Who Are We Trying To Impress?

As anyone who’s read my blogs will know, it’s been 3 years and a bucket load of recovery since I was last in the classroom. When I look back at who I was then, the teacher version of myself, I just want to scream at her to take a breath. To know that it will all be ok. That needing to be consistently outstanding for fear of disappointing those around you just isn’t sustainable. That the students you teach will do just as well if you contribute 80% as opposed to 100%. That you don’t have anything to prove. That it’s ok to say no.

I used to have to attend meetings with the sole aim of diarising future meetings. Often these meetings would take place at 7am because that was when I got to school, (as it was the only way of getting through part of what I needed to do before the teaching day began), and that became the norm. It was part of the culture. The earlier you arrived, the more dedicated you were. It became a competition. Underhand comments were often made about those who turned up just before 8.30am; they were considered less didicated and, embarrassingly, I started to buy into it. Yet they were the ones who picked up a coffee on their way into work. They had time for breakfast. They had time to catch up with family. They had energy. They had the right idea. They HAVE the right idea. It’s not a competition.

I would be sent an agenda before every meeting and would be expected to turn up with forms filled out, data analysed, minutes pre recorded. Just so that there was a paper trail of every meeting and so that each meeting ‘served a purpose’. And I didn’t question it. I was drowning in admin but I made sure I completed every task. I was told I helped ‘set the standard’ and that was enough for me to justify the workload. In fact I often went above and beyond. But all that did was create a rod for my own back because each time I did that, it became the new norm. It was a vicious cycle.

I don’t think it’s any one person’s fault; I think, in some cases, schools can become so fixated on achieving, ‘outstanding’, that the drive behind certain decisions can become skewed. Often with the best intentions. For me, it meant that iniatives came thick and fast and, each time, I had to try and sell them to my team. They were already under so much pressure that I just felt like I was adding to it. Which, in turn, made me feel guilty and added to my sense of inadequacy. But I didn’t speak up. I chose to fight fires without dealing with the source; I didn’t know how or where to start.

The thing is, I hear about this happening a lot. More than it should. And you wonder who’s actually pulling the strings? Who are we all desperate to impress? Schools in this situation are drowning; it’s not just the staff, it’s everyone. And no one wins. The ultimate accolade of achieving ‘outstanding’ is short lived and it doesn’t change anything on a day to day basis. And if the government must insist on a criteria by which to judge all schools, regardless of the socio-economic climate, the political climate, the ethnic diversity, the funding, then perhaps it’s time that the ofsted criteria was adaptable and reflective of these external factors. More importantly, if we continue down this inspection route, there needs to be a way of assessing staff wellbeing. Because without it, I struggle to believe anything can achieve outstanding.

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Accountability: shouldn’t it start with wellbeing?

People can function with a mental illness for years, undetected. In fact, they might not even realise it themselves. But, whether or not you know someone’s struggling, we have to be human before we can be anything else: line manager, boss, teacher, inspector. Yes, the pressure’s on all of us from every angle but that’s not an excuse to take advantage, push for unrealistic targets or make someone too afraid to ask for help.

We often hear these two conflicting opinions in education:

‘This job would be so much easier if we were left to do what we do best. Teach.’

‘Accountability is key.’

I agree with them both but surely there has to be a happy medium? And, ultimately, we have to be accountable for our own wellbeing which, sadly, still seems remiss in many schools. Whatever job we choose to do, we have to be held accountable. Of course. That makes sense. But when every aspect of your profession is under scrutiny it can become suffocating and, in my own experience, you reach the point where you feel like you can’t breathe.

I’d been in my new school for a couple of months and I was drowning. No one knew. I was considered an outstanding teacher. I met all of my deadlines on time. I impressed at open evenings. My staff were happier. Things seemed good. But I couldn’t breathe.

This became more obvious to me after a ‘wellbeing day’ that was organised for the benefit of all staff. In the morning we sat and listened to a talk given by an external motivational speaker who had succeeded in the face of adversity. His message was clear. Whatever you’re going through, other people have been through worse. Positive mindset and determination are the only way to keep going. It broke me. I was doing that. I was always trying to be positive. To focus on the good. To remind myself how lucky I am. Why wasn’t it working? What was wrong with me? It sent me into a spiral of self doubt; I wanted to scream.

