Blame it on Hemingway

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Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. No, that’s not quite true. The first thing that I wanted to be was a fighter pilot. That was followed by wanting to be an architect. I was a good artist. The next thing I wanted to be was a writer and that is why I ended up joining the Metropolitan Police. I personally blame Ernest Hemingway for that one. At another stage in my life, I blamed Laurie Lee for painting an unsustainable picture of Spain. I have now forgiven both of them. Both of those writers did something worthwhile. Both of them convinced me that I could do likewise. Then I became a teacher.

Outcomes matter. That sounds like some trite ideology from the Department for MisEducation or a veiled threat to all classroom practitioners (don’t you just hate that nonsense verbage?). Outcomes do matter but not in the phony way that data specialists would have us think. Outcomes are about building things for the future. Think about a house that starts off as an idea before it becomes a dream. Think about how that dream becomes a plan and then how that plan gets put into action; first the foundations and then the walls. But things can change along the way; plans do not always foresee everything that lies before them. The good thing about plans is that they can change.

I never wanted to be a teacher, forever.

The vision of me as Mr Chips, although at once appealing, was not what reality would bring. Perhaps something within me wanted to be that avuncular figure who was loved, admired and cherished by generations of children and parents. Dream on! No ancient tweed jacket for me. No chronic chest complaints brought on by the chalk board. No healthy pension and fare-thee-well-handshake. And why? Because I don’t fit!

One of the most important characteristics of a successful educator is the ability to fit. Be there, agree with the most important agreements, shy away from having opinions, yet pretend to have passion. Treat the educational environment as an opportunity to make constant improvements to everything, anything and anyone, as long as anyone does not include oneself.

You see that is the flip side of ‘Growth Mindset’, growth always increases if you cut away at the right time. Today we are getting accustomed to these things called multi-academy-trusts which is really just franchising. Franchises run the world. They rely on a good idea, a few years of successful practise, an ethos or philosophy that sounds good but doesn’t have to be plausible or ever enacted. They need decent marketing that will convince others to buy into the idea rather than attract potential customers. They need followers, drones who can mumble the mantra at a moment’s notice. On top of that, they need people who have growth mindsets!

There is a Frankenstein aspect to growth mindsets. It’s based on the premise that we can continue to improve. Year on year on year on year, we can get better and better. All it takes is hard work and belief. Victor Frankenstein would have loved this in so much as he set about achieving the seemingly unachievable; defeating death itself. So, with all the brilliance and passion that he could muster, combined with all the latest developments in science and technology, he set about bringing to life his creation. Unwanted arms and legs, heads and hearts, brains and brawn were all recycled, reprogrammed and re-imagined in the vision of the new creator.

Outcome? To say the creation was a little messed up would be like saying Hitler was a bit bossy. Okay it worked out, to an extent. Frankenbaby gave a double fingered salute to death, but then came the stinger. Something was not quite right. The plans had not predicted the petulance of the inventor’s pubescent protégé.

So, what do you do when it all goes tits towards heaven?

You blame.

Blame the body parts. Blame the lack of skilled labour. Blame the bloody working conditions. Blame God. But when all else fails blame Carol ‘fucking’ Dweck for coming up with the idea of growth mindset. The problem with blame is that it releases us from our own personal responsibility. We are responsible for what we do until it goes wrong and then we look around for other factors that can take the flak.

Each school becomes the brainchild of its leader.

Their personality is imprinted on the day to day DNA of everything that happens. The senior leadership team, the middle management team, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the support staff are all manifestations of the main man or woman; Leadership at work.

Nobody sets out to fail. Well, some of us do. We are convinced and have convinced ourselves that we cannot not succeed. We fear the stigma of not succeeding. More than anything else, we are petrified of the public panning that we will receive once our failed attempts come to light. And, although many gurus would have us believe that failure is the natural root of success, we know that failure hurts.

Would you want Frankenstein as your family GP? My problem is that I am a failure flunky. There is something missing in my inhibitor technology. There is no fail-safe thermostat or James Bond alarm that warns of “thirty seconds to explosion”. So, I set about my endeavours in the fragile belief that it will all work out fine in the end. That is why I am certainly not a leader. Who on God’s green earth would follow such a fool?

 

The Pied Piper, now there’s a leader. Many followed him to the ends of the earth. A while back, when still a real teacher, I set a year 9 class a Christmas homework. I wrote the opening paragraph of a story and then followed that with the closing paragraph to the same tale. All the students had to do was to join them up with an appropriate narrative. I did the same. What was supposed to be an uplifting story of young boy’s dreams about his dead father and subsequent reconciliation with the death of a loved one turned into something altogether less warm. Indeed, it became a real chiller.

In my warped hands, The Piper entered the tale and spread his misanthropy. The Piper was the manifestation of evil. I researched the legend and started writing. I took it all the way back to Pan, the original piper, and discovered Syrinx, an unfortunate victim. No going back from there so I steamed ahead into the 1960s and a mental institution where lobotomies were the therapy of choice. I jumped from there to an inner-city school which was none too dissimilar to what we now have and then the tale ran away with itself…

Rats, there were plenty of them. A dried-out man, a Leatherman, who was dead from the start. Three brothers, a mother, a dead father. By this time, the festivities had long gone so I brought in a young anti-Christ. Mix that all up with the looming apocalypse and you have it; a veritable smorgasbord of a novel that flopped. I think it reached about a hundred readers. Too many plots, leaden voice and a crap publisher. Nevertheless, it was an outcome.

Anybody who has ever undergone counselling will be aware of the feeling of astonishment they get when someone shines a light on a part of their life which they had almost totally forgotten.

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Madness, institutions and schools…

 

 

 

 

Let’s talk?

