Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Why did I become a social worker?

The Masked AMHP when he was a hippy

As I approach retirement from the job I have been doing for the last 42 years, I’ve started to think more about what led me into social work in the first place.

Several years ago I wrote in the Guardian about how I ended up becoming a social worker. It was almost accidental. No child has it in their mind that they want to go into social work; for one thing, it is not generally a high visibility profession, unless something goes wrong, and then social workers always seem to be identified as the guilty parties.

But there were a couple of incidents in my adolescence, long before I actually applied for, and got, the job of social worker, that with hindsight first put the idea of being able to help people into my mind.

The old lady

The first incident was when I was 16, when I was still at school studying for A Levels. The Post Office were wanting temporary assistant postmen to cover the pre-Christmas period. I managed to get one of these jobs, to earn some pocket money.

I was assigned to assist Bill, one of the permanent postmen, on his round. This involved carrying a huge bag of post around a housing estate, while he went here and there in his van.

But part of his round involved having to drive to more remote houses. He went to a rather dilapidated looking bungalow and then asked me to deliver a small bundle of what appeared to be Christmas Cards and a couple of parcels. He said that he didn’t want to do it himself as the occupant would keep him in conversation for hours.

I knocked on the door and after a while the door opened. An elderly and frail looking lady was standing there. I noticed that she had dried food attached to the whiskers on her chin.

The bungalow beyond was dirty and ill cared for, with random piles of newspapers and cobwebs hanging from the ceiling.

 An almost overwhelming sadness gripped me as I gave her the cards and parcels.

She seemed desperately disappointed.

“Isn’t Bill delivering today? Such a nice man. We always have such a nice chat.”

“No,” I replied. “He’s … busy, what with the Christmas rush and everything.”

“Oh, well, never mind.” Her voice petered out, and she closed the door.

I felt for the lady’s loneliness, and her disappointment at not being able to have a conversation with the postman. How many people did she see in a week? The experience haunted me.

Surely there must be services that could help someone like her, I remember thinking.

The driver

The second incident taught me something else.

I was 17 years old, and trying to be a hippy, with long hair, a beard, bell bottomed jeans, and sandals. (Give me a break. This was the early 1970’s.)

It was the summer, and I was hitch-hiking in England. I don’t remember where I was going to. It may have been a pop festival. (Weeley?)I had a rucksack, and a sleeping bag, and was hoping for some sort of adventure.

A very upmarket car stopped to give me a lift. When I got in, I was surprised to see the driver was an immaculately dressed woman in her 40’s. Women never usually stopped for a young male hitch-hiker who looked a bit like a hippy.

I couldn’t help noticing that her face and bare arms were covered in a blotchy rash.

We drove off. Looking straight ahead at the road, she said, “I expect you’re wondering what’s wrong with my skin.”

She didn’t wait for a reply.

“It was my husband. The person I love most in my life. He went to the doctor one day because of a pain in his head. The doctor sent him for tests.

“My husband had a brain tumour. It was inoperable. Within 6 weeks he was dead.

“The funeral was 2 months ago.

“I thought I was doing fine. I thought I was managing. But a couple of weeks later I woke up one morning and saw that my whole body was covered in this rash.

“The doctor told me it was nothing to worry about. It was a reaction to the stress.

“Nothing to worry about.

“I‘ve lost my husband, the love of my life.

“Nothing to worry about.”

She continued to tell me her story for the rest of the journey. When it came time to drop me off, she looked at me and said, “You don’t know who I am. I don’t know who you are. We’ll never see each other again. Thank you.” She smiled for the first time during the trip.

Even though I was only a 17 year old self-absorbed teenager, I realised that something significant had happened.

She needed to tell someone how she was feeling, someone she did not know, who was nothing to do with her family or social circle, someone who would not judge her, who would not argue with her, who would just listen. She just needed to talk.

So simply by being there in the car with her, and sharing that journey, I had helped her in some way to come to terms with her bereavement.

I realised that making a difference to people might not be so difficult after all. And it was oddly satisfying to realise I had helped in some way.