Once upon a practicum.

Right. Let’s just dig right in.

I started my clinical year last week and I’m going to be honest with you-I have scarcely felt so overwhelmed. I went to practicum (internship for social work), class and I came away with a to-do list so long that I wasn’t sure I could do it.

I was ready to throw in the towel. And so close to being finished. Why?

I like to feel like I’m set up for success. Newness isn’t so bad. Change isn’t so bad. But when there aren’t clear expectations, I feel that I am not going into a scenario where I am capable of winning, I feel overwhelmed and frustrated. That sets me up for failure, day one.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing. I have no intention of complaining for a whole blog about how life isn’t fair. What I want to do is address the steps I took to remedy the situation.

Anyone can feel overwhelmed. Anyone can feel like they can’t be successful. And that doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, or that they were wrong to hire you. It means you’re human.

I came to realize that much of my problems could be boiled down into very simple categories: schedule, organization and expectations. From there, the reasons why I was feeling un-successful came to life. I didn’t feel like I had enough time with my schedule to finish all my class work (schedule/expectations). I didn’t feel like I had a good grasp of the layout of the hospital (organization). I didn’t feel like I could pinpoint the needs of each place I was headed for my practicum (organization/expectation). And the list goes on like that.

The answer, oddly enough, was the same for all of them. Self-advocacy.

I took my supervision time and came prepared with a list of questions related to those things. What changes could be made to my schedule to better accommodate my work/school expectations? What resources were available to help me understand the workings of each department I would be going to? How can I better map out where the “important” places are? Who are my question people? Where can I put my things if I need to? Lunch spaces? Things like that.

And then the work began. It is one thing to bring the questions. It is another thing entirely to get the answers that you need. And trust me, I’m non-confrontational so I don’t love demanding answers. But I knew it would help me if I became a little more decisive. And thankfully my field instructor is great and I have access to a delightful amount of social workers who know far more than I do. And we haggled. What would allow me to be useful to my placement, while also being helpful to me?

A phrase I heard a lot over the past year is “closed mouths don’t get fed”. And I don’t know if I agree with it in a literal sense, but if I’d spent my time dealing with things that didn’t make me feel successful, I would not have a successful placement. I would set myself up to fail. Instead, I chose to open my mouth and say you know, this isn’t working for me-can we try a different way?

I feel like this is a great interview question experience. A couple years ago, I might have let the discomfort consume me. But now I am able to take charge of my own experience. I have the tools, I am prepared to lead myself to success.

Because that’s the thing. Your success is on you. You can’t be a passive actor in your own story. If you’re not taking charge, even when that makes you uncomfortable, other people are going to tell you how to live your life. And you’ll miss out, burn out and never find a way to make yourself happy.

So go out there. Advocate for yourself.
Take chances. Make mistakes. And get social worked.

My People! An Announcement!

Long time no speak!

It’s time for our monthly update, I think, and that means I need to bring some good news to the table!

Mark your calendars now, because a fresh new take from me is coming to an online retailer near you! I get to announce that my book, A Book About Life, will be published later this winter!

I’ve been away from the blogaverse because I’ve been deep in an editing phase, and that’s been delight (what with finals and internship and classes and work) but that means I’m doing everything I can to make my work as good as it can be.

So what even is A Book About Life?

Well, think about Pride and Prejudice. Think about survivor tales. Think about New Girl. Think about social work.

And there you have it! But in case you want more, here’s my blurb about what you can expect.

Alicia Whittemore graduated college with three things: a master’s in clinical social work, a quarter of a million dollars in student loans and the hope of saving the world. All her studying seemed to pay off when she landed a job at St. Vincent Memorial, but her troubles were only beginning. When a tempestuous board member and a heart-breaking patient emergency prove to be too much for Alicia, she must come to the realization that there’s so much more to life-and love-than settling for stability.

A Book About Life centers around a millennial trying to find her way though the world after college. She’s a hospital social worker who chooses routine over anything adventurous.

Millennial main character? Check (she’s in her upper 20s)

LGBTQ main character? Check (She’s ACE!)

Ride or die best friend? Check (they met doing a play)

Mr. Darcy character? Check (he means well, but yeesh)

Honest portrayals of mental health? Check (it gets heavy sometimes)

A Book About Life is a tale inspired by my love of Jane Austen, and my work as an MSW student. Each character is based on someone I know, someone I care about. Each situation is discussed with honesty and with respect, but with the depth that I kept completely real. This book contains empowerment after sexual assault, after domestic violence and after self-harm.

I took what I know-working with survivors of intimate partner violence-and I showed how those things play into the life of a very new, very conflicted working millennial. Based on truth, wrapped in emotion, it’s a book that shows the caffeine addicted, trauma informed career that I’ve inserted myself into.

