It’s Depression Awareness Week this week. Not only that, but this week I am giving away copies of the book Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig for World Book Night – a book that has helped and continues to help me.
So I’d had the idea for a while that I would write a blog to coincide with these two things and I have written bits and pieces of it for a few days. This is a blog about teaching, and I wanted to make what I said relevant to the world of education. I hope it makes sense and I hope ultimately, that me telling my story helps someone. So this is me, I’m nervous about this one, but here goes.
In February of 2012 my life came to a crisis point. I’d had a string of disastrous relationships, my lovely friend was dying from cancer and I was working too hard. Really hard. That year I was completing the 80:20 GTP course, after teaching as an unqualified teacher. The 80:20 is tough. You go straight into the classroom and teach, on your own, 4 days a week. On a Friday I spent half the year in faculty and half teaching at a second placement school. It was tough, really tough, but then everything else started collapsing around it. Relationships failed, my beautiful friend, who was also my head of department, had cancer and was starting to deteriorate quickly. In between all the things I had to do to get QTS, I was visiting her at home and trying to deal with the fact that yet another relationship had failed.
I started to break. I don’t remember too much, I just remember trying to do everything in a hazy gloom. Nothing seemed real anymore and all I wanted to do was die. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on this earth and that everyone would be better without me. But I kept going. I just kept going. I did everything surrounded by this black cloud, my feet and arms felt like they were chained and I just kept going, because to not, would be unthinkable.
But I knew that I needed help. Encouraged by a friend I went to see my doctor. Thirteen years previously, I had been diagnosed with post-natal depression and in my heart, I knew that I was feeling the same as I had then; that something was wrong. Back then, I had contemplated running around the streets naked so that someone might listen to me. I’d got help before that point, but that slight hint of madness had been there.
So I went to the doctor, who immediately diagnosed depression. My doctor is amazing and listened and cared. She started me on medication and off I went.
A few weeks later, I thought things were getting better. The pills seemed to take the edge off and my life seemed on an even keel. The black cloud was still there, but it had lifted slightly.
But then I crashed. In quite spectacular fashion.
My lovely friend died. It hit me like a ton of bricks. She’d gone into a hospice in the end. The cancer had eaten into practically every organ in her body, and the hospice staff said it was one of the worst cases that they had ever seen. She was the same age as me. We were 37 that year. Despite everything she always checked how I was; constantly asking how I was feeling. A few days before she died, she said, ‘I love you and I want you to life your life’. That will always be etched on my memory.
I’ve always been able to keep a strong public face, but inside I felt intense pain. I would lie in my bed at 3 in the morning wondering why she had been taken and not someone like me. I couldn’t understand why, if there was a God, he wouldn’t take me instead of her. Insomnia set in. I would lie awake, my mind tossing and turning, with dark thoughts a constant in my mind.
Then came another relationship break up. It had been a lovely, if very intense, relationship and I was left shell-shocked. This was the nail in the coffin to send me spiralling out of control. I had lost all sense of self-worth, I felt I had no dignity left and that I had lost all power and control over my life. I soon went from being someone who seemed to be improving to a nervous wreck. I was finding it hard to talk; finding the right words was a problem. My daughter had started finishing off my sentences in frustration at the fact that I couldn’t remember what I was talking about. I would forget what I was doing and fly off the handle as a result.
I had started to have panic attacks at the thought of leaving the house, difficult when you have to go to work everyday! My one saving grace was that I love work, in particular I love spending my day with teenagers. As soon as I walk in a classroom, everything else goes out the window, I forget all my problems and enjoy the day. This meant that my illness, luckily, didn’t affect my work and I felt like a very different person than the wreck that I felt at home. It was a struggle to get there, the panic attacks were coming almost daily, but as soon as I neared work, everything calmed. Very different to what others may expect from a case of depression.
I had started a course of therapy, something that I felt intensely nervous about. However, it turned out to be probably the best thing I had ever done. After a couple of sessions, I was able to open up and talk about my thoughts and feelings. What I was surprised to discover was that, what I thought was a ‘normal’ way of thinking and feeling was not and that I had probably been suffering from depression in some form or another since I was about 18, my last year at school. There seemed to be periods when it had heightened, particularly after children, but it may always have been there waiting to be triggered.
However, worried by my low scores on the depression and anxiety scales, my therapist spoke to my doctor and within a week I had been referred to the Mental Health unit at the hospital for an assessment. They were really kind, my mental health nurse listened and made me feel like there was a way out. But they were concerned that I may be getting to the point where I might need some intensive help and the process of ‘sectioning’ was explained. Luckily, it never came to that. The fact that I felt supported and listened to was what I needed to start scrambling back out.
My mental health nurse was the first person I freely told that I had self-harmed throughout my twenties and he listened nodded and said, “it’s really common to want to make yourself feel a bit shitty, much more common than you’d think”. I was diagnosed officially with clinical depression, which basically means that it is always there and can be triggered by events or things that happen. I carried on with my therapist but I also had the mobile number of my mental health nurse who I could ring whenever I felt that I needed support. It was also decided that I should start a course of cognitive behaviour therapy, a therapy that goes right back to looking at the triggers for the depression and looks at how you can change how you react to the triggers and change your behaviour. I was recommended books to read and was feeling much more positive. They even did appointments over the telephone so I didn’t have to leave work. Work were supportive and let me have a room where I could speak to them on the phone for appointments and also covered me for times when I attended a group therapy session for a while. I went to Occupational Health and they provided work with strategies that might help support me and I can’t fault the time and effort that was out in to understand my illness by my employers.
