‘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.

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TITLES, TAGLINES AND TELLING TALES

So I have already broken the commitment I shared when I started Blogging University 101, I stated that I would post once a week and here I am, two posts in two days.

I am still wrestling with some of the finer details of the blog itself, I am happy with its appearance and theme in particular although the tagline caused some vexation for a period of time. In the end and for the time being, I have chosen a quote by Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose work I have only touched upon in the past but what I have read struck a chord. Coincidently, the quote fits rather neatly with the theme: Hemingway Rewritten.

Who is Audrey Jones?

When I first established the blog back in 2015, I knew that I wanted to use a pen name. The name was pretty simple in terms of its creation, My late grandmother was called ‘Audrey’ and ‘Jones’ was an even simpler choice as, for me, it just seemed to fit. The pseudonym of Audrey Jones provides me with a cloak of sorts to help dampen some of the anxiety I experience when I publish my writing. I am getting better with dealing with this and I read recently that Beyonce ‘killed off’ her alter-ego of Sasha Fierce a few years ago as she feels more attuned now to who she really is. I can relate to this, and I would like to think that with time I will feel the same way. Audrey will merge with the ‘real me’.

I am curious as to whether anyone has some insights into this so if anyone has any feedback, then please let me know.

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.

AUDREY: HOW DO I TAKE SHIT LESS SERIOUSLY?

I really envy those people who have the ability to move on from stuff thrown at them. They just brush the dust off their shoulder, Jay-Z style whilst I feel as though I am sinking in a heap of shit.

A recent example was at work where there was an oversight on my part about something. Although the blame cannot be entirely put at my feet, two other colleagues failed to notice the error also but I couldn’t stop myself from ruminating and how it was all my fault. My brain immediately went into panic mode and I began self-flagellating about how crap I was and why the hell was I doing my job as a child could surely do it better. The matter was dealt with pretty quickly (my colleagues and I put things right), but my place of work doesn’t have a particularly strong culture of support and the management are useless about well… most things, so you constantly feel under surveillance. And one wrong step and they’ll drag you in for a ‘meeting’ to point fingers and inform you about how inadequate you are.

I know that when I look at my reaction from taking a few steps away, I recognise a pathological neediness and genuine craving for reassurance from others. This is nothing new. In a way, though, I wish it was a new thing as I would have hoped that by now a woman in her early 30s would have got better at dealing with this kind of stuff somehow.

Look, I know that some shit is serious and what I do really isn’t in the grand scheme of things. It’s not like I am not dealing with life or death situations, but this doesn’t make me feel any better. Why do I take some shit so seriously? Is it some kind of narcissistic tendency to assume that I have to take on the burden for everything as I’d love to know,

One who takes shit seriously

Dear OWTSS,

Who are these people who take shit less seriously? As if you know anyone who honestly, truly, madly, deeply is able to take the shit thrown at them with a handful of salt, then I’d love to know them as much as you. We all experience a whole barrage of shit each day, some of the less demanding stuff and the stuff that you’d rather just sink to the bottom. But if there is anything that stands out from my measly attempt at advice then it’s this: your self-worth is in no way related to whatever shit is thrown your way.

Your workplace sounds like a whole heap of fun where chaos reigns, but not like chaos chaos, like people running around like headless chickens, more like chaos in its more pure form where there is something inherently negative about its shape, something malevolent and odious. Constant surveillance? Meetings to tell you how inadequate ‘you’ the staff are? Jeez… that’s a workplace culture that needs to chill the fuck out or at least remove some of the hate. I am not trying to trivialise your job, the environment or even your superiors but it seems fairly likely that some of the people you work with are either power mad control freaks or have no fucking clue what they are doing, so instead they manage using fear and intimidation. And that combination of fear and intimidation is pretty toxic.

Is there anyone at work who you can speak to? Have you got yourself some peeps that can shoulder some of the shit you experience and live it a little through your eyes? Perhaps they are seeing the same things? Have you considered leaving? That might not be possible but consider it for a moment, if the culture of your job is not working for you in terms of the support or lack thereof, then is it time to look elsewhere?

Woah! So many questions! But seriously, there is a difference between doing your job well and taking that seriously and taking your job too seriously.

