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!). The 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.