In the afternoon we had to choose a wellbeing session to attend. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to make small talk with anyone as I knew, if they looked closely enough, they might see what was really going on. So I chose yoga. But half way through the class I started to cry. I excused myself and by the time I reached the toilets I was convulsing in tears. It was so confusing. I couldn’t understand why something that should’ve been so relaxing was creating so much distress. It didn’t make sense to me.

But it does now. Yoga. Cooking. Origami. Music. They’re all great for wellbeing when you’re well. But focusing on wellbeing isn’t about a quick fix. It’s about the whole person. It’s about asking the difficult questions. It’s about recognising when you’re asking too much of someone. It’s about letting staff know you trust them. It’s not about an hour’s yoga class, despite the best intentions.

It’s also about giving people time to breathe. At around the same time as the yoga class, I remember confiding in an assistant head that I was struggling to keep on top of things – it was the only time I flagged it to anyone – and she replied by saying, ‘But we work this hard during term time because we get some reprieve in the holidays. It’s a small price to pay.’ And then she walked off and I was left wondering what was so wrong with me and why I couldn’t seem to manage.

When I realised I wasn’t coping I knew I needed to see a doctor so I asked my line manager if I could leave ten minutes early one Friday afternoon; I’d only be missing tutor time and I’d make sure I had something ready for whoever was covering. He wasn’t impressed. He asked me to fill in an official form and get it signed off by one of the assistant heads and himself. It then had to go via the Head before it could be approved. I had never taken time off and I had never asked for any extra support. This was the one and only favour I had ever asked for. And with everything else I had to deal with on a daily basis, it felt like an extra, unnecessary hoop to jump through so I didn’t bother. I stayed for tutor time and I missed my appointment. I did see the doctor, eventually, but that was once I was no longer well enough to make it into school. At all.

We need to show compassion. We need to see beyond the targets and the data. We need to see the person sitting in front of us asking for help. Begging for help. If we see the person as opposed to the teacher, we can support them at every level. And what’s great is that you hear about this happening more and more in schools. People are supported and listened to and trusted. That’s the way forward for all of us. I’ve witnessed and experienced it first hand; it’s the people around you that make all the difference. Yes, we have to be held accountable but we’re all still human and we all deserve to be treated as such.

Inside a panic attack – the very physical side to mental illness

Mental and physical illness are inextricably linked. One doesn’t often exist without the other. Yet we, as a society, are so quick to try and distinguish between the two, usually at the detriment of the psychological symptoms. But they’re both equally as valid, as real and as worthy of understanding and treatment.

Panic attacks are the epitome of how mental illness struggles to exist without physical symptoms. Sometimes when people hear the term, ‘panic attack’, they might simply envisage someone breathing heavily into a paper bag. And for some, that’s the reality. However, for a lot of people, me included, panic attacks are all consuming and completely debilitating. They affect every aspect of life in a very physical way.

The onset of a panic attack can be different for everyone but there are always signs. For me, I initially feel an overriding sense of fear. My heart starts to race and my senses become confused. Everything becomes amplified and completely distorted until I feel like I’m either going to throw up or pass out. And that’s usually when the panic starts to take hold; the psychological makes way for the physical.

Three years ago, the attacks were at their most relentless both mentally and physically. In fact, they became so bad that I started to fear leaving the house. I’d often walk 5 minutes into town and would have to turn back because I could feel an attack coming on. I’d get in the car to make a 10 minute journey and I’d have to pull over within minutes as I’d begin to recognise the signs. Or I’d be trying to get out of the front door to get to work and everything would start to collapse around me. It actually got to the point where I couldn’t leave the house on my own. A successful trip to Sainsbury’s was considered a ‘win’. I was trapped both mentally and physically and it was terrifying. The house was my safe place. Anything outside of that was unpredictable and, therefore, threatening. The illness was winning.

Once the attacks started happening on a more regular basis, the mornings before work were definitely the worst. It was a mental and physical onslaught. I usually woke up at around 5.30am and would, mentally, cling onto every minute between then and when I would have to get up. Each minute that passed was a minute closer to battle. My heart would race and my husband would try and talk things through with me in an attempt to help me see that it would all be ok. By this stage I often suffered with paralysis which meant, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t physically get out of bed. So I’d roll out onto all fours; it soon became the new norm.

