A torn raincoat.

I fell in love with Leonard Cohen late in life; I had been married several years already. Had I been a life-long fan, I might look at someone in my position with pity, or scorn – can someone who barely knows a man, really say they love him? (Or maybe that is the only time we can love anyone? – I digress).
Leonard Cohen spoke to me at a time when I needed him. He gave me words, where I had none, to name my pain. He sang to me through my breakdown, from across the years, and he helped me get better. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, or melodramatic, though I know I romanticise at the best of times.
One lyric, particularly, has become like a mantra for me: “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good / so i never tried”. For years, I had believed that my depression and the subsequent breakdown were things that I couldn’t change – that it was genetic, hereditary, and fixed inside me. I wanted to give up trying to feel better, thinking that this trouble was all there really was behind my eyes. I was defined by it.
It wasn’t simply a lyric that saved me – it was the support and help of many people, including mental health professionals – but perhaps it was the beginning of imagining there could be a different future for me, if I just tried.
RIP Leonard. Thank you, sincerely.

Hello, Darkness, my old friend…

I’m standing in front of the mirror doing my make-up before meeting friends for dinner. So far, I have only scrubbed my face clean and started again once. I notice this because, when I’m well it isn’t an issue. When I’m well, I barely spend 5 minutes getting myself ready to leave the house. But, when I’m not doing so well, it’s harder. Noticing it tonight reminds me of the times in my life when I have spent over an hour trying to make my face seem presentable to the outside world. I am reminded of the times I have nearly rubbed my face raw, starting again, trying to make it look right.

There is a voice, inside, giving a running commentary as I apply my make up. Are you serious? You can’t possibly leave the house looking like that. You are fat, you are ugly, you are repulsive. People will stare at you in the street; you are that much of a freak.

But tonight it is different.

Later, sitting at a table with my closest friends, I hear that voice again. This time, it is telling me how stupid I am. One moment, I am stupid for not entirely understanding the conversation (how have I come this far and not fully understood tax situations when it comes to housing?) The next, it is telling me that I am stupid for not quite hearing the waitress, or for being self-absorbed and talking over someone else. What kind of horrific person are you that you just interrupted someone else to make a joke that wasn’t even funny? Do you see the way they’re looking at you now? All of them? That pity? That scorn? They are embarrassed for you, embarrassed to be near you. Wow. You’re stupid. 

But tonight, something is different.

There is little doubt in my head that I am suffering depression again. I struggle to leave the house, I can’t find joy in anything, and I am followed around by that voice everywhere I go. It is dark and lonely and exhausting.

But this time is different.

This time, I hear the voice and I see it for what it is. I listen to it, I am momentarily thrown by it, but I am a little more able to ignore it. I am a little more able to say You know what? You’re not telling me the truth. You’re a big old idiot. 

This time, although I recognise the signs of depression I know I’ll survive. This time, I don’t think Alright, we’re here again, things will never change, there’s no hope for me, I might as well jack it all in. This time I think Ok, it’s probably entirely reasonable that you’re depressed, given all the change, and loss, in your life right now. And that voice is really annoying. But, you know things will change again. You know you can win this. It’s a little like flu right now: you’re ill, you’ll recover, you’ll see the sun again. 

This time is different.

To Strike, or not to Strike…

In three working days I will no longer be a teacher.

Today, many teachers are on strike and – whilst I’m not out in the rain with a placard – I am not in school either. I am on strike.

I nearly didn’t strike. I nearly went in to teach, and get the pay cheque that I will so desperately need when I am out of work next month. My school will find a way to cover my lessons while I am not there. There are very few NUT members at the school, so the idea of Collective Action feels pretty meaningless. The school will continue to run, and no one will really miss me. The school gates will still be open. It would have been easy to go in. It’s the penultimate week of term, so I could have had some fun with the pupils I love. I could have been paid today.

But I am on strike.

Let’s be clear. If teachers have to work 60 hours a week, it no longer affects me. I will not be a teacher at the end of the month.

If teachers won’t be able to retire until they’re far too old to be dealing with the workload, it no longer affects me. I’m effectively retiring from teaching in my 30s.

If teachers have terrible pensions, if they can’t get on the property ladder, if they never find a work-life balance, if they go home (as some of them tell me) and cry through hours of marking and paperwork, if they hate every moment of the job that takes them away from the students they love, it no longer affects me. I am not affected any longer by the constant shifting of goalposts, the endless data input, the patronising hoop-jumping, the Threat of OFSTED. Not anymore. I’m out of there!

In three working days I will no longer be a teacher.

