SWITCHING OFF FROM SWITCHING ON

Things have been quiet on the site for a little over a week as I have been away on holiday. The break provided me with what might seem like one of the latest Windows updates, including the swirling circle indicating ‘come back later’ and also having no clue of a definitive timescale of when the update will be complete. However, I now feel as though I am rebooting back to someone I vaguely know. I feel awake for a start.

A number of things take a hit when I experience periods of chronic fatigue; I skip the gym, my diet switches to dishes that require little thought or preparation on my part (so mostly fast food then) and I don’t have the mental energy to even think about writing. There were various moments last week where I felt as though I was having out of body experiences as I was struggling to focus or build enthusiasm for many tasks outside of day-to-day teaching. All in all, I was ready for some time out.

However, one of the things that I noticed over the course of the weekend was that I was still struggling to switch off. For example, one of my first thoughts on Saturday morning was that I needed to check my inbox… I didn’t as my partner wanted to head out for an early morning walk. A strategic diversion on his part? Not quite, more of a well-timed walk along the beach to watch the sunrise.

IMG_4884

I have a few more days before I head back to work and so I hoping to use the time to catch up with friends, get to the gym and to do something that I have missed dearly in this relatively short period, writing.

‘HAPPINESS LESSONS’ IN SCHOOLS

I first realised that something wasn’t ‘quite right’ in terms of my emotional health when I was in my early teens.

Sure, like all teens my hormones were all over the place and combined with the fact that I was a frightfully sensitive young woman, it just meant that I was a sucker for punishment. Certainly, the hypersensitivity that I experienced was nothing new, but by the time I was around 14 years old I felt as though I had slipped down a rabbit hole.

As much as I had some wonderful friends, I didn’t feel as though I could confide in them about what I was experiencing. I suppose to some extent I believed that either everyone was going through the same thing or nobody was. But either way, I wasn’t prepared to find out, I felt far too insecure. My parents also had busy working lives and apart from over the dinner table we rarely sat down as a family ‘to talk,’ or if we did, it felt disjointed and false. So I certainly wasn’t going to bring up personal issues with them.

Back at school the only guidance we had about issues related to mental health linked to exam stress. An important area but I didn’t fully understand or couldn’t even yet articulate to a large extent my own thoughts about how I was feeling and why, but I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t solely down to exam stress.

I felt that there was and still is a level of stigma associated with simply taking the first step in asking for help. During my teens and even up until relatively recently as an adult, I felt that if I did speak out about what I was experiencing I was effectively branding myself as ‘different’, something that would surely cause me much embarrassment and even more anxiety.

So I read with interest recently that the government is planning on trialling ‘happiness lessons’ to eight-year-old children as part of the government’s wider support for mental health services. The lessons will utilise mindfulness techniques with the aim of helping students to “self-regulate their own behaviour.” It is a step in a good direction and especially trialling the scheme with younger students especially as it will hopefully instil them with tools that they can come back to when necessary. However, at the same time I am cautious, can you really ‘teach happiness?’

Right today everyone, we are going to be learning about happiness. Here are the lesson objectives…

  • Know what happiness is
  • Apply this to your own life
  • Evaluate your own levels of happiness

And that is what concerns me, in all subject areas, a student’s progress is measured by a predicted level/grade of some sort. This then allows a school to compare this data to other students and schools. I would hope, that if the trial is successful, it doesn’t result in a data crunching and comparison exercise where the original purpose of the research is lost. In one school where I previously worked, even in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), a curriculum that focuses on life skills such as careers advice, sex and drug education, and health and wellbeing, students were given termly assessments to check their progress.

I would also hope, that any scheme, this one and others with a similar ambition, focus on the breadth of emotions that we can experience. Yes, teaching happiness is all well and good, but even that has a range of emotions attached to it from ecstatic joy to a more sedate level of contentment. Although I have come to live with bouts of depression and varying degrees of anxiety, it has taken me years to accept and come to terms with these aspects of myself. But, if schemes like this can help young people recognise the emotions that they experience from an early age and it helps them articulate them then I am all for it.

TAKING THE TIME TO LISTEN

It is Friday afternoon and lessons for the week have just finished; students are heading home along with some of my colleagues. I don’t like to hang around too late on a Friday either, but I have set of test papers to mark that I would prefer to do from the relative comforts of a quiet classroom rather than in the real comforts of home. Besides, I have already allocated some of my Sunday to prepping for the following week, the test papers would just add to that load.

Then my door opens.

It is a colleague whose classroom is adjacent to mine coming in for a chat. But when I say ‘chat’ as that would presume that that there were two people involved in the conversation, it’s more like being spoken at about his day.

