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The Reactions I Faced as a 'Small Town' Teacher Who Was Hospitalized for Mental Illness

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“I heard you went to the ‘looney bin!’” a student yells in front of the entire fifth grade art class. Bursts of spontaneous laughter follow.

It’s my second day back at work after being hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. I can imagine that my two-week absence at the beginning of the school year may be quite suspect. I can feel my heart beating frantically throughout my entire body. How does this student know? Did one of my colleagues find out? Did one of the hospital nurses know a parent? Were any of the hospital staff a parent?

• What is Bipolar disorder?

How should I respond? ‘Fess up and use the opportunity to try to teach my students about the importance of mental health? No, I’m sure that the leadership won’t approve. Reprimand the student? No, that will just draw more unwanted attention to the matter.

Making a joke to disarm the situation may be my only choice – but I’m screwed if it backfires.

“Well, if I ended up there, they would never let me leave. It would take a long time to fix everything, right? I just had to take care of some family matters. Sorry it took me so long, but I’m back now. Hopefully, you’ll like this next project.”

Not the most appropriate thing to say, but it gets a few laughs, and I’m able to refocus the class. This isn’t the end of the ridicule, though.

A few weeks later, I’m at the park with my sister and her kids. On my way back from taking my toddler niece to the bathroom, I run into a fourth grade student and his mom.

“I didn’t know you had a kid, Ms. Monico,” the student says. I let him know she is my niece.

“And you’re with her here all by yourself?” the student’s mom asks with an overly concerned look.

“Oh… No, her mom, um, my sister… is back at the playground with my nephew,” I pitifully reassure her.

I’m crushed. It seems like everyone in town knows about my hospitalization — and probably about my bipolar disorder diagnosis too. And now, parents don’t think I should be alone around children. How long before parents complain to the board of education and I’m asked to resign? Is this the price of having a mental illness in a small town?

I consider talking to the principal and vice principal but decide not to after remembering my conversation about my mental illness last year. I had presented a letter from my psychiatrist about some accommodations that would be helpful as I spent a couple of weeks adjusting to new medications amidst new and worsening symptoms. My doctor and I both didn’t think that these accommodations were too much to ask – that I don’t cover other classes or engage in duties with large groups of students for just a couple of weeks. However, I was met with disapproving looks and insistence that if I couldn’t handle my job, I should just use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take leave. Not even the vice principal — who is in charge of the Individual Education Programs (IEPs) for students who need special education services — gave any other option for accommodations other than to leave the school. It was as if they would rather sweep me under the rug than have to deal with my mental illness – even after I won multiple awards for my work.

It isn’t long before I reduce my schedule to part-time through FMLA — only teaching my art classes to the younger grades because I have grown terrified of the older students. I avoid the stores in town for fear of seeing parents, students, and colleagues. It is an excruciating decision to resign after eight years of teaching art. I feel humiliated and like a failure — like I am failing both the students and myself. I wish I could have just talked about my health openly with students and parents and helped reduce the mental health stigma. I wish I could have “owned up” to my mental illness instead of trying to hide or deny it — instead of sweeping my needs under the rug for the administration.

I stay in the small town and find work at a nearby Navy base. Although it’s been a few years, I still avoid certain parts of town. But I let my guard down and go to the local hardware store with my husband. When we get to the register, I hear my name and turn around to find a high-school-aged girl wearing an employee vest.

“Were you the art teacher at Riverside Elementary?” she asks in the sweetest voice.

I’m surprised she recognizes me since I was her teacher years ago. Who remembers their elementary school art teacher?

“Yes,” I say as I try not to look nervous. I wait for her to blurt out that I went to the “looney bin” or the “nuthouse” in front of the entire store.

“I thought that was you, Ms. Monico. Do you remember me? I’m Lexi,” she says as she comes in for a big hug.

“Ah! You didn’t give me enough time to guess,” I laugh. “Of course I remember you.”

She tells me she’s a junior in high school, and while we talk, I keep waiting for her to ask me about my hospitalization, but she doesn’t. Instead, she asks me if I remember what a pain she was. I’m surprised since I don’t remember her being a pain. She was a lovely student, and I tell her as much.

“Do you remember when you yelled at me?” she asks.

“What? No! Did that happen?”

“Yeah. You were talking to the class, and I was in the back of the class mouthing all of the words you were saying to make the other kids laugh. So it makes sense that you got angry with me.”

“Well, I hope I wasn’t too mean back then. I was a new teacher and didn’t know what I was doing, but hopefully, I wasn’t too bad.”

She assures me that I wasn’t mean, and I assure her she wasn’t a bad student. I then talk a little too long about random things because I’m nervous, but I’m also really happy I can reminisce with a student about a time I reprimanded her — and that we can both share a laugh about it.

I’m still surprised to learn about the impact I’ve had on former students — even after all these years. The greatest compliment I have ever received was when a fellow teacher told me her daughter felt safe when she was in my classroom. At the time, the teacher’s daughter was so anxious about being in the school building. What was it that she was worried about again? Was it the possibility of a fire, an active shooter, or a natural disaster? Either way, who could blame her for her worry? But something about my room calmed her.

Why did my room calm her when other teachers had classrooms meticulously decorated with themes and expensive decorations paid for out of pocket? Was it the curtains I sewed with the bright, pom-pom-edged scarves that the sunlight filtered through just so? Was it the walls full of art posters that took no fewer than ten packages of blue sticky tack to hang? Was it the pair of scissors I kept near the air conditioner so I could disobediently turn off the switch so that the kiddos wouldn’t get cold? My room comforted a little girl so full of worry, and in that room, she conquered her fears by writing and illustrating a book about safety. As I continue to redesign my own inner world while living with a mental illness, I hope I can capture whatever it was that calmed that little girl — so I can use it to console myself.

Getty image by shironosov.

Originally published: September 17, 2022
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