I am an excellent teacher. I have taught whole families. I have achieved outstanding GCSE results. I have run two departments. I have touched the lives of thousands of students. I have laughed, and I have loved it… and I have hated every second for the last 2 years.

I am striking today, for the teachers who I love. Most of those teachers are at school, teaching, while I write this. There are many reasons why they are at school, rather than on strike. You’d have to talk to them about that, and I don’t intend to berate them for making that decision. But I do want them to know that I am striking for them. None of this effects me anymore. I am doing it for YOU, teachers!

I am on strike for the children who have become statistics. I am on strike for the teachers who have become hardened and robotic. I am on strike because your teenage years aren’t all about exam results, actually, and we shouldn’t forget that. I am on strike to ask the government to back off and let us do our job – we’re the experts, after all. I am on strike today, because it is the last (albeit tiny) way I can raise my voice in defence of the occupation that was once my calling.

I am on strike because teaching is unrecognisable to me now.

 

Mormon Up!

We went to see The Book of Mormon recently. I loved it.

I love a good musical, anyway, but I was worried about this one. I saw Jerry Springer, The Opera, and struggled to see the funny side of what felt a little too much like some sort of blasphemy (Jesus as a baby in a nappy? Am I remembering wrong?). Regardless of where I might be in my own spiritual path, I still struggle with anything that ridicules my very honest upbringing.

So when my “godless” husband bought tickets for the show, I was intrigued (I love a good musical!)… but nervous. And then I read somewhere that Book of Mormon had been referred to as “a love letter from an atheist to religion”.  And I wanted to go even more. Because there’s nothing I love more than love between different world-beliefs (if we did this more, we’d all be better off).

And I was ready to be offended… and to laugh… and to wince at how close it came to being difficult (and how funny that can be too).

But I wasn’t ready to come away feeling like I’d learned something important for my life.

My daddy asked if he’d like it. I have no idea. Some of the AIDS jokes, the giant penises and the coarseness make me want to protect him and say “No!” (though I know he wasn’t always a vicar…), but some of me hopes he’ll see what I saw in this song.

Because this song – coming as it did at a time when I was reverting to some child-like belief about the world (Why is God doing this to me??!!) – changed how I deal with the world.

It comes at a time in the show where the main-Mormon has jacked it all in (can’t deal with a difficult mission in Uganda) and leaves his (slightly dopey) mission buddy to deal with it all. The bit where the main-Mormon jumps in about Orlando… that’s where I burst into tears and realised what an idiot, spoilt brat I am…

Listen… imagine you have first-world problems… ignore the slightly blasphemous bits…

If you’re Christian, think about the smirk God would have on his face that this is how he got a very useful message to me. If you aren’t religious… enjoy the very silly song.

Reasons to be grateful

I’ve been struggling a bit. Overall, I’m stronger, better, but somedays it’s so easy to revert to old habits, and I find myself stuck; back in the dark. So this post is a bookmark for me, of all the things I should be celebrating everyday.

A list of reasons to be grateful:

1. I am married to my best friend. He is supportive, he is silly, he challenges me. He deals with the things I can’t, or won’t, and his endless drive is an inspiration. We laugh a lot more than I remember to remember, and he has a wonderful family who help me love life, too.

2. This year, I have been studying again. It speaks to me, this learning. Freud has made me laugh – his writing style is so grandiose, so pompous. His ideas range from genius to utterly insane. The people on my course have enriched my life – watching them change throughout the first term has been a wonder. I have changed, too, and I like the new direction in which it is taking me. There are moments of enlightenment, moments of confusion, times when I am frustrated, times when I should celebrate (I am *good* at this!). Life should be full of moments like that. It says a lot that these moments feel new… I have been stagnant too long.

3. I have a job which – despite the Ofsted-related craziness of this first term – is one where I am constantly surprised. A conversation about the immigration of Romanians with two teenage boys in the playground; year 7s writing Christmas raps and performing them with aplomb; every day there are little things I should be allowing myself to smile about. I could swap all this for a job in an office somewhere… and I’d be dead of boredom in a day.

4. I have a home, a safe place. Maybe it hasn’t been big enough, or in the right place for sometime… but it has always been there. This year, we move into a house that is somewhere we can love, somewhere we will grow. We are looking forward to being able to invite friends over again, to sit more than 4 people in our kitchen.. to feed them, to laugh with them. It is in an area where I think both the Husband and I will find the kind of community, and diversity we need. Exciting times.

