Tag Archives: mental health

Don’t Look At The Train!

In my dealings with a panicky pupil today, I was reminded of an allegorical story I was told when I was a recently-qualified teacher. As those who have read some of my previous posts will know, I have faced my share of mental health issues over the years, and early in my teaching career I was experiencing heightened anxiety and panic attacks.

As I sat in his kitchen with my teacher mentor, a wonderfully wise, gentle man called Bernie Robson, who is sadly no longer with us, he asked me to close my eyes and painted the following picture:

“Along an arrow-straight length of track, a mighty goods train is thundering towards you. In front of you, struggling against their bonds, lies a prisoner roped to the rails. The train driver has seen the impending disaster, and has applied the brakes… but with the weight of wagons behind it, the engine has no chance of stopping in time. It will plough headlong over you and the stricken prisoner in precisely 45 seconds.

The ropes are tied in 8 sturdy but simple knots. Each will take 5 seconds to loosen. So if you retain your composure and focus, untying each knot with single-minded sang-froid, you will have 5 seconds left over to drag the prisoner to safety… The key message, therefore?


Bernie appreciated, of course, that when your mind is playing tricks on you and refuses to allow you the calm and control required to negotiate even the apparently simplest of mundane tasks, such a message is easier said than done.

But I’ve never forgotten it, or him. And at times like this afternoon, when I pass it on to others, I hope it helps them too.


#nurture1617 #teacher5aday… Onwards and upwards!

This post is my contribution both to the 4th annual #nurture project initiated by @chocotzar back in ’13-14 and to the #teacher5aday movement driven by @martynreah…The former aims to look back at 2016’s highlights and forward to hopes and aspirations for 2017; the latter is founded upon these 5 elements: 

#connect, #exercise, #notice, #learn and #volunteer.

2016, eh? It’s become an almost daily routine to check the feeds and see what world-wobbling political event or other has lurched unbidden into view… what natural or man-made disaster has stricken populations in yet another corner of the globe… what beloved celebrity has joined the ranks of those shuffling off this mortal coil…

And yet here we are at dusk on the final day of the year and I find myself looking perhaps naively forward into 2017 with a sense of (slightly desperate?) optimism. In a year where we have seen quite how much damage can be done by a relatively small number of people, both at home and abroad, I feel that there must come a tipping point in the other direction: turning Burke’s famous line on its head, if you will: all that is necessary for the triumph of good is that good people do something. It is my underlying hope for 2017 that there be enough good people out there, doing the right thing, that the reactionary forces working against tolerance, collaboration, fairness and justice are simply swept aside in a rising tide of sheer… humanity. 

I saw at first hand what can be achieved by a relatively small group of like-minded individuals when I spent a week in Calais in October, volunteering with Care4Calais, a charity established a few years ago when one person put her money – or time, marriage and health, in fact – where her mouth is and decided to DO something rather than wring her hands daily at the misery taking place a mere few miles away, but a convenient political gulf away for our politicians. It is my firm intention to spend more time there in the New Year, and if anyone would like to join me at half-term, you’d be most welcome. I also spent the Summer holidays volunteering at my local Sailability club, down the road at Blashford Lake… a Summer full of incredible sporting success by TeamGB and ParalympicsGB over in Rio, crowned for me personally by the amazing Gold medal-winning performance of a former pupil, Mikey Jones. (who has this morning capped a remarkable year by being awarded an MBE!)

I have re-connected with another fantastic band of people this year – the happy thespians of the Lymington Players, in our recent week’s run of an adaptation of Conan-Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”. I was cast as Jack Stapleton, a burnt-out teacher “given to emotional outbursts” – so not too much of a stretch, then! The sense of team-work conspiring to achieve a common goal is something not always so readily apparent in professional life, and where some find stepping out under the lights an intimidating experience, to me it is genuinely when I feel at my most alive. In a first for me, we struck the set on the Sunday following our final performance… and then started rehearsing for the next show the very next day, with barely a chance to catch our breath… I am also playing three very different characters, this time around (a Scottish ship’s captain, a frightfully posh Knight and a peasant called Obidiah Bobblenob), so it is fair to say I am a little further outside my comfort zone…

I have also made a rather unusual new connection, having decided post-referendum to apply for Estonian e-residency. I recently travelled up to the Estonian Embassy to receive my new ID card, and in 2017 watch this space as I explore the digital opportunities this new avenue affords me…

Exercise-wise, it has been a great year. I ended the 2015-16 hockey season playing 5 matches for the New Forest Hockey Club 2nd XI, a considerable step up from the Ballard Staff & Parents Team I have trained and played with for the past 4 years. Over the summer I continued attending weekly training, which was pretty rigorous, and which helped prepare me for my biggest challenge of the year: the 2016 “Shut Up Legs” New Forest Ride with recently-retired Grand Tour great Jens Voigt, raising money for The Epilepsy Society… Although I had totted up quite a total on the road in the weeks leading up to the ride, it was my longest time in the saddle for over 15 years – 80 km of rain-soaked pain! But the sense of achievement at the end was fantastic, and the chance to chat to Jens in German when he rode with my group for a stretch was brilliant for a Tour de France nut like me. 

