Treatment…

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“How do you do it, Dad?”

That was the question my eldest daughter asked me on one of her home visits from university. She was referring to my propensity to get additional sickness leave.

 

I had just been to see the local authority’s occupational health therapist. After being led through a maze of corridors, I sat in her office awaiting an inquisition that never came. Instead, a rather polite middle-aged woman explained the procedure. She then asked me questions about my state of mind and about what had brought about my illness. It was gratifying that so many professionals had been speaking of it as an illness when other dubious onlookers were probably thinking of shirkers. The need for constant explanation of oneself is something that I was beginning to get accustomed to. Between my explanations, she asked some questions and then noted down my responses. All this would be going on file somewhere for unseen eyes to peruse and evaluate. A little voice was telling me that my condition was imagined and that I only fell into it because I couldn’t do the job. In some ways, after years in education, it was correct.

 

The job has changed beyond recognition. Teaching has moved from being a force for personal liberation to one that tied everyone to systems and false assertions. A new breed of teacher does not question the system but embraces it. The system is no longer up for debate. Certain nebulous ideologies have been allowed to take root and spread to every school and institution where education is practised. For anyone with a rebellious spirit, especially teachers, education is not a place to be.

 

One of my favourite references came from a local adviser with whom I worked on a number of occasions. He wrote that I was, “a maverick and unmanageable.” On discovering this I felt a deep sense of betrayal before I took the more sanguine view that his words were not as damning as I had first assumed. Okay, so the intention of the words was that people would be warned about my ego-centric approaches to the job, but what they actually said was that I was a free-thinker who didn’t just accept the party line. Socrates would have been proud of me whereas Aristotle would have had me throttled. Unfortunately, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock as punishment for corrupting the youth of Athens. Although the drinking of hemlock is a practice that is not allowed in modern education, I think it has been usurped by the public poisoning of personality and the threat of fiscal repercussions; if we choose to not conform.

 

The new breed of teacher is unaware of this. They have been raised in an age where educational absolutism has become the norm. Super teachers, super heads and super schools vie for prominence in the local press, the league tables and within their very own backyards. How many schools invest in banners announcing their brilliance after summer results? How many come clean and broadcast the fact that they are average or just below?

 

None of this was said at my interview with the occupational health therapist. Some things were touched upon, such as the madness of Ofsted and of the obdurate English department who I had sought to lead to, what I hoped would be, a successful conclusion. I probably said a few more things but can’t remember; the jelly in which I was living often blocked out much of what went on at the time. I can remember that she rubber-stamped my madness with the statement that captured her thoughts; I was unfit for work. A certain vindication seeped into me and I walked back home in the knowledge that there was something definitely wrong with me.

 

“How do you do it, Dad?”

“I think madness has a huge part to play in it.”

 

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That to one side, one of the better things to emerge from the meeting was, not the additional time off from the institution but, the fact that it had been arranged for me to undergo a series of sessions with a counsellor.

Read After Burnout – Adventures in Everyday Madness

In the beginning…

 

Between the silent hours of 2 to 4am on April 19th 2016, my life changed forever. As seminal moments go, it was a relatively quiet one. I woke up in a cold sweat, was consumed by a rage of anxiety, thought my life was about to end, thought about ending it, came to some type of sense and perspective, returned to bed, slept fitfully without anybody being aware of my crisis, and then made an appointment to see my GP as soon as was possible.

 

Sometime later…

 

It sounded like a crow, a passing squawk and flap of wings. Crows do not promise half full glasses. Crickets began their digital chorus and my wife stirred. She would be getting up for work; I would be staying at home. The church bells rang out mournfully as part of the awakening.

 

These were my first few weeks of not being in work. To make it worse, these were my first few weeks of not being a teacher. I had left after spending a number of months off with anxiety disorder. It came on quickly, during the night, forcing me from sleep and providing a nightmare scenario that was all too real. Examination deadlines had been missed. I spent an hour contemplating my professional demise; another failure falling into a life full of failures.

 

It took me some time to realise that it was not true. I hadn’t dreamt it, but it was tangible. I could taste the fear in the same way that I can taste it now. My life changed after that night.

 

A couple of days later, I was sitting in front of my doctor. Another malingerer, another teacher bleating about the pressure of the job, I thought I heard her thinking. I was making my case, believing that without it I would be back in the madness again. I talked and talked, explaining the circumstances. She listened. I talked some more. Then, she asked me if I had ever considered harming myself. My answer didn’t need any dramatic delivery.

 

“Every night, when I wake up at the same time, I think about putting a gun to my head.”

 

I consider the sweet kiss of cold metal against my temple and the little effort it would take to squeeze the trigger. Bang. I don’t know if the dead hear the echoes of their lives as they dissipate into the yawn of eternal indifference, but bang seemed appropriate.

 

Her eyes were upon me.

 

“What stops you?”

 

“I love my wife and children too much.”

 

She didn’t need convincing.

 

“I am going to sign you off from today.”

 

My doctor discussed medication, explained that I was ill, and gave me a dose of resigned sympathy. Her parents had been teachers and her friends were teachers, or had been before they took retirement as early as they could. It was the same in her profession. “Burn out,” she called it. I understood. I was done with teaching. The last few years had been a prelude to this moment of realisation. It wasn’t so much that I was experiencing an epiphany, rather an opening of my eyes and the realisation of the smouldering stubble that surrounded me.

 

When my doctor was filling in the reason for my illness, she asked me if ‘anxiety disorder’ was okay to write down as the cause. I agreed.