Once I’d controlled my breathing I would crawl across the landing to the bathroom and my husband would help me get into the shower. I’d continue to get ready but it was a fight. A battle of wills; physically and psychologically. Eventually, I’d make my way downstairs, put my coat on and collect my bag. But often, by this point, I was exhausted and struggling to breathe. That’s when an attack would spot its opportunity and take hold. But I’m not one to go down without a fight so I’d keep battling. If it meant crawling to the front door I would. If it meant getting my husband to help me to the car because my legs would no longer support me, I would. If it meant being sick and unable to speak, I’d deal with it. Just so that I wasn’t admitting defeat. But, as is now blatently obvious, this wasn’t sustainable. And the physical impact of the illness became stronger than me.

I have always underestimated and played down the physical impact of anxiety. It’s a mental illness after all so the physical stuff is largely arbitrary. Except it’s not. In fact, I think the physical symptoms of any mental illness are there long before the illness makes itself known psychologically. You can’t separate them. But, equally, being aware of their two prong attack is fundamental to understanding and beating the illness: both mentally and physically.

Anxiety: Outside Looking In

Since writing the blogs and opening up about my experience with anxiety I’ve had a lot of people asking how to support someone they know who is struggling with mental illness. Unfortunately, there is no right answer. But, from my experience, the most effective way to help them is to see the illness as separate from the person, which is a lot easier said than done.

What I mean is; if someone had a broken leg, would you consider the injury to be an extension of their personality? Probably not. The same goes for mental illness. Asking how they are might not be as helpful as asking how their anxiety/depression is. For the person who is suffering, this will help to reinforce the fact that the illness exists as a separate entity; that they aren’t the cause. Of course I’m oversimplifying, but such a small shift in our approach can make a huge difference.

It’s important to continue to see the person behind the illness. They don’t suddenly become someone else. They are still there; it’s just that the illness can start to infiltrate their day to day lives and convince them, and everyone else, that they have fundamentally changed. They haven’t.

Anyone who is struggling needs to be reminded that they are strong, that they matter and that they are not a burden. Someone with a mental illness might struggle with decision making, or socialising or even leaving the house but it’s important not to assume that they can’t do something. Ask how they are before making decisions. Ask about the broken leg before assuming they’re in too much pain to walk. Most people who are dealing with depression or anxiety already feel like a burden so treating them like they are incapable of doing anything for themselves just exacerbates that feeling. The simplest thing to do is just to be there and listen. They might not be able to talk about how they’re feeling; the pain in their leg might be too acute in that moment, but that’s ok. Talking it out can help. Distraction can help. Sometimes just sitting in silence with someone can help. Just don’t force it. Try not to tell them that being inside for days on end is wrong or that they’re making it worse by hiding away; if they could be outside, there’s a good chance they would be.

It’s so difficult for anyone in the support role; sometimes it can feel like all you’re doing is saying and doing the wrong thing. But, I can almost guarantee, that being honest about how you feel is more helpful than avoidance or deflection. It’s such a difficult situation. And every situation is different but I think remembering that the person behind the illness is still very much present is critical. Otherwise their loss of identity, purpose and value is reinforced without question.

I think it’s also important to remind them that the feeling that comes as a result of the illness won’t last, even if they don’t or can’t believe it in the moment. Of course, it will never disappear completely but it will dissipate and, eventually, it won’t be all consuming.

There was a time when I didn’t believe that the anxiety would ever subside but, now, I’m able to understand it better, write about it and even explore ways of supporting people who are facing their own battles. I’ll never be rid of it but that’s ok. It’s something you learn to live with but it’s not who you are. I’m not preaching. In fact, I owe it to my husband who has always seen me, the person, before he sees the anxiety. Even when I couldn’t see myself.

Anxiety: Overcompensating for Invisible Flaws

Anxiety and the need for perfection often go hand in hand. However, as we are all well aware, perfection doesn’t exist; it’s a futile ambition. But it’s one that can drive us beyond what’s achievable to a place where nothing we do feels good enough. This in turn feeds the anxiety and gives it space to grow; overcompensating becomes second nature.

It’s a vicious cycle and one that I often find myself trapped in. I can trace the connection between anxiety and the need for perfection back to my first year at primary school. I was a good student; I was academic and diligent from the outset but, to me, that wasn’t enough. I obsessed about not being good enough, about letting people down: teachers, friends, classmates. Everyone. Even at that age, I felt the need to compensate for, what I considered to be, my failings. I was friendly to everyone. Always smiling. I worked harder than most. But I questioned everything.

