As said in my last blog, being a probation officer has taught me a lot, and has it’s perks. But there has to be a flip side, and I feel I now have to mention some more ‘irksome’ (#poshwordalert) things which have, on occasion, ‘irked’ me in my work. Now I am not one to moan, but just for once, I’m going Make-Like-An-American-Talk-Show-Guest, and “Share”……
Probation differs from other agencies, like alcohol or drug ones, who work with people for as long (or as little) as they are needed (or wanted). Probation is a bit more like a non-access ISA – once you’re in it; you ain’t getting out of it, no matter HOW much interest you do or don’t have, for at least a year. What that essentially means is we see people through highs and lows, which I think is better. I mean; imagine if your boyfriend only wanted to see you when you had puffy eyes and hairy legs – but not when you were feeling and looking stunning. That’s just weird.
A lot of alcohol/drug agencies don’t take people who don’t want to be there, and I understand why. Ultimately; it’s treatment, and I feel it’s fundamentally someone’s right to decide if they want treatment. When someone asks for help, I love referring them on, and will often swap time with me for time there. But, equally, you can refer a lad stinking of skunk to a drug worker seventeen times, but if they don’t want it they won’t go, and the drug agency can’t generally make them.
So what happens to those people in the cracks, blind to their problems, or just plain confused? Those who need to somehow magic up some motivation before anyone will take them on?
Probation see them. Every week. Forcibly. Like a big old fat year-long school detention.
But you know what. In those weeks, something happens. You talk, chat, point out little things, work with humour and without pressure. And bit by bit, people GET the motivation they need to GO to that drug agency after all. I guess my gripe is this; we see the unmotivated, and once they find their mojo, they fly away to others, who get to do all the fun bits. I suppose it’s just a good job I like the journey as much as the destination.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I DON’T really like a good crisis. When a lad comes in at 4:45pm on a Friday evening homeless and soaked to the skin, I don’t launch over my desk like a 1970s cop, purse my lips against a cigar and say “c’mon guys, lets do us some BIG TIME housing applications!”. I just feel sad for the lad, worried about whether anything I’ll do in the next 15 minutes is likely to make any difference at all, and a bit angry that the normal safety-nets for homelessness, are just NOT going to work for this young man. He’s so far down the housing priority list, he’s like a Z-list 1999 Big Brother contestant trying to blag their way into the Royal Wedding.
And I always find it difficult to leave. The old 9 to 5 doesn’t really work in probation. YOU try looking a person in the face and saying “nah…sorry…I can’t help you with your suicidal thoughts at the moment, because I’ve got two tickets to the Opera and a bottle of Blue Nun waiting for me in the fridge”. It’s not quite the same as if you were, say, working at a paper-clip manufacturing factory. I’m not dissing you guys: I LOVE what you do: I am a stationery-addict. But if that paper clip doesn’t make it to Staples on time (and this is the important bit) “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE”. That’s the line most people say to themselves when there’s something at work that hasn’t been done or can’t be fixed. It’s there to passify, to let you off, to make us feel better. Unfortunately, as a probation officer, you can rarely use it.
Sack the Stylist
I shall now make a sweeping un-PC statement and say that “clothes” are generally the domain of the ladies. And trying to figure out what togs one should wear as a female probation officer has been a bit of a ‘mare for me. Before this, I was a jobbing office temp and barmaid. In THOSE workplaces, a chiffon blouse, pencil skirt, tights and heels were nothing special. Hell; in one bar I worked at they actively encouraged wearing fishnets and stilettos (ugh). But you just try walking through a probation waiting room like that and see what happens. I remember in my early days (when I still crammed my size 7s into bear-trap heels) calling out a client’s name in a waiting room (who incidentally I’d read the Riot Act to a week before). The lad sitting next to him saw me, nudged him and said “raaaarse; I wish SHE was MY probation officer”. To my relative delight, my client turned round with a long face and said “oh no you DON’T” before skulking in. But on a serious note; you wanna look smart, but not start setting off some secretary-fantasy. You wanna look approachable, but not like you just rocked up at the corner shop in your Uggs for a pint of milk (especially as on those days you will always get called into Court. It’s the LAW).
My current ‘guise has settled on “Geek Chic”. Hopefully this says “Hi: I’m easy to talk to, relatively intelligent, often get dressed in the dark, and don’t mind making a complete fool out of myself in public” which I think is as good a first impression as any. For this job you need something friendly, non-sexual and cosy (as those probation offices get awful chilly). See the dilemma? There’s only so many options one can choose and the gravitational pull to wool is alarmingly strong…
So….the next time someone starts harping on about “those Cardigan-Wearing, Social-Working Hippy Probation lot” just ignore them and remember: The Cardigan Is Our Saviour.
Over and Out