Way beyond the end of the road

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Some teachers have spent the summer on sick leave, recovering from depression and stress. Here, two women describe their efforts to recover. Last Wednesday I drove to our next nearest town. It takes about 11 minutes and is a journey I have done many times before. This time it took me three days to pluck up courage to tackle it. When I got there I had to stop when I was parking the car because suddenly I didn't think that I could do it.

Two weeks ago I stood in my kitchen and wept because I couldn't, just couldn't, decide what to cook for supper. That's why I haven't been back to school since Easter, why my doctor says that I am suffering from depression caused by stress.

This is not an attempt to write a learned article about stress, I am not qualified to do so. Neither is it, I hope, a whine about how much I have suffered. What I want to do is to explain what is feels like to be the sufferer, to be the one spoken of in hushed, pitying tones, the one who has "given in".

Stress, as I understand it, rarely has one single cause. Certainly in my own case it has been the result of the accumulation of events of the past three years, the deaths from cancer of three close friends (one was my job share partner) , moving house, the illness of my father, losing my job - twice. I could go on.

Whatever the root causes, it happened, I became depressed enough to be signed off sick for the whole of the summer term. I tried to carry on, as you do, after all I am a good and conscientious teacher. However I gradually lost all interest and enjoyment in life, I was unable to make even simple decisions, planning work for my class for half a term assumed giant proportions, my self confidence sank so low that I avoided even close friends. I felt totally useless and inadequate, and, perhaps worst of all, guilty about it and very, very ashamed.

A kind word from my deputy head released a storm of tears pent up for weeks and the, for me, deeply humiliating confession that I had lost my confidence. He was flatteringly shocked and tried to help but for me that confession was the end of the road and I at last went to see my GP.

For the first three weeks I sat or slept. There was nothing else. Opening the post reduced me to a shaking wreck. Deciding what to cook for evening meals was almost impossible and I even found that I wore the same clothes day after day because that meant I didn't have to decide what to wear. All this time one part of my brain was very detached, could see what was happening to me very dispassionately, and my self esteem sank even lower. How could I an adult, a parent, a teacher be so pathetic? But I was.

Improvement is slow and patchy. Effort of any sort brings tiredness and a sinking back into those "sticky toffee" days when every footstep felt as though I was wading through liquid toffee, when the only thing on the horizon was another impossible mountain to climb. But the improvement does come and I am even beginning to think about going back to school without shaking.

One of the hardest things about this illness has been other people's reactions to it. Some were lovely. They rang briefly to say they were thinking about me and hoped to see me soon, they gave me a hug or a pat on the shoulder when I finally began to emerge from my self-imposed isolation. They simply showed that they cared.

The ones who didn't get in touch will never know how much they have added to my illness. By ignoring me and my problem, the implication seemed to be that I had something to feel guilty about, that I had failed in some way, and every colleague, every friend, who ignored me added to this overwhelming feeling of guilt and failure. One friend confessed when she finally contacted me that she hadn't rung because she hadn't known what to say. "Hello" would have done.

The first person who called on me was one I would least have expected to see, he stayed five minutes and I was a shaking, gasping wreck when he left, gulping for air but those five minutes of kindness were worth every shuddering breath. He accepted my illness, he didn't silently condemn me.

Would you visit a friend or colleague with a broken leg? Phone? Send a card? Then why not do it for the victim of depression to whom it probably matters more? Depression is not contagious. Or perhaps people ignored me because they were afraid that they would recognise the same symptoms creeping up on them?

I will go back to school next term, I won't be beaten by this but life will never be quite the same again: I don't think I will ever in future take myself and my abilities for granted. The simplest things take on monumental proportions when you are depressed, now I value the ability to do those things. My faith in God has deepened; many times without it I think I would have totally succumbed. My husband, my children and all those people who showed their love for me are all infinitely more valuable now. Having visited some of the darkest places inside myself and come back, perhaps I will also value myself more. I intend to try.

Vivian Sloan is a junior school teacher in Weymouth, Dorset.

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