Addressing the problems with your workplace won’t necessarily address how you feel about yourself, but they are a start. The way that you ruminate and catastrophize are indicative of something much deeper as I am assuming that this does go deeper, so I wonder if it is something that you might need to explore with a professional. You say that it’s not as though your job deals with life or death situations, yet your brain immediately jumps to a conclusion to the contrary. It’s crazy and twisted how reassuring rumination and catasphorizing can be to our fucking amazing brains; both place responsibility for pretty much everything firmly on your shoulders – global warming, the Syrian conflict, Trump, and even human errors made at work. Those inner voices demanding that you bring on the self-flagellation are mechanisms that you have learned somewhere and validated somewhere along the line. In some ways, they act as a form of protection and by beating yourself up it prevents you looking outside of yourself at how others are dealing with their shit, and there is a lot to learn from doing this. I don’t believe that you’re narcissistic, as that would imply that you are self-centred AND there is an element of pride in that. I think there is anxiety and I think there is someone who is scared of being vulnerable to others, so you look outside of yourself for reassurance.

I have always sought personal validation from others and gosh when you get it, it can feel so good when it’s positive! But that whole looking outside of yourself for validation is fleeting, you end up craving a bit more and then a little more.

Yes, there are people ‘out there’ who seem able to let things bounce over them/appear to let things slide, and that is because they have learned strategies to do this. They have probably spent time and I want to add here, with the support of others, to learn what is worth getting bothered about and what isn’t. It could be a personality temperament thing too for sure or even something genetic but don’t be fooled by a cool, calm exterior when the shit hits the fan. They may be ruminating just as much as the next person.

I wish that I could wave a magical wand to show you abracadabra style, rather than with the Jigga man, just to illustrate how remarkable it would be to have this power, to know in advance about the things that are going to cause you anxiety. But it turns out, you don’t need me. You actually already have some of that power at your disposal already, it’s right there in your fingertips, or rather in your brain. It’s not perfect this power and don’t assume it is. Sometimes it won’t work or won’t operate in the way you want, but keep reminding yourself that you have already identified some of the things that cause you stress and anxiety. This, you should be seriously proud of.

Get some support from someone who can help you take a step back and learn more about yourself, look at some other options for work if you can, and importantly don’t put yourself down for feeling as though your own shit is not together. As in this mad, wonderful world having your shit together is actually all about how you step up and start shovelling the crap out of the way and then moving forward.

Love Audrey

A JOB OFFER AND AN ITALIAN WINDOW

I have just returned from a short vacation where I was originally hoping to carve out some time to write this post earlier. But the tourist bug caught fast and my days were mostly spent touring temples and seeing the sights in the wonderful city that is Seoul.

My head was full of trying to navigate my way around the capital of South Korea and nail some of the basics of the language, so I was grateful that the day before leaving I had made a decision about what to do about an offer presented to me a few weeks ago.

I said no.

No to the offer of a role that could have shifted me in a whole new direction that of a website developer and contributor.

My reasons for declining were built on a multitude of factors, but my main recurring thought was that I wasn’t hungry for it. To be more specific, hungry for that particular position at this point in time.

Fear did play a large part in my decision, but not in the perhaps obvious reason that I was scared to take a chance on something unknown to me. But rather it was the fear that was in my gut of ignoring what I truly feel inspired doing – writing that has meaning to me. There is a strong possibility of sounding arrogant here, as though my writing is ‘better’ than the website I could have been writing for. But this couldn’t be further from reality. Having taken the time to consider the offer actually made me acknowledge the cold hard truth, I have been skirting around what I enjoy doing for some years now.

AN ITALIAN ADVENTURE

A little under ten years ago I went on holiday to Italy and spent nearly three weeks touring some of its great cities such as Rome and Florence and then switching to a car for a journey through the magnificent countryside of Umbria and Tuscany. The trip left a lasting effect on me in more ways than one; it certainly affirmed my love of Italian food, art and culture. Those were given. But it was when I was staying in a relatively remote village near Perugia, Umbria where I would say that I received one of the loudest calls to arms I have ever received in terms of inspiration. Through the haze of my long-term memory, I’ll paint the scene:

I am sat leaning over a circular wooden table with what was a cumbersome and impractical laptop. It was heavy, bulky, and took up the vast majority of my day rucksack, but I had been determined to bring it with me on my travels.

