Dark Days

I hate this time of year: short, freezing cold days; wind blustering and banging in the chimney cavity of our house, and shaking the bedroom window at night. Long hours of work at school in the lead up to mock exams and coursework deadlines, battling tension headaches and horrible winter viruses. Students are driven crazy by rainy break times, the wind whipping them up, and I only just muster the energy to keep my classes together.  Sixth formers are starting to hide from me, scared they haven’t done enough work (and they probably haven’t). It’s three weeks until the Christmas break, and that feels like an age. I’m frequently fighting tears and rallying myself just to turn up to work.

That stupid ‘Facebook memories’ feature pops up each day to tell me I always feel like this in November. My statuses are a catalogue of eight years of coughs and colds, sick days, work-related anxiety… eight years. It’s not getting easier. In fact, since changing schools, it’s got much harder.

It’s getting to the point where I can’t even relax at weekends. Saturdays are sacred to me – my one day off in the week – and yet I find myself feeling wound up even then. I woke up yesterday at 5.50am replaying lessons in my head (I’d been up at 4.30 the day before to mark essays, so this was nominally a lie-in). I couldn’t make it stop. I had to get out of bed and watch the news just to halt my own thoughts. Aching all over, I could tell my Saturday was not going to amount to much. My eyes were itchy and sore. I ended up falling asleep to a film mid-morning, waking up at nearly two feeling cheated that I’d missed the core part of the day, and the sunlight.

I’m not sure if the problem is being a teacher, or being me.

I suppose it could be both.

Working in a school, stress and anxiety is normalised. The kids have exam nerves. The teachers are always overloaded with work. As a department, we all sit together at lunch and all we seem to do is complain about bad behaviour, or management, or the hours spent ploughing through books. Lunch time is no longer a break, but a way to pass on anxiety. I feel my own back prickle every time I hear someone else’s worries. I feel hyper sensitive and suddenly I’m spiralling back into my own stresses.

At my last school, I was off sick a lot. I did pick up every virus going, and I put this down to being around children all the time. Of course you’re more vulnerable to these things when you’re overworked – but I didn’t think of it as principally a mental health issue. I’m starting to understand this better, especially after reading Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig. While I’m fortunate not to suffer the crippling depression that has marked Matt Haig’s life and so many others, I could really relate to his descriptions of panic attacks and feeling like you just can’t get through the front door. My sick days, my headaches, my aches and pains – they are much more to do with my state of mind than I ever realised. Maybe I’m not just picking up viruses all the time. My type of unwell could be anxiety.

I get a lot of aches and pains: a fuggy head, a dull ache in my shoulders, in my arms, in my hands. Yes, this could easily be a case of repetitive strain from too much computer screen time, but what if it’s also from holding my body so tense with worry? I take hot baths every day just to try and relieve it enough to sleep. I went through a period of doing yoga before bed to soothe it, and I should get back into this habit. I need better posture. I need to do exercise. I know all the right things I should do, but I’m not doing them.

I hate waking up in the morning with the same headache I felt when my head hit the pillow.

There’s been a couple of times recently when I’ve woken up so full of dread at the day ahead, I’ve cried.

It’s never been that bad before.

I’ve felt my heart beating so fast. Fight or flight response. Panic.

There’s been a couple of times where the only way I could calm myself down was to say to myself, It’s OK – you’re not going to work today.

I’ve been honest with my line manager and explained how difficult I’m finding work, battling this constant anxiety and knowing my workload is, with no exaggeration, physically impossible. She’s been really nice: she took some responsibilities from me and allowed me a work-at-home-day. It’s helped, but I worry about the future. I hate the thought that I’ve got to keep doing this job because it’s the only way to pay the rent. I don’t want to move house again or start over at a different school… The upheaval would be worse than sustaining current circumstances. Wouldn’t it?

Maybe not. I’m starting to really believe that the financial hit I’d have to take to change careers would be worth it. Suggestions on a postcard, please.


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