I put my pen and the exam paper down and listen to his frustrations; the students who haven’t quite registered that their final exams are in a few months time, the ones who have failed to hand in homework, and the ones who promised that they would turn up for the revision classes but didn’t. I listen and attempt to offer support and advice where I can, we are colleagues and part of the same team. I am also the Head of Department.

After he has left, I settle back into marking the papers. It’s a significant pile and I really don’t want to have to take them all home this weekend. Last weekend was spent proof-reading student subject reports for the department, I could barely see straight after I had finished.

Then my door opens.

It’s another member of the team, she’s relatively new and still working her way around the school and its quirks. I try to give her as much time as I can as I have heard on the teacher grapevine that she has already thrown around some flippant remarks about leaving before the end of the academic year due to the ‘unreasonable workload’. Much like a few minutes before, I am blasted with information and updates on her day. I sit and listen patiently with a set smile on my face, but in the back of my mind I am thinking about those unmarked test papers, about the data that it will then probably take another 30 minutes or so to input onto the school system, the emails I need to reply to, and the fact that I haven’t had chance all day to go the office to photocopy my resources for Monday.

After she leaves something strikes me as I am trying to get my head back into marking mode, I very rarely get asked about how I am by members of the team. Perhaps they think that I am fine because of the persona that I carry off (very successfully, if I say so myself) day to day. None of them is aware of the challenges I sometimes have just to get up in a morning and get to work, but then, why should they need to know? Or perhaps the reason I don’t get asked is because I am a member of management and there is a ‘them and us’ mindset to it. Sometimes people just need to vent and I do feel that part of my role is to cushion some of the blows or at least act as a sponge.

In this time-pressed profession, I would love to sit down and have more conversations with my team and other colleagues, perhaps about things going outside of the classroom and outside of the school. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, particularly as exam season approaches.

I admit my management style may have contributed towards this situation. Despite the seemingly constant curriculum changes and ever evolving school diktats, I try to manage with a democratic approach inasmuch as I can; concerns are discussed openly in meetings and if an issue affects someone directly, I will do my best to help. They are an amazingly hard-working bunch whose support I value every single day.

But it would be nice sometimes for one of them to ask how I am and pause for an answer.

RELAXATION RESISTANCE

I have recently returned from a holiday abroad with my partner. The break followed completion of a school inspection for me and weeks filled with meetings for him.

Prior to booking the holiday, we were in two minds about how we wanted to spend the time together. We are lucky that we live in a part of the world where we can travel to some spectacular places both at home and away, but this time for me at least, things felt different. Rather than travelling around, I wanted to stop. I wanted a base to call our own, even if only for a week. Aside from the manic schedules that we both experienced when we returned to work following the Christmas break, we are also in a long-distance relationship. 939 miles to be precise (on a side note, he also worked out that in the first half of 2016, we had only spent 35 days together).

We have been able to manage the distance between us fairly well. We have a rough limit between how long we go without physically being in one another’s company, and although we may not speak each day, we are in touch via text (thank you, WhatsApp!) So when it came to thinking about a destination for our break, I quickly discovered that my partner’s plans were a little different to my own. He wanted to explore somewhere new and although initially I wasn’t opposed to this (certainly the seeing of somewhere new), the more I thought about it the idea of spending a day or two in one place before moving onto somewhere else caused my stomach to sink.

So I spoke up. I stated my case for a different and more relaxed pace of a holiday (something neither of us has done separately or together, I am talking ever!) and we came to an agreement: a place where we could explore an area through day trips, but no packing of rucksacks/suitcases every few days with all of the chaos (and excitement, admittedly) that goes along with it.

But it wasn’t all that easy, half way through the holiday I hit a hurdle. Something that now I realise rather than a hurdle was more akin to two parts of my mind tussling in a cage – anxiety vs relaxation. I didn’t know or couldn’t remember how to relax. The more I thought about being ‘relaxed’ the more anxious I became and the more I thought about it, my anxiety moved up a notch. It was a vicious cycle. If I had put my money on who would have won that mind tussle, I would have betted on the anxious part rather than relaxation on that day. I couldn’t sit still, each time I even glanced at my book my mind drifted and often to some pretty dark places (related to work and to my parents), and I found myself snapping at my partner.

Of course, I have severely generalised and reduced the complexities of my own anxiety and my ability to relax (or not). We are not simply existing in one state or in the other. Fortunately, as human beings, we are a little more complicated than that. However, it was as though in order to obtain a degree of mental peace my mind was showing resistance. There was still a fight to be had, even it was the final round.

