I started this blog last year around this time with the intention of creating a professional site that is filled to the brim with resources, ideas and thoughts about teaching. But then, something happened that changed my life completely.
It came out of the blue…two of my colleagues came to my classroom at the end of the day and did the unspeakable…they sat me down, and asked me if I was “okay”. The nerve of them, asking me if I was okay? Of course I was okay! I’m always okay. I’m in my professional workplace, I’m in the place that day in and day out I have to carry the educational stresses on my shoulders. I have to be okay. I wish everyone would stop asking me this nagging question!
I have to teach my lessons, counsel teenagers, I have to deal with my administration who’s job is to “run” the school (which at times causes them to forget that the people on the front lines are real human beings, not robots with nerves of steel). I have to deal with parents, who, although in their minds think they are servicing their children well, decide they are going to yell their anger at me about how their child getting a level 2 on an assignment is my fault because I haven’t helped their child enough, I assign too little or too much homework, I give too much or too little notice for my unit tests, and I didn’t give their little angel enough in-class time to get that assignment done. How dare I put those homework demands upon Little Johnny or Suzie who is travelling 5 nights a week to play hockey or spending 3 hours each weeknight in dance classes. They have a life you know? These kids “just don’t have time for homework”. The parents are very clear with their implicit messages as well – every issue that they are having, the stress they are dealing with at home is my fault, I am not a “good enough” teacher. I need to be the one to change what I am doing. “Of course I’m okay!”
So back to my colleagues sitting in front of me waiting for an answer. Obviously, I answered their question “Are you okay?” with a snarky (although I didn’t mean to be snarky), “Yes, thank you, I’m fine.” Over the years, I’ve been asked the same question MANY times, and I’ve given the same answer to every “are you okay?” question each time it was posed, with success! After giving my answer of “Yes, thank you, I’m fine”, the inquisitor(s) would usually go on their merry way, and we would all go back to status quo – the hamster wheel of teaching.
In the past, when I have provided my practiced response, the enquirer is satisfied because they have shown concern for a colleague, they took the initiative to seek me out and actually ask the question, and they would wait patiently for a response. When the response received was exactly what they expected, they could then go on their way feeling great because they’ve helped out an acquaintance. The accused (me) feels relieved after giving the expected response because personally, I hate answering that question. In my head I think that I’m “okay”, but without having the metaphorical tools to understand why, I always felt in my heart like I was lying when I said “I’m fine”. But I wasn’t lying, the script says when you are asked if you are okay, the automatic response was “Yes, thank you I’m fine” (don’t ask me where the script came from, I honestly can’t pinpoint who or when I was given the script, however, it has been my script for as long as I can remember – I’m thinking it has something to do with my co-dependence). It’s the only script, it’s the only way. Although I can state it now (I couldn’t at the time), deep down inside, I was SO afraid of admitting the script was different, that I actually WAS lying when I said “Yes, thank you, I’m fine”. The idea that there was another response that was so far away from the scripted one, was so devastating, debilitating, panic inducing, horrific (and the synonyms go on) that my conscience wouldn’t even ALLOW me to THINK there was an alternative. So to my two colleagues who chose today to ask me if I was okay, I delivered the script. To perfection….or so I thought.
BUT, as it turns out, I wasn’t perfect (another impossible thing to accept by the way). No, today my colleagues looked at me and asked “Are you sure you’re okay?” The first thing I felt was my heart skip a beat. Then it started to beat a bit faster, then a lot faster. I started to breathe faster to compensate for the quickened blood flow with this involuntary (meaning you can’t control it) physical reaction. I started the familiar physical panic/anxiety attack symptoms that I’ve come to know very well. But, no worries, I have my mask on. Oh, I forgot to tell you, that along with the “Yes, thank you, I’m fine” script, you also have to make sure your mask is perfectly in place. And those of you who wear the same mask as I did, you know what secret I’m about to share….
