Breathing is something we just do. Our brains communicate with our lungs and it just happens. It is so essential we do not have to think about it. Yet when our brains are stressed they can lose some control of how to regulate our breathing.
As a teacher my most important advice to my students preparing for exams is to breathe. When the invigilator says “Start” before you open that exam paper take two deep breaths. Steady those nerves, give your brain oxygen and calm the mind. A stressed brain is not going to remember as much as a calm one.
Thinking about how you are breathing is important, it allows us to take back control of our breathing from our brains. We can decide how our breathing will go.
I have found this increasingly key as I suffer from anxiety and depression. Overwhelming emotions can be accepted and moved on from with a few deep breaths. I feel during meditation the world seems to slow down around me, alongside my deepening breathing. I can find a calm within the storm of my emotions and stresses.
I am not saying breathing solves everything, far from it. But from someone who is a control freak, it can bring me a sense of control over something when the rest of the world seems uncontrollable. When my own emotions seem out of control taking back my breathing seems to help.
Breathing can be done anywhere, I often take a couple of deep breaths when teaching a challenging class, or when I am driving, or when my puppy will just not lay down and sleep. You do not need an app or advice on how to do it, you already know. I do use Calm to help guide my meditation but for a quick ‘gain some control breath’, it is all me.
I admit I do not do the ‘in through your nose and out through your mouth’. I just cannot seem to ever get it right and I do not like to breathe through my mouth, too noisy. However, I do not think it diminishes my own breathing practice.
Scientifically a deep breath can boost the oxygen we are being supplied and therefore has a physical heathy benefit. Yet, psychologically I think the impact is even greater.
So just breathe, give your brain time to process life in this mental world.
Everyone has an experience with money and I don’t think anyone I know anyone who likes it. However, money is a fact of life we all have to deal with, from counting pennies as a kid to paying bills as an adult.
But money scares me a little. The power it has on our lives. Money does not bring us happiness but it can sure help to make us feel comfortable. Money is not more important than our health, but we have to pay for medical care. Even on the NHS paying prescriptions and things you cannot get on the NHS, like I pay for my private therapist and a chiropractor.
Without money life can be bleak. However I also think that happiness gained from money plateaus after we have the essentials we all need; home, water, food, warmth and a few comforts.
I think my fear comes from my childhood, as probably most of our relationships with money were formed. My parents were not good with handling money and they also had very little. They did not seem to budget and ended up with loans they could not pay. I remember sitting in the car as they went into offices or banks to discuss loans. I do not know their full situation as this is just from my childhood memories and I am sure they did the best they could.
However, I also remember the arguments, lots of arguments about money. I am not sure my parents really argued about anything else. I have no idea who was right or wrong, probably both and yet neither. I just remember the family never having enough money and the arguments.
I also have no judgement on my parents as I find it so hard to stay in budget with my own money. You would think seeing my parents would make me meticulous about looking after my money. But no, I think it might be because as soon as I earnt my own money, it was always gone on things my teenage self felt I needed. I could never keep up with my friends but I tried and having my own Saturday job helped me to have my own money for the cinema or a new top. I could finally buy clothes that were not from a charity shop or car boot sale. I felt so grown up.
Now as an adult (apparently) I try to be more careful. My bills come out at the beginning of the month. I try to budget and I love a good spreadsheet. However recently I took a pay cut to help my stress and mental health. It was the right choice but it does mean I might need to keep a closer eye on the budget and take out some of my luxuries.
The pay cut has stressed me out and has me anxious about living and not getting into anymore debts. Yet I cannot change it and have to move forward. I remind myself I am on a good wage as an experienced teacher, although living alone does make things costly.
Anxiously I have balanced my spreadsheet and now comes the challenge – to stick with the budget I have set. Somehow I feel I have already failed, before I have eben started. I cannot seem to believe in my own ability to do this. How do some people find this so easy? I admire people who put money into their savings account no matter what, I am jealous even.