 

As soon as I got out of the surgery, I phoned my wife. My initial sick note was for two weeks. Ironically, I was on the second week of my Easter break. Bloody teachers, eh? Sophie, my wife, was not surprised to hear my news. We arranged to meet for coffee, a place to talk out of earshot of our children and the place I chose was a cycling cafe, a sport that I professed interest in but hadn’t really done for the best part of seven months. Indeed, I had done precious little of anything outside of work in the time since I had taken up a post as Head of English in a failing school that still thought of itself as a bastion of education. My department was full of bastions. As luck would have it, the first person that I saw as I entered the cafe was another member of SLT. He too was a cyclist and never seemed to have any problem indulging his habit. A quick smile of recognition from me was followed by the dropping eyes of the psychologically guilty. Fortunately, my wife arrived and we found a quiet table.

 

“Two weeks? Well that’s a result.”

 

“Yes,” I nodded. “She doesn’t think that I am mentally well enough to be in the classroom.”

 

“I agree with her. What did you have to do though, put your underpants on your head?”

 

“No underpants needed. She just looked at me, listened to me, and signed the sick note.”

 

“So, she thinks you’re mad?”

 

“I think so.”

 

“She should have asked me, I could’ve told her.”

 

Sophie has always maintained that I was mad even when I was going through good times. It wasn’t the type of zany mad that lots of sane people like to label themselves as, but that heavy cloud of not being quite right mad which refused to stop following me around.

 

“But what did you tell her?”

 

“Oh, just the usual, the not sleeping and all that.”

 

“Was that all? I don’t sleep. She never gave me time off when I went to see her. Knitting, she said, or cake baking.”

 

“She prescribed two lots of tablets and said that I would be on them for quite a long time.”

 

“What did you tell her?”

 

“I just said that I couldn’t sleep. I told her about the panic attack. I told her about work.”

 

“What else?”

 

“Oh, I said that I sometimes dream of putting a gun to my head.”

 

“You said what?”

 

“Sometimes, most times when I wake up at night I think about committing suicide. I have an image of holding a gun and pulling the trigger.”

 

“You don’t, do you?”

 

My eyes fell to the coffee sitting before me. I did not want anybody to see or hear me.

 

“Yes.”

 

There are few words you can say to the person who loves you that can compensate for confessing that thoughts of suicide were never that far away from your mind. I wanted to say that I wouldn’t ever do anything like that. I loved Sophie and our girls. I wanted to say that it was just the confusion of a man who was not sleeping. I wanted to reassure her that everything was well and that this was just a temporary thing. I wanted, but I couldn’t.

 

“I’m sorry that you married such a fucking fuck-wit.”

 

“Don’t speak like that.”

 

“See you later, Matt,” came the goodbye of my colleague. I smiled goodbye and took a deep breath. “Sod’s Law. Somebody from work.”

 

 

 

 

2.

 

The medication that I was prescribed turned out to be Fluoxetine and Diazepam. The first is a general anti-depressant and the second is a much stronger drug that renders the user somewhat immune to the goings-on around them. I was told not to drive or attempt to teach with the big D in my system.

 

In the A-Z of drugs, Fluoxetine is described as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSR) antidepressant. It affects chemicals in the brain that may unbalance people with depression, panic, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Finally, I was part of a club, not a very exclusive club, but a recognised order of disorder. Diazepam, on the other hand, is another fish. a pretty big one at that; and not a fish that many can swallow. The big D is your Tenants Super of treatments. Again though, it is quite widely taken which may explain those dead and drifting eyes that wander the aisles of major supermarket outlets. My first contact with this one was accompanied by a feeling not dissimilar to throwing oneself off a great height and into a vat of not quite set jelly. After a very short while, I felt that I was walking within a membrane that managed to keep the world out and me safe. That must be how babies feel when they are still in the womb. No wonder each of my girls fought the birthing process, with the younger ones staying longer and longer still away from the whole business of coming into the world.

 

In a matter of three to four days my wife’s husband, and my children’s father, had moved from a twitchingly accurate impersonation of Stephen King’s caretaker in The Shining to a man who walked and talked in jelly. If carefree means free of all cares, then I was that; a medically enhanced twig floating on the river of life. It was a good thing that I was not allowed in school at that point as twigs tend to snap underfoot in such crowded environments.

 

So, after becoming a benign cast member of The Walking Dead, I was a happy soul, if one considers happiness to be born out of indifference. Actually, that’s not fully correct. One could never be carefree or indifferent if one lived opposite a neighbour whose right-wing views, privileged past, and belief in men having a steely spine and a stiff upper lip, was the dogma that ruled her personal judgements. It was the omnipresence of this said neighbour, forever peeking from her sentry position in the front bedroom, that kept me tied down. I was reduced to making dashes to the car or sneaking into the garage to quickly grab my bike before setting off at a pace up the avenue.

 

It was the latter activity that began to return me to some less drug-induced form of equilibrium. I had missed cycling and the peace it brought me. The place where I live is blessed with a low population, only few big towns and the secret of its Wolds. When I am on my bike, I am young again. Cycling recycles my distant memories and feeds them into my older state.

Read After Burnout

This series of blogs chronicles my journey from abject despair and breakdown through writing and recovery.

I have found that writing this has enabled me to see the factors involved in my problem and, as a result, allowed me to set off on a meaningful process of recuperation. In episodic form, it is the mental and physical adventures of a man who has reached the end of a profession that he once loved and which still, against the odds, provides him with just a little hope for the future.

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