One Year into Recovery and Here’s What I Learned

My last day of teaching, March 6, 2020. A group hug at the end of the day with my 7th hour students (identities have been hidden for safety)

On March 6, 2020 I left my 8th grade social studies classroom, and my identity as a teacher, behind for the last time. Ironically just a week before quarantine sent everyone home, I went back on full time mental health leave due to returning suicidal ideation. After I tried to kill myself in October 2019, I spent the remainder of the semester on mental health leave, then returned in January as school reconvened with the end of winter break. Two months later, and the stress of teaching proved to still be too large a burden to bear while working on my mental health recovery. 

Next weekend, March 6, 2021 marks exactly a year since. This year has been the most transformative year of my life. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I learned that proved to be the most important to my recovery (note: healing is not linear, and my recovery is not over. I’ll honestly probably be in “recovery” for the rest of my life):

Lesson 1: Everyone has a story in their head that centers themselves in any situation (thanks Brene Brown, for the phrasing)

Every single person has a valid and unique perspective on every single event based on several factors. A combination of our individual genetics, childhood home environment, relationships, societal context, and trauma shapes our unique perspectives. This fact is one of my favorite things about humanity. This fact is one of the reasons I love meeting and learning from others so much; it has shaped my attitude as a lifelong learner.

Something I learned in the last year as well though, is that these unique perspectives also shape our ability to communicate and enter into relationships with each other. Your unique perspective and feelings about yourself often results in you taking the actions and words of others very personally. But you’re not alone. We all do this.

Why was this such an important lesson? By recognizing that everyone comes to the table with their own individual story in their head, it allows you to lay down your defenses and open your ears. By listening to the ego story of others, you can help them (and yourself) recognize where miscommunications are happening, and actually affect real healing.

This knowledge also helped me reflect on the stories I tell myself, and recognize when my brain may be lying to me. Now when I start feeling some type of way about someone else’s words or actions I ask myself if the situation is really about me. More often than not, everyone in the situation is just stuck in their own ego.

Lesson 2: Asking directly for and sometimes just taking what you want, works

No more bullshit in my 30s. This is the mandate I have set for myself. I lived my life with such low self esteem, I never felt worthy of just asking for or taking what I wanted.

I lived my life stretched as thinly as possible so I could please everyone else. And maybe, once I proved I was worthy, someone would give me what I wanted? Maybe eventually someone would notice all my hard work and give me a gold star and my wildest dreams? Maybe, if I just played the game well enough, eventually someone would recognize I actually deserved to win? 

This mindset was obviously problematic in several ways. First of all, how could anyone possibly know what I wanted if I never said it out loud? I was working my ass off, expecting some esoteric ultimate authority to just bestow me with my wildest dreams. All without even really knowing what my wildest dreams were. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t work.

Secondly, this way of thinking cast my worth completely within the control of others. It came from the self-held belief that I was inherently unworthy, and therefore needed to earn worth in order to earn anything else. Because I felt this way about myself, I put myself through a lot of bullshit. I jumped through unnecessary hoops. I got perfect GPAs that nobody cares about. I am a member of several international honors societies. I won a statewide award for excellence in education through my teacher’s union in my fourth year of teaching. I have a master’s degree in an industry I no longer want to be a part of. 

And I still wanted to die. Because I still felt unworthy. Because my inherent beliefs about myself were broken. In the last year I’ve had to acknowledge this truth. And I’ve had to reckon with the fact that, if I want something, I am going to have to either ask for it directly or take it for myself. And in order to do that, I need to figure out what I actually want, and then start to believe I deserve it. I have to believe I am worthy of setting boundaries and saying “no” to people. I had to learn a whole new language around communicating my needs.

My self esteem is still not “there” yet but damn, I have come a long way. Especially recently, I have finally started to go for exactly what I want in several areas of my life. And, so far, this plan has been much more effective. Not only for getting what I want, but for maintaining a healthy work-life balance as well.

Lesson 3: Radical acceptance is everything

I know I’ve spoken about radical acceptance on this blog before. I am not exaggerating when I say that radical acceptance is everything. Radical acceptance means accepting what you cannot control or change about a situation, and then letting it go. 

I am a self-identified control freak. Feeling like I am losing (or maybe never had) control triggers my anxiety and PTSD in intense ways. And I know I’m not alone. Giving up control is difficult for many people, for many valid reasons. 

However, just because we want control over something, doesn’t mean we’re going to have it. The opinions and behaviors of others for example, these are not within my control. They’re not within your control either. Your child’s sexual orientation and gender identity; also not within your control. How your neighbor cuts their lawn. The efficiency of Covid-19 vaccine distribution. Whether or not someone wants to be a mother. None of these things are within your control.