For me money makes me feel like I have failed even before I have begun. Like I will be told off or find myself in trouble. My mum was always worried about bailiffs and she had promised they would never come to her door as they had her parents. I think I feel that fear and I do not know how to let it go. I feel ashamed I cannot just be better at this. I have an A Level in Maths, it was my best subject in school. I can do the maths ,yet I do not have control.
I also know I am an emotional buyer and my amazon account is littered with purchases on a whim. I hope they will make me feel better and it is always something I feel I need. But the parcel only bring guilt and anxiety in the end. Don’t get me wrong I have never even had a letter threatening the bailiffs. My fear might be irrational and inherited but it is real in my life in this mental world.
I am often told, ‘Teaching is a calling’ and to some extent I agree. You do not get into teaching for the money, that is for sure. The hours are long and the pressure can be high. You can be shouted, sworn and even spat at sometimes, by students and sometimes by parents. My pay is dependent on students results and it does add an extra pressure.
However, it is a steady income, above average salary, with long and frequent holidays. You can see students learn, progress and achieve. I have helped students though bereavement, abuse, physical and mental illnesses and more. Support them as they deal with learning difficulties. Inspire them to enjoy my subject, history.
Every job has its highs and lows. In teaching this can frequently happen in just one day. I understand the demands of the job. The emotional ties to wanting the best for your students. Leading to late hours of planning lessons, researching new ideas, preparing resources and marking, marking, marking. It is no surprise that media headlines show that teachers are leaving the profession at the highest rate ever recorded (Huffington Post).
I went into teaching to help students who might be having a similar childhood to mine. Even when I told a teacher what my home life was like, I was not believed. My mother worked at my school and she was very well liked. Do you believe the angsty teenager or the parent, who is also a friend? Behind closed doors she was different; emotional abuse, gas-lighting and neglect. I was made the family scapegoat and bullied by my siblings too. I did not know all the terms then, but I knew it was wrong. Although I believed it was all my fault.
As a teacher I want to save all those unheard ‘child Becky’s’ out there, yet I never can. I was programmed to be our family resucer and I can help and support my students. But I have had to accept that I can not save them from their lives. I can; report what I see to social services when needed, I can teach healthy lives and relationships, provide emotional support, teach resilience, model survival, recommend counselling and even make recommendations to parents. I am a pastoral manager within the school to be more involved in doing all these things. But I cannot save them.
Not only due to the fact I am not their parent, but also the restrictions on social services and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Both overworked and understaffed, so they are putting out fires. They have to prioritise physical and high urgency cases. So the mental or emotional are left dropping down the list. I am sure this is not the whole picture and I have simplified their struggles, but I do know this is how it feels to me.
I say I have to accept this but I am struggling, I find this so difficult. This failure to save them all then triggers my childhood feelings of worthlessness and not ever being enough. Their stories set off memories of my own. I empathise and relate to their lives as they happen. I wish I could do more for each one but I am not their parent or from social services.
Currently I am suffering with depression. I can not seem to shake it and have had to have two different periods of time of school/work. No single case has caused this but an accumulation of seven years of teaching and supporting young people and feeling like I have not saved one. I am not even sure what I mean by ‘saved’.
I am now re-evaluating my life and my choices. Do I keep teaching? Is it just the pastoral side, do I just drop the management role? Is it our catchment of high social care needs? Do I try a different school? Do I teach private or sixth form only? Do I do something completely different? Is this the time to decide? So many thoughts, going around and around in my head. Who do I turn to for advice?
I have started researching the options out there, knowledge is power. Should I start to apply? Then anxiety hits; interviews, meeting people, telling my Headteacher, letting people down, abandoning my current students, new curriculum, new friends, new students, moving house and so much more. Can I go through it? Will it help?
I keep thinking ‘what would I do if money was no object?’, apart from the luxury holiday I would take. I think about writing, getting into publishing, retraining as a counsellor, doing my Masters and so many other options. Then reality kicks in and I know I have bills to pay. I need a good regular income as I do not have anyone to lean upon. I having no partner or family to support me and nor would I expect this from someone. I have great friends, but none are rich and I would not expect support like this from them.
