note: this is a paper I wrote for grad school in the fall of 2018. We were asked to write about how our life experiences ushered us towards social work. I’ve always liked this paper and wanted to share it with the world, so i figured, why not put it here? I cut out nearly 2,000 words of things I don’t want available on a public blog that is linked with my name. Here’s what survived!
What’s Love Got To Do With It: The Ocean Capewell Story
I am a social worker because I am an alien; because I find it easier to talk to an unmedicated person having a psychotic episode than to talk to an office co-worker about what they saw on TV last night; because I hate being bored; because I have spent my life fighting to live life on my own terms; because I hate making rich people richer. I am a good social worker because I have been hungry and because I know what it’s like to almost be killed. All of these aspects—and about a hundred more—have shaped my professional identity.
I started life—at least, my earliest recollections of it—believing truly, with all my heart and soul, that I was an alien and my real parents were going to come and put me in their spaceship and I could start again on a new planet whose rules made more sense to me. To put it technically (and mildly) I did not have goodness of fit with my environment—in my family, my school, my town, and in my role as a young female. It’s easier to blame the world than yourself, in a way, but it’s also so much larger, so much more difficult to change.
Because I was an alien, I didn’t have friends when I was young, but it hardly mattered because I had a rich and vivid imagination and I read a lot. I spent a lot of time escaping. I discovered feminism at 10, in a library book, and everything made more sense. I then went on to discover punk rock (age 12), riot grrrls and their extremely personal zines (13), actually having friends (13), queerness (13/14) and activism (16) and all of these things changed my life. They all gave me a sense of big-picture community and they gave me a purpose to work towards. Feminism, riot grrrl, and activism also opened my eyes to some of the realities that weren’t part of my everyday experience as a white, working/middle-class-family-living-in-an-upper/middle-class-town-in-the-very-safe-and-mostly-white-suburbs, living-before-the-internet-was-widely-available person. I had friends of different ethnic, racial, religious, and class backgrounds than me, but we never really discussed these differences, certainly not from a critical lens. It just wasn’t done. The silence around us was huge and easy to ignore, just like the air.
When I started learning about things like white privilege, fat oppression, sustainability, polyamory, and the prison industrial complex, it completely changed who I was. I couldn’t go back to how I’d been, even if I wanted to. The first street-style activism I ever participated in was in Manhattan’s West Village, in 1999 when I was 17. My best friend and I (a white gay boy who went to Catholic school) were sashaying down the street, delighted to simply be around queer people, when we saw the Westboro Baptist Church protesting in front of the Stonewall Inn. We stopped to join the melee—about a hundred fierce, beautiful, well-dressed, snappy-insult queer counter protesters and about seven or eight dowdy, tired homophobes. We managed to chase them off the block and then marched down the street for a bit just for the hell of it. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was totally spontaneous, and I still remember that exact feeling of joy as we yelled, Whose streets? OUR STREETS!
That chant feels tired and dull and problematic to me now, but back then it was shiny and new, and also very true. These were our streets, and they had most of America, but they couldn’t have this tiny corner off 7th Ave South. Most of the activism I’ve done in my life has been against incarceration, which, to be honest, can feel a little hopeless sometimes, a hundred huge losses for every tiny gain, so I’m glad I had the easy glee of that first protest to buoy me through all the years of activism and social work, the reminder that sometimes things do work out and the bad guys do go home. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s absolutely the best feeling in the world.
Don’t want to tell this story publicly, but I left home right after high school, not going to college. I was incredibly fortunate to fall in with a gang of other fucked-up queer girls, in a network of loosely-connected punk houses in Philadelphia. In between all the violence and threats and unpaid bills and drama, my friends and I scored perfectly-good, unopened food from the dumpsters of suburban grocery stores. We engaged in survival crimes and we looked out for each other. We found fancy couches in the trash and carried them to our drafty house, cuddled on them five deep. We got drunk at 2pm and at 2am. We talked about our deepest traumas and then had a dance party. It was okay to be too much and too loud. It healed me and it broke me. We all went crazy, some more intensely than others. In that era, my life was seriously threatened twice, both times by a stranger. Once for fighting back, once for standing there doing absolutely nothing besides “looking like a faggot.” Both times I escaped, for no other reason besides pure stupid luck, besides the notion that I wasn’t done yet.
