How 2 of My High School Students Helped Me Realize I Had POTS
I didn’t make it to work today.
A day off work for me is not Netflix, relaxation, and comfort food. It is trying to keep down medication, a wrestle with my compression tights, frantically ensuring students have what they need, then asking Tom to come help walk me 15 feet down the hallway so I can get to the bathroom without passing out. And hours of being alone with my mind. Too tired to binge watch my favorite show, finish that book by my bedside, finish my current art project. Just a cyclic pattern of opening my phone, staring out my window, trying to get restless sleep.
I’ve felt this push to share my story for a little while. But why? I could write it out as a sob story to elicit pity. I could write it with an unrealistic sense of positivity to rescue a reputation of perfection and clout. But none of this is productive or genuine. So, I will share my story for the sole purpose of connection.
My first year of teaching was rough. I was fatigued. My boss ignored my emails when I asked for feedback and support. The district would not let me switch curriculum, even when I told them it was not appropriate for my students. I chalked up the tired to this unsupportive environment and just being a first year teacher, but doctors threw in some depression meds for kicks and giggles.
Teaching year two I found myself in a much more enjoyable placement. Even though my students were mostly the same (they moved up to the high school with me), I had eradicated their problem behaviors through being able to select the appropriate instruction. I had a really awesome team, who were all committed coworkers and fun friends. I was developing meaningful relationships with my students and I was starting to find my groove. I had a wonderful friend group, road trips and lazy weekends on the couch remain equally pleasant memories. Yet, I still felt fatigued. Many days were sponsored by Diet Coke and an afternoon nap. It was again chalked up to depression, and my meds were increased.
I never questioned my depression and anxiety, and even in hindsight, those things were real for me. But by my third year of teaching, I began to feel it was something more.
My fourth year, I met my Tom, and started my dream job. Yet, I got more fatigued. I was devastated. I began to escalate really quickly and couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. I couldn’t exercise anymore. Even gentle yoga would leave me breathless on my back.
Through the course of that year, I met two students who shared their experience with postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS). The more and more they shared their experiences, I realized I was just like them.
Just last month, I was diagnosed with POTS and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It was both earth shattering and completing. So much of my life was explained.
My doctor described POTS best through a melted otter pop. When a melted popsicle is lying flat, all the liquid is distributed equally through the sleeve. However, if you stand the popsicle up, the liquid falls to the bottom. This is my blood. My veins are weaker than most, so my body has a hard time keeping my blood even throughout my body. Because of this, my heart works really hard, and makes me experience extreme exhaustion. This exhaustion is not the finals-week-of-college tired. It is extreme pain caused by light, sound, and movement. It is the inability to sit up without blacking out and nausea. I have had flares where I lost the ability to talk.
Again, I do not write this to elicit pity. Pity does nothing for me – if you send it my way, it won’t magically take away today’s migraine. In the kindest way I can say it, it is a waste of your energy.
Instead, use that energy to become more vulnerable with those around you. I reckon it would have been years more without my students’ genuine dialogue of their own struggle with POTS. Vulnerability forges deeper connection and more fulfilling relationships. If we strip away every commitment, endeavor, prize, reputation, or honor, we have nothing without raw and genuine relationships.
Also, use that energy to slow down and let go. Yes, I know that sounds paradoxical. But I have learned that it is so much less emotional energy to numb the hard stuff through staying busy and remaining rigid with the path we think we want for ourselves. Deferring grad school was a gut-punch to my pride, but I am learning the hard way that there is no commitment that is worth your health and well-being. I used to think that I was doing a service to my students and loved ones by gritting through the hard days, but as I have slowed down, I have become a better teacher and friend.
Chronic illness is not romantic, but raw and excruciating at best. It would be inaccurate to claim gratitude for it’s companionship, but I am grateful for it’s lessons of connection, vulnerability, and love.
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