I was doing some work for my relatively new teaching position (only one month before I had completed my teaching training and I was due to begin my first job in the forthcoming September). Academic books were spread out around me like a fan, covering the table and chairs and I was dipping between them trying desperately to focus on one thing and failing miserably, I had a great deal of work to prepare. Initial visits to the school had been exciting, I had met new colleagues and seen what was to be the classroom where I would spend most of my day. But I was also left with a large ball of anxiety in my stomach; brand new courses needed to be planned, existing resources needed updating and I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps I was in a little over my head. I was keen to be prepared or least to obtain a degree of preparedness, hence the reason my laptop had originally come on holiday with me.

At one point, I stood frustrated and decided to take a short break. White-washed walls gave the kitchen the illusion of space, but in truth it was tiny. Adjacent to a metal sink and drainer was a tall corner cupboard that was in turn next to the only window. I went to grab myself a drink and when normally, well at least for the past few hours I would have gone to sit straight back down this time, I took the few steps to look outside. The image was a mirage of green rolling into the distance, the colour varying in intensity as fields were divided by roads and cultivated land. The scene was occasionally interspersed with buildings with some obscured by trees and the hills beyond.

It was as I stood here, that I felt like my brain had been struck with a burst of energy that I had never experienced before. The image that I was looking at was also somewhere else. I was still standing in that kitchen but the scene that played out in front of me and the sensation of standing there conjured a vivid scene in my mind. A male, a boy, an explorer, lost? They were the first things then; adventure, a family member could have gone missing? His father perhaps? As I write those words, they appear abstract and but loose threads of an idea. But for me at the time, as cliche as it may sound, it was as though I was seeing the world around me with eyes that possessed a whole new vibrancy. For the next couple of days, I was lost in a world of my own with a view out of that window writing furiously on my laptop.

The Italian countryside was the inspiration for what came to be my first book. Now I say ‘first book’, as though I am a published author. I am most definitely not (for the moment at least) and I would say that I am also very far away from being anywhere near that. But that feeling of inspiration made me realise that I absolutely LOVED writing stories and in turn, it also made me hungry for more of those moments of absolute clarity and conviction over my creative thinking.

So the offer presented to me a few weeks ago, as amazing in its own ways as it could have been, ultimately deep down wasn’t right for me. I had to sift through a lot of my mental clutter to find the answers, but I knew I had made the right decision when I thought of how much of my time would have been spent doing the job, whilst also working full-time and therefore sacrificing precious time to write for myself. The hunger and the drive both weren’t there in the same way that writing fiction is for me or even the feelings created when I write posts for this blog.

So it was a no for now for a small career shift, but a big step in reminding myself of what I want to do in the long-term.

REACHING OUT

As I introduced in my previous post, I am a little over halfway through a course intended to help me to make an eventual career shift. I have found the missions so far exciting, thought-provoking, and some others a little odd (with me wondering ‘How will doing this help?’). But overall, I am enjoying the process. Significantly, it is encouraging me, actually it is forcing me to question things about myself – my likes, dislikes, and my path to date in terms of my career and other related areas.

One of the earlier missions in the course was to actively search and reach out to people who may be already working in my fields of interest. This was to get a feel for their line of work and discover if it was something that I might want to investigate further.

Sounds pretty straightforward? Just throw out the emails and wait for a torrent of responses…

Well the universe and my thinking don’t work like that; would the people whom I contacted actually reply? Hadn’t they got better things to be doing than answering a random woman’s email? These were just two of my initial misgivings about the mission, but all of them pretty much centered on people not responding.

All in all, I was feeling fairly cynical about the process. But to help overcome the gremlins of doubt and pessimism, I decided to think along the following lines:

  1. WHO DID I WANT TO REACH OUT TO?

At this stage, the coaches encouraged us to not limit ourselves and our search for information and vitally, people.