I worried about everything to the point of irrational behaviour. I would often set myself little tests that, if I passed, would mean everything was going to be ok. For example, at break time I might walk the length of the playground with my eyes closed. If I managed to get from one end to the other without stepping on the grass, it would be a good day. If I didn’t, I expected something bad would happen and, if it did, it was inevitably my fault. It was exhausting. As I got older I continued to rely on irrational logic to determine what kind of day I might have. It was a coping mechanism; a way of deflecting responsibility and undermining the anxiety. Of separating the outcome from myself.

A fundamental characteristic of my anxiety is self-criticism and blame. If something bad happens I automatically assume that it’s a consequence of something I’ve done. As a result, the guilt starts to eat away at you and the anxiety continues to tell you that everything is your fault.

But it soon becomes ‘normal’. And you learn to manage it. You learn to hide the paranoia and the fear of disappointing people. You start to think that everyone feels the same. And that’s what happened to me. For years. I look back at it now and it seems so obvious. The constant worry for the wellbeing of my family and friends when I was very young, the lack of self confidence in my teens, the depression and eating disorders in my early twenties. It all makes sense. It was my way of controlling the anxiety. I had no idea that it was an illness because no one did. People didn’t talk about mental health twenty years ago. It was considered a weakness, something to hide. So I hid it – very convincingly.

In my twenties, my crutch was teaching. It gave me a purpose. It gave me a sense of achievement. I was good at it and I loved it. But when the illness started to encroach on that too, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My need to overcompensate became debilitating. If a lesson wasn’t outstanding, I considered it a failure. If my students didn’t walk into my classroom excited or leave with a spring in their step, I hadn’t done my job properly. And anyone who works in education knows that these are impossible standards to maintain. I set myself up for failure. And the more positive feedback I received, the higher my expectations became. Until they were impossible. Nothing was good enough. I wanted to walk in a straight line without stepping on the grass. My approach had become irrational and unhealthy.

Fortunately, I don’t feel like this anymore. Or at least, I recognise the signs. I’m more honest with myself about how I’m feeling. I try not to set myself impossible goals. I try not to overcompensate for flaws that only exist in my mind. Sometimes it’s not that easy. But at least I’m aware of it now and can talk about it without guilt or shame. Because it’s all the symptom of an illness, not a personal flaw.

If you’ve never experienced anything like this, I’m guessing it probably sounds a little crazy. But if we don’t talk about it then we won’t know that there’s another way of thinking, of living. We need to own our feelings – without judgement. That’s what I want my little boy to know. If he ever has to go through something similar, I want him to talk about how he feels without the fear of disappointing anyone, including himself. I want him to know that it’s not a failing and that he has nothing to compensate for. Ever. No shame. No judgement. No fear.

Anxiety is NOT a personality trait

This is, without doubt, THE biggest lesson I’ve had to learn.

It’s so easy to blame yourself. To label yourself as weak or as a failure. But anxiety isn’t a reflection of character.

You can feel anxious. You can worry. But to suffer with anxiety is, largely, out of your control. It’s not a choice or the result of a lack of positivity. And it’s so important that the people supporting you understand that too.

I’ve been told so often, always with the best intentions, to paste on a smile. To appreciate what I’ve got. To take a deep breath and power through. But if it was that easy then no one would suffer with mental illness. It simply wouldn’t exist.

For me, once I was too ill to go to work, I had a number of ‘return to work’ meetings, both at school and at home. The ultimate goal was to find a way to get me back into the classroom. But no one ever referred to my anxiety as an illness. It was labelled as stress or a result of being overworked. What was missing, on both sides, was an awareness that although stress and workload were contributing factors, they weren’t the root of the illness.

Anxiety exists regardless of external factors. Of course it can be exacerbated by certain events or experiences, but it will make its presence known regardless. As part of my phased return, one member of staff advised that I take ‘Kalms’ tablets and that I try to ‘think positively’ . I recognise that it came from a good place but all it did was undermine the illness. In my head, it just reinforced the idea that what was happening should have been within my control and that it was a symptom of a weak mindset. Which is so far from the truth.

When you believe that you are to blame for a mental illness you start to feel trapped in a self constructed prison of guilt, embarrassment and self loathing. You feel like a failure for not being able to overcome it. I spent months trying to overcome and beat the anxiety. I saw it as a daily battle. It was down to me to be stronger than it. But I was wrong. It wasn’t just down to me. It was bigger than me. It’s an illness. And no illness just mends itself. You need medical support. You need your family. Your friends. You need your employer to recognise that you’re ill. Only then will you start to beat it.