Although it traumatized me, I’m really glad that I spent those formative years between 18 and 21 doing those aforementioned things, and not sitting in a dorm or a classroom. It made me absolutely wild–in both the best and worst ways. By the time I made it to college, at the age of 21, I was feral. I got written up my first day in the dorms because I went on the roof, because it absolutely didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t. College was a huge privilege and it gave me some space: to heal, to read a lot of books and to gain confidence in my writing again. It was nice being fed regularly (although hearing my peers complain about the food filled me with rage, thinking of all the hunger and trash-meals I had endured) and it was nice being relatively safe, although normal people still baffled me and I was mostly frightened of them.
Social work was an accident for me. I was working a variety of odd jobs, trying to finish my first book, and I wound up working for an eccentric 79-year-old lawyer. This was in Pittsburgh, a city full of friendly and truly bizarre people. His clients tended to have a lot of unmet needs, and would wind up revealing them to me as they sat in the waiting room. None of them knew how to use the internet, so I would find myself looking up the food bank phone number or something and giving it to them, and this made me feel far better than doing my actual job ever had. (So did using the office photocopier and printer for my prison book program!)
My name had been on a civil service list for years, and my name finally came up for a clerical position at the county’s child welfare office. It paid more than the law firm, and actually had benefits, so I jumped at the chance. After ten years of activism, I naively thought that working at a social service agency—even though I was “just” a secretary—would be a way to be able to go to work without feeling morally bankrupt. I knew that child welfare might be rough, but at least we were doing some kind of good in the world, right?
I was incredibly, painfully wrong. Working at child protective services was, and still is, the worst job I have ever had. My co-workers in that office were among the most terrible people I have ever met, in any context. I quit that job in 2010 and I still think about it nearly every day. [Extremely triggering story goes here, I censored it]
Fortunately, around the time that I quit, my name came up on another civil service list, this time to be an actual caseworker at a program run through the Department of Welfare to help people pay their heating bills. This was actual social work, and I found that I mostly really liked it. My co-workers were still a problem—one in particular, a white middle-aged man who moonlighted as a karaoke jockey and thought that made him really cool. He also seemed to feel that he had missed his true calling as a stand-up comedian, and avenged this slight by roasting every little detail of our clients’ applications. Once, I caught him referring to me, derogatively, as “Mother Teresa” because I had performed the saintly act of actually calling a client to ask a clarifying question so I could approve their application, rather than sticking it in the pending drawer for a few months, as he would have done, as they shivered hopelessly in their home. Every day, his self-important little voice whined above my noise-cancelling headphones, no matter how much I tried to drown him out.
I wound up working face-to-face with clients the next season, as opposed to processing their mailed-in applications in the back of the office, and it absolutely changed my life. I loved them. Not that they were always nice to me or that everything was always great, but we were mostly able to connect as human beings. One of them told me, during a bad time in my life, that because of his cataracts he could see energy and spirits and that I had lots of angels around me and was going to be OK, which I had needed to hear desperately. One woman sighed, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t even bother trying to get this electricity turned back on. I have some friends who live in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity—their teenage children have no idea who Kim Khardashian is—and they are all so happy!” We laughed genuinely, and hard, in the middle of a grim office on a hard day. I had some good days and some bad days and a lot of rage (mostly against the machine.) Some co-workers hated me and some admired me. Our program was closed due to budget cuts, so I took my unemployment check to the Bay Area, with the goal of finding social work that didn’t seem tailor-made to punish people. I wound up working with mentally ill homeless people for five years.