By accepting what we can’t control, we free ourselves from stress over them. Because the reality is, having anxiety about something won’t give you control over it. It won’t give you the results you want. It will just give you anxiety. 

By accepting what we can’t control, we free ourselves to find joy in what we already have. We free ourselves to find power in what we can control. We free ourselves in general.

During the last year of my life, I’ve not only had to learn these lessons, I’ve had to start acting on them. Full disclosure, it hasn’t been easy. Recovery is never going to be easy. Recognizing the validity of someone else’s perspective means recognizing that there is no absolute truth, and that binaries don’t exist. Asking directly for what you want takes courage and vulnerability. It takes risk. It is scary. And finally, practicing radical acceptance also means letting go of something you will most likely sorely miss. Radical acceptance triggers a grief cycle for that which you thought you always deserved (ie: a child who grows up and wants the same things you had) and find peace and joy with what you already have (ie: a joyful, self-actualized, queer child finally living their truth). However, by allowing myself the space and time to process my grief, by engaging in self reflection and self care, by relying on my support system and seeking out mental health services, I was able to learn these lessons and survive. And now that I’m 30, and I can feel these lessons sinking in, it’s almost like I’m thriving. Almost. 

A Threshold Crossed

I have no idea how to start this post.

I quit. I quit teaching. The decision to do so is something I have struggled with for months. Considering I barely taught this school year because I had to go on mental health leave twice, I’m sure this decision isn’t surprising to many people.

I know this is the right choice. I am happier and healthier than I have ever been with my mental health as the focus of my life. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of teaching have grown beyond my coping skills at this point, and I accept that. 

None of this changes the fact that I am heartbroken over the end of my teaching career. 

I love teaching. I love the intellectual challenge of breaking down complex concepts to help others learn. I love facilitating adolescents in developing critical thinking skills through inspiring them to fight for themselves and their community. I love helping adolescents develop socioemotional skills through modeling values-based community building. I love providing adolescents the space and autonomy to explore their curiosities and apply their interests. 

I also love working with kids! I love having a work environment where no one takes anything too seriously because let’s be real, it’s middle school. Everyone is out of their mind on hormones anyway. I love making up secret handshakes with students, and seeing them make a beeline to me in the hall, at the same time between CCA and first hour, every day. I love recruiting the kids to help me play pranks on my coworkers. I love calling kids out when they’re flirting in class, rather than paying attention. I love making stupid history puns using lyrics from Lizzo songs, receiving love notes and artwork from my students, and taxing the students by making them share parts of their snacks in return for the privilege to eat in my classroom. 

One time, one of my students thought he was hilarious and dropped my purple, glitter unicorn tape dispenser out of my second-story window. I noticed it was missing, assumed student involvement, and used my entire prep time to make copies of MISSING posters for my unicorn. I plastered the posters all over my school and classroom. I sent out pictures of the poster to my coworkers (many of whom displayed them on their “bell work” slides all day). I handed out flyers during passing time. 

Missing poster for my unicorn tape dispenser

(Eventually a student found the unicorn on the lawn outside and we got to spread the joyous news before the school day ended).

One day, I decided the floor of my classroom was lava. I taught the entire school day without touching the floor of my classroom once (and invited my students to play too if they wanted).

I would always play music during independent work time. I would get so much joy out of watching kids, usually so consumed with being “cool,” dance goofily in their seats while they did their work. 

I loved stuff like this, and so did the kids. It feels amazing to work in an environment that allows space for fun. It feels incredible to engage a kid in deep, rigorous coursework by showing them you have a sense of humor too. And I realize that any environment I work in with my peers will be desperately void of these things that made teaching so exhilarating. 

I have so many feelings about this transition. 

I will miss teaching. I wrapped much of my identity up in being a “teacher,” I will need time to grieve this loss.

I also am completely terrified about what’s next. Mostly because I don’t really know what’s next. 

I know building a writing career is central to my focus for my future.

I know I’ve already dedicated my life to antiracism.

I know that mental health needs to be central to my focus for the rest of my life.

I also know I have a partner, 3 fur babies, a mortgage, a small chunk of student debt, and an unfortunate penchant for minor, clumsy, injuries. 

At this point the “plan” is to stay grateful, stay open-minded, stay inspired, and stay true to my vision.

And I’ll keep working my ass off to take care of the rest. 

An Update on my Life: For those who are interested

Yesterday was my last day of teaching. I am officially on medical leave for the rest of the school year. Deciding to bow out at this point in the school year is the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. Half of me wants to write this to desperately justify my decision. On the other hand, I’m hoping continuing to process through my reasons for leaving my job will help give me renewed confidence that it was the right decision. So here we go.