Today I have no answers, I will continue to research my options and maybe I will apply for a few. I will keep going through these thoughts and hopefully I will find some answers. Hopefully I will make a decision about my life in this mental world.
I saw the GP today. They have increased my anti-depressants and signed me off work for two weeks. The result is Guilt and Anxiety. The tortoise and hare are off the starting line.
The Hare (anxiety with a guilt backpack) starts to tell me I am not enough. I am letting down the students, the other teachers in my department and my bosses. It tells me I should be able to deal with all this while going to work each day. I worry about being judged by others. The panic causes me to breathe faster and my heart jumps about in my chest. My mind hurts as thoughts race around my brain, making me feel dizzy.
Many people will be judging me. Thinking I should be at school as I am not physically sick. I am not glued to the toilet, in hospital or unable to move. That doesn’t mean I do not have some physical symptoms: I am exhausted, having headaches, feel dizzy, nauseous and my whole body feels heavy. Yet I don’t feel it is enough for people to justify me being off. I feel they will judge me. Worse than that, I am judging me.
My tortoise (logical brain) tries to reason with the hare. It explains that mental illnesses are equivalent of physical. That I am justified in my feelings and just like I could not cure my own physical illnesses, I need help and support to get better. My desperate despair will take time to get over and it is exhausting to do it. But they feel like clichés, slogans and advice I give others.
Am I letting anyone down? It is hard at school to find cover and make it meaningful. Will students miss out on having me as they will have a cover teacher instead. But sometimes our own health has to come first and I will help them as soon as I am back. How much use would I be in this state of mind? I am finding it hard to concentrate and it would be impossible to pretend to be ok for 5 hours a day in front of the children.
So, I need to show myself some compassion and let it go. I need to look after me and let the guilt go. But it is so much easier to say it. How do you let it all go? Reminding myself over and over. Will my mind just finally click into understanding?
I have learnt to be more compassionate to myself in the last couple of years. I now allow myself time to rest and recoup. I give myself time to look after my mind through meditating and reading. I adopted my lovely puppy, Toby, and I go for forest bathing walks. I have stepped away from toxic family members and that was not easy. So maybe this compassion about being off work will come too.
Maybe I just need to breathe, to give myself time and be patient with my life in this mental world.
Should we assume in life that everyone has the best intentions. Are we all just trying to do our best?
You can do everything possible to predict the many outcomes but you can have an unknown wider impact. Each action is like a stone dropping into water, sending ripples to places you couldn’t even see. People can be hurt or negatively affected in ways we cannot see.
I often tell my students you have to be aware of the possible outcomes of your actions and take responsibility for them. They throw some-thing and it unintentionally hurts someone then you are responsible for that outcome. If you are play fighting and someone gets hurt you are responsible. Can you tell I am Assistant Head of Year 8? Puberty has landed and the boys are learning the boundaries of physical behaviours. Taking responsibility for taking the risk of a bad outcome.
But my question actually came from a TV show, Madam Secretary. I missed this show when it came out in 2014 and I am now catching up (binge watching), thanks to Now TV. Recently, deep into season two, war with Russia was adverted but lives were lost in the process. As a history teacher I know my wars, causes, long-term effects, short-term effects, casualty figures and wars causing wars. I ponder the possibilities of IF things could have been different but have to accept what happened as it is the facts.
However, I believe these issues not only can be seen on the world-wide political stage but they play out on a smaller theatre in our lives. The choices we make impact the people around us. Everyday small choices and the big ones. I know my seeking help with my therapist has sent a ripple through my family. I caused this ripple and will have to ride out the waves it makes.
In therapy we have discussed responsibility, blame and forgiveness a lot. All words associated with these ideas. Do I blame any member of my family for my childhood? The impact it still has on me? Do I need to or want to forgive them for the abuses against me?
My therapist says it is not about forgiveness but about compassion. To understand people’s intent and believe they always tried their best in their circumstances. We are living in a web of history, relationships, and family dilemmas. To me a family tree is a web of stories woven together more like a tapestry.
