How Rewarding to be Rewarded

I received my very first writing award at the tender age of 10 when I won a second place ribbon for my essay, “What is beer and how can it hurt me?” I believe I received a $10 check from the American Legion or some such organization, but I’ll admit the details are fuzzy.

The writing accolades continued when a poem I wrote in 8th grade English was published in a South Dakota journal for elementary and middle school aged students. The poem was about a chair and it didn’t rhyme, so my very literal husband would call it a “descriptive paragraph” instead of an actual poem. But since only one of us has published poetry, he can keep his opinions to himself.

I was skipped over for the award of “All State Journalist” in high school, which was rather painful since I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and several of my fellow journalists and best friends were called to accept their awards one by one while I stayed at the banquet table and pretended not to care.

And now, 25 years later, my first novel, unprotected, has been chosen as a finalist in the Midwest Independent Publishers Association’s Midwest Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Fiction. I’m honored, to be sure, and excited for the opportunity to get buy a new pair of shoes and eat a fancy dinner. I’m also surprised since it’s the first nomination for anything that I have received since my high school journalism days.

As I was contemplating college majors, I vacillated between psychology and journalism. I had been writing stories in spiral notebooks in my bedroom as long as I could remember, so writing was familiar while psychology just seemed cool. I settled on psychology, which was the career that brought me to social work, and I left writing behind until much later.

Social work was the right choice for me, but while journalism and writing are full of opportunities for awards, social work goes largely unrecognized. Other than one organization that presents a Social Worker of the Year award, what could the accolades be? Best Court Testimony? Outstanding Ability to Remain Calm When Barraged with Verbal Insults? First Place in Safe and Successful Reunifications?

Most people never get any visible recognition in their careers, but some professions are more revered than others. Surgeons and fire fighters are respected, teachers and nurses are applauded, and lawyers are the butt of endless (and often hilarious) jokes. But how about factory workers and dishwashers? How about the dads who work for decades in miserable jobs because that’s what it takes to support a family? I would love to give some recognition to the people who stand for 10 hour shifts in checkout lines dealing with inpatient jerks. I wish I could give a medal to every phlebotomist who can do a painless blood draw, and to all the aides who never lose the energy to nod and smile at their nursing home residents.

But if there were rewards for everything, then there may as well be rewards for nothing. Appreciation is great, but most of us don’t do our jobs for the praise. If we did, most of us would have quit a long time ago.

I wrote unprotected because I love to write, and over the course of 12 years a novel spilled out. The affirmation for that story and for my writing is such an honor, but I holding my published book in my hand would has been reward enough. Win or lose, I will continue to enjoy the ride my book has provided, and I will remember all people, much more deserving than I, who never get the chance to be nominated for anything.

A revelation. Not the good kind

Buckle up. I’ve got some earth shattering revelations to share, so the faint of heart better head over to pinterest and divert with some inspirational quotes or fancy cupcakes.

The rest of you, are you ready? I’m going to reveal what I think is the biggest problem we seem to be facing in child protection. It’s a major part of many cases, and blows more lives apart than I care to count.

It’s Addiction.

I know: Duh. Heroin kills. Crack destroys lives. Meth eats away at your face, your teeth, your brain. We’ve seen the billboards.

But I would like to talk about what we in Minnesota (Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers) do not want to talk about: Many (because I can’t bring myself to say most) of the deep end addicts do not get better. Ever.

I am a child protection social worker, so the law actually mandates that I focus on my clients’ strengths. I am also an optimist, despite 19 years at the job, so it is my natural tendency to believe that people can recover and change. Even my internal dialogue when I am with my clients is positive and hopeful.

So I am having a hard time writing this post because it feels wrong to admit it. Maybe this is burnout talking, but I don’t think so. I think I’m really trying to figure out what to do with all of this truth smacking me in the face. How do I reconcile optimism with the reality that there are many clients that I will never be able to fix, but I still have to pour all of my energy into trying. Isn’t the definition of crazy supposed to be doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result?

If I accept that some percentage of addicts are unfixable (*shudder* ….I am not supposed to use that word…) how far do we have to back up this train to finally get on a new track? When was their addiction fixable? And how will I ever know who is really getting better, and who will be back in a year or two?

I know enough to know that I don’t know. But I do have some thoughts that might help a little.

First, a lot of lives could be saved if heroin, crack, and meth became obsolete. (Hey, I said I’m an optimist.) These drugs are wildly addictive and can function like an eggbeater on the pleasure centers of the brain, so much so that these addicts can’t do anything but chase the high. While there is such a thing as episodic use of these “street” drugs, the path toward addiction and fast and straight, so I think every dollar spent to get rid of these drugs probably saves ten, not to mention saving lives.

Second, Vicodin, Percoset, Xanax, and Valium (and all of their drug cousins) are highly effective, the first two for managing pain and the second for managing anxiety. I am the last person to say that I think people should have to grit their teeth through either. But it is staggering how many doctors readily and frequently prescribe these addicting meds to addicts. Any doctors out there? Please add hypnosis, therapy, meditation, non-narcotics, acupuncture, acupressure, healing touch, or anything else to your prescription pad that might save your patient the hassle of 28 days later on.

And finally, I wish somebody could figure out which people can manage a few glasses of wine, and who will go on the roller coaster ride of pancreatitis/inpatient treatment/moderate stint of sobriety/ downward spiral/alcoholic cirrhosis/back to treatment…and so on. For some, alcohol is every bit as dangerous, toxic, and life threatening as heroin.

Addiction sucks, friends. I wish I could put a bow on it and offer a tidy solution, but it hasn’t been that kind of week. All I can say is that I’m grateful to all those who keep fighting the good fight on behalf of the ones who make it, and the ones who don’t.