This is short account of one of those moments when, working with a service user, something clicks into place: a shared concept and a shared language jumps out and serves as a reference point for future work: a foundation idea which frees up the space for the service user to find a way forward, however tentatively.
I was a probation officer. I was working with a young man on probation – I’ll call him Josh – who had a record of relatively minor offending: theft mostly, other offences of dishonesty, motoring offences. He could ‘blow’ on occasions but these had not so far resulted in police involvement or convictions for violence. However, he knew he had an issue with his temper, as also with his drinking. He was mildly involved with illegal drug taking but it was alcohol that was the real temptation for him.
He was a member of a large family. They all lived hugger-mugger in two adjacent houses in a large, rather enclosed out-of-town estate. Everyone knew everyone else and Josh’s two-house family involved a complex set of relationships.
Somehow, I ‘knew’ it was my job to work solely with Josh. I would often visit a family, perhaps become involved with them, if this was possible, but it wasn’t in this case; the only statutory requirement was that Josh come and see me, which he did at the office. Josh seemed sometimes to be living with his family and sometimes separated from them and, while I could not fully grasp relationships within the family, a pattern emerged that indicated Josh had a particular role within it. It’s hard to think systemically about a family one has never visited: but – there you go – I could at least listen to Josh and observe what happened over time.
One day there was a serious ‘blow up’ between Josh and a sibling and Josh got his marching orders (again). He was homeless, staying with various friends, a couple of nights sleeping rough and, as he knew, at risk of offending to keep body and soul together. I suddenly thought of a book by Bill Jordan I had read many years ago: he was a probation officer and he wrote about his work with what he termed ‘centrifugal’ and ‘integrative’ families: some families ‘flee from emotional involvement with each other’, with the ‘expelled’ member carrying away the emotional tensions for the family, whereas other families cling together. I had picked up there was a lot of vulnerability, dependency and disability within Josh’s family binding them together, whereas Josh was young, healthy and strong. He could survive being the centrifugal one: he was the one who could safely be given his marching orders, knowing he would be more or less OK. After a period of time he would return.
I put this to him: I think he’s the yo-yo, pushed out and pulled in but always tied to the string. It was a ‘click’ moment; he said to me that he had been watching his nephew play with a yo-yo and had thought: ‘that’s me and one day the string will snap’.
This gave us a very visual, understandable way to think about a complex process; one that seemed to make sense. And it freed up thinking about the future. How could Josh, as an independent adult, build a different kind of relationship with his family and parents? How can you be close to your family but with enough space to breathe and make your own choices? Could he find his own place to live and how do you go about this, presenting yourself to a landlord as a reliable potential tenant? Practical assistance with housing and contact with an alcohol counselling service were arranged. And the probation order did indeed move into a new phase: a calmer one, with quite frequent appointments which perhaps helped to provide containment during this period of exploration and transition. He found he handled tempting situations that could have led to further crime and muddle more responsibly and he was able to think more about himself and what he wanted to be as a person. When the probation order ended, Josh was in a better place in his life than when it started; I only hope that perhaps I helped him find some of the inner resources to carry on in that direction.
William Jordan (1972) The social worker in family situations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.