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I sat in the car for a while waiting for my watch to catch up with the appointment time. To tell the truth, I was not expecting anything much. I would just sit down, have a little chat and fulfil my obligations to the occupational therapist. Oh, and I was not being charged for it. On the flip side, I would be if I didn’t attend.

 

Being mentally unbalanced can be a lonely life; it’s not like having something really wrong with you. So, you spend your time indoors beyond the eyes and ears of anyone or outdoors as far away from people as one could get. The image of my well-meaning neighbour and her stiff-upper-lip advice and added stoicism sprung to mind and I dismissed it with a shake of an inner crucifix.

 

Talking about it is difficult. It’s seen as being self-important, self-indulgent, and selfish. So, you keep stum. You avoid contact. Other people do not like to listen to the introspective ramblings of strugglers. It’s a struggle; all of it. And, even though we are vaguely aware of the struggles of others, we don’t talk about it. It continues inside us like a cancer taking root, a cancer whose pain grows in the night, a cancer that saps the energy of its host, runs the engine down to empty-breakdown.

 

My counsellor’s opening words, beyond the required legalities, asked me to talk about why I thought I was there. I wanted to say that I was a rather wobbly fruitcake. Instead, I painted the landscape of my recent life. I talked about the hell that was work and education. I talked about the people I worked with. I talked about the night I woke up to the living nightmare that was now known as my anxiety attack. I talked and talked and talked until I felt that I had said enough. I still felt as if I were on trial.

 

Charlotte, my counsellor, listened attentively. She was listening for the words of a genuine nut-job. I realised that I wasn’t completely gone, but the more I talked the more my hands started to shake. A smile rippled inside, acknowledging my dramatic accompaniment. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to over-egg my particular pudding so I tried to take a grip. My hands continued, indifferent to my intentions.

 

“Matthew, you seem to be a very successful person. If I met you outside of this office, I would see a confident, articulate man who had achieved success in his life.”

 

Now that was the type of complimentary bullshit that a depressed middle-aged man wanted to hear, but not now.

 

“It’s a front. I do this. I’ve always done this, but I can’t do it any longer.”

 

“Why do you do it?”

 

I thought for a little longer than a short while.

“I don’t know why I do it. I think I have always done it. When I was a child, people accused me of being arrogant. They said I was big-headed. Even my family called me Matt, The Big Head. I never knew why, but it stuck. Apparently, I exude confidence. When people meet me, they think that I have it sorted, all the answers. I must be good at it. I suppose that that sounds arrogant.”

 

She smiled.

 

“So, what is the problem with being like that?”

 

“The problem is that I end up fooling myself. I believe the mask and not the man, I push forward and do things because I think I can. I think that I need to do them. I think that I want to do them. It’s all a lie. Well, bits of it are.”

 

I was surprised at how it had all started. I was expecting a preamble followed by post-preamble; nothing. I was straight to it; part of it.

 

“You see, I don’t think that other people believe you to be one of them when you are like this; whatever this is. There’s something about being humble, showing humility, being ordinary, which people like. Not getting good was a phrase that came from my home town and that meant to be what you were supposed to be rather than trying to be something other. I suppose that I have never really liked what I am.”

This was a minor crack on the huge surface of self-revelation, but it was only a little more.

 

“Can you explain what you mean by that last thing you said?” My counsellor enquired with a hint of the Ah, ah moment’ about her.

 

“What? Never really liking myself?”

 

She nodded encouragingly.

 

There is a shiver of panic that invades my life on certain occasions. It’s like the feeling that one may get when pulling off a jumper that is a little too small. First it grabs around the shoulders, sticks and refuses to go any further. This tends to happen when it has passed the point of no return. When that happens, you are stuck, defenceless, with a straight jacket pinning your arms too close for usefulness and your eyes completely covered by the wool or man-made substitute. That’s when the panic begins as a ripple of anxiety. Exposed and defenceless, one could spend eternity like this, suffocate, or fall headlong down a flight of stairs.

 

Being afraid of the shadows, the thing under the bed, someone hiding around the corner, or simply waiting for you in sleep, was something that plagued the young me. There were times when the world would close in around that former self. This was not meant metaphorically, to a boy of around five or six the walls would literally close in threateningly; and there were voices in those walls. Then the walls would be inside my head and my brain would pulse from the pressure. That ripple of anxiety had by then turned into a torrent, a mass of viciousness whose intent was purely to cause me harm. I remember experiencing this once in the bathroom of the council house that I was brought up in.

 

The door was locked when the voices came and the water was running from the tap. The ceiling above me was pounding with the heaviness of something trying to get through. The walls started to move inwards and the lock, the lock on the door refused to shift. I tried shouting for help, but nothing came from me. Tears dripped from my face, my pulse raced towards explosion and I collapsed in submission.

 

“No, I never really liked myself.”

 

Her head moved in the same way that a bird’s would upon glimpsing something. I had caught her attention and had not tried to do so.

 

“What is it that you don’t like about yourself?”

 

“I don’t like being a failure.”

 

I can hear the chorus of, “Get on with it,” coming from people now. Self-interested, egocentric-malingerer. Why is it that people like me feel that they have right to spend so much of their lives gazing at their belly buttons? Get on with it!

 

The thing is, I can’t get on with it because it has shunted me off the tracks. It has a name and that name is Anxiety Disorder. It could be called a lot of other things. It was ME.

 

“Why do you think you are a failure, Matthew?”

 

I liked this woman. She had a nice tone and seemed to want to connect. I wanted to trust her. Most people can’t be trusted.

 

“Not achieving anything worthwhile.”

 

“What do you mean by worthwhile?”

 

What does worthwhile mean? Well, it means that the time you have spent on something should be reflected in the outcome.

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Take my writing for example…

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.

images            Enjoy.