Bearing a burden that isn’t yours to carry

The purpose of this blog is primarily to provide insights into the legal concepts and processes at play within adult social care. I am aware that most of you are here for that information. But I also believe in looking at concepts in context, and some of that context is personal. Burn out, compassion fatigue and just general mental exhaustion are common in many fields including (no surprise I am sure) law and social care. So sometimes I like to also talk about what it is like for a professional in this specialism on a more human basis.

So today I want to talk about a case of mine, that I found really emotionally draining. I’ll talk about it in a more process driven post as well, I am sure. But I’m asking you to indulge me a little, because I am sure I am not alone in my reaction to this type of case, but we as professionals are not good at acknowledging the emotional impact of the work we do.

The story is a horribly sad one. I have been acting for the parent of P. P is a young woman with profound physical and mental disabilities brought about due to a catastrophic accident when she was a small child. She has lived with her parent for most of her life and the support provided by services historically was less than stellar. When P was 16, social services decided to intervene. She was removed from her parent’s care and a care order was made in favour of the local authority. P is now approaching her 18th birthday and there is a disagreement between services and the parent as to where she should live and the care she should receive. My client wants their daughter home, social and health care services want her in a formal placement.

My client had a lot of difficulty obtaining legal representation. That isn’t uncommon for family members: court of protection lawyers are generally so busy with work for P, that it is not worth the additional effort to take on these cases as well. But I agreed to take it in because a) I’m still just getting myself established in private practice so don’t necessarily have the luxury of being picky and b) I fundamentally believe that the people should be able to get legal advice when they need it, and this client really tugged on my heartstrings.

It is less than 2 months since I agreed to take in this case, and we have made precisely 0 progress. My client has a combination of a complete mistrust of professionals (which I can understand, to an extent, given the history of this case), chronic stress-induced indecision and a sizeable victim complex. They are unable, or unwilling, to accept any advice that does not accord with their view and regularly refuse to give me instructions, and are also convinced that absolutely everyone is working against them. Including me, and the barrister I instructed, because we aren’t doing exactly what they want us to. For example, my client is adamant that they are doing everything they can to work with professionals and are very angry at the suggestion that they aren’t. But also insists on including in their statement the name of every professional who has ever wronged them and listing every time an email wasn’t replied to right away. And when I suggested these two things might be interpreted as somewhat contradictory, my client immediately demanded to speak to my manager.

And I bet that there are 2 types of reaction those of you reading this are having right now. My husband works in customer service and is a wonderfully kind and patient man. And when he came home one night and had to listen to me rant (anonymously of course) about this case for about an hour and a half his reaction was, well, less than polite and he suggested that this client was beyond my help and would just have to deal with the fallout on their own. I admit that this seems to be a perfectly valid and reasonable response. This one client has had more of my time than 5 others combined and I have gone to a lot of effort to listen to them, to try to empathise and make sure that they feel listened to. So I would really love to have the confidence to be able to say that I had done everything I could for this client.

But of course, that’s not how I reacted, and I am willing to bet that a good few of you reading this have responded to similar situations the same way. I immediately assumed I had done something wrong. I began running over every conversation I have had with this client, trying to work out what I could have said differently to this client to get to through to them. I was, and am still to a large extent, convinced that if I had said the right thing, this client would have understood my advice, and then we’d have had a real chance of achieving what they wanted to achieve.

When I heard they wanted to speak to my manager, I lost sleep over it. And not because I worried that my manager would criticise my work. I knew I had, on paper, done the right thing and that my manager (a lovely human being who is very supportive) would look through the file and be satisfied I had done what was expected. I lost sleep because now work had been created for someone else, because I couldn’t find a way to get through to that client.

There was talk of handing the case over to a colleague, and I felt awful about it. This was, after all, my mess and someone else shouldn’t have to clean it up. I’d taken on the case, I’d given the advice and then someone else was going to have to deal with the ramifications. It was my burden to bear.

Of course, my manager has taken a detailed look at the case and is now convinced that no one else has the time to give this client what they need. So the client’s choice is to work with me, or seek representation elsewhere. Except no other firm agreed to take on the case. Which means they’ll be going it alone in a few weeks if they can’t be ‘won around’.

My manager has said she’d have given the same advice. The instructed barrister has given the same advice. Yet still I feel guilty, and I will continue to feel guilty that this client probably won’t get the outcome they want. But they might have done, if I had just been better.

I have spoken before about how my therapist tells me I have high standards, but I tend to only use these standards to judge myself, never anyone else. If a colleague came to me and told me this tale, I’d tell them they had done their best, and that it isn’t possible to help someone if they don’t want to be helped

So why can’t I apply that to myself?

I can’t because I have taken on the burden, that was never mine to bear. My job is to advise and support, but the client makes the decisions, when it comes down to it. I have tried my hardest to explain my advice, and to get the client to understand that just because I don’t agree with everything they say doesn’t mean I don’t think they have a case, or that I don’t want to help them. It is precisely the opposite, in fact. If I didn’t care, I’d just do what they want and they’d have provided the local authority with enough evidence to ensure that P would remain in a formal placement for the rest of her life.

The burden was and remains the client’s to carry. I offered a wheeled suitcase and a taxi, but they insist on carrying it all on their back.

My therapist taught me about the cycle of drama when I was dealing with a difficult situation at my old job. It was a really useful tool in helping me understand my behaviour, and how that was feeding into the problem. And I think in this kind of role it is very easy to fall into that cycle. People come to us asking to be rescued, and we’re flattered to be cast in the role of hero and we want to swoop in and save them. But there will always be another drama that is beyond our abilities to fix. And that is a very difficult emotional place to be, for me, anyway.

I’m working on it. After all, there will always be clients like this one. It is completely impossible for me to please everyone I ever come into contact with and if I keep trying to, I will only make myself unwell again.

For me, this job was about a fresh start and breaking away from some of the bad habits I had got into in my last role.

It’s definitely a work in progress

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I used to work for, or the organisation I now work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of either that local authority or organisation

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