5. I have a group of friends who constantly challenge me. Who I trust I can tell anything. They are strange and wonderful and many of them are more like siblings than friends, given how long I have known them. This year, two of my friends are marrying one another. They have asked me to take an important role in their wedding and (though if I’m honest I’m terrified) I can’t put into words how honoured I feel to take on this part. They are an inspirational couple, and two of my favourite people to be around, and I look forward to watching them grow together.

6. This year, I have 5 nieces and counting. There’s something pretty wonderful about being an Aunt. All the joy and pride associated with seeing these girls grow up… none of the responsibility. Whilst their presence means I see my siblings less (it’s hard to have a meaningful chat with a two-year-old climbing all over you, I suppose), I wouldn’t change them for the world. This year will see the birth of another… and I have it on good authority it’ll be a boy. Poor kid.

I’m sure I could add to this list, and maybe that’s something I’ll do when I’m next feeling down. But for now, Happy New Year… this one’s going to be a good one!

Facebook 2013

An app tells me my most-used words of 2013. I don’t believe them, but I turned them into a poem nonetheless:

Essay, People!

Very, *really*, Thou.
Being [at] work, tomorrow…
Might things last?
Feeling baby-making:
Time, anyone?
Also, amazing reading.
Feel: college;
Home, need.
Say “Hate”: Looking dark,
Never those, [you] love, actually: Death,
Write, Thought, Think.
These yesterday, bit-years…
Lovely times;
House- thing,
Something wrong:
Freud [in my] head,
Thee, having = Possible.
Such (K)new Year.
Kids… surrounded: Stressed,
Early sleepe…
Bad. Please! ever-fail.
Okay. Lucky reason –
Teaching, Once,
Any night, everything moves,
Marking (for) hours,
Least, Stuff,
God? Watch week, world, months, few, lots,
Why? Moaning…
Life, Observed,
Find, Bless…
Phrase, Better.

Gravity

Maybe it’s just a film about Space. About the human fight to survive – to live – when faced with disaster (like your space shuttle being destroyed). But for me, Gravity was a beautiful piece of poetry about grief and depression. An emotional roller coaster, that left me a sobbing wreck on the walk home.

If you’ve never experienced depression, and have struggled to understand panic attacks, I urge you to go and see Gravity (preferably in 3D, obviously). The scene where Sandra Bullock is spinning out of control, unable to find anything to hold onto, unable to catch her breath, with the world outside muffled and far away, and with no one to save her had me gasping for breath. Because I’ve felt that way, often.

So many of our metaphors about breakdown and emotional pain have their roots in gravity. “Pick yourself up”, “Find your feet”, “Find something to hold on to”, “Free-falling”, “Spiralling out of control”… I hadn’t noticed them before.

In the film, Sandra Bullock is dealing with the loss of her child. Something she has to let go of, to surrender, to recognise she can’t control it… and then she has to grab on with both hands and fight to get back to solid ground.

I don’t know if it was the intention of the film, or just an accident, but I’ve never seen depression so clearly. I’m in a bit of a free-fall myself at the moment, feeling as though there’s nothing to cling on to (as everything around me is changing), but I’ve taken some hope from this film… that I will just keep going and that I will be able to stand up on my own two feet again soon.

Wearing your heart on your bicep

I’ve been struggling recently – feeling vulnerable. Getting better has been a long, and difficult, process and a few months back I felt ready to take on some new challenges, to make a change. But it isn’t easy. Starting a new course has reminded me  of those early days of University, and I can’t help but look back on them and be surprised by how strong I was. I packed all my stuff up and moved more than a hundred miles from my family – where I knew no one – and I survived. Not only that, I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could do that now.

And then, I did it again, almost a decade ago – quit my job and decided to train to teach, moved all the way down to the south of London (albeit with beloved housemates in tow). How did I do it? Could it be that I was stronger then? And, if I was, what can I do with the pain of my breakdown? If I can’t say “I’m stronger now”, how can I explain it?

People have spoken to me a lot recently, about what strength there is in being able to speak openly about how you feel; what strength there is in being able to feel as quickly as I do. A lecturer on my course told me that the other students would learn a lot from me, by listening to how I feel. That wearing my heart on my sleeve was my blessing (though he didn’t use those words). It made me angry. I don’t want to be a case study – I don’t want people to learn from me at the expense of my sanity.

But maybe there is something strong in being so openly vulnerable. Maybe I can find a way to live with this emotional honesty (something I can’t seem to control anyway). And, perhaps, I was only stronger back then because I was pretending to be someone I’m not. Someone who cared less, and hid behind a made-up personality. Maybe being me (the real me) is something I should learn to embrace, even if it means being open to heartache.

