‘When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and—the crowning touch—a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor.’
Roberto Bolaño, Woes of the True Policeman
In 2005 I was 21 years old and nearing the end of my vague attempt at an arts degree, majoring in Reading Books, minoring in The Local Pub. I needed to decide what to do. I knew I liked talking to my friends and family about their feelings, their thoughts, and the problems they couldn’t quite tackle alone. I also knew that this made me feel good: capable, useful, kind. I knew that human connection meant the most to me, despite my introvert-fuelled exhaustion after a day spent in interaction, and I knew that I needed to do something for once, rather than floating along with a book in my bag, waiting for my real life to begin. I decided on social work.
This decision was, for me, an important one. I swiftly enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Work and spent the next four years re-learning all the things my mum and dad had been telling me since I was little - the system is not the person; don’t blame the victim; everyone is equal. Despite this familiar and welcome rhetoric, there were difficult parts - I found myself judging some of the people in my classes for their ‘narrow-minded’ views, and I did not like the assumption that I was only doing social work because I myself was ‘damaged’. After I finished my studies I held onto the student lifestyle as long as I could, flitting around the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia until I ran out of money, and found myself back in Melbourne with no job and no cash. A friend suggested I apply where she was working—in the homelessness sector. It was not at all the area I had pictured myself in; I wanted to be in the midst of those who had fled war-torn places, the people that needed shelter from damaged lands. Despite this I applied and got the job, finding myself with a caseload of people who were homeless in Melbourne’s inner city. This was where I finally began to breathe.
Image source: Flickr CC / batega
I will never forget the two years I spent working in homelessness, with people balancing on the edges of their lives. I know now that I gave these people almost nothing, and that they gave me a whole bloody lot. I became intolerably mawkish: spouting to my friends over too many wines that my clients were ‘beautiful, colourful souls’ when really they were just people dealing with the fact that they had had it very rough. I worked with men and women who had been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, people addicted to heroin and ice, people who really felt they needed to (and did) end their lives and people in wild and abusive relationships that they could not pull free of. The stories I heard swirled around in my head and my stomach like tornadoes and I kept them there, because in some mad way these stories gave my life meaning.
I believe I was so intrigued and moved by what I saw and heard during this time for two reasons. The first was that I had had some of my own experiences of chaos and disjoint from the norm. From a young age I had suffered from an anxiety that cornered me in dark places, making social situations difficult and my relationships fraught with doubt. I had also imbibed too heavily as a teenager and young adult, and was beginning to notice that drinking too much was much more difficult for me to control than it was for my friends. With parents who were open about their own struggles with anxiety and a mother who had been brave enough to come out as gay despite the disdain of friends and family members, I thought I had some hold on what it was to be different, and to find the world a foreign place. I was able to empathise with others who felt this way, including the people I was working with. The second reason was the main one. Whilst my own experiences of mental illness, addiction and ‘other’-ness were real, they were also contained due to my privilege. In contrast, the struggles of my clients were active volcanoes - impossible to control, all-encompassing. I watched the way they reacted: with aplomb, with grace, with anger and aggression and desperation. I was in awe of the ferocity of their existences, at the ways they continued to hold on.
The stories kept swirling and beating against my insides after I left my job, went back to study counselling and started a new role working on the phones with carers of people with serious mental illness, dementia, disabilities and addictions. Again my days were spent inside the worlds of people who couldn’t get a leg up, and I wanted to tell someone. I had also found a lovely boyfriend who was a writer and was reminded for the first time in years of my attempt at writing fiction in Year 12 literature and in first year university creative writing. This boyfriend saw in me an intelligent and inspired person, so I decided to try writing again. I wrote poems about loss and grief and trauma, and my boyfriend told me they were good. I tried short stories and found that I could inhabit the voice of someone down on their luck in a way that was readable. I enjoyed it, and it took me away from the stuckness of the real and towards the freedom that fiction brings.
When I moved to Toronto from Melbourne last year it was hard to find work. I applied for any social work position that mildly interested me, and when I finally had some interviews I was offered two positions at once. One position was casual work at a health centre in the lower socio-economic part of town, working with the same kinds of characters I had encountered during my time in crisis accommodation in Melbourne. The other was a full-time job on an information and referral line for seniors. The full-time job would be steady and straightforward and would mean I would be able to save for holidays, dinners and maintain my giant, frivolous wardrobe. The casual job would be work in an environment where I would be undoubtedly pushed to my limit by complex client situations and heart-wrenching stories. The decision was a hard one—in the end I chose the more secure option—but the reason it was hard was because I knew that at the health centre I would be working directly with the kinds of people who inspired me the most to write: the ‘down and outs’, the fighters, the ones who had been dealt the worst cards, and it was their stories that could feed my own.
There is a close relationship between my work and my writing. I don’t believe I have appropriated anyone’s story, rather that the voices I have heard have stayed in me, and I evoke their tone or the places where I heard them when I am writing, to help me tell something real and true. I hope that this is ethical, and I believe that so far it is. It does mean that what would be a dream for most writers; to write full time, to immerse themselves in the written word, would be impossible for me. Without social work I wouldn’t have writing, and I hope I can continue to be fortunate enough to do both.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a social worker and writer who hails from Melbourne and currently lives in Toronto. She enjoys thinking about living more ethically but not actually doing so, and talking about the weather.
Most of her published work can be found on her website: https://lauramcpheebrowne.squarespace.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.