes you’re afraid when you shouldn’t be and sometimes you’re not afraid when you should be.

I remember standing outside my office smoking a cigarette when my phone rings. It’s my boss calling from inside the office – “Get inside. Now.” I’m pissed about her tone until I realize someone got shot right across the street, at the dollar slice pizza parlor where I eat most days. We can’t see the body through the office windows, just blood pooling from behind the bus shelter that obscures our view. The police and paramedics take a long time to arrive. When they load him into an ambulance we realize the guy isn’t dead because they have to push him into the stretcher; and he yells, “Matelo.” “Kill him,” a coworker translates. The police don’t react; they stay in a tight-knit circle, talking to each other. A Hispanic guy comes out of the pizza place and uses a hose to wash away the blood. The guy who was barking out prices for stockings returns to his stool by the fire hydrant. A minute later the street is full again. A year later I’m still numb.

I often miss that job – even the bad parts. The late nights. The shelters and the projects. The stories of abuse. The bruises on a kid’s arm. I especially miss the bad parts because I could do something about them; or failing that, I could at least bear witness.

But I don’t miss the blood. I never want to see blood again.

When I started the job kids would tell me about blood – classmates’, strangers’, parents’, their own. The blood was often their excuse for misbehaving. I didn’t always believe them – it was my job to be skeptical. That was before I knew about blood.

That was before I got off elevators carefully, checking sight lines to make sure no one was waiting for me.

Before I started wondering, every time I met someone, whether I could hurt them or they could hurt me.

Before this anger that has no name.

They say the Bronx is getting more violent – more violence, more killings, more blood. It hardly matters. You only need to see blood once for it to get in you, change you. Make your future open-ended.

Trust me on this.

I see it in my dreams.

Update: I’ve given up on finding a common language

Update: April 2, 2016

I no longer stand by the below entry. Soft, euphemistic terms like “trans critical feminism” whitewash the hatred I’ve seen Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) use. Also, I’ve asked several people who fit that title what term they prefer without getting a response – it seems they would rather complain about being “slurred” as TERFs than collaborate on finding a more helpful, mutually-understood language. Most importantly, from what I’ve seen, they’re not critical – they’re hateful. I can’t parlay with people preaching hate.

I’ll revisit this position if I encounter a radical feminist who a). is open to a conversation about language and b). can articulate a reason for being “critical” of transgender people that still recognizes their rights, humanity and decency.

Original Post

In previous posts I’ve used the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) despite being fully aware the people this term describes consider it a slur. I did this because I didn’t know what the alternative is. (A “TERF” might say she’s a “radical feminist,” however, there are radical feminists who embrace transgender people.) Still, I’ve been feeling badly about this, especially since I complain about these feminists misgendering transgender people.

I know some transgender people and trans allies wouldn’t see this as a problem. They might even accuse me of letting these feminists off the hook, not calling a spade. I understand that, but I also want this type of feminist to read my posts and engage with them without being turned off by the first paragraph. Truthfully, I question why this type of feminist objects to being called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – it seems perfectly descriptive of their views. I think nasty things they’ve done – arguing against health coverage for transgender people, etc – might be a factor here. On the other hand, any term can become “tainted” (it was once perfectly acceptable to call a black person “negro,” but that word become more offensive the more racists used it); if a person feels others keep screening “TERF!” at them derisively it’s understandable they’d grow to hate it.

Unfortunately, this means that, for my purposes, I need to invent a new term for these feminists. I’m not so egotistical that I expect it to catch on (certainly not with the people it describes), but I do need it for my own usage.

So the term: I actually considered “Feminist Against Transgender Inclusion” – but calling people FATIs is probably not conducive to productive debate.

For now let me go with Transgender Critical Feminist (TCF). If you object to this or know a better term (that isn’t “radical feminist,” see above) please let me know. I know TCFs might object to being labeled by a man; again, though, this is the best I can do and I don’t expect you to take the term on for yourself.

I might occasionally use “TERF” in headlines, tweets about posts, etc -situations where I want to reach people who wouldn’t know what TCF means. This is partially so that TCFs themselves know the piece involves them. I ask TCFs to indulge me.

I’ll continue to use terms like “cis” and gender transgender people appropriately (e.g. calling a MTF “her”) because that’s a matter of social justice for me; using different terms would feel like ceding and throwing the trans community under the bus.

This is who I am

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. I’ve been focused on my social media accounts, living and dying with my retweets and follower counts as if they mean something important.

I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs. If that resonates with you, welcome.

Like everyone new to social media and blogging, I’ve struggled to find my voice. I’ve labored over long, exhaustively researched articles only to realize you prefer personal, emotional essays. Doesn’t matter; I’ll keep writing both. I’ve written as if I’m an individual person or a company or a nonprofit, aping social media accounts I admire. At the end of the day, I’ve realized I can only be myself.