That takes time. In fact, three years on I’m still working on it. But acknowledging you have an illness, whether it’s anxiety, depression, OCD or any other mental illness, is the most important step. Because that’s when you stop blaming yourself. You start to see that it’s not selfish or self involved to ask for help. From my experience, acknowledging it gives you the freedom to breathe. And then you can start to tackle the triggers and symptoms of your illness without guilt and with a sense of acceptance. Which, for me, was when I was able to start the long road to recovery.

Red flags: panic attacks

Looking back, the warning signs were so obvious. I should’ve been more aware of how difficult day to day life had become, or how afraid I felt. But I was oblivious. I was completely driven by a need to ‘power through’, to ignore the fear and somehow find a way to get through each day. And I couldn’t let the students down. That was my biggest fear.

The one warning sign I couldn’t ignore, no matter how hard I tried, was the sudden onset of panic attacks. Debilitating panic attacks. The first one happened on my way to school, a few months before everything came crashing to a halt.

I’d spent the previous night obsessing over something that had happened in my year 11 class that afternoon. I can’t tell you what it was because, in reality, it was completely insignificant and I genuinely don’t remember. But, in my mind, it became so bad that by the time I went to bed that evening I’d convinced myself that I was going to be fired. That started to happen a lot. The catastrophic thinking. The idea that one tiny mistake or misunderstanding would lead to the most horrendous consequences. I woke up in the early hours planning what I’d say when I was inevitably hauled in by the Head to explain myself. I used to write notes for these kinds of eventualities. Almost like a script. Just in case.

But when it was time to get up for school, I couldn’t move. (This feeling of paralysis started happening a lot more frequently, in line with the panic attacks.) It was terrifying. I couldn’t make myself move. In fact, I couldn’t do anything. So instead, I fixated on one object in the room, anything more was too much for my brain to comprehend. So I lay completely still and stared at the plug socket beside the bed for 20 minutes or more. Unable to move. Unable to understand. Unable to speak.

Eventually, after my husband talked me through the simple process of getting out of bed, I got up and showered and dressed. I remember not putting on any make up or brushing my hair, which is unlike me. I couldn’t. It didn’t seem worth it when I was going to be fired anyway. I didn’t feel worthy of any extra effort when I was such a failure. Then I left for school.

About 20 minutes into my journey I felt my vision becoming blurred and my breathing becoming shallow and quick. I had to pull over. My breathing became more and more sporadic. I couldn’t feel my face, or my hands, or my legs. I crawled out of the car and found myself on all fours, on the cold road, desperately trying to catch my breath. I thought I was going to die. Part of me wished for it. And yet, my overriding thought was that I was going to be late for work.

Eventually, I managed to crawl back into the car and phone my mum. She was used to the early morning phone calls by this stage. I couldn’t really articulate what had just happened because I didn’t understand it myself. All I knew was that I needed her support to get me to school. It didn’t even cross my mind to turn back. She stayed on the phone for the rest of my journey and, as was part of our routine by this stage, she told me I was strong enough to handle another day and that I could survive this.

And I did. I parked in my usual space, (by this stage everything had to happen a certain way in the mornings; routine was the one thing that made me feel safe), and kept my head down. To get to the English block, I had to walk through the staff room and across the courtyard. I was terrified. What if someone asked how I was? What if they could tell something had happened? What if a student saw me? What if it happened again?

I reached my classroom, turned on the computer and started going through emails. I needed to keep busy. I needed to pretend like nothing had happened. A few members of my team popped by to ask for some advice which was a welcome distraction. I responded to a few emails, reassured a student who was worried about an upcoming assessment and just kept breathing.

We had our usual staff meeting that morning and it was my turn, as a key member of the teaching and learning group, to present to the rest of the staff body. So I stood up in front of my peers and shared my thoughts. They didn’t have a clue. It felt completely surreal. I was a fraud. And from that moment on I started to change. I spoke less. Was less present. Was less smiley. Less willing to volunteer for things. But I worked harder. I worked obsessively. I didn’t think there was a choice.

Looking back, I should’ve realised then that I couldn’t keep going. That I was ill. That it wasn’t ok. But it took another 3 months for me to admit that something was wrong. And, even then, I maintained my determination to make it to school every day. Nothing would stop me. Until my body caught up with my mind and everything just stopped.