There are moments that sneak upon me, seize my collar and thump me on the head with a leaden cosh. It is the bathroom moment reincarnated for a new self. It is not the walls, the never-ending drip of the tap, nor the ceiling moving down upon me. The phantoms of the past have morphed into the pressures of the present. Black humour would explain it or big fat fate whose previous predictions are in need to being revived and revisited upon the forgetful and indifferent. Don’t get cosy when things seem to be going well.
It was Friday night and the wonderful haze of the weekend was settling upon me. My wife was out somewhere with my daughters and I chose to do something that I hadn’t done for a while. I was going to phone my mother. Since the death of my father, relations with the rest of my relations, in the original family, had become a little strained. It’s the old sister and daughter-in-law scenario with a level of antipathy that flows through the silence imposed by distance and the prohibitive cost of phone calls. Sophie thinks they don’t really care, that we are too far from their everyday lives to be considered. I think it’s true. I have always been the strange sheep in the family and that has never changed. My need to be accepted has morphed into acceptance; that was the way of things. Sophie, who comes from a less conventional family structure, feels a little betrayed; she too is an outsider. Sometimes, however, there grows a need to confide in individuals who share the same DNA. So, as the wife was out, I thought I would phone home, the old home.
On the way back from the trenches, it’s best to forget about old battles. It’s best to breathe, take stock; allow the moment to just happen. Don’t think. Don’t act. Don’t call. With the memory of a particular Year 9 class still reverberating within me, I decided to seek some words of solace and had decided to seek them from my mother.
The last time I had spoken to her after a particularly bad experience was when I had been in the police. I had witnessed the arrest and humiliation of a young black boy. He had been suspected of stealing from a local shop and had been detained by the owner of the premises. During the course of this, the boy had started to behave strangely, a mixture of confusion and fear translating into something that appeared to be aggression. When we, the local constabulary, were called to the scene, a small group of interested bystanders had gathered. For Laurel and Hardy, my fellow officers and trusted colleagues, this was just the provocation needed for a little assertion of their legal powers. What could have been sorted with an understanding word of sanity became a mass brawl and a brutal depiction of institutional racism. It was a sobbing younger-self who phoned from the capital that night seeking similar solace and it was a similar response that that younger-self received. After a few empathetic noises,
“You’re dad’s not in.”
This time, I knew my dad was not in; he was over five years underground.
“You never tell your mother how things really are!” My wife’s remarks reminded me.
The doctor had originally signed me off with anxiety disorder. I thought I was okay, exhausted but okay, whereas she thought that I was in some sort of peril. She gave me strong drugs and signed me off for a rolling period. It was good by me and I decided to attempt to return myself to a state of being that I fancied I had enjoyed at some earlier stage. Golden Ages?
After a while, I was taken off the strong drugs but continued with the others. After about six months of these, I occasionally forget to reorder and that leaves a gap between one prescription finishing and another beginning. Gaps aren’t good, even if you are just the tiniest bit dubious about the actual beneficial effects of the prescribed medication in combating the issue they were given for. So, after missing almost a week of the things, I finally reintroduced them into my system.
Anxiety is a creep.
It doesn’t announce itself in a sudden and calamitous collapse, a scream of fear or a strong desire to run into a corner and huddle up. No, anxiety hangs around like a phantom that exists somewhere in the corner of the eye; or in the shadows. My body has developed its symptoms, but my brain often misses them.
It was the end of a school week and I had the nonchalant calmness that almost twenty-five years in the job have bestowed upon me. It had persuaded me that everything would be fine. I had trained my classes and they respected me. No longer a mere supply teacher, I had moved into the field of educator. This Friday, however, brought about a change in a number of groups who I had been teaching. They were skittish, unresponsive and incredibly talkative. My initial thoughts that this was not a problem were to come back and slap me around the face. Year 7s and 8s had been bad enough but they were nothing compared to Year 9 who entered the classroom like a rampaging army reclaiming lost ground.
I was tired and probably complacent. I knew that I could handle it. As usual, I set out the exercise books on a table in an attempt to manage potential disruption. I was going to place a trouble-maker in another room, so that he could finish an assessment that everyone else had already done. There were a number of good students in the group, but this was matched by a number of disinterested and disengaged ones. A number of boys wanted to mess about while an equal number of girls just wanted to ignore anything that this cocky old supply was trying to teach them. The noise level was different from what I had expected it to be and this put me on the wrong foot from the very moment that they descended. I was on edge. Anxiety had crept into the room and was standing behind me. The kids could see it even if I couldn’t. I didn’t even notice the appearance of the shadows circling me.
After over two weeks of trying to get some form of written assessment from the boy I had placed in another room, he returned triumphantly with a slap of the exercise book and a, “Done it!” He looked at the rest of the group and smiled. He may have even winked. Some of the less interested girls had decided to reorganise my seating plan and this provided just the opportunity to begin proceedings.