This was perhaps a little easier said than done for someone who feels as though her brain is often a congealed mess of ideas. Therefore I started to do what I do best; I made a list. Lists ground me and provide a vital resemblance of structure for some of the messiness. Although they may not always inherently have ‘a point’ or ‘lead somewhere’, making a list of areas of interest allowed me to spill everything onto a page. It was a starting point.

For me, I found that my some of my core interests were in writing, mentoring/coaching and design. These, having been narrowed down from some of the earlier missions. Once I had done this, I now needed to focus on people – who was I aware of that worked in these areas?

The coaches recommended that this process best works like a hierarchy; at first consider reaching out to people already familiar to you, such as friends and family. These will hopefully be easy to contact and are much more likely to respond. Secondly, get in touch with people who you may have met already in a looser context, an acquaintance for instance or someone you know through a mutual friend. The third and final tier poses potentially more of a challenge. These may be people who you don’t know and it may be difficult to contact and interview; such as celebrities, experts in their field and so on.

  1.  WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO CONTACT PEOPLE?

So I had identified areas of interest, this was all well and good, but how do you go about ‘sourcing’ people (and their details)?

Simply? Research.

Initially, I contacted friends and acquaintances whom I knew were already doing work in these areas (and not necessarily in those highlighted above). I received a response from a few within a matter of hours. This bolstered my confidence and so I also started to reach out to more, including to a few of unknowns (such as authors, journalists and designers) having located their details mostly through their own professional websites. Other good methods included; LinkedIn and even other social media like Facebook.

My research led me down a number of avenues, some of which hit a dead end immediately. For instance, a writer/author that I admire did not provide contact details on her website. The only way to make contact was through her publisher and agent (understandable, when I imagine she receives many emails per day). After a little more research, I realised that perhaps this was one connection that should be put on the backburner, at least temporarily. It was something I could (and still will) go back to once I could put more energy and time into it.

Overall, I found that email was the best and perhaps most straightforward way for me to contact people. I was able to curate my correspondence in a way that showed a part of me in terms of my personality but also ensure that I had covered certain bases, such as making that important request – can I find out more about you and your work?

Some of the people I have got in touch with so far have emailed me back with answers to my questions, I have held Skype meetings, and I have even had some agree to meet in person.

  1. HOW DO I MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION?

There will be people who are too busy (or who may not wish) to reply and so may see your email and send it immediately to the trash. The odds are not necessarily in your favour; you may submit 20 emails and only receive a handful back. It’s a shame, but unfortunately a reality of the process.

However, the personalisation of that initial contact may cause people to stop and put the time together to reply, particularly higher up in the connecting hierarchy. A generic email with little grasp of the person or their work may elicit a response, but something that has been crafted for an individual may enable them to see part of the real you and thus lead to a better chance of a response.

So for this part, I considered carefully why was this person someone I wanted to reach out to in the first place? And what were they doing that resonated with me?

The idea of making a good impression was significant on a number of levels. People who are taking the time to get back to me offering their own nuggets of advice deserve to be met with someone who at least had a sense of purpose, and certainly not see a time-waster. So I ensured that I actually had something to say; what led them to their work, what mistakes did they make on the way and what advice would they offer to those looking to get into that field for instance.

Furthermore, I also ensured that I followed up with the contact shortly after the event. This is not only polite but it also allows a dialogue channel to open up and possibly remain open.

  1. ENJOY THE PROCESS

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reaching out, is to keep reminding myself to enjoy the process. Enjoy meeting new people especially if they work in something that fires up your imagination. And also enjoy the changes that you witness in yourself and others as they make their own career change.

Yes, there are going to be moments of frustration, such as when someone fails to get back to you, or you leave a conversation experiencing a sinking feeling that makes you realise that their line of work is after all not something you wish to pursue. But that is all part of the journey.

My two gremlins named doubt and pessimism still raise their heads every so often; their voices certainly are a little louder when I am tired or feeling fed up, despite receiving some feedback from some amazing sources.

It was a fluke!

Why are you doing this? Isn’t life easier as it is?

And so on.

But when I remind them that part of the shift process is that it’s meant to be fun, it shuts them up fast. As those gremlins are far too serious to understand the idea of fun.