The hardest thing about clinical depression is the fact that you you will always have it, it’s now more of a question of controlling it. When they first told me I sobbed and sobbed. I truly felt that I couldn’t cope with it for the rest of my life. Some days I don’t think I can, but I always come out the other side. After several changes of medication, I’m now pretty much under control. The lows still come, but they are much more controlled through a mixture of medication, mindfulness, therapy and just generally knowing myself, my own mind and the triggers.
Depression is an illness with stigma. I always thought it was a bit weird when you would hear on the news or tv about people feeling stigmatised. It’s ironic, because mental illnesses are illnesses where you need to talk. It is incredibly lonely when you suffer from an illness that affects your mind. I think people just don’t know what to say, so they often don’t say anything.
Another thing I don’t think people realise is that it is a physical illness as well as mental. On good days I feel light as a feather when I walk, on bad days I have backache, headache, neck pain and find it hard to walk. It is an illness that takes over your whole mind and body, that’s why depressed people often look like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. To them, it feels like they are! It also saps your concentration. I love reading but for months I couldn’t read a book. I love cross stitch but when I was low, couldn’t concentrate for long enough on the fiddly bits. I can read now, although it takes much longer to read than it used to but I am happy that I can enjoy it again.
The problems with concentration also mean that I sometimes find it hard to mark and plan for work very quickly, so it seems like I’m always marking sometimes. At one point I took on some slight OCD traits when marking but I’m not going to start lining all the kids books up in alphabetical order just yet! My Irish therapist soon talked me out of that one!
I now recognise triggers. Tiredness is a big one for me, and I know that if I feel overly tired I need to go to bed and relax, even if it’s just to read a book or listen to music. I still have bad days, or mostly nights. It is hard to define what it feels like to be depressed but it feels like a black mist has descended and there is no way out. It’s like a terrible sense of loss and melancholy and it’s a world you no longer want to be in. You can’t stop it but you can make it feel better, I don’t dip as much any more but when I do I am able to come out of it quicker. I no longer have to be seen at the hospital, but I occasionally see my local IAPT service for therapy sessions. I’m also able to quickly control any anxiety attacks so they don’t become too intense and ultimately draining on me. I also know that a massive trigger is when I don’t feel good enough for the people around me. That’s one that needs working on, particularly in my job.
Some days I’ve had enough. Some days I am fed up of me and the illness that has controlled me. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had ‘t had it – my guess is a lot more stable – but I know there is really little I can do. I find not talking the hardest, you feel like you have to keep things in like a massive secret but that can be very lonely. If you don’t look ill then why would people ask or care, it’s kind of understandable.
But how can I relate this to teaching? I think my story is different to many. It wasn’t teaching that ‘broke’ me, in fact it was teaching that saved me. But I say ‘teaching’ in the sense of spending my days with students; they are often kinder and more brilliant than anyone else. But I totally understand how it has broken others. Sometimes the relentless data and marking, with no time to do it, pushes me near to the precipice, and of course being constantly assessed and evaluated is never good. The hours required just to do an average job are frankly insane. This year English and Maths started teaching the new GCSE, and the workload that came with it was unbelievable. Teaching 2 GCSEs has been tough. I’ve talked to teachers on Twitter who’ve sounded terribly close to the edge. All other subjects have to start this experience next year, but has anything been learnt from the English and Maths experience? Probably not.
I’ve started to see more teachers fall. I had a conversation with a mental health nurse who said that they were seeing a lot more teachers. Is it surprising in this culture of constant evaluation? Teachers are graded and being ‘outstanding’ has become what a teacher is expected to be, totally going against the meaning of the word. We are supposed to have memorised every little piece of data on the over 200 students we teach. Those students are seen as data points and if they don’t get it, you are asked why little Johnny, whose mum is dying and who lives in a hostel didn’t get a C grade. You are constantly judged. If you have a brain that judges itself, it can perpetuate a sense of self loathing, for others it can slowly beat them down, pushing them into a pit that it starts to become more difficult to get out of and I’ve started to see it happen to strong, beautiful and good people.
So we need to take care of each other; it needs to be a priority to listen, to realise that the smallest things aren’t silly and we really do need to just listen and talk. It is not shameful to feel like you are not coping, and schools should do what they can to support those that need that extra help, whose mental health is struggling because of the ridiculous system we are in. It’s not a failure. Someone once said to me that I shouldn’t be so vocal about having depression, it could cost me jobs and people might assume things about me. But, do you know what? I think I am stronger than most because of it. I have been to the abyss and come back. If I was an employer, I would want someone like that, someone with fight and determination and that is the trait in me that I am most proud of.
So, I hope my story helps someone. I hope it makes someone realise that they are not alone. What amazes me about Twitter is the amount of people that I speak to have also suffered with mental health issues. In a way it is comforting to know that you’re never alone and that somehow we manage to find each other.
So if you are struggling, you do hurt or you just have an inkling that all is not well, talk. Talk to a friend, talk to a colleague, talk to me. I’ll always listen, because I know the power of kindness, love and care. Nothing is impossible, even when things seem like they are, they really can be changed for the better.
You are never, ever alone.