Being a teacher is one of the most arduous and challenging professions that anybody can take on. It takes an exceptionally resilient and strong-willed person to survive the battles faced every day in this job. For me, returning to teaching after having my daughter took an already prevalent anxiety condition to an entire new realm. In this blog, I will share my experiences of teaching, the emotions and internal struggles I faced and how my job took me to a very dark and lonely place.
April 13, 2016: Returning to work
After 13 special work-free months caring for my beautiful baby girl, the day had finally come. Since the moment I gave birth I had been fearfully counting down the weeks. Each day that passed caused a greater knot in my stomach, bile in my throat and adrenaline in my veins. Every inch of my body and mind screamed out at me not to return to the shackles of the education system. I knew only too well the grasp a job in teaching has over your life. The late nights, the lost weekends and holidays, the unpaid hours upon hours of marking and planning. How could I possibly be the best mum and the best teacher?
Now my time was up.
The first few weeks were a blur of training, emails, slideshows and class lists. Starting again, learning the names of 120 students, trying desperately to search my battered baby brain for the tools of teaching and behavior management I had somehow hidden in the darkest corner of my memories. Then came the assessments and the marking, followed closely by the observations, the performance management, the work analysis and the performance-related pay progression. Everything was different. Everything had changed. A new curriculum, a new specification, a variety of new policies. It was never-ending.
I could feel myself slipping.
During my days off, precious moments with my daughter would be tarnished. I wasn’t there; my physical presence perhaps was, but my mind was elsewhere. Some days, my daughter would decide to take an impromptu, later-than-usual nap, and I would be overcome with panic for the late night she would undeniably have that would now jeopardize my evening of tackling the copious amount of work I needed to complete. When bed time came and we lay together in the unlit room, I would feel my heart begin to race, my breathing quicken and my body become irritable as the anxiety set in. I would pray for the moment her eyes would shut and wish away this time.
I would spend every day with my daughter this way. Never feeling present. Incessantly worrying about what I needed to do. Afterwards, when night came and I lay my head on my pillow, my thoughts would spiral and escalate out of control. The most powerful of all was the unbearable guilt of knowing I hadn’t been there for my daughter. In my mindful absence, I was tainting the memories I could never get back.
November 2016: Breaking point
Every teacher occasionally has a bad lesson, a bad day or even a bad week. During my time in schools I’ve experienced complete opposition and work refusal, odious insults, classroom fights, I’ve had books tossed at me and chairs launched across the room. It has never prevented me from carrying on. It has never left me feeling defeated. Until now.
Coping with the rampant demons in my mind made my ability to maintain resilience against daily teaching battles nearly impossible. What used to come naturally to me seemed to fade and fall apart. As soon as my students would enter the room my heart rate would surge; a cold sweat would creep over my entire body and I would feel myself suffocating and gasping for air. Most lessons I would try to escape to the sanctity of my cupboard for a brief 10 seconds just to catch my breath. As each hour of the day passed, these feelings would intensify. I could feel the panic building within me, and by the end of each day I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
To everybody around me: family, friends, colleagues… I was in control. Inside, I was falling apart. I felt completely lost. I was broken.
December 2016: Admitting defeat
Making the decision to go on sick leave should have been an easy one and one which brought with it the opportunity for me to seek help, manage my anxiety and begin recovering. This wasn’t the case. Somehow, it made everything worse. It brought with it an assortment of new worries and fears that I just couldn’t control. “Will I be letting my students down?” “Are my colleagues talking about me?” “Is my boss angry?” “Will my family be disappointed?” “Am I setting a bad example for my daughter?” “Does everybody think that I’m a failure now?”
During this time, I craved some reassurance from the people whom my absence was effecting. A simple text message, phone call or even a comforting email to say everything was OK, to wish me well, and to offer support. But it never came. The alarming silence made my worries and fears cultivate and left me feeling incredibly isolated and alone. I felt backed into a corner with no way of getting out.
This needed to change. I needed to change.
January 2017: Being free
Those with anxiety often hit a point when all of the worries and fears that control us seem to become such a blur that we feel numb. Incapable of worrying about those things which a few days before were governing every aspect of our life. This is what happened to me. I reached a point where I became so overwhelmed with the worry that in self-preservation, my mind blocked any and all thoughts associated with teaching. This sounds like a terrible thing. Denial. A false pretense. But ironically, it gave me the opportunity to put my life into perspective. I started to appreciate the important things in my life. The angelic smile on my little girl’s face, the late nights laughing with my fiancé, even the opportunities to do little things for myself like reading a book. It was during this time I finally realized I, and only I, could change everything.
Making the final decision not to return to teaching has been the most exhilarating and fulfilling feeling I have ever experienced. Finally choosing to disregard the effect my choice may have on others and put my own feelings and health first has meant I can begin to pick myself up and move forward with my life. Now, for the first time in a long time, I feel free. Free from the ridiculous pressure put upon teachers to achieve the unachievable, free from late nights and wasted weekends, free to appreciate every single moment with my family, and free to become anything I want.
Being in any type of employment while struggling with a mental health condition is often a daily struggle of fear, stress and panic. A lot of days can be spent existing in a haze of confusion and self-destructive thoughts of inadequacy, and a lot of people — colleagues, employers, even friends and family — find it difficult to understand how lonely this can be. For various reasons, I chose to leave behind my career for a happier life, but many people aren’t in a position to do this. I can only hope those people ensure they receive the support they deserve to help them cope with working with a mental health condition. As an invisible condition, mental health is often dismissed by society; but it is essential that organizations employ the tools to support these people through the struggles they are facing. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, but to make our way through the dark, we need those around us to guide us through.
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Thinkstock photo by DGL images