Recently I’d been thinking a lot about how this work uplifts me. On Twitter I had some wonderful conversations with advocates in the special ed and autism community about the public misperception that the populations we work with are depressing. “I could never do the work you do” is often coded language for “I could never work with those people.” It’s offensive, especially considering the fact that what’s dispiriting and draining about this work has virtually nothing to do with the people we serve.
You know what does get me down? On one level it’s the larger institutional, economic, and social structures that present significant challenges to our young people. If I dwell on them too much, it makes me lose my sense of humor. Some days I wake up wanting to punch somebody. I wish I could say that my advocacy springs from a generous Dalai Lama-esque capacity to love all my fellow human beings, but I’m not there yet. The truth is, my sense of purpose and outrage is very personally rooted. I’ll say this much: many of the stories I hear about children in foster care resonate with me.
If you are a confidant you probably recognize it’s no coincidence I ended up working for young people who have experienced significant chaos, neglect, and trauma in childhood. But empathy, in this context, cuts both ways. At the deepest level, the part of this work that really taxes me is the amount of energy required to guard against emotional triggers. It’s a minefield out here.
Even happy stories affect me deeply, as I learned at last night’s screening of Closure, a documentary about a transracial adoptee who sets out to find her birth mother. If you’ve ever wondered what a functional, communicative, nonjudgmental family looks like—how they deal with conflict, hurt, and discomfort—watch and learn from Angela’s entire family, not just the Burts, but the Bells, the Johnsons, and even her foster parents, Alison and John.
What has buoyed me through the holidays, and what keeps my head above water now, is an invaluable support system. This core group comprises my husband, my adoptive dad, and other select relatives; friends who know in their bones what I mean by “family stuff”; colleagues who understand firsthand the emotional demands of youth-serving work; and last but not least, a therapist to guide me through the tough, internal work necessary for me to continue living as a functional, productive—dare I say happy—person.
I’ll close with a bit of unsolicited advice to others in the caring fields: We can’t neglect to care for ourselves, and part of that means reaching out to others, whether they be loved ones, colleagues, or a therapist, when your own reserves are drained. Lean on your people when you need it. You owe it as much to those you serve as to yourself.