2. I am a Relational Being

In this section I am going to situate myself, describe who I am and where some of my values and assumptions have developed.  Let me begin by describing myself as a white, heterosexual woman.  I come from what some would describe as middle class. I am educated and work to support myself and my family (that, as I write this, consists of two cats and a dog).  I have no children and have been divorced since the year 2000.

Currently, my job is in transition. I used to work at a large mental health centre in Ontario, Canada, which employed a varied group of professionals, nurses, occupational therapist, social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, and others who work with the ‘patients’ and their families.  This regional mental health facility has introduced the idea of ‘recovery’[1] that supports patients in their journey of claiming their lives back from ‘mental illness.’

I have divided my life into four sections.  These include the first twenty-years, then college, obtaining my undergrad degree until my divorce (about twelve years), the next eight years and then to the present which brings me to this project and beyond.

This is by no means a full biography or curriculum vitae, this is simply highlighting some of the transformative moments in my life where I changed directions or had an epiphany.

Part One (1962-1982)

Allow me to backtrack a little, or maybe a lot.  I identify myself as an ‘army brat’.  My father was in the armed forces.  He and my mother met and married in England (they were both in the Canadian military at that time).  My eldest brother was born there and then shortly after, my father was stationed to a small town in Saskatchewan where the rest of us were born.  I am the youngest of four.  By the time I was twelve, we had lived in three places in Canada, and although we did not move around very often, many of our neighbours on the army bases did.  Friends came and went, there were always new faces at school in September and new kids on the block to play with.  I learned early in life to be welcoming to the newcomer.  It was also very challenging to maintain connection with young friends who might not be around for very long.  Changing community and friendship was the ‘name of the game’ but the one consistency in my life is the fact that we were Roman Catholic.  As a child, it did not matter where we were, we went to church and I found a sense of belonging.

Then my father retired from the service. We moved to Barrie, Ontario and in grade 5, I became the new kid.  I went to a Catholic school and many of the students had known each other since Kindergarten.  They had a common history that I did not share.  I was not accepted.  There were the occasional new-comers and if I befriended them, they quickly learned that the others did not like me and, so they rejected me as well.  I was teased and bullied frequently.  I had one friend at school, but it was difficult for me on days she was ill and not at school. I had a friend from my neighbourhood, but she went to a different school.  These facts left me at the hands of the bullies frequently.

This continued into high school. The bullying intensified, and I switched schools in the middle of Grade 12.  I was given the opportunity to attend University a year early and I knew (or thought I knew) that I wanted to go into computers and mathematics.  Two years later, I switched to a local community college (in Barrie), lived with my parents and got a general diploma.  I studied early childhood education, mathematics, computers, drama and counselling.  I came to understand that I really wanted to be a therapist and help others.

I believe that it was all these frequent changes and subsequent isolation that began the sense of being one voice.

Part Two (1982-2002)

I moved to Toronto, worked for two years at a bank and then started Social Work at Ryerson.  I started in 1984 and graduated in 1997.  I got married in 1988, and helped raise two step children, worked full-time, and learned how to run a small business for my husband.  It was a journey fraught with a great deal of stress and personal growth.

I was also working full time during this time for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic Organization in Toronto who provided many services to people marginalized by mainstream society.  In this position, and through my student placements, I developed an understanding of how people can be misunderstood and through no fault of their own, wind up struggling for the necessities of life.

In 1997, my final Social Work theory course was called ‘Community Development’. What we learned (and experienced) was located from a postmodern framework called ‘anti-oppressive practice.’  We discussed Paulo Freire’s (1996) work in adult education and we learned about ‘becoming an ally’ (Bishop, 1994). I found this class painful as I came from a position of privilege and reaped the benefits of the oppression of others. Many classmates were giving voice to their experience of oppression for the first time.  My classmates struggled with a wide range of social ‘isms’ including sexual orientation, ability, poverty and religion.  As a heterosexual, middle class white woman, I did not experience the same level of oppressive suffering as my classmates. It seemed that because I and a few others did not experience the same degree of oppression, we became the occasional targets of hurtful angry outbursts. In addition to being rudely challenged, it seemed we, who identified as white and heterosexual were rejected as potential allies.

