*Originally written and posted April 2018*
At the end of this year, I received a letter in the mail from a student. It read, “Dear Ms. R, even when I was having a bad day, somehow, after your class, I would be happier than ever.”
Despite my classroom being known for making sure my kids were happy and healthy, — my own happiness and mental health were circling the drain.
This was my eighth year teaching. Like every other year, it ebbed and flowed. There were the usual new initiatives, parents, curriculum overhauls, and unruly students. But for some reason, this year just felt harder.
I spent countless hours tailoring curriculum, collecting data, and agonizing over fitting more curriculum in the same 180 days. No matter how many times my fiancé would try to get me to rest, to sleep, or to just “take a break,” I refused. There was too much that just had to get done.
At the same time, the “thick skin” I developed for handling student discipline, brushing off teenage-angst, and reading angry emails felt non-existent. Every critique or challenging moment cut me to the core and left me completely deflated. I felt like a horrible teacher and therefore, a horrible person.
At school, my lessons were top-notch. My relationships with students were as strong, supportive and professional with this class as with every class before them. I poured all of my energy into making sure that my classroom remained intact, no matter how I felt on the inside.
When my fiancé concerned, he was always met with excuses. “It’s fine. I’m fine. This is just a rough year for all of us. It’s just because it’s the end of the term/vacation is coming up. Things will be better after break. It’s just how education goes.”
By the time April came around, I was still myself at school, but at home, I was unrecognizable. I was too anxious to eat, not sleeping, irritable, and crying all the time. I had deep bags under my eyes and lost nearly twenty pounds. Finally, I looked into getting some help.
I made an appointment with my PCP and explained how things had been going. “It sounds like this has been going on for awhile now. What finally brought you here?” she said.
“I need to get this under control because I need to be able to teach. Plus, I can’t afford to be out anymore because it will mess up my planning” I responded.
I returned home with my head reeling. I had an option: to voluntarily check myself into a partial hospitalization program. Deep down, I knew that it was what I needed. However, the thought of taking ten days off work made me sick.
“I can’t do it!” I cried to my fiancé. “What am I going to tell people? What will they think? Then, the real panic hit. “How am I going to plan for ten days of sub plans? We are in the middle of a giant writing unit. What am I going to do if I can’t grade or look at the kids’ work?” I was inconsolable.
After many long and trying discussions, I checked myself into the partial program. I was able to begin over April break, so I would only miss a week of actual school.
The first few days in the program I was completely unwilling to accept any strategies the clinicians suggested. I can’t step out to take a moment! Who do they think is going to watch my kids? Why are we practicing these dialogues for saying “no” to things we know are too much? It’s not like I can say, “I’d really love to, but I just can’t do that right now” to the new initiative…Every step forward was immediately undone once I framed it around school.
While in the program, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. Like Bipolar I Disorder, people with Bipolar II experience swings between highs and lows. The difference is, people with Bipolar II tend to spend more time experiencing depressive episodes and experience what is called “hypomania” instead of the full mania that comes with Bipolar I. Hypomania is often characterized by: jumping from one idea to the next, increased self-confidence, irritability, or increased energy with hyperactivity and decreased need for sleep.
The diagnosis was hard to accept despite making so much sense. Teaching provided everything my illness needed to thrive — plenty of things to do for a good evaluation when I was hypomanic, and plenty of reasons to feel worse about myself when I was depressed.
In the middle of treatment, my therapist, family and I decided that I should take a leave of absence for the rest of the school year with the goal of going back in September. I needed to distance myself from the job in order to get healthy and reframe my thinking. I was less than thrilled, but again, knew it was the right thing to do.
The months off have not been easy. The feeling that I abandoned my students is honestly heart-wrenching at times. The combined guilt around leaving so much on my colleagues’ shoulders yet appreciation for their support, is bittersweet.
Even though this was not at all how I envisioned this year playing out, the relationship I had with teaching had become so unhealthy and one-sided. I needed to be forced to put myself first in order to put things in perspective.
I used to worry that I won’t be the same teacher without the hypomanic episodes, or that I won’t love teaching as much when I go back in two weeks. But now I know those worries are pointless.
Of course I won’t be the same teacher without the hypomanic episodes. Instead, I will be a teacher who is less burnt-out, more rested, and has boundaries. And thankfully, I know that I am not going to love teaching as much as I used to — because I am going to love myself more.
*Names have been changed