Social Work and its Discontents

From September of 2019 to February of 2020 I pursued an MSW at a large state university. That I got into this program at all seems anomalous. My work history is laughable, my participation in life on a voluntary basis non-existent.  The only reasons I can think of for my acceptance were a well written admissions essay or perhaps simply that they wanted my money.

In retrospect my desire to attend this program was a profoundly bad decision. I have a friend, loving and well-intentioned, from whom I accept as biblical truth any suggestions for improving my station in life. But what works for him is generally not what works for others and in this instance were especially ill-advised. My efforts to participate in bureaucracies both large and small have not worked out to my benefit. I drown in them. 

I had misgivings about the program from the start. The winter of 2019 was not kind to me. It was my third year of profound depression and I was realizing that this might be something I would experience forever.

I had been accepted to the program and was wrestling with it. Mental illness had sapped any enthusiasm I might have felt for what I was about to do and smashed my confidence like a fleet of wooden ships. The amorphous horror of the whole endeavor was upon me before I even began, but I have a foolish penchant for trusting in the benefits of forbearance.  

After attending a series of orientations to the program I was tweaked. The word ‘professional’ has a filthy smell and I was about to bury my face in it. The suggestion that I might very well be expected to drug-test other human beings and that I needed to have a degree of enthusiasm about it horrified me. 

Following this orientation I panicked for days, my body on fire in that way that is particular to overwhelming anxiety. I took a camping trip to Vermont with a close friend, mostly out of a desire to prove to myself that I could still function, and spent the entire time searching for a cell signal so that I could talk to my mom or taking enough Klonopin to put me to sleep. I was desperate to go home but found no relief there either.

The first semester was an endless procession of doctor’s appointments in which I tried in vain to be given a diagnosis rooted in an observable physical problem. I went to endocrinologists, had sleep studies, got MRIs and not one of them revealed anything abnormal. This is the misery of psychiatry. There are no tests, scans or samples that can reveal a cause for the crushing weight of the illness. It’s just there, unwilling to reveal much about itself, a presence that suggests a moral failing or a defect of character. 

The difficulty I experienced in navigating coursework cannot be overstated. Even if I were a person with a normal brain and constitution I think I would be hard pressed to care about the assignments. The classes were so painfully normative, so divorced from any immersion in the actual experience of mental illness, addiction and poverty that I felt my suspicions were validated. Though I know people who have escaped this role the ultimate purpose of the profession as a whole seemed to be to act as an extension of the state and to enforce the particular form of biopolitics that this moment in history demands. 

Ultimately to finish this degree would have placed me in the position of some sort of cop and I wanted none of it. Even the most innocuous positions that I could have attained would have been horrid. The fact that America offers mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation services to the homeless is a sick joke. As if the extension of some victim blaming talk therapy would be a balm to the trauma of being completely divested of resources. As if taking away the only comfort a person has, regardless of how it’s destroying them isn’t an act of cruelty. 

Towards the beginning of the second semester I took a medical leave of absence. It wasn’t a hard argument to make. I was crying constantly, enduring the strange discomfort that emerges in my limbs when I am stressed past my breaking point and was unable to pry myself away from these experiences to do my coursework. I took my leave, which freed me up to swirl in the endless vortex of my body and mind. I haven’t gone back.

Recently a friend invited me to attend a concert. It was after work and I was tired, stewing and bubbling about my poor life choices and the fact that I had sold a bike that cost more than I would make in wages en toto at this inadequate part-time job. I deliberated for a bit but decided to go. He texted me the flyer, a flavorless advertisement for music in a park. 

When I arrived I saw no one that I recognized. I saw no one period. It was one of those events where the only people in attendance were the ones who organized it or were performing there. This used to be a phenomenon that bothered me. I would find my atheism challenged by the feeling that someone was watching and judging me for my attendance. It’s changed for me in recent years. I feel comforted by well-intentioned efforts that amount to nothing. That’s the story of my life. 

As I walked off in search of my friend I heard someone call out my name. Female, Unfamiliar. A young woman walked towards me and gradually recognition dawned. She was a former classmate from the social work program. I felt surprised that she recognized me out of context. I try not to be memorable. It feels safer to me. 

I think the proximity of my departure from school was so close to the COVID-19 shutdown that no one noticed I was gone. I could have taken this as a point of departure before we communicated further but there is an honesty in me when it comes to my own faults that is probably a virtue and definitely a liability. So I told her that I had left school and that it had to do with my mental health. 

She inquired if I would be coming back to the program and I promptly vomited up all my critiques of social work on the ground at her feet. That I saw it as a mechanism of control. That it is another way of pathologizing poverty and disciplining the poor. That it was essentially a strange tertiary instrument of violence and I wanted no part of it. That as someone who is mentally ill I found it to be incredibly paternalistic, endlessly attempting to relocate sickness in the individual instead of in the profoundly sick and wildly violent society we are forced to live in. That any work performed upon human beings ultimately reduces them to raw material, from which the laborer is completely alienated. And that the product of this labor, a more perfect human, is unattainable.  

This was a lot to take in I’m sure. She maintained some grace in the face of my diatribe. She said these were all interesting critiques and that the program we were both enrolled in would be improved by hearing them. 

This was kind of her but the truth is that even if I were to return armed with these criticisms they would never be heard. This was a program meant to spew out social workers as if they were ground beef. Any assault on the ideological pillars of the profession would simply fall off the side of the ship as it headed for the iceberg that is the future. 

I said goodbye to her and I don’t think it is likely I will ever see her again. If I do, it will most likely be as a client than as an equal. I hope that if this is the case some small part of her will remember this conversation and recognize me as less of a product and more of a human being. 

But this is unlikely. From what I observed of what passes for ‘social work education’ it has been completely colonized by the neoliberal impulse that manifests very clearly in the non-profit sector. Firms churn out services with the same blind logic of accounting that Chinese manufacturers and African goldmines adhere to. The product in this case isn’t a pallet of product or a weight of metal and is instead the convoluted metrics of healing that are always imposed on the poor: Are they able to work at Dunkin’ Donuts? Are they numbing their pain with the right sorts of drugs? Are they allowing society to mete out violence upon their children or are they intervening in the process?

Perhaps this is sad, perhaps it is heroic, and it is unavoidably a fact: I will not do these things. I will not lie and tell someone there is a future for them. I will not exert myself to convince them that anyone cares, and the only way I can accomplish this is to absent myself from the process altogether. 

There is a cost for this refusal. I have been paying it down my whole life. I’ve not encountered a cog in this society that I haven’t tried to throw a wrench in. When there isn’t a wrench available I simply shove in my arm. My spirit wanders around on stumps like a Mellvillean whaler crying out for alms, and perhaps too late I’ve realized that I have indeed placed myself in the position of ‘client’ in Social Work’s sloppy division of the world into recipients and providers of services. 

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