This post is re-blogged from my main blog, AboutTeaching. It was originally published May 14, 2015
I broke into pieces last week (see my post on depression). Since then, part of me wants to laugh hysterically when I’m asked to do things. I mean its ridiculous. I’m completely broken. Sure, I’ll help you with that, just let me screw my arms on first. Wait, where are my legs again?
I realise it isn’t visible. While its obvious to me, there’s no reason that others wouldn’t assume I’m just fine.
That, I confess, is another reason I wrote my post last Sunday. I needed people to see that I’m not whole at the moment. I’m in pieces and I need time to put myself back together.
I took Monday off work. I was in distress and I needed to recover. But, when I tried to return to work on Tuesday, I hit some difficulties.
It took 3 attempts to leave the house. I kept bursting into tears, washing my face, and reapplying my makeup. On the way to school, I nearly had to pull over as I was so nervous. I was having a panic attack.
I was worrying about falling apart and people seeing that. I also knew it was likely some had read my post, and while I’m not ashamed of what I wrote, I was apprehensive about their reactions.
People look at you strangely when you say you’re depressed. I’d not only done that, I’d just publicly admitted to a history of self harm.
Some people retreat. They feel awkward and uncomfortable. Other people will be beautifully compassionate, and when things are close to the surface, compassion reduces me to tears.
Some would be shocked I wrote about self harm on my blog. Some would find themselves confronted and repulsed. And publishing my pain for the world to see is breaking all sorts of taboos.
But in the morning, people were normal. A number told me they hoped I was feeling better and chatted about how much sickness and flu was going around. I tried to deflect the conversations.
I stand by my belief that in hiding mental health issues just contributes to stigmatising and isolating those who suffer. As a school leader, I want to lead by example.
But it’s one thing to believe, and another thing to act. It’s hard to casually say to a crowded room, “Oh no, I don’t have the flu, I have depression”. So I retreated to my office, and tried to focus on my timetable, and the lessons I needed to run that day.
Shortly before classes were due to start, I dropped into the principal’s office. I was there to talk business, but as soon as she saw me, she stood up and asked if she could give me a hug. ‘Why?’ I asked. She gestured towards her computer, and there was my post, open on her screen.
One of my colleagues had been in a few minutes earlier and told her to read it.
If you’re a school principal, and one of your staff reveals they have depression, or any other mental illness, you would do well to follow my principal’s example.
The way she responded was perfect. She’d already read my blog so I didn’t need to explain anything, instead she said, “I know you, I know you know how to manage this and you’ll be okay. Just let me know what I can do to support you.”
See, there was no judgement, no freak out, no questioning. There was no patronising advice and no assumption, that just because I’m struggling with mental illness, I’m not capable of managing. Instead, what I received was respect: “I know you know how to manage this…how can I support you?”
I thought for a moment, and the one word that came to mind was “acceptance”. That’s really all the support I need. And by that I mean to accept the truth of it, and to allow me to do what I need to do to manage it without judgement. Just as she had when I injured my shoulder, or took 3 weeks off with a severe bout of flu.
By recess, the anxiety that made it hard to leave my house had grown into a monster. I knew that at least some people on staff had read my blog, but I didn’t know who. The person who shared my blog with the principal, never usually reads it, so it must have been passed around at least a little. I felt so exposed and I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.
I was over thinking everything. If someone smiled, were they being friendly, or were they feeling sorry for me? What about that teacher who was too busy to say anything when we passed in the corridor. Was she in a rush, or was she avoiding me, because reading my post has made her uncomfortable?
The anxiety was so bad, that I started to have panic attacks. I couldn’t leave my office. I was shaking, hyperventilating and trying to keep calm. I closed the door, but that wasn’t enough, I had to shut the blinds as well. And all the time I was hungry, but too panicked to go into the staffroom and get my food out of the fridge. I calmed myself down a couple of times and attempted to leave, but as I got to the door, I’d start panicking again. So I just stayed in there, trying to calm down and resisting the instinct to hide in the cupboard.
The panic itself fed further anxiety. I’m an assistant principal. I’m meant to be strong and together. A supportive and reassuring presence. Not an emotional wreck who wants to hide in a cupboard. I mean, who does that, and how can anyone respect me? How can I respect myself?
I decided to stay in my office until the next period, when I’d be teaching Year 6. They make me laugh, and as I said in my earlier post, teaching is so immersive. It demands all of my attention and there’s no space for depression in those moments when I’m working with students.
But when the bell went, as soon as I neared the door, I’d weep, shake, and hyperventillate. After 10 minutes of trying, I gave up. I needed to be home.
I found the principal, told her I had to leave, and that was it. Again, there was no judgement from her just acceptance. She trusted my ability to determine if I was fit for work. Trust and respect, that’s the support I need.
I know in my earlier post, I wrote that I had strategies to manage this. Well, sometimes its harder to use them than others. And sometimes they don’t work. Once mental health impedes my ability to work, or lead a normal life, then I know its time to seek help. I’ve seen my GP and have a follow-up appointment tomorrow. And I’ve a medical certificate that covers me for the week off work.
I’ve needed the time out. I had more panic attacks yesterday, and my ability to concentrate is shot to pieces. I’ve been over thinking everything and unable to make decisions about the most simple things: A friend DM’d me yesterday to ask how my day had been. He’s been supporting me throughout this episode. I started to panic: How should I answer. Should I tell him the truth? If I did, he’d probably feel obliged to keep supporting me, and I don’t want to be such a burden. Everyone has their issues, and I don’t want to burden them with mine. But, if I lie and say things are good, then he’ll think I’m fine and I’m not and the support has really been helping me. I worried over this, for around 20 minutes, before settling on replying with ‘better than yesterday’ or something along those lines.
Cameron, my TERpodcast colleague contacted me this morning about preparing the script for the episode we were due to record this evening, and I felt the anxiety rising within me again – and disbelief. How on earth could anyone think I could do any of this when I’m in pieces?
But of course, how would anyone think otherwise? There are no visible injuries. He was understanding though. I warned him he might need a back up plan for this episode, so we pulled the plug on my contribution and he’s working on Plan B. I feel so fortunate to be able to step back from these things, and so grateful that my colleagues support me, when I know it creates an extra burden for them.
And so, it’s the first day I haven’t had to DO anything, no work, no doctors appointments, no other commitments. I haven’t had to leave the house, so there’s been less cause for anxiety. But my mood feels lighter too – For the first time in days I don’t feel like I’m IN distress, just drained, exhausted and melancholic from the experience of it. I think I’ll be better soon.