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'I was so stressed at school I forgot to breathe'

One experienced teacher explains how the stress of teaching became so great that she was forced to seek medical help

Teacher stress_editorial

One experienced teacher explains how the stress of teaching became so great that she was forced to seek medical help

Some things are just natural, aren’t they? They just happen, all on their own: no thought required, no helpful Post-It notes, no mention on anyone’s to-do list. A bit like breathing.

Breathing happens naturally, doesn't it? I thought so, until one day last year. Suddenly, I needed to remember to breathe. I needed to talk myself through the process and I needed to keep the faith that this necessary biological function would soon revert to type.

I was having what I now call “My Funny Five Minutes” – yet, there was nothing funny about it.

It had started last summer. I work in a special school and run a provision for students with autism. I was totally overworked overseeing the transition of our Year 11s into the next stage of their lives, transitioning an unusually large number of new Year 7s into our school, and coping with the end-of-term changes while still trying to maintain the "day to day" functioning of our provision.

I love my job. I work with an amazing group of young people and their families. The staff I manage are the kindest, most caring and talented on the planet. I work for a lovely, considerate and empathetic head. But slowly I stopped being able to cope.

It started with driving in to work, pulling into the car park and feeling dread. I had to force myself out of the car. Pretty soon, I had to force myself out of the house in the morning and then, out of bed. Before I knew it, I was arriving home on a Friday night feeling nothing other than the utter terror of having to begin it all again on the following Monday morning. Dread had turned into fear. Fear had turned into terror. I did nothing but hang on to the hope that “normal service would soon be resumed”.

By the October half-term break, I was a shell. The lights were on but no one was home. I knew I needed to talk to the head, and I emailed him asking for a meeting after school one day during the first week back after the break. That meeting did not happen – our head, like most, is a very busy man.

Fear and panic attacks

By the end of that first week back, I couldn't go on any longer. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and couldn’t string a meaningful sentence together. I couldn’t make a single decision, couldn’t sleep, and, if I did, I couldn’t wake up. I felt permanently nauseous and was experiencing ongoing panic attacks. I lived in fear of anyone asking for advice/ help or even just a short two-way conversation. Every ounce of energy of every single day was dedicated to getting through the next two minutes, the here and now, the immediate. In essence, I was a blight on the human landscape, a total waste of skin and of no use to anyone. I had hit that brick wall.

I went to the doctor. I was signed off with work stress.

What followed was a very gradual return to the human world. I returned to work in January, having been off for eight weeks, and I have not yet missed a day. While my emotions are still too close to the surface too much of the time – one bad day can still feel pretty catastrophic – I am, with the support of a fantastic team of staff, managing OK. I am back to giving out opinions/advice at an alarming rate – whether or not they have been asked for! – and my planning is now further ahead than the here and now.

Several things helped me get back to work.

At home, my husband stopped telling me what I should do, while our (mostly) grown-up children gave me advice. Our three dogs needed walking – this was a real help once I had managed to force myself out of the door. Next door’s dog needed walking, too. And as they always do, things needed knitting.

Our head met up with me while I was still off and enabled me to start to get my own head around how I could get back to work. He suggested strategies that might help. Staff in our provision stayed in touch by email. I felt truly included and less of a nuisance. Both the staff and our head made it clear they did not want me to rush back. They gave me time.

I had a graduated return to work, which helped loads. I had some early finishes over the first couple of weeks and, in theory, was able to revert to this when necessary afterwards. Similarly, I rejoined meetings in a graduated way.

I did not feel judged – the staff were welcoming, understanding and caring. They stepped up and excelled yet again by doing all they could to make sure all bases were covered (as much as they ever could be).

I was given "allowances" by others. I was told to not worry about all the "extras" and to just focus on the priorities.

I talked to people – some I barely knew before – and had proper meaningful conversations about things that truly matter. I learned that we all tread a fine line sometimes and that if we can be there for others, more of the time, then maybe we all stand a better chance of staying on the "right" side of that line.

My biggest mistake was not talking to anyone at all about how I was feeling – either at home or work – as my mental health and ability to cope deteriorated. The "stiff upper lip, look like you know what you are doing, hide from the next task and the darkness will all go away" approach clearly didn’t work for me.

And how could I think it would? We need to be more open in schools about our own mental health, and seek help and understanding from those who can support us. Maybe then we can all stay more healthy more of the time.

Debbie Maher is a teacher in the East Midlands

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