I have used my blog as a professional outlet, as a way to work through issues and thoughts in a way that has allowed me to grow and change as an educator. While the nature of educational blogs requires a certain level of filtering, I have been as honest as I can knowing that the best way we can all grow is if we address all the elephants in the room. But, I’ve had a personal elephant as well that I try to keep in the corner, and I’ve recently realized that ignoring the issue allows others to feel alone and perpetuates the social stigma and allows it to win, and I’m not a girl who likes to lose. Ever.
Education has gotten better at recognizing mindfulness and mental health. We take brain breaks, practice yoga in classrooms and we teach deep breathing exercises to kids. We have started to recognize teachers and their mental health as well, and have begun to teach them mindfulness as well as tips for dealing with secondary trauma and stress. But, in order for our mental health to be optimal, we need to also recognize mental illness, and nobody wants to talk about that. We want to work on getting people mentally healthy without recognizing that some people need additional help and support beyond Downward Dog. It’s a challenge for some to recognize these issues because the parts that are broken you can’t see from the outside. They are not physically obvious like a broken bone or sprained ankle. There are no casts or braces. Because of the nature of our profession, many of us are fantastic at hiding the issues with smiles and fake cheerfulness which seems genuine because we have had a ridiculous amount of practice at making it that way.
We are often told that we need to leave our personal issues in the car when we come to work, and I totally, 100% agree with this. Depression is not an excuse for dumping our problems on our students or the people around us. Our students have enough on their plates. They do not need the personal issues of adults added to them. That is incredibly unfair to do to them. That means, however, for people who are dealing with a true mental illness like depression or anxiety, our ability to hide our feelings is of the utmost importance. It is not optional. It is absolutely imperative that our students only get the best versions of us, even if it is temporarily not the real one.
Depression is not about choosing to feel happy or sad. It is not about choosing to smile or be serious. Nobody would choose to have these kinds of feelings if they could help it. It’s like having a disconnect between the logical and the emotional side of your brain. I have depression and anxiety. My emotional brain is my biggest, most effective and dangerous bully. It tells me every morning that I’m fat and worthless, that I’ve done nothing with my life and I matter to no one. It tells me that the world would be a better place without me and that although other people tell me it would be selfish, I would actually be doing a service to the people so they didn’t have to “put up” with me. My logical brain tells me that part of my brain is defective and I should ignore it, and I hold onto logic like a liferaft to get me through tough moments. Minute by minute I work through my day. I focus on breathing in and breathing out because I find sometimes that I’m holding my breath. If I can get through one minute, I can get through the next. I have a difficult time compartmentalizing simple things because I work so hard to keep this part of myself under lock and key. I sometimes sit at my desk and cry when everyone else has left the office because I am exhausted from all the effort of being “normal”. In my darkest times, I feel like I have more than a broken heart, I have a broken soul. Yet, I get up every day, go to work, put on a smile, and work with and for our kids. I use humor as a defense mechanism. Sometimes, the happier I seem, the more depressed I actually am, which really just perpetuates the perception that I’m ok. The fact that not many people would know this about me is always a personal win.
I get through these times with a strong support system. I have people around me who believe for me when I don’t believe in myself. Some know me so well they can sense it, which is so important because it’s difficult to talk about. It’s seen as a weakness, and people say, “How can you not be happy? You’ve been successful, you have great kids, you smile and laugh…I saw you do it! You’ll be fine! Just think happy thoughts.” And that’s what my logical brain would tell me, but my emotional brain fights it, and I need my people to keep me afloat until I’m able to do it again myself.
For me, depression is also not a one-time occurrence. I have lived with it every day for at least 25 years. Sometimes I am on an upswing and I have it under control. Sometimes, there is a trigger that sets it off, sometimes it happens for no apparent reason. The idea that depression goes away or is just about being sad is a misnomer. I often think of my upswing times as just being in remission.
So many educators I’ve spoken with who have these same issues have felt a connection with people like Robin Williams. Other depressed individuals who have put everyone else’s happiness before their own, and lost their battle because they had nothing left for themselves and to deal with their own demons. Think of any great educator you know, and they would fit the mold of someone who gives everything they can to everyone around them, and you may never know the internal battle that’s raging. We have people around us every day who need additional support and we may never know it because they are doing the best they can for the people around them.
So, why would I write this post? I wholeheartedly realize that I’m going out on a limb. But, I don’t want people who are suffering from these ailments to feel like they suffer in a dark corner alone like I have. It makes me angry that I’ve thought about posting this before, but when I’ve spoken to people in person about it, I’ve watched their facial expressions turn from one of caring to one of either pity or concern that I might be “unstable”. I want others to know that they are not weird or crazy (a super irritating word for someone with true mental illness), even though they may feel like people are looking at them that way when they speak about it. I want people to recognize that mental health is more than just showing people how to reduce stress, but it is also about recognizing mental illness and supporting people when and where they need it most. I want the lucky ones who haven’t felt this way to empathize and to understand that there is nothing on Earth I’d love more than to not feel sad, so stop telling me to smile because I’m trying. So. Hard.
Most of all, I want to start the discussion. It’s about time.