It scares me sometimes that I am in my thirties and still only just learning how to be human, but maybe that’s the whole wonder of being human in the first place.

Today’s revelation, brought to you by Heineken.

What I’m about to say is so hugely obvious, I’m embarrassed I need to say it at all. But today brought a revelation:

My life is stunted by the lack of novel human contact.
By which I mean that I no longer meet the same huge diversity of people anymore. I don’t get to learn something new from somebody everyday. I have a great number of friends. People I adore, people I love to listen to. But – and here is the rub – I know what they’re going to say. It’s fairly rare when I can’t guess what someone’s reaction to something will be. And the new facts that they offer me are very often things I can’t use. Things that don’t quite register on my radar-of-usefulness, things that merely depress, or bewilder me. I don’t mean to negate what they’re saying. I have chosen these friends particularly because they are this way. I love that their interests are different from mine, that they live in worlds quite different to my own…but I also love that I can trust them to react the ‘right’ way to the things that are bugging me. The downside to having such a great group of friends, is that our lives are so intertwined that they rarely have much to say to me (about the things that matter to me – the little things) that I don’t already know… or haven’t already thought of. I know that the Husband, and many of our friends, are particularly interested in food – where to eat, and music – who to listen to – and these are things that don’t seem that important to me. I’m not meaning to say I look down on stuff like that, simply that I don’t really feel like I have the right conversational skills to discuss the merits of a biodynamic burger, or the new, obscure band. I’m not sure what I really mean at all.
Except that, today, I was stuck in a position of not going home. There were builders in the house until 5, so I went for a drink in a pub garden and waited for them to be gone. And it was in that pub garden (as so many times before) that I had my revelation.
I feed off other people’s lives.
Like some sort of soul-sucking demon, I need other people to make me feel new. Maybe it’s a wanna-be-writer thing. Maybe it’s growing up in a large family. Maybe it’s that I’ve never been quite sure I have anything very unique to offer. Either way, I get off on other people.
There was a family in the pub. A grown up daughter from America, her English housemate, and her visiting parents. And what a storyteller her Daddy was! Now, it isn’t right, or proper, to eavesdrop, but it’s certainly more fun than reading a book you bought in a charity shop for the occasion. And every word was like a new world opening up. He talked of New York, of the Jews (they’re annoying, and then they move out of NY to get old, and even more annoying, somewhere else… and he knows he shouldn’t say it, but it’s just true). His wife -so much more confident, and yet still submissive, in a way I’ve only ever seen American wives manage – told of their first date. It was a beautiful story, better told by her, but involved him turning up to a hiking party in a tuxedo shirt. “Why a tuxedo shirt?” they laughed. “When you’ve been single a while,” he replied,”your laundry kinda creeps up on you. I had nothing else to wear!”.
I have worked in the same school, with children of the same backgrounds for nearly a decade. I have friends with similar backgrounds to my own, or with similar lives now. The people I work with are all in the same profession (albeit for different reasons). It is rare to meet people who are wildly different from this (except, as you do in London, on the street – but that’s not a relationship, it’s a battle!).
The times I remember in my life as being my happiest, are when I started University, and when I moved to London. It became clear this afternoon, just why that might have been. It is the diversity of the human soul that most makes me smile. It is remembering how very vast the world is – but how very similar we all are. It is listening to storytellers, liars, crazy people, charismatics, IT developers, philosophers, poets, non-hipster-middle-classers, that I need. I need to find some more of those people, and to suck up everything they have to offer.
I need to sit in a pub garden more.

I’m Sunshriek, and I’m a mental.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I could do a certain something at work. The short answer, I replied, was no.

I rarely say No. Few teachers ever say ‘No’ (when really they should) because there is a culture, and understanding, that it is all ‘for the kids’. We work all the hours that God sends doing pointless paperwork because it’s ‘for the kids’. ‘No’ is a word reserved for speaking to said kids, not one to use where management are concerned.

You don’t say No in teaching.

But I did it, I said No.

I have taught at my current school for nine years. I have run two departments, trained up countless PGCE students, achieved some of the best GCSE results we ever had. One of my students went on to get top marks at one of the best universities in the country (mostly his work, to be fair, but in my subject… so… you know…). I’ve managed the Social Committee, supported newer teachers, entertained the caretakers, held training sessions for other members of staff. And, the kids say they love my lessons and choose to talk to me outside the classroom. I think I’ve been pretty successful at my job.

But then I said, No.

The first meeting I arranged to talk about this – after the frosty-cold-shouldered-run-in in the staffroom – seemed to suggest that my manager had long been concerned about my general performance. I was always saying I didn’t have enough time to do things.