So let me tell you who I am.

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Image by Wilson Joseph, The Noun Project

I’m a social worker – at least I usually am. My bosses have “suggested” I take medical leave, which I’m doing now.

Would you read a SocialWorked newsletter? If enough people sign up I’ll start writing. Click here to join the SocialWorked mailing list. I promise not to share your information.

They noticed I have severe depression (and anxiety), which impacts my work. For the better and worse. This blog is for writing about that.

I’m a guy writing from my apartment, which I find impossible to keep clean. I love my two dogs. I don’t get out enough.

I believe mental illness can be destigmatized, that it’s possible to start a national conversation about emotional wellbeing focused on everybody achieving wellness, and after believing that I usually masturbate and take a nap.

I’m interested in how things intersect. In particular, I care about how emotional issues can make social workers better at their jobs, in addition to making their jobs harder. If that resonates with you, welcome.

I have high hopes and dreams, despite not having my own shit figured out.

Second opinion

Warning: Adult language and themes; triggering content.

“I think it’s time you consider a higher level of care.”

The psychiatrist’s words hit me like buckshot.

A beat passed in his office on the Upper East Side. Between us there was a marble table. In the bathroom there were four kinds of soap.

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Illustration by Sven Gabriel for The Noun Project

I play it cool. Inside I’m screaming. “Like a five-day-a-week program? ,” I say. “Would the idea be to get my meds sorted out?”

The psychiatrist leans back in his chair as if I’d asked for the meaning of life. He paws through my intake form, which had been blank 30 minutes ago.

Calculating route. Calculating route.

“It would be an opportunity to get your medications sorted out.” He points to a page of the intake form. “And you’ve told me that you’re experiencing significant pain, to the detriment of your ability to function; and that you’ve had significant thoughts about suicide in the last couple of weeks.”

When you drink all you need to do to fix your life is stop drinking. When you quit you’re left with what’s left – yourself.

I tell him I’m not worried about the thoughts of suicide. I can handle the thoughts of suicide. They’d always been there, like a loyal friend.

The depression and anxiety suck, and I’ve been working on them forever, I tell him. My therapist and doctor know about every thought, every symptom, I say.

I’m seeing him because I can’t seem to wake up in the morning, as if the meds I’m taking have a gross weight that holds my body to the matress. I’m seeing him for a second opinion. I sure got one.

“I need some insight,” I say. “I need your opinion about whether my medications are working for me. Right now that would help me more than a referral to a program.”

“You can come back if you like, but I’m not saying I’ve taken you on as a patient,” he says.

“I understand,” I say. “You’re worried something bad might happen.”

Calculating route. Calculating route.

He points at my intake form, now full of scribbled notes. Somewhere in there is my sister, dead by suicide at 20; my abusive grandparents; my estranged alcoholic aunt; my ex-wife and the pills she swallowed one fall afternoon in a church courtyard.

“I’m only worried this isn’t the proper treatment setting for you,” he says. “I think you need a higher level of care. You’re experiencing significant pain, to the detriment of your ability to function; and you’ve had thoughts about suicide in the last couple of weeks.”

You’re worried you’ll be liable if I swallow a bottle of pills, so fuck you.

Earlier I’d told him where I’m employed as a social worker. Will he ever refer people there again? Will he tell everyone about the messed up counselor he met from [Mental Health Inc]?

Earlier still I’d told him I’m one year and three weeks sober. Congratulations, he’d said. It doesn’t feel like congratulations are in order. When you drink you’re a badass – you’re Don Draper or McNulty from The Wire. When you quit you’re just some depressed anxious dude. When you drink all you need to do to fix your life is stop drinking. When you quit you’re left with what’s left – yourself.

We shake hands and I leave. The receptionist is confused about my insurance. I’m panicking: are they buying time while the psychiatrist calls 911? This is exactly how they’d do it.

We sort out the insurance and I leave. I light a cigarette, then another. I catch my reflection in a window. Fuck you. The psychiatrist will tell all his colleagues about the messed up social worker from [Mental Health Inc]; don’t refer people there, they’ll hire anybody.

What right do I have to be a social worker, being in the condition I’m in? I’ve spoken with rape victims and domestic violence survivors. I’ve spoken with people who were suicidal while being suicidal myself. I’ve spoken with people who had the knife in their hand, the pills in their belly. I haven’t lost a person yet. I haven’t made a person feel as scared and powerless as I felt just now.

I think of the psychiatrist; of that quality of empathy. I think: I’ll never refer anyone to him.

I think, Fuck you.