You may have noticed that I have, so far, not made more than an oblique mention of work. I take this as a positive sign. Where 2015 was, latterly, a struggle which saw me dip back into depression for a lengthy patch, I have bounced back in 2016, and with the help and support of family, friends and #mfltwitterati amongst other online pals, I have maintained an even keel and a very healthy life-work balance. In fact I am starting to call it life balance, as work is part of life – life is not an adjunct struggling to coexist alongside or even in the shadow of the lowering bulk of work. As we all know, work can and will expand to fill all the space we allow it to unless we are careful to establish that balance. And so it is my firm intention to continue maintaining my health, and if that means saying NO and putting me first from time to time, so be it. 

One way I am going to do this is to establish a positive routine of “not-work” activities: alongside my continued thesping; I will continue to play hockey every Saturday; I will be using my Daily Greatness Journal to help me establish a framework to support my efforts; I will get out on my bike at least once a week (and with the new gear I got for Christmas from my darling wife, I have no excuse not to!); I will be doing my best to join in with the #WeeklyBlogChallenge17… and I will teach myself to play my new ukelele (that’s my #learn bit, by the way, amongst other daily lessons). 

So there!

So what is left? Notice. I will notice when my wife needs my support, rather than the other way around. I will notice when I haven’t picked up the phone/dropped a quick WhatsApp to friends for a while, and do something about it. I will notice when a pupil seems a little quieter than usual, and see what I can do to help. I will notice the little details that make small, otherwise imperceptible positive contributions to my day. I will notice when my (online) friends drop off the radar for a bit, and gently see if anything is up. #BDamigos stick together, you see…
Because friendship is the most important thing, really… And that is how I want to end this post. It’s been a great week for friendship. My wife and I attended the wedding of a good friend, who at the age of 42 has finally found the right person to spend the rest of his life with… the whole day was a wonderful life-affirming experience, flooded with joy, and a great opportunity to reconnect with many friends we had not seen for far too long. Finally, another friend, whose young baby we all welcomed into our online circle, had recently communicated to us that they had found a worrying growth, that the little guy was going in for tests to see what was up, and that it didn’t look good. Well, in a wonderful end to what has been a year of big blows, she has just heard that the tests have come back completely benign, and yesterday she let us all know that he is out of the woods. 

I take it as a sign that we can stride purposefully and positively into the New Year with renewed confidence. And sod Trump, Brexit, Putin, Assad, Katie Hopkins and all the rest of ’em!

Let’s do this!

Movin’ On Up

Silver Linings and Pots of Gold at the End of the Rainbow


It’s been a while. I’d been a bit off my game for some time… in fact, the very fact that I am even feeling up to putting virtual pen to paper is a source of considerable optimism for me, as even up to a matter of days ago, I would have curled up into a ball, unable to align my thoughts, let alone dare to post them for others to view.

For anyone who happened to read what I wrote last year about the death of my dear friend, art tutor and mentor Mary (“Inspiration”), you will know that I have for some time been visited by recurrent bouts of clinical depression.

In its insidious way, the spiral back down took hold once more last summer-autumn. Having been “clear” since 2010 – the longest I have not experienced a fully-fledged low for over 15 years – this time took me by surprise. In hindsight, it is clear to me that a degree of denial allied itself to the sly way in which depression creeps up on you, using the natural shadows cast by gathering fatigue and the unstable work/life balance which life as a teacher can bring with it – a pincer movement which many will no doubt recognise…

As the weeks wore on towards Christmas, the sense that I was “doing ok” evolved into an uneasy feeling that I was merely “coping”. I started needing to collapse onto the staffroom sofa at lunchtimes, exhausted. I have no idea what my colleagues must have thought… Tasks which would ordinarily occupy very little time would take on the appearance of impossibly strenuous challenges. I am fortunate to have a number of wonderful friends on whom I gradually relied more and more – to the point where I was struggling to face certain lessons without their help.

I so nearly made it to the end of term. Three little days suddenly appeared to me a yawning gulf which I could not face, and as I sat in shirt and tie in front of my cornflakes, I realised that I simply didn’t have enough “fight” left in me to keep going.

It’s peculiar; when you take the decision to “take the step back”, from one perspective, it’s a tremendous relief, while simultaneously a sense of guilt and shame start to build within you. It was only three days, but the thought that colleagues would have to man the breach and cover my classes in the manic pre-Christmas period was hard to push to the back of my mind.