Now I understand better that the people in this class were finding a voice for their oppression for the first time and denied the idea that someone ‘not as oppressed’ could be an ally. Additionally, I was disappointed and frustrated as it seemed that any form of counselling practices supported the ‘institutionally oppressive’ practices that would prevent linking people and their experiences to their social contexts.  Despite or perhaps because of the pain I experienced in this class, I understood that I did not want to contribute to or support oppressive practices.  Perhaps the rejection I felt in my early school experience resonated with the pain my classmates experienced. Whatever the reason, I understood how important it was for everyone who has been silenced to find their voice and be able to participate in community.  I have explained this over the years as remaining true to my ‘anti-oppressive’ roots.

At graduation, I had no real direction for my career.  Counselling was the reason I became a social worker and it was counselling that I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to work with others in a way that would allow me, as best as I was able, to practice in an anti-oppressive manner.  I worked at the St. Vincent de Paul for another year before I found a position in social work.

So it was in 1998, I accepted my first Social Work position as an Executive Director in a small Catholic-funded non-profit agency in Toronto.  It was a drop-in centre where those with mental health challenges could feel welcome and experience community.  I had the opportunity to shape inclusive practices at the drop-in which challenged a traditional, patriarchal (traditionally patronizing) approach to ‘doing for’ centre members without benefit of their needs/wants.

Engaging workers unfamiliar with anti-oppressive practices was challenging and not always successful. The centre experienced a bumpy transition period in which workers, who could not or would not commit to interacting with drop-in members in a non-patronizing, less directive manner found the centre was no longer a good fit for their skills. As these people sought out more traditional employment elsewhere, the centre started to attract and hire staff who were interested in partnering and developing reciprocal relationships with those who made up the centre’s membership.  Supported by my leadership, both staff and program members embraced inclusion and a progressive board.  The drop-in centre’s change initiatives grew to the point where two program members were invited to participate on the board of directors.  At the same time, everyone had the opportunity to plan and organize events.

We danced, celebrated holidays and birthdays, mourned deaths, shared meals and otherwise spent time together.  I played guitar but could not sing without someone who could ‘carry a tune’.  It was the people who came to the drop-in who felt welcomed and comfortable enough to correct my off-key singing.  It was in this setting that I began to understand how people experienced the mental health system and how voices were at times silenced in their psychiatric treatment.  Some had good experiences and others had very challenging experiences.  I learned from their stories, how listening and interest can go a long way to truly assist someone more than judgement or indifference. This was another (albeit quieter) contribution to my understanding of how dominant discourses can negatively impact on those not part of the discourse.

It also deepened my understanding of how our society can treat those who are ‘different’.  It supported my desire to be centred in postmodernism were the idea of truth comes from context and not something that can be dictated by those who have voices in our society. I still wondered if the career I wanted (being a therapist) could be balanced with these ideas somehow or were they mutually exclusive as my classmates believed?

Two years into this position, I left my husband and all the complications that were part of my personal life at that time.  Two years later, in 2002, I left the position at the drop-in centre and returned to Barrie, lived with my parents and tried to get a better handle on my life and my career.

Perhaps it is time to introduce some personal context into the mix (especially with the divorce).  My husband (now ex-husband) is from El Salvador.  He is Hispanic and is very much part of the machismo culture.  I was responsible for things inside the home and he for things outside (or renovations inside).  So, there were expectations of cooking and cleaning that fell to me, which, when we married, I was willing to accept.  However, as time moved on, I was also expected to assist with the renovations of the home alongside him as well as cooking and cleaning up after the renos.  So, if we made some alterations in the house, I still needed to find the energy to cook and clean.  His children at that time were willing to help (they were 10 and 11 when we married).  This made the task much easier.  However, as the children grew and found interests outside the home, household tasks fell to me.  Without going into many details, suffice to say, I eventually looked at my own oppressions, and power struggles at home and realized that the relationship was not allowing me any opportunity for personal or professional growth.  So, I decided to end the relationship.