Many of us are in the “mental mask club”, not an official club, but it is a club I belonged to for many years! And I’m proud to say, giving up my membership to that club was the best thing (yet scariest thing!) I have ever done. I know that you can answer the annoying “okay” question, but the only way to keep these people from “bugging” you over and over, is to not only say the words of the script, but you have to tack on the ever winning, beaming, happy, and totally fake SMILE. So, I said my line from the script, gave my most believable smile (it must be really believable because it has served to keep away any follow up or deeper emotional questions for MANY, MANY, years), but something happened at that moment. My biggest fear, the most awful thing I could ever imagine, my mask had a crack in it. I didn’t see the crack that morning when I got ready for work, or at lunch when I checked to make sure I didn’t have broccoli in my teeth before teaching. I couldn’t even feel the crack. However, that fateful day, somehow, my colleague saw the crack. The crack in my mask that I had worked on to perfect for a very long time. Once I realized my mask was cracked and there was a chance my mask would show what was happening below it, my panic attack hit. And boy did it hit hard. So, what happened when my mask cracked that day in front of my colleagues? The tears fell out of their holders. Once those pent up, held back, emotionally exhausted tears started to fall, there was no stopping them. I tried. I tried all my tricks, self-talk “Stop crying right now, you’re at work”, “You idiot, people don’t cry”, “DON’T let them see you cry”. However today, none of these tricks worked….my mask started to crumble.
That’s another big no-no for me. No crying at work! No showing any weakness. If the script and the mask start to weaken, RETREAT! Get out! Stay home sick. Do whatever you need to do to make sure no one, I mean NO ONE sees that you are anything less than perfect. As I began to face my demons and understand how mental illness really works, I learned that my run-away attitude is actually a basic instinct in all humans, the FLIGHT system (part of the freeze-fight-flight mechanics in our subconscious brains). This system has been alive and well for awhile now in me, however, at the time, I couldn’t really identify what was happening. I just knew I felt like I was being trapped in a corner with an overwhelming urge to just leave. I wanted to quit my job and just walk out. My thinking was always “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m out”.
Now to be fair, I had just had a really crappy day, my students had no desire to learn, they just wanted to talk. They wanted to talk with me about their lives, their alcohol and drug issues, their home lives, etc., but they definitely didn’t want to talk about school – no matter how hard I tried to redirect their questions and comments. At the end of the day as I reflected on my lessons, I had the same thought as I have had for the many, MANY days before that…”we didn’t cover much of the curriculum again today, I am not doing a good job at this teaching thing anymore.”
I always tack on the “anymore” thing. You see, I’ve been teaching for a very long time. I am considered a veteran teacher in my workplace. I WAS a good teacher, but for a long time, I felt that confidence slipping away. Years ago if you were to ask me about teaching, I would have a multitude of reasons why I would label myself as a good teacher in the past but alas no longer fitting that definition. Society, technology, helicopter parenting styles, always changing curriculum, angry students, angry parents, the thankless job itself….my list of reasons why I was no longer an effective teacher consistently grew. I found myself thinking almost daily, “I can’t keep up with the changing dynamics of this education thing, I’m exhausted, I’m failing, I’m NOT GOOD ENOUGH anymore.”
So, as I am slowly coming to grips with the fact that my mask is in shambles at my feet, my colleagues have seen under the mask, I can hardly speak because at this point I’m sobbing….remember my no crying rule at work? Well, I broke that rule – huge! I am gasping for breath, and I realize my shirt is soaked with my tears, I can’t stop it, it’s a boulder rolling down a hill. I’m done. I realize that my gig is up, everyone knows I’m not perfect, I’m weak. I’ve been faking this “good teacher” thing. My students aren’t learning anything. I’m a terrible, terrible person. “I’M JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH”. As these thoughts are rumbling through my head, my next thought is even scarier – “what do I do now?”
I think this may be a good time for an intermission. This is part 1 of my breakdown/burnout/mask removal. Once I dry my tears up (this was a very emotional entry for me), grab myself another cup of coffee. Take a few deep breaths, use my POSITIVE self-talk, meditate, do my yoga routine, and maybe a few steps on the treadmill, I’ll continue with my story of what I did next when I realized there was no more pretending. Foreshadowing: the shocking revelation of my diagnosis….what wearing the mask really meant for me.
Remember when I told you earlier that my intention for this blog was to provide teaching resources? Well, my goal has changed slightly. I am hoping to provide my personal journey and personal resources that helped me ditch the “mental mask club”. I want to provide “TEACHER” resources. Although I’ll throw in my lessons and handouts to help you balance your work/life schedule, use them to purposely free up time to work on strategies so you can become part of my “no more mental mask club”! I will share EVERYTHING personal that has helped me change my life completely, and if you ever want to drop me a line, please do. I’ve realized the importance of a positive, sharing community to know that no matter what you are going through, no matter how hopeless you feel, someone out there will understand and be there for you. I look forward to meeting all of you!
Please note: I am NOT a medical professional or therapist. I am sharing my personal journey which did have these supports in place, but I encourage all of you to consult your own professionals to help you. The personal, human connection is important in this journey.