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When I Realized I Had to Stop Pushing Myself as a Teacher With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

We teachers are notoriously bad at looking after ourselves. Over the years, I have worked with some incredibly committed professionals who go to class, despite illness, cancer scares, family bereavements and a whole host of other personal challenges.

It seems teachers literally have to be at death’s door before they finally accept their circumstances and take a much-needed break. In reality, what generally happens is that we push and push through the term and then submit to illness once the holidays arrive.

So why do teachers do this? No, it’s not because we enjoy pushing ourselves so hard. And it’s nothing to do with finances. In the UK, teachers have one of the best sickness absence policies going with six months at full pay and a further six months at half pay. I can’t speak for all teachers, but in my experience, the reason we turn up day after day and week after week, regardless of how wretched we might feel, is because we care so much about “our” children.

This dedication to my school has been one of the hardest things for me to face since my diagnosis with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which is also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), because while my mind is still more than willing, my body, unfortunately, is not entirely able.

As with most teachers (and many other people, I’m sure), my mantra has always been to push on, work through the pain and eventually come out the other side fully recovered. Unfortunately, this is the polar opposite to how chronic fatigue syndrome works. In fact, the more I push, the more ill I become and any chance of recovery (or acceptable level of illness management) decreases considerably. I know this. I’m a reasonably intelligent person. I have a suitably responsible job. And yet, I can’t stop pushing myself!

After first being diagnosed, I took one week off work, and then I went back to school on a phased return, as recommended by my doctors. For the first week or so, I was well behaved. I slept around nine hours a night, took a huge amount of supplements (as recommended in Dr. Sarah Myhill’s book about chronic fatigue), alternated periods of activity with periods of rest, limited my
workload to specific tasks, ensured that I left school on time and rested when I returned home. At the time, I was immersing myself in reading about chronic fatigue, so it was constantly on my mind.

After a week or so, however, I began to push things ever so slightly. My old teacher mentality was beginning to return. I worked an extra 45 minutes before leaving school, said “yes” to colleagues’ requests when really I should have said “no,” spent my “rest” time at home catching up on school work, occasionally forgot to take one of my supplements because I was so engrossed in my work and started going to bed slightly later.

Yesterday — one month after my diagnosis — I realized I was eating lunch at my desk while replying to emails and updating student records. Something had to change.

I have no doubt if I carry on in this way, my symptoms will worsen, and, in fact, I’ll probably end up crashing once again and need some time off work.

Fortunately, I realized this before it was too late. My illness is once again at the forefront of my mind, and I have decided that from now on I’m going to put the needs of my own children before those of the children I work with. Because, let’s face it, while teachers may be good at putting the needs of others before their own needs, moms are even better at doing this. It just so happens that what my children need right now is for their mommy to be well.

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