You probably haven’t guessed this, because despite my online store filled with playful homewares that have been designed by yours truly…I am actually a qualified social worker. Bet that surprised you, because the two jobs are worlds apart. In 2013 I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Criminology and around the same time I moved into my first home with Chris and I was excited for the future. Little did I know, I would be back to university in a matter of months to start a Master’s Degree in Social Work. I knew I could do some good work helping vulnerable people as I’d always wanted to spend my time helping the less fortunate so this job felt kind of like my calling in life.
SIDE NOTE: Grab yourself a brew and a biscuit, it’s a long one!
For the first few months the course was great although admittedly the assignments were difficult – pretty much as I’d expected them to be at postgraduate level. Despite this, my grades were fab – way higher than I’d dare hope for, I was coming out with distinction after distinction and it felt good. Whilst my grades were in tip-top condition, my mental health and well-being was not. I felt as though my anxieties were constantly bubbling underneath the surface and my stress levels were through the roof. Little did I know then that this was when my OCD began to accelerate.
A few months later, I was given an assignment that quite frankly was harder than rocket science – at least, that’s how it felt. Ignoring my introvert characteristics, I plucked up the courage and stuck up my hand to ask for some support from my lecturer in front of 110 students. It was a Q+A and I knew this was the best time to get the help I needed because it seemed other people were struggling too. I asked “can you give us an example or what the question is looking for?” She replied “oh…I don’t know”. I felt my stomach sink as it became apparant that we were all doomed. A lot of other people asked for help and her only response was “I’m not sure…I don’t know”. The constant worry about failing this assignment took its toll on my mental health and I found myself frequently crying due to the stress.
Strangely at this university, rather than one lecturer (the one teaching the module) marking all of the papers, instead they are divided between around 5 lecturers and it seemed that each had their own ideas about what the essay was looking for. Reassuring for us students right? The obvious problem with this method is lack of consistency within the marking criteria. Personally I felt like I was jumping through hoops to try and guess an all-round ‘right’ answer. In the end all any of us could do was hope we’d done a good enough job to merit a pass. Sure enough the results came though and confirmed what I already knew, I’d scraped 55% which although is a pass, is also a 22% decrease from any of my previous grades. I’d worked so hard and I was gutted. It wasn’t just me though, the drop in marks seemed to happen to everyone and people were raging about it. There was a lot of anger at the university for the lack of guidance given and honestly it seemed like the social work department couldn’t care less.
The next challenge of the course was a 70 day placement to give me some kick ass skills at being a social worker – it didn’t quite work out like that because the incompetency of the university continued to flourish. Most students had completed their placements by August ready for the Autumn term to begin. Me? I was still waiting for my placement in July and I was growing increasingly anxious because I knew this meant one thing – it was going to overlap second year where assignments were due to get even tougher. I was finally assigned a placement at the very end of August and wasn’t due to finish until January and my final year was starting within just a couple of weeks. Despite my apprehension, I was excited for things to be moving along.
I don’t think the placement team did a particularly great job in assigning my placement in all honesty, my typical journey looked like this:
5:30 – Wake up and get ready
6:30 – Leave the house
7:00 – 30 minute train journey to Manchester
7:30 – Get off the train, walk 20 minutes to the nearest bus station
8:00 – Jump on the bus for a 20 minute journey
8:20 – Get off the bus and walk for a further 20 minutes
8:40 – Arrive at placement
That’s four hours travelling every single day and by the time I got home, I was POOPED. I couldn’t sleep then though – I had university work to do. Walking in and out of the prison was awful, it was a 20 minute walk through wasteland with no one around and masses of trees, it was nothing short of creepy. On one occasion I was approached by a male who wanted to be friends and meet up, I politely declined his offer and he got pretty shirty with me and finished the conversation by saying he knew where I ‘worked’. Errrr, what?
Around this time, my (undiagonised at this point) OCD ROCKETED because of the stress I was under and I felt SO LOW. I thought that by going into the social work profession that I’d meet lots of people who were kind, people who genuinely care about the hardships of others but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure I’ve met a fair few people like this, but I’ve met far more horrors who’ve made me think “why the hell are you in this profession?”
