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.

Juggling: Part Two. I Now Know It’s OK To Drop A Ball!

For this to make complete sense, read my first Juggling poem earlier in my blog. 🙂

JUGGLING – a year on: post therapy

Well I didn’t decide to give up, my mind just took control,
And for a full year of my life, held a dominant role;
I plummeted into severe depression, ceasing to be me,
Wife, mummy or teacher, I could no longer be.

My hair thinned, I lost weight, I could no longer care,
Detached from all who loved me, life’s joys I didn’t share;
Moving from the sofa was an impossible feat,
I often longed for my heart to cease to beat.

The situation was extreme, from intense pain I couldn’t hide;
Nightmares of past traumas, led to my attempted suicide;
It broke so many hearts but mine was numb to it all,
My emotions had been dead since the day of The Fall.

With therapy and love, as well as vital medication,
I’ve managed to turn a corner with anxious trepidation;
As I tiptoe towards the future, I feel hope once again,
And I’m more able to cope with that intense pain.

It’s been a traumatic journey but I’ve learnt what life’s about:
Human connection is crucial, as is the courage to reach out;
I don’t need to prove anything or to always be strong,
And if I drop the odd ball, nothing will go wrong.

It’s true that life is challenging and we’ll always need to juggle
But please be self-aware and ask for help when you struggle;
I always thought I was invincible, I’d cope with any strife,
Please don’t believe in that, you might just save a life!

Why Is It So Hard To Simply Ask How Are You?

I wrote this five months ago when I was off work on long-term sick leave. It expresses my sadness about a common problem: people find it so hard to ask after you when you are mentally, rather than physically, sick.

I work in a fabulous school that is staffed by a dynamic, passionate and caring team of teachers. As well as having high academic aspirations for our students, we also focus a great deal on their emotional and social development. Teachers are extremely attentive to their students’ well-being and teach both PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) to help them develop their thinking and problem solving skills so that they can overcome any challenges life might throw at them. When we aren’t teaching, time is often spent listening, helping and supporting both students and one another…and then, when we are really stuck, we can always approach our lovely school nurse who has a cosy sofa and an endless supply of tissues.

My school rocks and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. I am also very fortunate that my daughters spent three years as students there, before moving on to the senior school. Not only have I therefore benefitted from this marvellous ethos as a teacher but also as a mum. It has enabled my daughters to grow into mature, empathetic and balanced young women who also know it’s OK to ask for support when needed.
I am currently absent from work as I continue my battle with depression. It’s incredibly hard to admit that I am not well enough to be there; and to know that it will be a while before I will be teaching full-time again. I miss my job, my colleagues, my students and the buzz I get from working in such a positive and thriving environment. But I really look forward to the day I will be back there amongst them all.
Yesterday, I had to see the company doctor and this involved going into school for half an hour. He was running late and I had to, rather nervously, hover in a corridor to wait for him. During the ten minutes I stood there, I saw seven of my colleagues. They all smiled at me. A number said how good it was to see me. One of them gave me a warm hug. Four of them stopped for a chat. I paused sympathetically as they searched for the right words to say. All four opted for the safe option: “So, how are your daughters getting on at Senior School?”
I had tears in my eyes by the time I went in to see the doctor. Before any polite pleasantries, I said to him straight away: “Why is it so hard for people to ask how are you? when the problem is mental health?” He smiled sympathetically as he shook my hand.
“Awareness of mental health is improving but we still have a long way to go,” he replied. “They are all worried about what to say.”
Well, what I’d like to say to my colleagues is this: it was lovely to see your smiles, great to be welcomed back and even better to be given a warm hug. If you could please just manage to ask after me, rather than only my daughters, it would help me feel that I haven’t failed, that my mental health problem isn’t something to be ashamed of and that I am still accepted amongst you. You see, on a good day, I know all of those things are true. But, on a bad day, I can’t do that by myself and the simple question How are you?would help me overcome that.
Oh, and by the way, if you fear that asking that question might lead to me breaking down in tears and giving you a thorough update about my rollercoaster journey, don’t worry. It won’t happen. I already do that to my therapist and my husband. When I come into school, I simply need to feel a part of that wonderful team that I so miss.