I cannot recall what caused the end of the fight; it may have been the process of forcing myself to sit and read for a prolonged period of time, being able to sit and chat with my partner in one place together, the afternoon beers, or a combination of all of the above. But by the following morning, something had clicked, and I was able to sit and read without ruminating on some past conversation, or about a work project that I needed to start.

I am returning to work next week feeling refreshed and relaxed. I am already a little anxious (surprised?) about how long that feeling will last for, but at least for the time being a layer of fog has lifted and I am looking forward to getting stuck back in.

LIFTING THE FOG

I have found it difficult to write over the past few months.

Although I don’t want to link it entirely to my mental health, I feel as though it has been a significant contributing factor in the steady reduction in the quantity and quality of my writing. Any writing for that matter.

These are some of the words I wrote in my diary only two weeks ago:

It’s Sunday and I have woken up early and I feel that familiar heavy feeling inside. A multitude of emotions are consuming me that should be oh so recognisable that I shouldn’t question their presence as I have grown so used to them over the years, but that doesn’t help. I am sluggish, teary, and angry at myself. I thought that by now, I would have some gotten my shit together and have some fucking strategies in place: is this the best I’ve got? To spend the day alone? Again?

That was it before I spent the rest of the day driving myself insane (and experiencing a mild anxiety attack in the process) as a result of intense self-loathing.

During this time, work had been all-consuming to a degree that I couldn’t manage in a healthy way and therefore I felt myself slip into some familiar and unhealthy routines in my personal and professional life: excessive rumination, shutting myself away from others, skipping the gym, eating one too many takeaways, and just generally being the cause of my own frustration. My gremlins and the cloak of fog that they pull down over me took hold of my shoulder a little over a month ago, though I know they’ve been lingering in the background for longer than this, and despite my best efforts, they are real fuckers at letting go. But also, I was also feeling incredibly lonely. The ‘work’ I am working on and hoping to move on from next year, but the loneliness is a whole different animal. I knew that at the time there were people I could turn to when I go through this, but when I have decent to some of the lower depths of my mind, I truly can’t see this.

So I really was ready desperate for a break.

Some time out has done something remarkable in a short space of time (despite gaining a cold almost as soon as landing in the UK), I already feel re-energised. Quality sleep, good food, fresh air, exercise and seeing family and friends are all helping with lifting the fog.

In contrast, yesterday I spent practically the entire day writing when I wasn’t with family. It was heaven.

BURNOUT OR DEPRESSION?

Melancholy, the darkness, the blue funk… just a small selection of the ways to describe depression but for me, the most appropriate is how Winston Churchill related depression to that of a black dog. Although he wasn’t the first person to describe the mental illness in this way, it is certainly something which I can relate to. Much like a dog, depression can be brought to heel and controlled. Other times you feel like it’s running rings around you.

I know when the dog has one up on me when I feel completely and utterly drained, almost devoid of energy. I feel like I am walking around in mud, and the harder I try to move the faster it holds. The most challenging aspect to grasp is that I genuinely don’t know how to feel, or how I should feel during these times – as I struggle to feel much.

Roughly five years ago, I went to see a doctor during one of my darker times. I had felt down before, sad even but I assumed that like all of our emotions they ebb and flow depending on our current situation, our experiences with those around us and our hormones. However, at this point in my life something felt different. The mud was thicker, the rings being run around me were created faster, and I simply kept falling over.

So I made the call and booked myself in.

My experience however wasn’t wholly positive; upon describing the reason for my visit the doctor asked me some standard questions about my recent medical history and emotional state and then recommended… doing more exercise.

Yes, exercise certainly can help. I know.

I enjoy exercising and it was something that I did quite a fair bit of at the time. Working in the field of psychology, I was already familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include prolonged periods (at least more than two weeks) of low mood, tearful, lacking motivation, change in appetite, lack of energy and sleeplessness (or conversely, sleeping a lot more). And I was also aware of the things that could help alleviate these symptoms such as exercise, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, taking up a hobby and so on.

I left the doctor’s practice feeling misunderstood and a little angry. Had I not explained myself sufficiently? Perhaps my symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be anything significant? Simply, I doubted that there was a problem in the first place and so I tried to put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with my life.

At the time I was coming out of an emotionally challenging relationship and with few other choices I had moved back into my parent’s house (in my late-20’s, not fun). Initially, it provided familiar comforts but at this point, I had turned inward and aside from going to work and seeing friends, I shut myself away and therefore I shut my parents out. My mother had always been fond of my ex (I truly believe that she thought we’d get married, live ‘happily ever after’ that sort of thing) and she couldn’t understand what had happened. She wanted to know more, demanded even at various stages. I knew her questions were only out of concern, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to retrace the steps in my mind to address my unhappiness.

