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'When I was a teacher, I sacrificed myself for everyone else'

Anxiety and self-doubt led this teacher to quit the classroom: but she’s coping better than ever. And here, she shares how

Forcing teachers to take part in wellbeing activities actually harms their wellbeing, warns Jude Brady

Anxiety and self-doubt led this teacher to quit the classroom: but she’s coping better than ever. And here, she shares how

For me, teaching and anxiety went hand in hand for years. In fact, the anxiety seemed to manifest itself as the incessant voice of self-doubt in the back of my mind. It convinced me that I was a failure and that anyone who said otherwise was lying. It didn’t matter how many times I was told that I was an outstanding teacher; the anxiety wouldn’t let me believe it. Until, one day, I couldn’t function anymore.

I started to suffer daily panic attacks. They became so bad that there were hours each day when I couldn’t walk, or talk. I suffered from paralysis brought on by fear. I couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t want to talk to my friends or family. I cut myself off from the world. But, thankfully, I wasn’t ready to give up; I held on to a shred of hope that things might get better.

So I started to talk. That’s when I began to understand that I was ill and that I wasn’t a failure, or a burden, and that the world wouldn’t be a better place without me in it. My school was incredibly supportive. They advised me to take time off, so I did. Reluctantly. At first I thought that I might be signed off for a few weeks, then maybe a term. But, ultimately, the guilt I felt as a result of not being in school meant that I had no choice but to resign. I was devastated.

But it gave me the opportunity to seek professional help. I started seeing a psychotherapist who helped me see the anxiety as something separate from me; I wasn’t defined by the illness. That was a huge turning point. I also started taking medication. Dealing with anxiety, or any mental illness for that matter, can be a bit like walking a tightrope: precarious, terrifying, lonely. For me, the medication acted as a temporary safety net in case I fell. I know medication isn’t right for everyone but, in my case, it made a significant difference.

Alongside the therapy and medication, I also learnt a few basic methods that I continue to use to help manage my anxiety on a day-to-day basis. One of the most effective methods is mindfulness. It might sound trivial, but I spent so many years functioning on autopilot that I didn’t know how I really felt. I was on the precipice for a very long time, clinging on for dear life, with no awareness or understanding of the panic I felt. Slowing down and allowing myself time to breathe has made a huge difference. It’s the first time I’ve felt a real sense of calm in my whole adult life.

I’ve also learned not to trust all of my thoughts. Again, I never gave myself the freedom to question them even when they became catastrophic. I was so consumed by a self-destructive, anxiety-fuelled narrative, that I just accepted what I thought was true. Now, when I start to feel anxious, I write down what I know to be fact and try to separate that from what the anxiety is trying to convince me is true. I found this really challenging at first but, after a while, it starts to become second nature; it’s a bit like re-educating your brain after a lifetime of bad habits.

However, the most effective coping mechanism I have at my disposal is to be honest with myself about how I’m feeling. Not to keep going when I feel like everything around me is falling apart. I’ve learned to accept that my feelings matter too; that I matter. I spent 10 years in education trying to keep everyone else happy and to be the best teacher that I could be. But I sacrificed myself in the process. I often look back and think about how different the outcome might have been if I had just slowed down, or spoken to someone about how I was feeling, or taken the time to breathe. But I learned the hard way. We should never have to sacrifice our health or ourselves to be the best at what we do. Nothing is worth that.

Madeleine Hyland was a teacher for 10 years and a head of English for three before she left the classroom

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