Let's come clean about the S-word;Talkback

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Sweeping stress-related illness under the carpet merely increases the stigma of those who suffer from it, argues Helen Murray Doctor, I say, half-jokingly, "I want your permission not to go to work today." He doesn't laugh back, but looks at me and we talk, for half an hour. Or, more precisely, I talk, pouring out the litany of events, professional and personal, many beyond the norm even of a busy deputy head's packed life, that have brought me to the stage where I have run out of "me" before we've run out of term.

He listens sympathetically, non-judgmentally. He asks occasional but penetrating questions: "Have you ever felt suicidal?" (I must look worse than I thought.) He talks a lot about empty tanks. Not only is my tank empty, but the little red plastic one in the boot is dry and it's a 10-mile walk in the rain to the nearest petrol station.

It's a relief to talk to someone who isn't part of the problem, who isn't also clinging to the lifeboat by their fingertips, someone who doesn't fix you with that crazed look that betrays internal screaming of "YOU'RE stressed! What about ME?" It's good to be "given permission" to feel exhausted - to say: "I'm not coping any more." It's a relief to have someone recognise the guilt you feel when the end of the tether slips out of your normally oh-so-capable fingers, the ones that aren't allowed to fail.

But it comes as a shock when he says: "I'm signing you off for four weeks." Four weeks! Having handed the reins over to him I want them back, but it's too late. I panic. (Good sign of stress, this.) "What if I feel better after the holidays?" He looks at me sternly. "I don't think two weeks will be enough."

I accept weakly, and again the overwhelming feeling is one of relief. I'm not well and it's OK. Then, he spoils it. "What do you want me to put on the sick note?" he asks. Wait a minute, isn't this the caring, sharing Nineties? Aren't we all being upfront and proactive about this? Isn't it OK to come out of the closet about the S-word - stress?

Even though my doctor has himself just returned to work after six months of stress-related absence, he realises the potential damage that word can do on an official piece of paper ("bearing in mind job applications"). It makes me angry to still have to battle to force home the message that having to be secretive about stress is part of the problem.

We characterise our illnesses as migraine, tummy bug, flu, or (if we teeter on the brink of honesty) exhaustion, but never the S-word. I hold the crusading line for the sick note, confident I can fight the battle in my own school, but lose my nerve at the last minute - I don't want my name printed on this article. Stress is like many banes of the human condition - we won't fully conquer it until we can be open about it.

As for me, I've got over the guilt (ish) and I've stopped phoning school, leaving messages, checking things, marking books, setting work. I've stopped sublimating after savagely clearing out my knicker drawer, taking most of my wardrobe to Barnado's and throwing away 20 years of cassette history. I'm letting daytime TV wash over me.

I'm going to take my four weeks, take a deep breath, physically and emotionally, and return as the best that I am and not the limping casualty I recently have been, good to neither man nor beast (that covers the staff and the pupils). It's official - I'm human.

Helen Murray is deputy head of asecondary school. She writes undera pseudonym

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