At its worst, I broke down at work. Initially behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle and then it became larger and I was holding back tears whilst in the office. I knew at this point I needed to do something more. Doing more exercise wasn’t going to cut it.

I revisited the doctor (the same one in fact due to no-one else being available) and this time, he recommended speaking to a therapist. He provided me with a few numbers, but it transpired that all but one no longer practised in the area. The remaining one had a full client list for the foreseeable future. It could have been easy to retreat further at this point. However, something pushed me on and a Google search provided me with some contact details for another private practice in the city and I managed to get an introductory appointment for the following week.

In all, I attended only a handful of sessions with the therapist. Unfortunately, they ended due to the therapist moving to another area of the city. At the time I couldn’t afford the additional transport costs on a regular basis. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to continue to see her. She did more for me in those few months than she probably ever realised.

So why is now familiar to my experiences five years ago?

With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to pinpoint one of the main reasons for my current state and that it relates to a degree of burnout regarding work. I feel utterly uninspired by my job for a variety of reasons and have done for some time, although it was in a recent training session with colleagues (which coincidently focused on motivation and importantly understanding how to stay motivated) that was my wake-up call. So although the time and situations were very different, I was experiencing similar symptoms as to before.

However, unlike five years ago where I kept a large part of myself hidden away, this time I reached out and spoke to a couple of close friends to let them know what was going on. Their support was invaluable as has help from a local therapist whom I connected with through Facebook.

Like depression, burnout has some similar characteristics such as loss of appetite, anxiety, lacking energy, forgetfulness and so on. Researchers from the US and Switzerland led a piece of research to address the link between symptoms of depression and traits of burnout through a study on teachers. In short, the researchers found a pattern between the two, with women more likely than men to experience both*.

This doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Whether you are burnt out by your job, family commitments or money worries, for instance, the result is the same – you are not able to ‘function’ at a level you were at an earlier period. Therefore, some things have to give.

One of my first steps to regaining a better sense of myself was to get back into writing (i.e., spend more time doing it!) Writing is perhaps one thing that provides the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, where I am able to express and explore aspects of myself and my environment. Furthermore, the support that I have received since speaking out to close friends and a therapist have reminded me that I am not alone. Although both not panaceas in themselves, I am becoming more aware of what I ‘experience’ and so I can address the symptoms in a healthier way.

I am not in no way out of the woods yet, but I am now in the position of considering how to address my burnout and other symptoms. And I have also slowly accepted that the black dog may follow me around for the rest of my life. It’s how I deal with it that makes the difference.

* A greater proportion of women were surveyed 75%.

References

BE KIND, UNWIND

Last night I met up with some girlfriends and colleagues for evening drinks and we ended up heading to a club. Nothing unusual there for a Saturday night for most people I would assume. Except this is me, and an evening out ‘out’ on the tiles is a rarity.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy socialising, in fact I am able to hold myself rather well, but there comes a point where I feel utterly drained by the experience if it is prolonged. In situations like this I tend to exhibit the following behaviours; I drink and talk more to conceal the fact that I feel like I have to talk for talking’s sake. I then become even more anxious about my behaviour and the cycle continues until I am either stinking drunk or make the smart move and leave.

On this particular evening fortunately I did the latter.

It’s taken some years for me to feel comfortable in saying no to social activities, or having my fill and leaving when I feel full so to speak. During my teens and 20s, I largely felt like I had to be someone else; someone who was gregarious and a people pleaser.

I can’t solely blame my upbringing, but many memories of my mother involve her unbridled duty to ‘help’ everyone else (and she still does) often to the detriment of herself. I feel in some way that this was instilled into me also. Likewise, I felt like I needed to be ‘loud’ to be heard at school, home and amongst friends.

Otherwise, what was I?

A nobody – well that was certainly how I felt.

This ‘loudness’ followed me throughout university and into my career as a teacher and lecturer, until I stopped caring as much.

I couldn’t safely say what specifically caused this change in perspective but leaving an emotionally restrictive relationship during my mid-20s certainly helped, resulting in a period of time single. I wasn’t out partying every night to get over the breakup, it was actually quite the opposite as I felt relieved, as though a weight had been lifting off my shoulders. At the same time, I think a multitude of factors caused me to reassess my own life but the breakup was the catalyst.