I also believe we are a product of our upbringing; a combination of family, friends, society, culture, religion and many other influences. These determine our choices. I have chosen therapy and am seeing some of the consequences as I have found my voice.
For example, My mum had a really tough upbringing; an alcoholic abusive father and an addicted to gambling mother who was sent to prison for fraud. She always tries to be her best self but is hampered by herself and her past. This resulted in her treating me as her scapegoat, emotionally abusing me through my childhood and adolescents, even my early adult years.
So here is my dilemma: How responsible are we for the unforeseen, if everyone is just trying to do their best? I know my mother never intend to abuse me emotionally, she just couldn’t help it. Should I still expect an apology, a recognition of her effect? My sibing’s bullied me, but they were brought up in a household where that treatment of me was condoned by the adults. They were not taught this was not okay, so can they be held responsible?
I have had to accept that I cannot change the past. I cannot demand anything from anyone. But I do live with the consequences and I have learnt to not accept abuse now. As an adult I can call them out for their behaviour now.
The past is just that, set in stone. It is my perspective I have had to learn to change. To understand every parent does their best, even when they fail spectacularly.
I find this so hard to accept. As a teacher I have cried and had my heart-broken by stories of child abuse I would not repeat. Were these people really doing the best they can? It feels like acceptance of these actions if I agree but it isn’t. Acceptance is still fighting for change but living in the present. It is letting people, who experience these things, know they did not deserve it but accepting it happened. Giving people back their worth and giving them their own strength.
I teach students about all of Hitler’s qualities: the painter, animal lover, vegetarian and lover of his mother. I teach them about his childhood and traumas he experienced as a soldier in WWI. Not because I want to justify any of his actions, far from it. But maybe, in understanding others are a product of their experiences, we can accept that so are we. Then maybe we can learn to forgive and have compassion for ourselves.
Compassion for others actions comes more easily to me. To understand their actions, not to agree with the behaviours or just let them go. To hope, I would have done things differently in their situation and in future situations I face. But to also hope people I have hurt along the way show me the same compassion. Compassion for myself I find harder and I am working on it, with the best intentions, of course.
Written with compassion from my life in this mad world.
Today I interviewed Jonny Benjamin MBE, for the podcast I co-host (The Mental Health Book Club Podcast). In part of the interview we spoke about people’s perception of mental illness, that he ‘looked well’ so must be better.
This is the problem with an invisible illness, people assume if you do not look sick then you are not sick. I have done it, I think we all have. To see someone get out of a car parked in a disabled bay who ‘looked well’ mentally question if they were ‘really disabled’.
But I have an invisible illness, actually I have several; Fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, depression and anxiety. This means that I may look well. I can still dress, clean my teeth, take a bath and smile when I need to. Not every day, but those days I usually stay at home, where you will not see me. Unless you deliver takeaways, are my lovely postman or an Amazon delivery driver.
Saying that there are the in-between days, days which mean I am up and in life but not feeling great. It could be post migraine symptoms, depressive episode or my anxiety running a muck. Days I go into school (work) and have to smile and teach even when I want to run and hide. Those days I might ‘look well’ and be able to act ‘well’.
I just think we should remember that we do not know what is behind closed doors. We cannot assume people are well and healthy because they smile at us. I know I have got very good at acting well, I can fool even my best friend for quite a while. For when I am ready to share and ask for help.
I even have trouble with bathing; pre-verbal childhood trauma which has led to an illogical fear of water. But I make myself keep clean and bath as society expects. Also because no one wants to be the person who smells.
My parents wash occasionally and brush their teeth even less frequently. I have had to ask my mum to brush her teeth before we go out. So I do have a fear of smelling or having bad breath. So I learnt no matter how I felt I was to look ‘fine’.
My mum is someone who is always feeling worse than you are, ever. I was not really asked how I was and looked after when I was sick. If I was off sick from school I was given a lost of chores to do. Mum also likes to moan about her many illnesses, she is ill. She is living with cancer and also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type two diabetes, mobility issues and is morbidly obese. So she does have a lot to complain about, but she has been moaning even before she had all of these.