MAKING A SHIFT

A little over a year ago I signed up to something that would help me make a change. A big change.

Fast forward nearly a full year and I am six weeks into a career shifting program that I hope at some point in the future will result in the course’s (and my own) ultimate intentions – making a move into something new.

I first discovered Careershifters through an online news agency a year ago that was offering an interactive discussion to people who were interested in making a career change themselves. I recall my senses being heightened as the discussions progressed, as though something had been switched on – was it serendipity that I had stumbled upon this?

Whatever the case, the practical part of my brain completed a bit of research about Careershifters as a company and subsequently I subscribed for their weekly newsletter. I began to receive emails with articles aimed at people in a similar position to me, and case studies of people who had made shifts.

As I delved into the website archives, I was surprised by the sheer number of people who appeared to want to make a career move. From those who had shifted from Finance to Design, and Marketing to Charity work. From a selfish perspective, I did steer myself towards those stories from those who had been in the education sector… other people similar to me had done it, so there it was, a signal, a sign, a ray of light.

Anything seemed possible.

It has taken a few years to get even to this point. A point where I even felt ‘ready’ for a change. Jeez! Not just a few. I am talking at least five!

Certainly, five years ago I can recall having a conversation with myself, where I told myself that if I was feeling still unhappy about my current career and path a few years down the line, then I would be looking for my out. In the years that have passed, I have moved organisations a few times but the thought has never left me – I still want my out.

Those feelings by the way five years ago and since include; regular indifference and apathy, occasional dread and a heap load of anxiety. The usual sort of shit when you are working in a job you no longer enjoy.

This post isn’t here to bitch and moan about teaching nor the state of the education system, if that is something that interests you wonderful reader, then check this out (yes, the story for this Ask Audrey article is my own).

However, what this post and some of my subsequent ‘Career’ posts are going to be about is my out and how I am going to achieve it.

I hope you’re able to join me on this adventure.

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

SPARKS

So I have sat down to write.

I have no formal plans (i.e., I am definitely not at work today), no social engagements, nothing that could and should distract me. I have even turned off the internet so that I don’t feel the urge to check Facebook, the news or my email. Yet, after an hour or so I am tinkering with the structure of sentences rather than actually writing anything new; flicking between ideas for some blog posts and then a couple of other fiction pieces.

In effect, I am procrastinating.

I don’t want this to happen. I want to be productive.

I have lots of things that I want to be doing. I want to complete the plan for a story idea that I have. I want to make a proper start on the story that I had months ago that I have completed a plan for.

I don’t want to be sitting here wasting time.

I feel a familiar sense of frustration bubble away inside of me, but the bubbling never reaches boiling point. Time to write and to be with your thoughts is so precious that I want to make the most of it, savour every little second.

I get up and make a drink, perhaps that will help. I wait for the kettle to boil and wipe around the kitchen surface, noticing specks of dust. I should really give the kitchen a thorough clean. One where each room is disemboweled of objects and scrubbed clean of dirt and grime. I have all the cleaning products ready to go… then the kettle boils and I tell myself to sit at the desk.

It’s as though the ideas could burst out of me sometimes, and I cannot write fast enough or for long enough. It’s these times that I try and focus upon when I’m struggling, praying for a window of inspiration.

But then writing isn’t always about the inspiration, those sparks; instead, it’s reminding yourself that you are letting yourself be one with the words forming in your mind. The images conjured need to be instructed to pause for a moment so that they become clearer, tangible.

The sentences, the grammar don’t always make a whole heap of sense at first, certainly not to others if they were to read them. More often than I wish, sentences are left dangling in mid-air, unfinished or not started. But I can’t bring myself to hit delete, in case they form something more coherent later on, so I hit return and push them further down the page out of sight. For now.

Sometimes when a spark does strike and I am writing fast and loose, I find that a part of my mind wants me to become distracted. It dares me to stop, to check my email or just to take a break. Because doing this, listening to that part of myself, the doubt, allows the insecurities that I have about what I want to say take precedence.

I sit back and allow myself to daydream and for my mind to wander, the cooling tea in my hands.

The sparks will come, I know it. I’m ready for them.