I have come to accept my need for downtime, my desire to unwind in a space of my own after a day at work or have time off after socialising, though I still find it conflicts with a basic human need for interaction at some level. So it was interesting the other night over a text that Daniel wrote that he was ‘holding the introvert inside’, whilst out with friends. I could totally relate!

I find it easier to remember that keeping yourself grounded (and comfortable) is like a balancing act. Sometimes the balancing part is more challenging and at other times everything seems to make perfect sense, things seem easy! But I refuse to let the anxieties run my life like they used to.

CALLING TIME ON CO-DEPENDENCY

This summer I ended a long-term relationship with whom I thought at various points in our time together I was going to spend the rest of my life with and potentially marry.

My ex obviously didn’t quite feel the same way and any hint of a conversation about the future (usually instigated by me) was met with a swift change of subject, uncomfortable silence or worse, the topic was shot down with a defensive attitude about ‘feeling pressured.’

Throughout our relationship I often felt insecure and ultimately became riddled with anxiety about where I saw myself within the relationship.

Clearly we were on wrong pages when it came to some of the fundamental things between us. Yet, I ignored or rather didn’t see the warning signs of someone who wasn’t able to emotionally commit to me. Instead, I told myself to hang on in there, given a bit of time and space emotionally, he would come round. Surely?

Towards the end of our relationship and since our breakup given the time to reflect (including plenty of chats to girlfriends, Google searches related to relationship breakdown and from my own professional experience), I realised that one thing had been staring right at me in the face and I had totally failed to see it – I had been in a co-dependent relationship. In other words, I put more of myself into the relationship than he did to the detriment of my own self-worth.

I hadn’t realised how much at the time and throughout our time together I relied on him for support and reassurance. The emphasis being on the amount of support and reassurance I needed from him. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t seek support and reassurance from a partner; but in my case, I couldn’t see anything outside of being with him.

This was the problem. I had somehow built my entire existence around prioritising his happiness.

So how did this co-dependency manifest itself?

In reality it was simple, I mothered him. I cooked, I cleaned, I organised social events, holidays. I arranged his life so that he didn’t have to. When he was angry or upset, I took his irritations as my own. Lines had become blurred.

The effects of this was a slow-burner resulting in subtle changes in the dynamics between us over a period of years. The more I did, naturally he did less. In a practical sense this was fairly obvious when we lived together, but significantly this was reflected in his attitude towards me. In some unconscious way I believe that he grew to resent me for taking on this ‘mothering role’ and at the same time I began to resent him for not helping out more and failing to listen. But for me, every physical thing I did was my way of expressing affection and love. A classic sign of co-dependency and signs of a toxic relationship.

I was clearly living in a world of denial about where we were at. In reality however, I was afraid of being alone and had conjured a fantasy of us eventually committing to one another when he was good and ready.

It’s strange to look back now and see what finally ended us. A holiday. One that gave us both some amazing memories. But upon our return to the real-world, I realised how much we had both changed and at the same time hadn’t.

Prior to calling on time on the relationship, I had begun to unconsciously move the boundaries of what I found acceptable and the holiday together reaffirmed this. One significant moment was when he was making jokes at my expense (I cannot even recall precisely what had led to this) and it resulted in an anxiety attack. Initially, I put this down to feeling tired from the amount of travelling we had been doing but each time I sat back and thought properly about the event, I knew that it was the physiological result of something deeper.

It was incredibly upsetting to end the relationship and for him, my true feelings came as a shock. He hadn’t realised how unhappy I had been. In one of our last conversations, he asked me why I hadn’t spoken up before. But I had tried many times, but perhaps not hard enough or rather I had not approached the conversation in the right way. I had grown used to hiding my own feelings so I stopped expressing myself.

I have learnt since ending the relationship that the behaviour my ex and I displayed towards one another was not healthy and having recently entered into a new relationship, I now have the responsibility to speak up for me and for him.

K1PZ4FEMEQ

If you are unsure of whether you are in a co-dependent relationship, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you apologise often for your behaviour/actions unnecessarily, and in some cases apologise for your partner’s (possibly to others)?
  • Do you avoid confronting a partner about decisions/certain discussions due to fearing rejection? Are you also blamed for being over-sensitive if your decide to voice your thoughts and they are rejected and this subsequently causes upset?
  • Do you feel unable to say no to your partner? This could be to do with day-to-day decision making, or deeper issues such as with money and sex.
  • Do you protect your partner’s behaviour through denial of your own feelings?

If it’s a yes some of these, you could be in a co-dependent relationship. It doesn’t mean that a relationship will ultimately fail but it may be necessary to establish clear boundaries and ensure that a life exists outside of the relationship itself, for instance by focusing on and fostering other relationships with family members and friends.