Friday, April 22, 2016

You're Not Alone, Teacher

Come closer. I want to tell you a secret. Something I don’t share with many people. Something I really only mention casually to a few.

I have depression. Not the pseudo-drama or sadness when people quip, “I’m so depressed.” No, I have clinical depression. An imbalance in my brain.

I know—many people do. Who cares if I do? I think what makes this important is I am a teacher. We are supposed to be superheroes; however, it is imperative we begin talking about our private demons so we can further support each other as a community.

You are not alone.

Yes, that sounds trite, but too many times in my life, I have felt alone in dealing with my depression (or my auto-immune diseases). Logically, I know I’m not: I have family and have learned to trust a few friends with this. However, mental illnesses do not deal in logic.

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know I enjoy writing. I don’t really journal, but in 2003 I began writing poetry. I have no illusions (delusions?) I’m a “poet,” but sometimes crafting a poem distracts my brain and gives me solace. These are two of the first poems I wrote about my depression:

Depression rolls in
like the tide
Pulling me into its grip

I sink down
feeling the water
close over my head
Blocking out the
sights and sounds
of life
Blotting out the
light of the sun
Bringing only
isolation and darkness
to my drowning soul

I don’t fight to rise
but close my eyes
and let the
current carry
me away

I don’t have the
energy to care
if I swim
or drown
I’m too weary to fight
So, with a gulp
I become one with the water
And welcome the peace
of nothingness

Trapped in
the middle of a
vast space
Treading water
Fighting to keep
my head above
the waves

I go under for a moment
but break the surface,
gasping and desperate
for air

I’m under again
Long enough to
begin assessing the
new world waiting
to welcome me
My eyes search for
something to
keep me from
going back up
My lungs ache and
reality jerks me
to the top
Wheezing and panting
I drag breath deep into
my soul

I remain on the surface
Searching for life,
for something to rescue me
Tired, I doggedly
cling to the bright water
Fighting for every stroke,
every moment
Knowing my demise is nigh,
I hold tenaciously
to the remaining seconds

The sparkling water
and dancing sun recede
Dark murkiness
covers my head
Shadows pull me
Further from salvation
Wrapping me in

I bid good-bye
to the world I knew,
Release the last
breath trapped
in my lungs,
and rest on
the spongy bottom

I close my eyes,
breath sharply in,
and welcome
the sleep of

I’ve read some of what other people have written about depression. I keep seeing the drowning metaphor. That’s the closest analogy I have found to help someone who’s never found themselves in the grips of the D-word. Well, maybe it’s more like drowning in slime, thick goo. You feel weighted down, achy, unable too move—or even care about moving. Every breath is a truly heroic act. Simple tasks like showering and dressing become monumental. You have spells where would sell your soul to get some sleep. Lying awake while black little ghouls pluck at your brain, planting bizarre thoughts in your painfully awake mind. Sometimes you sleep with a light on just so you feel like someone is there with you. Then, you don’t want to do anything but sleep; and some days you lie in bed, digging into your depths to find one miniscule reason to even get up. Your spouse and child are not enough. On the most hideous days, you tell yourself they would be better off without you as an albatross around their necks. They love you too much to be honest, but you know their lives would be better without you dragging them down.

So, you do contemplate gulping in that water, releasing that last sweet breath, and finally finding some peace.

Yeah, that’s pretty close. It’s easy to capture this because I’ve been fighting it off and on this school year. Personally, my family is dealing with many issues. Professionally, I’m having the hardest year of my career. I’m ripe for the monster to claim me. But wait, “monster” isn’t quite right. It’s not a loud, snarling beast—something I can easily see, hear, and avoid. No, depression is stealthy. Maybe like a movie serial killer: slips in, tortures you mercilessly and gleefully, makes you beg for mercy before you finally succumb to the gentle kiss of his knife.

In hindsight, I’ve had depression most of my life. According to my grandmother, I was born an adult, and I have carried a lot of my family’s burdens on my shoulders. I had to be strong for everyone. Hell, I still feel that way. At an early age I learned to mask my feelings. I am not placing any blame on anyone (truly I feel no anger anymore), but for most of my life I was taught emotions like anger and sadness were from the devil. Things to be prayed away. If you continued to feel those, your faith must not be strong enough. Rather than ask for help or healthily deal with my pain, I learned to push it down or hide it or question what I was doing wrong. It was all my fault. So, I had insomnia and nightmares and couldn’t figure out why the darkness called to me so often. Why that silky siren’s song refused to leave my brain.

As I became a teen, I grappled with faith because what I’d been taught sure as hell was not working. I began finding solace in self-harm. I rarely ever cut myself because I had a nosey mother (thank you, Mom). I refused to add any more issues to my family. So I flirted with harm but rarely broke the skin. Physical pain is so much simpler than mental pain. Causing myself pain helped me focus on something I could control. There was beauty and release as the nerve endings communicated the exquisite sting to my brain. My mind gratefully latched onto that single breathless moment. For those sweet seconds, I was free.

Yes, it sounds incredibly screwed up, doesn’t it? Again, the mind is not logical when a mental illness takes hold. I’ve even written a poem or two about it:

I drag my nails
across my skin
Just to see the
red welts rise
God, the pain feels good
Releasing something dark inside
Feeding some insatiable beast
Lodged in my breast

He looms in my mind
At times quietly watching
At times ravishing my mind
and soul
At times I control him
At times he has full control

My words seem to come from
another mouth
My tears stream down
another face
My silent screams tear through
another brain
My nails rip down
another body

My life seems surreal
I watch another woman
become a terrified child
hunched in a fetal stance
Eyes closed, blocking out the
overwhelming world
Someone else tries to control
the pain inflicted by careless others
by inflicting pain on herself

Good little girl…
Focus on the beauty
of the physical pain

Sweet little girl…
Forget the emotional pain
ravaging your soul

Innocent little girl…
Pretend you have everything
under control

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering if this is a ploy for attention or sympathy. Isn’t that why anyone posts on the Internet? Truly it’s not. When I share about my mental or physical illnesses, I state info matter-of-factly. I even feel bad when people express sympathy. Yes, I appreciate that kindness, but I know so many others are worse than I. Most days I KNOW I am truly blessed.

So, I’m sharing this lengthy post to make connections, especially with teachers.

I want you to know it’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not grade papers or write lessons or answer parent emails in the evenings or on weekends. It’s okay to take time for yourself. Go take a bath or read a book or go on a hike or watch a movie or simply take a damn nap. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Go find someone right this minute, look that person in the eye, and say, “I need help,” or “Will you listen.” Talk to that person.

Admitting your limitations is not a sign of weakness. Knowing, accepting, and working with those weaknesses is actually a sign of strength. To be able to look yourself, or someone else, in the eye and say, “I am not perfect. I need to lean on someone right now,” shows astonishing strength.

Teaching can feel amazingly solitary. Sure you work with other people, but once that door closes, it’s you and 30-something students in that room. Each of those students needs you to be your best. You have a moral and ethical obligation to be en pointe and educate as many of them as you humanly (or superhumanly) can. I know. I have the same imperative.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a human, with all your strengths and weakness, with all your beauty and ugliness.

So, when you find yourself in those moments—when you’re floundering or drowning or slogging through or trying to find a reason to get out of bed—I hope you remember you are NOT alone.

It is okay to be you…and not THE teacher.

Everyone will understand—and we’ll still love and support you. 

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