The team at my placement were very small – only 8 members of staff and 4 of those people were so bitchy. They would make passive remarks at the way I did things (even though that was how I’d been instructed by my supervisor) and they’d sneer and look at me distastefully). I was asked to complete training in London and because my OCD was making me feel miserable and on-edge, I requested that I complete the training remotely as another member of staff was also doing. They gave her a ton of leaflets to study instead of going tot London so I didn’t think it was too big a deal if I could be offered the same deal. The idea of going somewhere so crowded whilst I was feeling so low and anxious made me feel even worse. Even though I confided how I felt to my supervisor, she could not have been less supportive if she tried. I felt like I was being bullied into attending the training, she belittled me and questioned my capacity to be a competent social worker. I felt like a total inconvenience and I began to doubt my own capabilities. I was having nightmares and not sleeping great and I could feel the anxiety constantly bubbling in my stomach.
My OCD at this point had not been diagnosed and I had no idea why I was feeling as emotional as I was. I reached out to two other students also on placement – I had hoped that this would improve the level of isolation that I felt and I hoped they would understand – and would want to (you know, because they were aspiring social workers). This was apparently the worst thing that I could have done because both of them laughed in my face, yep you read that right! They LAUGHED in my face. I remember thinking why the hell are you training to be a social worker? A career that is orientated around supporting, advocating for and empowering vulnerable individuals.
My supervisor reported to my assessor that as I had declined the training in London and because of this she felt that I was not taking the course seriously – bearing in mind I was only obligated to travel within 50 miles of placement and the other staff member was completing her remotely, I thought this was a bit unfair and a low blow. I had a meeting with my assessor who advised that I should take some time off to recuperate and to take as long as I needed. After being signed off sick by my GP for 4 weeks, I was ready to return to placement but before I could do this, I was asked to go into the university to meet with the programme leader. It was November 2014 and I was told that my placement had been terminated and I had no choice but to wait another until September 2015 to restart the second and final year – IF the university decided to give me another chance. I was devastated and so angry.
A JUSTIFIED COMPLAINT
I wrote a letter of complaint to the programme director (the big big boss) because I felt so aggrieved by how badly I’d been treated. Despite my lack of funds for travel and parking, he demanded that I go into university to discuss my complaint. I took my partner along for support – to witness the conversation because I knew that my words would be twisted to suit their agenda. Sure enough, I set one foot into the department when I was confronted by an angry-looking man who said to me “Are you Stacey? We were expecting you half an hour ago”…that can’t be right I thought, I was sure I’d double checked the meeting time…I re-checked the email on my phone and sure enough, there was visible confirmation that I was in fact a few minutes early. I politely notified him of this and he shrugged and grunted at me, no apology – othing. He sat down from me and said “so what’s all of this about?”…I was gobsmacked by his sheer ignorance and arrogance…did-he-just-admit-to-not-even-reading-my-letter? I found out later that he retired shortly after…obviously he was not fussed about any backlash because he was leaving. That meeting was a complete waste of time, my concerns remained ignored and I left in tears.
After another tense meeting with the university, I was granted permission to complete another placement and to rejoin the course the following September. However, before I could restart my placement, I had to have more meetings with the university and I was instructed to write a statement about why I’d ‘failed the first placement’, what I’d done wrong and how I could improve to ensure this would not happen again. So despite being treated as a second class citizen on placement by the other workers, being sneered at, being made to travel four hours a day AND being made to wait until September to be given a placement, apparently to be given ‘another chance’ I had to write a statement about what I’D done wrong. I’d been taught for months the importance of professional accountability – for an individual to be accountable for their decisions and actions, yet I saw none of this from the very department who stand in front of hundreds of students preaching about professionalism. Instead, they shifted full blame to a vulnerable student who was treated with no respect, no dignity and they made sure to make my life as difficult as possible. Obviously they fully support an anti-oppressive agenda…right? Meh, my ass they do!
It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I played the game and I wrote in my statement what I knew they wanted to hear so I could be granted another placement. On one hand this was good news…but on the other hand, I suddenly had to fund a whole year that I hadn’t planned for and this put myself and my partner under great stress and financial pressure. I was promised by my university that they would write a letter that I could give to my bank to postpone the repayments for my Career Development Loan whilst I returned to study for another year and I was assured that this would be accepted without any problems.
I think at this point you can guess what happened next…
The bank rejected the letter and said that it wasn’t their problem (technically it wasn’t – i’d signed a contract with them and they were well within their rights to want their money back). Still, i’d been assured by the university that things would be ok – it wasn’t, the bank wanted over £200 each month whilst I was still a full-time student. I’d read that the NHS will provide extra funding if your course date goes over the official course end date…I put in a claim…it was rejected on the basis that it was my first and not final year. So I consulted my student union for support – no joy there was nothing they could do at all. To add further insult to injury, I received a letter from the university stating that as I was restarting the year in September 2015, the course fees were increasing by £100 and I must pay this otherwise I would be kicked off the course…I was literally penniless and the university were absolutely no help – no surprise there at this point. Thankfully my Dad stepped in to help but I HATED having to ask him for money.