My new agency really brought me to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. On one hand, it was an amazingly innovative mental health organization, with astoundingly cool co-workers, diverse in every way, who truly got it. (It’s also one of the few workplaces—one of the few spaces in general—where I was genuinely popular, which is addictive.) On the other hand, we were trying to work miracles in a hopeless situation. There was no housing in San Francisco, even for people with jobs and without major mental health crises. We could do intense and life-changing work with people but after their allotted time was up, we had to throw them back into the streets that were eating them alive. We often got clients who were very inappropriate for the program and were violent or threatening to staff and peers and there wasn’t much we could do about it. Clients regularly smoked meth and crack while in the program and lied about it and again, there wasn’t a lot to be done. I could go on, but there’s a page limit here.
In 2014, a co-worker of mine died by suicide. This was only a few days after she had done an amazing intervention with a suicidal man that was utterly beautiful to witness. I have little doubt that she saved his life, and then, less than a hundred hours later, she ended her own. My co-workers and I, in the days of grief and rage that followed, all had a similar thought: What are we doing trying to save other people when we can’t even save ourselves? Also, how did we not notice? Also, am I next?
When she died, a lot of my hope and belief in the work went with her. My co-workers and I weren’t given any time off afterwards. Another counselor at another house had died six months earlier, in a tragic hiking accident, and his co-workers were given ample support and coverage to travel out of town to attend his funeral, etc. Our agency gave us a 45-minute grief group run by a counselor from EAP—a white woman named Cleopatra—and that was it. We begged them to let us close down a few beds while we were grieving, so that our client load would be smaller and more manageable, and they said no. The implication being that because our co-worker had died by her own hand, her death was not going to be acknowledged by our mental health agency. This had been a place that supposedly was founded upon the idea that there is no “us” and “them” in the mental health world, and that mentally ill people have a lot of gifts to share. I guess that idea only extended to a certain type of mentally ill person. The cleaned-up, smiling success story; not the person who still struggled with her demons and eventually lost. Many of my co-workers and I identified as mentally ill and we all had a basic understanding of how it wasn’t linear, how there wasn’t much stopping us from ending up like our clients—but clearly, that idea didn’t extend to upper management. [Another really triggering story is here, I cut it]
I would really love to restore my levels of optimism and belief in the work that I do to pre-2014 levels. But there’s no going back. I miss the person I once was. I miss the relationships I had with clients and the belief that I had that if only I cared enough, if only I presented them with the right resource at the right time, I could change their lives. I miss the despair, in a weird way, because the flip side of it was that I cared a lot and had amazing experiences. Now I am kind of just a numb bot. The fact that I’m approaching middle age and the world is kind of a garbage fire right now [editor’s note: this was written in the fall of 2018, lol] doesn’t really help matters much. While checking out can be seen as a sign of privilege—and it often is—it can also be a sign of trauma.
Perhaps you are currently shaking your head and wondering, “What the $%)@# is this numb bot doing in the social work program?” I’m looking to get my license and become a therapist, which I am hoping will be equally rewarding and less overwhelming. My own experiences with trauma have taught me that there’s really not a lot of affordable, trauma-based services out there, so I suppose I could contribute something towards that solution. I am trying to be kind and remind myself that being overwhelmed and tired after five years working with acutely psychotic and/or traumatized people is actually not uncommon and that maybe I’ll feel better soon. Who knows. One of the great joys and terrors of being alive is the simple fact that anything, literally anything, can happen at any time. This is the anything. It happened.
My experiences—as an alienated child, quasi-homeless teen, aimless 20-something activist and traumatized thirty-something—have taught me a lot. They have given me a lot of empathy and identification with many of my clients. Because I was raised with violence, I have a sixth sense for when clients are about to go off, which gives me a tactical upper hand in many of my social work jobs that mystifies my co-workers from gentler backgrounds. My many years of working for exploitative social work organizations have given me a very low tolerance for other people’s bullshit. While these skills mostly aren’t worth the pain endured while earning them, they’re what I have and I am doing what I can to embrace this strange and pointy gift. They’ve shaped me into being the unique professional that I am—bad at biz-cas, good at extracting the nugget of sense from psychotic rantings. And despite the angst, I have had so many truly bizarre and magical experiences on this life-path that I can’t even be all that mad about it.