Now, a person would have to be in years of therapy to understand their own reactions to someone saying you don’t do your job properly. Luckily, I happen to have years of therapy under my belt. Unluckily, I am still totally unable to access everything I’ve learned.

In that moment, it was true. I was crap at my job. Here was someone telling me that I am always complaining, never meeting deadlines, and generally performing poorly. I was devastated.

You leave early everyday, she said.

You refuse to take any work home with you, she said.

Do you even care about the kids?, she said.

And finally, Are you just doing this to pay the rent?

I could have cried. I have cried, many times, in meetings at work. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve never been able to channel anger into anything other than hot, frustrated tears. This time, though, I didn’t cry. This time, I just felt resigned. Because, you see, this was the first time I had said no. And I have NEVER missed a deadline.

“If”, I said to her, “that is what you think, then I suggest you take the matter further”. And then I left.

I’m not sure I really need to go into what it was that I had been asked to do, but I think it’s worth saying that the only reason I said no was because I had been asked the question “And can you do it by 4pm, please?”. Was I refusing to do the work? Not really. All I was saying was, “No, I can’t do it by 4pm”. I can’t do it by 4pm, because I am teaching all day, and it is a physical impossibility. Really, though, the problem wasn’t that they had asked the impossible, and it wasn’t that I had refused. There was a new thing, now… this thing about how I’m not putting everything into my job. I am not living and breathing Teaching. I do not care about the kids. 

One, or other of us, took it further. I spoke to the manager above her. This man, a member of senior leadership in an outstanding school, repeated the same comments – comments I could now be sure had come from him in the first place. What I remember most from that meeting is how little emotion I felt. Whilst I had been upset in the meeting with my immediate manager – a person I respect, and like – I don’t have a great deal of time for this guy. So, when he asked me whether I should really just leave teaching, because I clearly didn’t care enough, I just felt mild indignation.

“I know about your illness” he said “and I know that people with psychological problems often try to do as little work as possible, so that they don’t get sick again…”

I zoned out after that. A whole part of my brain shut down so that I wouldn’t have to process the exact thing that he had just said. I wasn’t doing my job properly… and it was because I was a ‘mental’. I should leave teaching, because I was a mental. I was mental.

Let’s put aside the legal ramifications of his comment. Let’s forget, for a moment, that Depression is recognised as a disability under the Equal Opportunities something-or-other. And that managers need to be very careful talking in the way that he has. Let’s just focus on that one comment: People with PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something derogatory about the phrase ‘psychological problems’. The man on the tube with his trousers tied up with string, who hasn’t bathed for a year and who is muttering to himself. He has psychological problems. The lady who leaves her entire inheritance to her cats, rather than the children who have supported her in her old age. She has psychological problems.

And now me; the married, home-owning, professional, educated-past-degree-level woman; with hobbies, talents, and a vast array of wonderful friends? I have psychological problems. Pity me.

Stephen Fry has spoken openly, honestly, and far more eloquently, about his struggles with mental illness. He said recently how supported he felt, and how positively the general public have responded, suggesting that attitudes towards mental illness are changing. I’m sure that they are, or I wouldn’t have been quite so shocked and horrified by what was said to me. But here’s my two cents anyway:

What if my manager’s comment had been this: “I know you’re recovering from cancer, and that’s probably exhausting, but you should be working longer hours”?

Or, “I know you’re in a wheelchair, but you don’t even try to manage the stairs. Don’t you care about the kids?”

Mental illness, like any other physical illness, does change the way you have to work. I no longer feel I can put in all the extra hours I used to. I struggle to stand in front of a group of 30 needy teenagers for five hours a day, keeping my cool, staying professional, endlessly patient and positive. It is exhausting. Like Stephen Fry’s comments about hosting QI, it is difficult to teach with a constant, nagging feeling that you just want to curl up and die. By the end of the day, I am exhausted. So I go home and switch off.

I do, however, always meet my deadlines. I always plan and deliver lessons which Ofsted would deem ‘Good’. I know my students as individuals and I treat them as such. My marking is up to date. I attend every meeting and I support every, stupid, new initiative until they change it back again. I, in short, continue to do my job even when it’s killing me.

But I hate to think that people are looking at me and thinking I’m not doing what I should. So, I asked both managers to give me some suggestions about what it was that they wanted from me. I explained that I was confused by what they were saying – that I thought I was doing okay. The single, beautiful, suggestion was this: “You could put up some display work on your classroom walls”.

I told them I don’t do interior design, I have psychological problems.

Maybe I’m better suited to School Leadership… I am mental, after all.