Our work in the human services is based on the premise that others need support to stay afloat, to keep their head above water, to navigate the turbulent times or even to reconstruct their leaking vessels (to continue with the water analogy).
Clients often feel that they are under threat. This can be from their own fears, uncertainty about the future or their grief and loss. It may be because their parenting and lifestyles are deemed by the authorities to put their children at risk. Whatever the scenario and whatever the level of concern, our clients are usually in stormy waters with real or perceived metaphorically, ‘leaky boats’.
What is the most useful and empowering way to support our clients? How often do we feel like we are swimming upstream, being caught in the white water or circling in the billabong with our clients? Why do we feel like this? What makes us sometimes feel like we are inundated when supporting our clients or paddling around in circles with little direction? What are we doing in the water with the client anyway?
Is it possible that we all have our own river to row in life, clients and support workers alike? I have long used the River Metaphor to describe a way in which we can differentiate between the life of a client and role of the support worker.
The River Metaphor emerged from my observations when working in Early Childhood Intervention Services. The technical skill of an allied health worker, a speech pathologist for example, did not necessarily transfer to feeling comfortable or skilled at responding to the emotional turmoil and processes that they observed with some parents when they were dealing with the realisation that their child had a developmental delay or diagnosed disability. Often caseworkers had no training or practice for this ‘other level’ of support that was needed before any of the technical skills could be applied. Supporting a distressed or grieving parent comes before engaging them about observing the speech patterns or the daily feeding routines of their child. I saw many support workers diving into The River (the life) of their client attempting to rescue them. In other words, they were becoming flooded with sympathy, feelings of helplessness and misplaced responsibility. The River Metaphor emerged.
When our clients are in crisis in the flood waters it is not our job to wade into the river to rescue them. We do not need to feel like we are up to our nostrils in the river, with no jetty in sight. We are there to ensure our clients are safe, and to call the emergency services, who will support them to reach the banks of the river, where we can continue to offer support.
Is it possible that the discomfort and unsettlement we feel when we lack direction as support workers is a sign that we need to obtain our own support/supervision so that we can stand strongly and firmly on the banks of The River, confirming the strengths and activities of our clients and reassuring them that they can indeed take control of their own boat? Given that support workers are always temporary, albeit at times incredibly significant figures in the lives of our clients, is it possible that the greatest service we can give them is to reflect to them their own capabilities and potential by the consistency and steadfastness of our presence?
What if our clients may also be navigating the ‘white water’ of several other systems on their river? These systems may include child protection, income support, medical, family, education. We know how intense, unrelenting and overwhelming things can get. It is important to advocate for clients where needed, highlighting the many aspects of the systems that impact severely on client empowerment and client rights. The lack of control and disempowerment can indeed feel inundating. How critical (and yet how challenging) is it at these times to remain on the banks of The River when the river is rapidly rising in terms of emotions, physical exhaustion, overwhelm, inaction, risk, red tape, lack of resources, and inexplicable decision making (not an exhaustive list). It can feel like watching another drown.
Instead of jumping or diving in The River, we need to remain on the riverbank, firmly placed on the jetty, ready to respond – observing and not absorbing what is happening around us. Is it possible that we can serve our clients more effectively when we offer our care and relationship from the jetty rather than struggling to tread water or become tangled by the many snags and currents in the river of another’s life? Are we not also in a better position to reflect the steady qualities of a lighthouse (are there lighthouses by a river?) – an ever-consistent light in the darkness that can be relied upon to reflect to each other the innate worth of every human being and the inextinguishable light within us that is always there to connect to.
Bernadette ‘s workshop “The Strength Based Approach: for Caseworkers, Educators and Allied Health Workers” explores further The River Metaphor, equipping support workers with the tools to identify if they are “in the river”, and what steps they can take to avoid drowning in their casework.