“Why are you packing up your things, Kielby?”
Kielby and I had crossed swords before, when I first took over the class. Since then, a truce had existed between us, the type of truce that is fragile and waiting to break. With the last weeks of term approaching and the glitter of goodwill being shown to all men, women, (not supply teachers), my time with Kielby had arrived. Unfortunately, he had me at a disadvantage; the drugs hadn’t kicked in.
The upshot of all of this was that I not only excluded him from the class, but also managed to engage myself on another front with an erstwhile non-combatant. This resulted in a stand-off in which he refused to let me have his planner (that was needed to record a negative comment). My own petard was hoisted before me, but, like the shadows that I failed to see, no apparition came before me. The good kids put their heads down and pretended to be somewhere else leaving me with no support. Finally, when all order was being swept up into the maelstrom of classroom insurrection, I sought the thing that I least wanted, SLT help.
Any teacher understands that the help offered by SLT comes at a price. They arrive at the incident, inflated by their newly found ability to quell the heathen hordes, magically assert some calm where none had been before, give an off-the-peg talk on the importance of listening and showing respect, compliment the students for their usual hard work and perseverance, end with an upbeat offering of praise for future conduct, look towards the supply who is struggling, incline their heads backwards in a flourish that emphasises the enormity of their skills, and then leave, ignoring the almost immediate rise in volume coming from the room at the very moment of their departure (never go back for an encore).
SLT help is an anaesthetic that kicks in just as the patient screams from the agony of having a leg cut off. It momentarily numbs the pain, then disappears into the madness of a ward of cackling spectators who just love the spectacle of surgery. On top of that, the next SLT meeting will highlight those teachers who are struggling to connect with the kids, maintain a positive classroom environment and cannot, simply cannot, control the terrorist wing of the Tonton Macoute.
Regardless of any of that, the single most devastating effect of calling for help is that in doing so a teacher wipes away any modicum of self-belief and opens the harbour gates to a tsunami of self-doubt and loathing.
So, it was on the back of one of these seismic occurrences that I made my way back home for a Friday evening that found me alone and needing to talk. After going through a mental list of those people that I could use as a confessional, the list was incredibly short, and finding that there was no answer to my calls, I eventually phoned my mother. She answered and we had a flat conversation about nothing. She made cursory enquiries as to the wellbeing of me and my daughters and I told her that things were not good with my middle daughter and myself which prompted the remark that it would soon be Christmas. We finished speaking and hung up our phones.
“Did you tell her how bad things are with you?”
“Of course I told her! I tell her every time.”
Before this conversation went the full twelve rounds, I caught myself head butting the lounge door with a force that ought to have rendered me unconscious. It didn’t. I wished I were dead.
“I want to kill myself,” I shouted.
Sophie watched me with the helplessness and confusion of one who was made to endure the unendurable. Times have not been easy for her for several years now, but she carries on. She is not a runner nor is she a fighter. She is the home front, the unsung hero who makes sure that everything is able to continue regardless of how bad things may have become. I, on the other hand, had slipped again. I had tumbled off the edge and was now engaged in the self-loathing activity of trying to bash my brains out. Sophie, begged me to stop. And whether it was for my benefit, the benefit of the kids who had formed a concerned audience, or just for the wellbeing of the door that had only recently been placed in situ, I didn’t know.
“Can you stop doing that? Now!”
I stopped, surprised that neither the door nor my head had received any permanent damage.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” asked Maria, our youngest.
“Nothing, darling. He’s just upset.”
We went into another room and sat down.
“What happened today?”
Today was the day that the darkness returned. That day was one of those moments when the shadows, that had been gathering, decided to form together and become more than tangible… It’s behind you!
Anxiety is a state of nervousness, tension and passionate desire. It’s a cocktail of all our self-doubts and guilt that is normally taken during the darkest hours and feeds well into the following morning. Upon waking, the previous night’s doubts are washed away by the morning shower and swilled down by the first swig of tea. But the fifth column has taken to hiding behind the veil of night and waits until the day brings its share of distant gunfire and the rumble of the earth. Once the comfort of darkness has arrived, they sneak back into position and start to lay down harassing salvoes.
It takes a number of weeks like this, with the threat of the front creeping forever nearer, for the defences to begin to crumble. Words become bullets and sentences strafe conversations. The dark figure slips beneath the defences and crawls unseen into the spaces that were previously safe. Eyes dart for movement and heads twitch at the slightest sound. Even your loved ones have joined the assault, but they are now on the wrong side. It is how the dreams had predicted it to be, alone, confused, scared and betrayed.
The first bullets rip intoyour flesh and tell you that it is too late.