Fast forward to April 2015, I was diagnosed with OCD and this was when things started to look up…I was placed on medication, started CBT and restarted and finished a new placement (which I passed with flying colours by the way). My second and final year at university was a breeze, I had no problem completing my assignments and my grades were back up to +70%…then I started my second and final placement…and what a nightmare that was.
I was beginning to question at this point whether I’d broken a mirror and not realised…
FROM ONE NIGHTMARE TO ANOTHER
I was placed in a small organisation with around 8 primary staff members…you’d think that with it being such a small office it would be more likely a family unit…well it was if you were ‘one of the family’ – by that I mean if you were a permanent staff member. I know this because one of the staff members who had previously been a student there confided in my privately that they too felt like they were treated like shit when they were a student but now that they’re fully employed, they’re treated like ‘one of the gang’. It was a horrid environment and they were constantly bitching about someone. On one occasion, I witnessed someone shout down the phone to the receptionist “For fucks sake, it’s 25 past 4”. Errr, in what world is that acceptable? I spoke to the receptionist about this during a quiet moment and he shrugged his shoulders and said “that’s just how she is”, I felt bad for the poor lad, he was sweet and quite timid and thats probably why they thought it was ok to speak to him like crap. Pick on the quiet ones huh, very brave.
Being a small team, everyone usually got involved in a conversation so it was normal to chime in if you felt like you wanted to. Well that nasty member of staff previously mentioned also had the audacity to say to me at one point “WELL NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR OPINION”. NICE – what a lovely individual you are, I’m so glad I had the pleasure of meeting you…NOT. Granted she was good at her job…she connected with the service users well but she wasn’t a particularly pleasant individual to be around. In fact, I did a little happy dance inside when she was off work, it meant a somewhat more happier environment for the day.
You know Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and that annoying little hiccup she does to remind every one of her presence? Well there was someone there like that too…always sneering and making ‘tsk’ noises at her desk. One of the nicer staff members was actually leaving after many years working there and she said someone along the lines of “now i’m leaving you’ll have to add me on Facebook to keep in touch” and they were all “aw yeah we will do, bye hun”…they even attended her little farewell lunch buffet the lovely chef had arranged. As soon as the office door shut behind her for the last time, I heard “AS IF I’M ADDING HER ON FACEBOOK” – oh well she’s clearly missing out on the pleasure of your company isn’t she.
On other occasions i’d cheerily say morning as staff members came in, on more than one occasion I got a glare, our eyes met and received no response from that person…AWKWARD! Gosh it was awful. I connected well with another student on placement who also noticed the negativity in the office. We all had supervisors assigned and on one occasion she went to have a meeting with hers… she went to walk down the stairs and he went to get the lift, so she said “oh I’ll get the lift too then” and he said if that were the case then he would take the stairs…he later said that he didn’t want people getting the wrong idea that something could be going on between them…have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? I haven’t.
A CHANGE OF HEART
Finally after 3 years of graft, I graduated my MA Social Work with DISTINCTION! That’s the highest grade you can achieve…something I’d hoped for but I didn’t believe I’d actually get. After all of that grief and self-doubt, i’d passed with flying colours! But I also knew at this point that my future did not lie within the social work sector, I was weeks off launching my own online business that I’d worked so hard on and knew in my heart that FINALLY I was on the right path to happiness. Sounds cheesy I know, but after everything, cheesy is good with me.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ALL bad and I’ve met some lovely people too. But I realised around this point that if I have any hope of being happy in my career, then I need to work for myself – in a quiet office where I can choose who I work with and what I’m working on. I’ve really enjoyed my experiences working with vulnerable people and these encounters have made me a much more empthathic character and I’ve discovered new levels of patience and understanding within me that I didn’t know I had. I’ve also met some genuinely lovely and dedicated workers of whom have been a complete pleasure to work with – and I’ve taken their advice and wisdom fully on board to make me a better social worker. Despite this, I’ve reached a point now whereby I don’t think social work is for me anymore – that passion to help vulnerable people that initially motivated me to study it at masters level is still very much there, BUT i’ve had my fair share of not-so-nice professionals that have made me realise that in order to prioritise and maximise my own happiness, I need to be in an environment that allows my mental health and well-being to thrive and I firmly believe that is in my own office at home (preferably with a golden retriever at my feet).
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