Social Work: The Ideal vs. The Reality
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Commentator Lauretta Hannon thought that she might have a career helping people who were sick or poor or old. She wanted to be a social worker. So one summer while she was in college, she took an internship in London to try it out.
In 1991, I lived with a murderer, an albino Elvis impersonator and a girl whose TV told her she was wicked. I was in London as a volunteer, working with mentally ill, homeless people, testing out a possible future as a social worker. Smith Lodge was the euphemistic name for the nuthouse where I worked and lived. As the only staff member there after 4:00, I became the house mother to an unholy herd of schizophrenics, violent offenders and HIV-positive prostitutes.
Even though I had no mental health training, I was upbeat about my assignment and intrigued by some of the characters in residence. Colin, the albino Elvis impersonator, surfaced right after I did. He was thin as dental floss and obsessed with destroying the building's elevator. I'd find him with his arms and face drenched in black elevator grease. The streaks on his transparent white face made him look like the warlord of the asylum. He passed the time with Elvis songs; jittery renditions of "Love Me Tender" and "Viva Las Vegas." He performed at the nearby pub until becoming convinced that winged skeletons were cat birding him when he ventured outside. He had to be hospitalized. His breakdown affected me deeply. I started to realize that I was too connected to his suffering to really help him.
I did make some progress, finding grant money for a resident's bike ride across England to raise awareness of his disease, Tourette's syndrome. The disease can cause convulsions and vulgar outbursts. Andrew, always attired in glaring Spandex bike shorts, was so thrilled about the grant that he cussed like a sailor and collapsed in a shining heap at my feet. Despite the good news, I still fretted over his mental problems. In fact, I worried about everyone's and it was taking a toll. My doubts about becoming a social worker grew with each pint of Guinness I consumed, and eventually I consumed six pints every night.
Finally, there was Clyde, a four-foot, 11-inch, native of French Guiana and a gentle sweet man. It was determined that he was ready for independent living, but he never would be. He needed a supportive community. He cried when the moving van arrived to transport his belongings to his new home, a urine-drenched housing project in one of London's welfare wastelands. His few things, clothes, toiletries, a framed photo of his long-dead mother, looked lonely in the back of the van. I couldn't bear the cruelty of the situation. I knew then and there that I'd never be a social worker because I never have or want the emotional detachment necessary for the job.
I'd crossed the Atlantic to test out a career. I left there seeing that this kind of work would destroy me. I was the wrong person--too empathetic, too concerned about Colin, Andrew and Clyde. In the end, I came to understand the old saying: If you live next to the cemetery, you cannot cry for everyone. And it was clear that I'd have to move on and live someplace else.
SIEGEL: Lauretta Hannon lives in Powder Springs, Georgia.
MICHELE NORRIS (Host): Authorities in Turkey try to safeguard against avian flu without panic. That story and two explorers head for the North Pole in Arctic darkness. That's coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.