It is important to remember that I am a Roman Catholic, and when I married, the church was very important to both my husband and me.  As life continued, and we encountered many struggles, our faith was shaken.  When a final crisis hit, I believe we had no foundation on which to re-build the relationship. His unwillingness to admit to any problems in the relationship and my increasing feelings of frustration created a situation where I felt I had no choice but to leave.

As I reflect on that time of my life I am reminded of transformative experiences, that involved seeing sunrises and removing blocks.  There were two things that were blocking me, the marriage and the position I held.  I left the marriage and two years later made a big change by leaving the job I had for four years.  I experienced the difference between religion and spirituality.  I was embracing a more spiritual way of life by following and identifying the stories that were important in my life and remembering where I wanted to go in my career.  I still identify as Roman Catholic, but my faith deepened and changed in ways I still find it difficult to describe.

As these changes occurred in my life, again I was back to the sense of one voice.  My classmates were not supportive of my ‘being an ally’ (Bishop, 1994) and I left a place I felt a sense of community even as I ended a twelve-year romantic relationship.

Part Three (2002-2012)

After leaving my husband of twelve years, and my position of four years, I moved out of Toronto and returned to my parents’ home in Barrie as I tried to figure out the next part of my life. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in counselling, but I was not certain how to do this.  I approached a friend at a small Catholic agency and asked him to let me learn from him and the other staff at the agency to develop my counselling skills.  He welcomed me to the agency as a ‘student’ and eventually he acknowledged my skills and offered me a paid position.

At this time, I heard a popular phrase attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. This became a personal reminder as I worked to enhance my therapeutic practices, to remember what I learned about not patronizing, directing or further oppressing those who came to our agency for support.

Because I living with my parents and working, I was able to take advantage of several different training opportunities.  I enrolled in a two-year training program with Jim Duvall and Karen Young.  Through this program, I learned about Michael White and Narrative Therapy.  I also attended a few of his workshops in Toronto.  These opportunities helped me understand that oppression need not be ignored in a conversation with someone, but can be discussed in proportion to what at client feels is needed.  I also began to encounter ideas of collaboration, social construction and using language in ways that is inclusive.  Not referring to ‘clients’ but using words like “those who consult with me”.  In these ways, I expanded my therapeutic skills and remained ‘true’ to my anti-oppressive roots.

To discuss this transformation and to place it in a theoretical context, I initially found support through White, Duvall and Young (primarily narrative therapy). As my explorations broadened, my library grew to include Gergen and Gergen, Anderson, Foucault, Freedman, Combs, and many other leading authors in collaboration and social construction.

At this time in my career, I was able to remain committed to developing a professional identity grounded in anti-oppressive counselling practices because I was employed in small agencies which encouraged my growth in this area.  I obtained almost full-time employment and moved to Midland Ontario to continue my counselling career.

I had found authors, training programs and some colleagues who joined their voices with mine, and the sense of one voice was not prominent at this time in my career.

At this point (Winter 2007), my career shifted to a large mental health centre.  Now I was working with people who experience ‘serious mental illness’ and require hospitalization (at times for several months or years) to help them manage their symptoms and learn to live in the community.  I was working on multidisciplinary teams and the work we did was strongly based in a medical model of practice (the doctor had the final say).  At the time I began to work there, the culture was shifting to be more inclusive and working to introduce the ‘Tidal Model’ (Barker & Buchanan-Barker, 2018).  However, this type of change is challenging and is still ongoing now (in 2018).

I obtained a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology (in 2009) which provided me an educational context to further develop my knowledge and skills in counselling. I again included in my practice a combination of social work and counselling.  My final case study for my master’s included authors like: Seikkula, Bird, and Anderson.  When I worked with ‘patients’ it was easy for me to practice in an anti-oppressive manner.  I could listen and externalize (White & Epston, 1990) the experience of hearing voices and seeing things that others did not.  I could use labels that the people who were hospitalized wanted to use to refer to their experiences.  The texts and learning from the various post-modern therapies resonated for me and were applied in many situations. (See the References for a list of the texts that were influential).