It was like my illnesses were not real. Therefore, now as a grown up I have had to learn to ask for help and show people how I am really feeling. To no longer just say ‘fine’ all the time. It is ok to say ‘I am not ok’ without seeing a moaner, another mother linked fear of mine. I am more open about days I am not feeling well but doing what I need to do, work.
I think I fear too much sympathy. That look that people give you when they feel so sorry for you. I hate it, it makes me feel ill. I am a strong independent woman. I do not want to look weak, I am a perfectionist, and I am stubborn. But I am also learning that I need to be open to help and support. To be honest to break down stigmas and let people learn about the real world to me and others who also suffer.
So here I am, sick but well in my life in a mental world.
I am back to work tomorrow. After two weeks off this causes me some stress and anxiety. Usually when I tell people this, or even hint to it, I am told I am lucky to have so much holiday as a teacher. They are right, I am. However, it does not stop the going back to work issues I face when you have anxiety and depression, plus I am an introvert.
Nervous to see everyone and yet I want to get back into the routine a school provides. However these also raise issues and questions in my mind. Will I be good enough? What will people ask? Inevitable – How am I? What if I am not good? They do not really want to know that. How was your Christmas/New Years? How are my family? This is now the count down to exams. How are the kids going to do. Have they revised. Will they understand this is important. What am I teaching on Friday/this term?
Social interaction like this is draining and causes me some anxiety too. I do not know how to respond, how much people actually want to know and usually go with ‘Good’ or ‘Fine’. Then you ask about them and get a whole story, while I give them my ‘I was just being polite’ look. This might seem rude but these are work colleagues and not my friends. And I have a difficult relationship with my family, which I do not want to explain. I am polite and friendly but as an introvert it is exhausting keeping up appearances.
Tomorrow is also a teacher training day, which means learning something. I am not always sure what. Listening to people lecture about a chosen topic, I may of already had training on or not. Often it is on things unhelpful to actual teaching in a classroom but about new criteria from Ofsted, health and safety, data and so much more, it is not exciting.
As teachers we are also the worst students, like they say about doctors and patients. We will comment (not so quietly) under our breath and be unappreciative of the hard work or genius of the speakers. Most things labelled ‘initiative’ are dismissed as ‘will be gone by the end of term’. The speakers should expect loud groans if any interaction is expected and if you dare to utter the words ‘role play’ things will be thrown. It is harsh but true. Training teachers is not a job I would out my hand up for.
I also find the crowd an issue. In my school we have over 100 staff and when we are together in the hall for training it is a lot for me. My heart races, I fear being picked on, having to talk to people around me, asked to engage and interact on the spot.
Tomorrow morning we are going to a special auditorium as all the schools in our link of academy schools are coming together. That is three Secondary Schools, seven Primary Schools and a Special Provision School (I believe). That is a lot of people. Too many for me. I will try to sit at the back and keep telling myself to breathe. Even entering that room is hard, my first challenge is to find somewhere to sit, with people I know, but essential to help reduce my anxiety.
I probably will find it hard to sleep tonight with anxiety running a muck in my head and because I will be worried I might sleep through my alarm. Highly possible, I have seven alarms and still sleep through them all. It is so strange as anyone making any other noise wakes me up, as I am usually a light sleeper, but my alarms I can sleep through.
My brain sometimes triggers a migraine or pain as a coping strategy but hopefully not this time. I do feel my body plots against the things I try to do, or the things I have to do. It sneaks up and makes me stop when I want to carry on and plow through. Mostly this happens if I am not listening to my body’s pre-warnings.
Well, tonight I am trying to listen, I am trying to process it all before the morning comes, before I even attempt to sleep. I will meditate before bedtime and set extra alarms. I will list the people I want to see tomorrow. I will remember I can avoid people in a crowd, so maybe use it to my advantage. This is my Tortoise working hard on taming the Hare, even before the race has begun.