Falling Ill Taught Me To Empathise

Just over fifteen months ago I was a dynamic, energetic and enthusiastic teacher. Passionate about my job, I placed huge importance on being efficient, organised and flexible and I rarely took time off. As a Year Leader of four classes, I expected the same of my team. In the name of improving, progressing and innovating, there wasn’t much time for listening or for being empathetic.

That was incredibly hard to write. And to admit. At the time, I thought I was a good leader. No doubt in some ways I was. Of course it’s good to be committed and to strive for success. But, during the hardest year of my life while I have fallen apart mentally, I have realised that there was not enough balance, either for myself or for my team. That lack of listening and of empathy was actually incredibly significant. I didn’t know it at the time. It’s taken a long time for me to get there.

A large part of my drive came from my boss. The headteacher of my school is dynamic, energetic and ambitious. I believed that anything less wouldn’t be good enough. So that was what I strove for too.

So when I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, having been mentally healthy all my life, her reaction was a major concern to me. I was initially told I’d be off work for four weeks. I was horrified. Four weeks! How could I possibly leave my class and my team for that long? My naivety seems laughable now!

Ashamed as I was about not being at work, I have never felt ashamed about my diagnoses. I sent my head teacher an email explaining what was wrong in a desperate effort to convince her that I did actually need to be off work. I was terrified about what her response would be, fearing it would be dismissive or cold.

When this appeared in my inbox, my fears disappeared:

“It takes courage to begin to process the impact of these kinds of experiences and I acknowledge you in being brave enough to start to face it all.
You need to prioritise yourself at the moment – all will still be ticking along at work ready for when you feel back on track. There is absolutely no rush and no need for you to worry about school.
So, take your time. Enjoy walking the dog, being a mum, chilling out, staring into space…whatever you need to do – it’ll be very well worth it in the long term.”

I was so relieved and grateful. Despite her drive and ambition, the headteacher I admired so much had just acknowledged that it was ok to take time out for mental health. The fact I hadn’t expected her to be so understanding, made it seem all the more significant.

Receiving that email was just the beginning of me realising how important it is that people truly listen and show empathy. I’ve benefitted from endless similar experiences since when my husband, my family, my friends and my therapist have simply listened to my confused and jumbled thoughts without judgement. Every single time that has happened, it’s been so precious to me. And, time after time, it’s slowly taught me how I can be a better listener and how I can show empathy too.

This week, a friend who I’m not very close to, popped by on the off chance for a chat. I wasn’t home. As I re-read her message, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it that it seemed. So I suggested meeting for a coffee the following day to which she replied ‘wonderful.’ When we met, I was a little nervous. We’d never done this. Would conversation be awkward? In the past, I would have leapt in with constant babble about not very much to prevent any awkward silences. On this occasion though, I simply asked ‘how are you’ and sat back, ready to listen.

For an hour, she talked. She’d read my blogs. And appreciated them. And needed to share.  I listened. I made the odd suggestion but I didn’t jump in every 10 seconds thinking I had a quick fix to everything. A year ago, I would have done just that. Striven to fix and then to move on. Listening felt good. Feeling her relax and open up even more, felt good too. Realising how much I’d changed for the better, felt great. Receiving this message a few hours later, made me feel so proud:


“I really wanted to say Thank You for everything today. The idea of the coffee, the beautiful present and mostly Listening!! Thank you so much. I really felt Much Better after that :)”

The ‘beautiful present’ was a note book and pens to record how she, as a mother of four, is going to prioritise and treat herself. So simple. That was another tip I’ve learnt this year. Never forget to prioritise number one!

A year on, after a couple of false starts, I’m finally about to go back to work. I am so much better. I feel ready. I am excited. Fairly nervous. And hopeful it will go well.

Above all, however, I want to go back and be a listener and an empathiser. To students and colleagues at work; and to family and friends at home.

If I have ‘only’ learnt the importance of that during this intensely difficult journey, then I know my headteacher was right.  It has been ‘very well worth it in the long term’.

Thank you to ‘The Mighty’ for publishing this article.

Being Thin: Losing Weight Doesn’t Always Mean What It Seems

I wrote this back in October. A lot has changed since then. For a start, I’ve gained all the weight I lost…and some! But it’s always good for me to go back and read what I wrote during difficult times. It makes me realise just how far I have come; and just have much I am learning on this life-changing journey. 

I braved a party this weekend with people I hadn’t seen for ten months. With the help of make up to give me some colour; a lovely dress to help me feel good; and a glass of wine to take the edge off my mood, I ventured into a crowd of family and old friends for my mother. Only for my mother. My mother who has supported me so much through a major depressive episode, who was celebrating her 70th birthday and who really wanted myself and my family to be there.
It was tough. Tough to make small talk. Tough to smile. Tough to hug and be hugged. Tough to bullshit about how marvellous life is for five long hours.
The hardest part, however, was hearing the endless comments about my figure:
“I know you’re having a hard time at the moment sis but your figure is amazing.”
“What’s your secret? I wish I could be that thin at 40!”
“Wow, you look fantastic!” I am so jealous of that waistline!”
Positive comments, I know. Yet my loss of four kilos in a month, which removed every trace of my post-holiday chubbiness, told another story. That was why those comments were so hard to hear.
After eight months off work, I finally returned full-time in September to my job as a Primary School teacher. My heart glowed. It was so good to have a purpose again; so good to have an important part of my identity back; so good to be leaving the house in the morning along with my children and husband.
That was until the pressure started to build. Pressure. Tension. Desperation to prove myself. The demands of twenty-four students in their new class. Long hours. Family life. Plus, just in case it wasn’t enough, my husband went away for work and my anti-depressant changed. The Perfect Storm. Easy to spot, looking back.
Well that Perfect Storm caused my stomach to twist, to burn, to cramp. Eating became a duty. My appetite had gone.
The change in medication led to extreme nausea. Eating was no longer a duty. It felt impossible.
The stress made adrenalin surge relentlessly through my body. Intense exercise was the only way to calm the chemicals that rushed through my veins.
Excessive exercise and lack of food meant lack of energy. That, in turn, meant light-headedness. That was strangely welcome. Feeling faint, I could lie down and rest without my head bursting with a stream of destructive thoughts.
And then, as I lay on that sofa, and put my hand on my flat belly, I felt a great sense of satisfaction. I had failed at work. I was on long term sick leave once again. Due to concerns about my safety, my life was once again dominated by concerned looks, probing questions and others making decisions for me. Whether that be a company doctor about when I could return to work or a psychiatrist about what I should be taking every day, that lack of control frightened me. Touching my flat belly, on the other hand, was reassuring. Reassuring because my weight was the one thing I could have complete control over. The buzz that gave me was huge. The incentive to push myself to eat properly was even more limited.

So whether it was nerves or nausea, exercise or a need to control, the hidden reasons were many. That’s why those four kilos fell off my body with seemingly little effort. That’s why I had a waistline to be admired.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t like those compliments. Who doesn’t like a compliment?
But next time you see someone who has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, think before commenting. There’s bound to be a story behind it. If it’s a good one, the person you are admiring will be quick to share. If it’s not so good, perhaps it’s wise to look beyond the thin waistline, the excessive blusher, the lovely dress and the wine induced positivity and simply ask, ‘How are you?’