A Book About Life, the New Adult Fiction book about, well, life, comes out this winter!

New Age, Who Dis?

Good morning, darlings! 

In the event that you’re stopping by for the very first time, welcome! I’m Michelle, the permanently caffeinated administrator here, and I bid you a fond hello. If you’ve been around, my greeting is no less delighted, and I hope you’ve had a wonderful day. 

So. Being at peace with self. 

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Image Description: Mountainous sunrise with the quote from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: We don’t realize that, somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme self who is eternally at peace. 

Let’s get real with something. We are not living up to our best potentials. We’re letting all of the “stuff” get in the way. Bills, financial emergencies, social expectations, family obligations, external pressure to have benchmarks of success. And they all have their moments of importance. But let me paint you a picture. 

You’re doing a budget and you realize you need to work some extra hours. You pick up some extra shifts but you lose even more sleep. You drink more caffeine to stay awake but you have to spend more on caffeine. And then, just when you think you’ve hit your stride, an emergency! And maybe it’s health related and you can’t work as much. Maybe it’s your car and now you have to get crafty with getting to work. Maybe it’s the sudden realization that you don’t…can’t…continue like this. 

And then you spiral into thinking about all the people you see on social media that look so put together, so focused and driven, so successful. About how you’re nothing like that and you’re barely holding on by the skin of your teeth. About how you don’t feel like anything you do is making a bit of difference. 

That’s what I’m talking about. And I would know, I’m right there with you. 

Yesterday was my birthday. I’m officially closer to 30 than any other ’10’ and it scared me. I don’t have my life together. I’m still in school. I’ve got student loans and bills and I work as much as I can and I’m exhausted. So why don’t I feel like I’m making progress? 

Well, that’s where the following list comes into play: 

  1. Face masks don’t heal broken hearts.
  2. Bath bombs don’t make your problems melt away. 
  3. Treating yourself to a coffee won’t make you invincible. 
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Image Description: Starfish underwater with the caption “Self-care: about more than bubble baths…”

And I’m sure that won’t surprise you. But you know that feeling when you’re having a bad day and you think “I’ll just go home and do a mask, watch some Hallmark Christmas movies and reset.” and then you think you’ll feel better BUT YOU DON’T? No? Just me? Okay then. 

Here’s what I’m saying: If you don’t make peace with yourself, with every flaw, with every part that you’re critical about-including how much you feel like a failure, even if you’re actually doing your best-then you’re not living up to your potential. 

And I’m talking to myself just as much as you. But we need to hold each other accountable. We’ve been giving in to band-aid solutions to major heart surgery. And that needs to stop. Give in. Cry. Rage. Scream. And then head up, buttercup. There’s work to do. 

But please, continue that scheduled maintenance! Do those face masks. Buy those bath bombs and that coffee. Because you need to take care of yourself along the way. Just treat the you on the inside just as kindly as you treat the you on the outside. 

What lesson are you bringing with you into the new year?

Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month 2018

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I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this blog, but the more I stewed on it, the more I was certain I needed to. I didn’t want to cause drama, or make people worry, and I certainly didn’t want to admit it to myself. But here goes.

In the course of law school, you are told on the first day that a majority of your year will end up as alcoholics or with depression, and maybe a few of you will even die from these. A bunch of cocky 1Ls will think “I’m a smart person, I’m sure that couldn’t be about me.” Some may even laugh about already belonging to those groups and being “ahead of that curve”.

In the course of life, each person may be called to face their own traumas-maybe even secondhand. And there is no weakness in not feeling like you’ve got a grip on it. It’s human to reach your depth and feel like you’re drowning. I think of a quote that a professor once told me on Suicide Prevention Day: “I won’t tell you that it gets better. But you don’t have to face it alone.”

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I lost a friend in June, the third friend I’ve lost to depression. I say “I” because these are only my thoughts-but truthfully, more than just “I” experience this loss. She was a friend from law school, and we were so alike that it just felt more personal. I want to talk about the four things I learned since then, and why they’re important.

  1. Shallow Self-Care Won’t Heal the Painful Wounds

When I first started the summer, I spent a lot of time doing things that I wanted to do-art, writing, tai chi, “spa days” and the like. I wanted a full emotional reset from my academic year and I picked my favorites from a list of suggestions. When I lost my friend, I wondered why those things didn’t help. Everything I wrote was empty, art felt more sad than healing and even my beloved face masks did nothing to fix the way I felt lost.