The biggest challenge for me was to attend meetings that did not always include the ‘patient’ or if they did, they were treated with respect, but their voices were silent when sitting with a psychiatrist, a nurse, a social worker, an occupational therapist and others.  The ‘treatment team’ felt that they were practicing a recovery-based model. I, however, wondered, if they thought of the recovery model in the same way as I did.  I was looking at things from a social construction position where I knew and understood that the perspective of the patient, their experiences with medication and side-effects and their lived experiences were important and could (should?) have a more privileged position than the medical model allows. I wanted to include them and invite them to fully collaborate with us in their ‘treatment plan’.

I participated in conversations with my colleagues at team meetings, case conferences, program meetings and various learning situations, but I was not able to demonstrate how I ‘stood’ in a different position from my peers.  I, like those I was serving, felt silenced at that time. I continued to work with people who were hospitalized in my collaborative manner, but I was unable to articulate my ideas with my colleagues.  If I suggested things like not to use the term schizophrenic but say “person with schizophrenia”, I was ignored.  If I used externalizing language – like ‘the voices’ or ‘the trickster’ I was challenged because I was not using professional language.  In addition, if I suggested that we ask ‘Mary’ what she wanted, I felt the rest of the team look at me as if I had two heads. (Enter again the ‘one voice’ idea.)

Part Four (2012-2018)

Now, I have had more exposure to social construction theories and collaborative practices, I feel more secure in discussing the social context of lived experiences (my own, others, as well as those who are hospitalized).  Our hospital administration, like many in the health care sector do, talk about multidisciplinary teams and collaboration.  Through some research, I have learned that the prevailing medical model of practice do not acknowledge or recognize the challenges of ‘isms’ or the experience of power within those collaborative teams.  These models do not sit well with me as I remember my anti-oppressive, post-modern learning and continue to incorporate social construction and collaborative practices in my work.

I have also changed positions within the health centre.  I shifted my work to older people who are experiencing various forms of dementia as well as related challenging behaviours.  Our team struggles with using any form of the recovery model (as many patients have lost their ability to communicate in easily understood ways). We have, at times, invited families to participate when available, but for the most part, our discussions involve doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, and other staff to discuss treatment and discharge plans for our folks.

Of course, as usual, our journeys continue on. I no longer work at the mental health centre. I have moved on to other positions, in the community, where it is easier to practice from a collaborative, anti-oppressive perspective.

Conclusion

I would like to explore what it means to practice from a social construction, anti-oppressive perspective on this multidisciplinary team.  How do we work to include our patients in the work we do?  How do we socially construct our work, do we see that our contexts and even why we do what we do is related to our constructed realities? As I look at these questions, I sense that I am ‘alone’ in asking these questions and encouraging others to explore these issues.  Am I now better at articulating my views and find others who think the way I do?

This is where the idea of ‘One Voice’ (Manilow, 1979) comes in to play and the subsequent challenge to find the other voices who are also there.

Just One Voice, Singing in the darkness, All it takes is One Voice, Singing so they hear what’s on your mind, And when you look around you’ll find There’s more than One Voice Manilow, 1979

I have described my socially constructed identity, where I have come from and how I approach my work.  I will now articulate my practice stance.  Many authors’ names have been mentioned in this section, I will now more fully describe the theories that underlie my practices.  Also, later, using autoethnography, I will look at these practices and see if I am the change I wish to see. I will practice in a way that presents alternative practice to perhaps encourage change in practice and thought that might help us work differently with each other and with the people who are with us for assistance.

Continue to My Stance or return to Anti-Oppressive Practice or Home.


[1] Our hospital follows a recovery model based on the “Tidal Model” from England where people with mental health issues are invited to set their goals and work with the medical team to develop ways to reach these goals. (Barker & Buchanan-Barker, 2018)

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