I have been struggling ya’ll. On the best day, teaching middle school is a really challenging job. Middle schoolers are out of their mind, high on hormones. Their brains have not developed the ability to assess risk or think about consequences before their actions; meaning they are impulsive, emotional, and chaotic (and those are the good days). Combine this reality with: 

  • the traumatizing state of national and local affairs, 
  • the rate of family deportations that have taken place within our school community over the four years I’ve worked there, 
  • institutional policies and practices in American public education at odds with the needs of my students of color and LGBTQ+ students, 
  • the individual childhood trauma many students bring to school with them every day, 
  • we don’t have air conditioning so it is likely to be around 95 degrees in my classroom in September and June, 
  • my classroom was built in the 1960s when class sizes were two thirds the size they are today, and the hormones in our food have resulted in middle school students you could mistake for 30 year olds,
  • political pressure for teachers to prove they are “effective” has resulted in so much standardized testing we’ve lost at least a quarter of our instructional time to testing that does a poor job actually assessing students’ learning as it’s format is at odds with what we know to be best teaching practices (this results in even more loss of instructional time as we now also have to spend time teaching the students how to test),
  • and I barely make enough money to cover all my bills (and we haven’t received our promised yearly raises a single time since I’ve worked for the district)

By the time you reach the end of this list, you probably can understand why teachers usually burn out after 5 years. The thing is, this is the reality before you add in any issues going on in teachers’ personal lives. One of the most unfair things about it all is that, through all of the bullshit put on our backs, teachers are often expected to act as emotionless automatons that come to school every day, check all the right boxes, and take responsibility for the educational and emotional development of 150+ kids on our caseloads. 

Personal trauma, deaths of loved ones, financial struggles, sickness, mental health issues; all of these are inconveniences that teachers are often expected to compartmentalize in order to stay effective in their jobs. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a supportive administration, as I’ve heard stories of principals telling their teachers to “leave all of that in the parking lot,” because school is no place for teachers to have weaknesses. 

And I’ve been going through a lot of shit in my personal life. When I was assaulted at a Halloween event in October, it fucked me up mentally. Obviously, it triggered my trauma from my original rape that happened in college, but it added on to the pile in unexpected ways. My inability to cope with the immediate fallout of this assault resulted in my first hospitalization that forced me to go on medical leave for November and December. But, as I processed through this event, and worked on rebuilding my mental health, there was a sneaky new trigger for my PTSD that I had no ability to discover until I returned to school: crowds.

All of a sudden, I don’t do well in crowds anymore. When I was assaulted in October, I was grabbed at a crowded event because I had my guard down with no ability to control everything going on around me at that moment. So now, when I am in a crowded and chaotic situation, I can literally feel my lack of control and it makes my brain shut down. 

Do you see the issue here? Teaching middle school is nothing but spending time in loud, crowded, chaotic situations where any sense of control is an illusion. 

So basically, since I returned to school in January, I’ve been living in a constant state of anxiety. I am triggered all day every day. My body is in fight or flight mode 24/7 resulting in a bottoming-out of my ability to sleep, feed myself, cope with sudden changes, relax physically, and accomplish most of my required tasks. It also hasn’t helped that in the month of February we had an evacuation due to a gas leak and a bomb threat. 

It’s not that I don’t want to do my job anymore. It’s that I literally can’t. If I keep going like this I will die. I am not exaggerating. Feeling like you’re in constant threat of attack is not a life many people would want to live. I initially asked my district for partial leave so I could cut down to part time. This would allow me to engage in trauma-based therapy, have the restorative down time I desperately need, but still finish the year out with my students (whom I love as if they’re my own. Yes, all 153 of them). Unfortunately, the policies of my school district don’t allow partial leave. They offered me full time leave through the end of the school year, or nothing at all.

Considering the extreme state of my mental health, I obviously had to take the full-time leave. 

That doesn’t change the fact that yesterday was one of the hardest days of my life. My students were devastated that I’m leaving them. Just as I feared, many are feeling like I am one more adult in their lives that is abandoning them. My heart broke into a thousand pieces as students cried into my shoulders and clung onto my limbs. I received so many thank you and farewell notes from students I lost count. I have to come to terms with the fact that, although I’m leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with them, I’m still failing these beautiful impressionable souls by not achieving my goal of seeing them through to their middle school finish line. 

It would be an understatement to say that I am sad. There’s so much going on here that is really difficult to process, and it is going to take me some time to move on. People keep asking if I will return to teaching next school year, and honestly, I have no idea. At this point, the furthest out I have been able to plan is the next 24 hours. I can’t even conceptualize September, let alone what I’ll be doing in September. 

Releasing myself from this school year has officially closed one chapter of my life. I now have to embark on a new chapter where I confront my trauma in a way I have not been able to up until this point. I am terrified, I am sad, I am anxious, but I’m also eager and excited.

I’ll keep you updated on all that this next chapter brings.

Thank you for reading.