Christmas was strange, this year. I tried to enjoy it, but it’s hard when you feel somehow on the edge of things, a shadow-version of yourself. Friends and family seem to be colourful, loud, enjoying a technicolour version of the monochrome world you semi-inhabit. The mental energy expended whilst the brain spins in its own addled axis seems to prevent normal processes from taking place. I made myself do the usual things; noting down as many positives from each day helps, although they can seem terribly trifling, in the moment, as you hang onto them as though they were the edge of your world. I forced myself to the gym, in a little lonely bubble while all around me people glided, seemingly trouble-free, through their lives. Of course, what is invisible to the depressed brain is the fact that each of them also has their own trials and tribulations to face – and indeed may just like me be among the 25% of us who face mental health challenges at some point in their adult lives…

And so to the new year. Getting through the last 3 days of term at home had been relatively straightforward compared with seeing Catherine getting back into “school mode” and starting back to work. Another slump; how to fill my days? I am so fortunate to have loving, wonderful family on the doorstep, and willing and able to support me while I put myself back together. That in itself presents challenges, of course; there is a certain sense of helplessness which adds itself to the mix when you (as the little voice in your head puts it) “have to go back to mum and dad to be looked after”. But as I told myself – and even started to believe, after a bit! – there were unexpected and wonderful silver linings to the dark clouds overhead; spending unplanned-for time with my father, himself braving health difficulties from left, right and centre, and being able to take on tasks which he could not face… almost daily visits to my little sister, and seeing my 7 month-old nephew developing his personality and my 3 and 3/4 year-old niece demonstrating quite what a larger-than-life one she had… days with my mum and brother which could tackle “my feelings” when necessary or simply be time together, when not… These are precious moments which I would never have had, otherwise. (They are also moments I am determined to build into my life once I am back on track – to help me stay that way, but also simply because these are what real life is about…) There was also time to huddle together with the little band of fellow sufferers who I have come to know on Twitter, and whose heartfelt messages helped me remember that I am not alone in the fight. (You know who you are!)

I had registered my interest in ILILC4 (the ICT Links Into Languages Conference at Southampton, for the uninitiated) as an “early bird”, as usual – I have attended all 3 previous conferences, and would go as far as saying they have galvanised my teaching career more than any other such event (and I’ve been to quite a few, from Newcastle to Oldham to London and various points between!).┬áThe intervening months had left me wondering whether I would indeed feel up to going, this time around; for one thing, conferences like this require a tremendous amount of mental “stamina”, which is utterly sapped by the sheer fatigue which is a part of a period of depression.

But the main reason for my hesitation was the insidious way in which the black dog gnaws away at the bones of my self esteem, leaving me doubting whether my presence will be noticed – or indeed welcome. Coupled with this comes another spiral-like feeling which takes over during a “low”: initially, activities which would ordinarily be fun, rewarding or otherwise positive gradually drop out of my day-to-day routine, appear too much trouble or time-consuming… so that by the time I have noticed their absence, it is too late to restore them. Listening to music; painting; bike rides and walks by the sea or in the forest; even food and drink which I know I like – everything turns beige-grey or simply falls out of my life. And once in the depression, it is almost as though I feel as though I can’t enjoy them any more – or even don’t deserve to enjoy them (sub-consciously or even, in a semi-masochistic, conscious way). In the past, I have been an expert at the kind of self-flagellation which characterises many sufferers of depression. I tried consciously to avoid “picking up the stick”, this time, but it really isn’t easy to rewire one’s own thinking, mid-depression.

This was the point at which I found myself at the start of February, the week before ILILC4. And then quite quickly – within a period of perhaps two or three days – the corner started to turn. It’s sometimes the case that the downwards spiral, in its sly, underhand way, takes one by surprise, gradually inching the rug inch-by-inch from under one’s feet, whereas the journey back from the bottom to normality can be more rapid. I’m sure there are neuro-chemical reasons for this, and indeed psychological ones, but suffice to say, once the uphill spiral began this time around, it was not long before I felt almost “myself” again.

And this coincided with first a gradual drip, then a couple of tentative flurries, and finally a flow of supportive texts and tweets from fellow ILILC-ers… to the point where it would have been impossible not to gather the last necessary handfuls of courage and show up on the first morning.

It’s almost as though this was the last little step I needed to take to cement my upward journey. The smiley, familiar faces of fellow MFLers from all over the country… the many promised heartfelt hugs from those who did know what I’d been going through, and just as important, the “carrying on just from where we’d left off” normality from those who didn’t; it all coalesced into the perfect way in which to re-launch my head into the world of teaching and learning again.

And that is where I am now. Starting to think about the best way to “phase myself” back into life at work – but determined to keep the precious metals that I have mined over the last three months in the forefront of my mind. If and when the black dog returns, as I know it will more than likely do at some point in the future, I’ve got a few more strategies in my armoury to deal with it. I can finally look into the land beyond the rain clouds with a sense of confidence…

If you find yourself facing circumstances like these, please talk to someone. A friend, a colleague, a family member, your GP. Don’t try to face it alone. And if you want to try me, I will always be there to listen too.