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As it would turn out, the only way to deal with those big emotional issues is the hard way. The late-night-crying-for-no-reason way. The grapple-with-big-questions-that-don’t-have-answers way. The look-in-the-mirror-and-just-feel way. As it would turn out, not one of my coping mechanisms tools was helpful in processing the loss of my friend. I had to reach the end of my shallow fixes to really understand that I needed to work on myself. That’s not to say that all those self-care things aren’t worth it. When I get stressed, I still engage in those beauty-creating moments. But when the hurt is deep, your self-care needs to be that much deeper.

2. Suicide Fear for People Who Understand (The “Will I Be Next” Debate)

If you have ever been suicidal, you may very well have experienced this. I wouldn’t say that it’s Survivor’s Guilt, but more like Survivor’s Anxiety. At some point in the coping process, you start to wonder what makes you so different from the person you lost to depression (suicide). And if you can’t find those differences, the all encompassing question then becomes “Am I next?” Now, at the surface, it sounds very self-absorbed. But it’s much deeper than that.

My friend had many of the same characteristics I did. Emotional trauma, a history of assault, a heart as big as the ocean with enough emotions to cause hurricanes, law stress, being in a state that wasn’t welcoming to our identities, and more. She was brave, and she fought hard. She had battles not many people knew, and I’m sure some that even I didn’t know. But when the news came, I wasn’t mad at her, I didn’t judge her for it. I sat and cried and wondered about what had led her to that point. And seeing the similarities, I began to wonder that all important question.

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Because if I were in her shoes, as I have been from time to time, I don’t know that I would have made a different choice. And knowing that, what was it that would be my “moment”? Would it be a large, life impacting event? A bunch of small things that I couldn’t control that became too much for me? One poor choice? I became so engulfed in this paranoia that I would be next, that the spirit of death was coming for me, that I think I extended the grieving process far longer than I otherwise might have. I isolated myself, because I didn’t trust myself. I wasn’t suicidal, I was afraid that I would become so.

3. Taking Care of Yourself is Selfish-and It Has to Be

At a certain point, the tie that binds people who have suicidal history and those who we’ve lost from it becomes lost on people who have never contemplated or lost someone before. A good friend graciously agreed to go to the funeral with me, and at the end, I found out this was the first time they’d ever been to a funeral for someone who died from depression. I remembered what it was like for me that very first time and I wept for them. I wanted to make sure they were okay, but I was so entrenched in my own grief that I couldn’t step out and make that effort.

I remember I panicked for the first week after she died and sent every “strong person” I knew a message, asking if they were okay. They didn’t know why I did it, I just tried to carry on a conversation with them to make sure they knew I cared. Every person who had ever admitted they were depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotional got a text or message. I was scared. I was scared that suicide had become an infectious disease that would take away all of my friends (or me) if I didn’t actively try to stop it myself. And I grew so weary that I collapsed into myself.

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A couple friends asked if I was okay. I lied to them, because I didn’t want them to worry that I would, indeed, be next. I spent a lot of time avoiding calls, messages and social media in general because I couldn’t take any more bad news. And that was when I realized that my self-care needed to really focus in on self. I allowed that isolation. I took a chance on letting myself work through the grieving process. I stopped communicating with everyone for two months. (With the caveat that I still texted my parents to let them know I was doing okay.) And I broke down. I cried, I existed, and at times, I didn’t sleep for days at a time. I checked off the stages of grief when it was time-not when I thought it was time. And that meant that life kept on going while I was stuck.

When I finally began to reemerge, I was more honest. I told friends that I spent time grieving, about all the emotions I’d felt. And even though I knew I’d been selfish, I knew that it was because I had to be. I had to spend that time focused on only me because I wouldn’t have survived it else-wise.

4. You Can’t Do it Alone

This may seem like it flies in the face of the last point. It was at the end of the two-months recovery time that I began to seek out friends. I chose to go (the very first day) to see counseling services to prepare myself for reintegration into life as I had come to know it. I started going on friend dates. I put myself out there, because I knew that I needed to. The truth is, without my husband covering for me, I wouldn’t have been able to heal this summer. Without counseling services, I’d be a wreck right now. Without those good friends, I would be alone. And those are just small snippets of the network I have amassed.

I chose to get off of social media, and I told everyone that I was stopping this blog for a while. And all of those things are true. I need to learn how to be my own person, not someone who compares their successes and failures against the polished social media posts that make everyone seem perfect.

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But it’s September, and that means it is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. And although those we have lost will not read these words, this blog is for the people who are left behind. The people who are still fighting in the trenches. The people who are still wondering if they will be next.

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I know that it’s hard. And I know it’s scary. I’m not going to lie to you. Life sucks. And then it gets better and then it sucks again. But you don’t have to face it alone.

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