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Stories of Pain, Trauma, and Survival
A Social Worker's Experience and Insights from the Field
Sarah Meisinger
ISBN: 978-0-87101-391-0. 2009. Item #3910. 96 pages.

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Sarah Meisinger wrote Stories of Pain, Trauma, and Survival: A Social Worker’s Experience & Insights from the Field for all the new social workers experiencing the "baptism by fire" as they enter the profession. The book chronicles Meisinger’s struggle to find a balance between her own "personal agenda to '‘save the world one client at a time' and the reality of what occurs" between social worker and client.

In response to the need for undergraduate and graduate students to hear about real-life experiences working with traumatized clients, Stories of Pain, Trauma, and Survival is filled with anecdotal examples of social work with individuals and groups in a variety of settings that include nonprofit agencies, child welfare services, and veteran’s health care. Each masterfully written story is followed by Meisinger’s personal and professional insights on how these experiences have informed her practice. The book is useful for classroom discussions and critical self-assessments and will be helpful to beginning and seasoned social workers alike.

The primary thesis of Stories of Pain, Trauma, and Survival is that social workers can be more effective by getting "back to basics" and staying in touch with the core values of the profession. Meisinger notes that, one of the most important services that social workers can provide is to be fully present in "witnessing the pain" of a traumatized client. The self-knowledge and compassion that emerge from this mindfulness make all the difference in working with clients who are overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.
About the Author
Introduction

Chapter One: A Witness to Pain
Listen
Be Present
Be Mindful
Do Not Judge
Do Not Rescue
Be Patient

Chapter Two: The Pain in the Room
Acknowledge the Pain
Holding Pain
When Pain is Raw
Client Safety

Chapter Three: Pain’s Purpose
Finding Meaning
Avoidance No More
Pain as a Path

Chapter Four: Did They Teach Us About This Stuff?
Gathering Knowledge
Being Human
You Can’t Teach Compassion

Chapter Five: How Do You Do What You Do?
Validation
Why Me?
Hope (Pandora’s Box)

Chapter Six: What about My Pain?
Self-Disclosure
Practice What I Preach
We’re In This Together

Chapter Seven: Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Recommended Reading
Recommended Web sites
Bibliography
Index
I was driving home from an especially hard day and I remember thinking, as I frequently have, "Why am I doing this work?" I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and I was unsure how I’d find the energy to return to my office the following day. I drove into the garage, turned off the engine, took a deep breath, and walked to the backyard. The sun was slowly creeping westward and I took many deep, contemplative breaths. I shut my eyes and decided that I may need to be content in not knowing why. I did, however, decide in those moments that I wanted to write a book. I wanted to reach out and reach within to come to terms with the field I am passionate about, social work. This is where the book began; the idea was born in my backyard among the grass, the garden that needs my attention, the sunset, and my struggle. The book serves as a type of field guide for social workers entering the profession. The purpose of the book is to share and process the common experience of many of us in the social work field. The book is unique because it is not a traditional textbook. The book is not filled with imaginary case studies, theoretical frameworks, policy, or research but, rather, strategies to cope with and understand our clients’ stories of pain and trauma in the context of real-life examples from a real-life social worker in the field.

Each chapter in the book provides anecdotal examples of a variety of social work practice experiences I have had in my fifteen-year career. It is important to note that identifying information about the clients has been changed to ensure confidentiality. As an undergraduate and, later, graduate social work student, I would have deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear about other social workers’ experiences with traumatized clients - what working with people in the depths of their own painful experiences was really like. In addition to the anecdotes I write about regarding experiences in child protection services, advocacy at a rape crisis center, and work at a Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, I have listed a blend of personal and professional insights related to what I have learned about social work through my practice experiences and, primarily, what I have learned from my clients. To be specific, I share discoveries about myself in relationship to other people and how this informs my practice every single day.

The problem the book addresses is the "baptism by fire" experience most new social workers have when entering the field. More often than not, social workers sprinting out of the starting gates of their respective social work academic programs have a strongly held belief that they are now prepared to "change the world one client at a time." This certainly was my belief system as a new social worker and to some extent it may still be what I believe. I knew nothing about being a witness to the sort of pain I was about to experience with my clients. This book is a testament to the often-thankless job of social workers and other helping professionals. This book is also a teaching tool to help students studying to become social workers – both at the undergraduate and graduate levels – have a greater understanding and awareness of work with traumatized individuals. My goal is to address underlying beliefs about our clients that may lead to challenges in relationship building, increased stress for the client and the social worker, professional burnout, and compassion fatigue. This is my letter to social work students in their final year of education, especially those in internships and field placements. Agencies that employ numerous social workers might also incorporate this book for training and orientation purposes, including county social service agencies, nursing homes, hospitals and medical clinics, crisis centers, prisons, and schools. Finally, this book should be meaningful to social workers already experiencing burnout, compassion fatigue, or an existential crisis, asking themselves: "Why am I doing this work?"

In this book, I reference breakthrough moments I have had in striking a balance between my own personal agenda to "save the world one client at a time" and the reality of what occurs between me, the social worker, and my clients. I provide insights into the intense nature of the work, real-life examples that are relatable and thought provoking, and basic insights to assist social workers in embracing the role of "helper" while working to avoid compromising themselves, their professional values, and doing the work for the client instead of with them. My hope is that the reader will recognize that when we work with our clients and with their pain, we will give our clients more than we could have ever imagined and, at the same time, value ourselves and the hard work we do.
Sarah E. Meisinger, MSW, LICSW, is a clinical social worker currently in practice in central Minnesota. Her social work experience includes work with nonprofit agencies, child welfare services, and veterans’ health care. She is an adjunct faculty member with St. Cloud State University’s Social Work Department.