Don’t Suffer in Silence

I haven’t written a blog post for a while; I find that Bartopia is the least natural of my writing endeavours at the moment and so it has been benched. However, it seems the perfect platform for what I need to express now and, as such, it gets to pull the jumper on and run back onto the field.

I’m grieving. It hurts… and I’m dealing with it the way I deal with most things of an emotional nature: I’m pretending everything is ok. It’s more than that though. I dismiss my own feelings, avoid talking through things and bottle things up. Even this, while I’ll talk about what I’m going through, will be superficial and will gloss over the significance of things and their impact on my well being.

Halfway through last month I lost someone who had always seemed superhuman to me. My Nan raised 9 children to adulthood, had 21 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and housed over 30 foster children – a truly remarkable person. I miss her dearly.

Thursday was my Poppa’s 90th birthday – we’d hoped Nan would hold out to see it but she never made it.

Saturday was the anniversary of my birth dad’s death.

A year ago a friend, “Sax”, took his own life. Later this week marks a year since two families from my footy club lost people important to them – a father for one, a daughter for the other.

Last year, while much of this was still fresh, my workplace was also rocked by grief. Tragically, a car carrying four students crashed killing two of the occupants. I hadn’t had a lot to do with these kids but I knew all of them in some way, shape or form. My pain at that stage was not from grieving for the boys who passed away, but from seeing the students I was still responsible for going through a world of hurt.

The anniversary of that crash is just around the corner.

Again, I am concerned for my students. Yep, I get that I’m projecting or whatever, that I’m seeking an escape from my own issues by focusing on the issues of others… it’s what I do best.

I’ve spoken to the school about the possibility of talking to the students at an assembly. It’s complicated, and their hands are tied by departmental red tape, but we’ll offer what we can. I’ll offer what I can too. That’s fairly limited, obviously – all I can really offer is a familiar face with an understanding ear, someone who knows a little something about what they’re going through.

Grief is an individual thing, we all process it in different ways. But grief is also a bitch. It sneaks up on you, hits you when you least expect it.

I’m not worried about how the students will cope while they’re at school. We will have extra staff on hand, trained in counselling. They will have friends and trusted adults they can lean on. My concern is next year when that safety net is taken away. My concern is late at night when they’re laying in bed feeling isolated and alone.

I’ve seen the dark side of grief. One year after my aunty suicided, my uncle took his own life.

I don’t want the people in my care thinking that’s their only option. It cannot be an option for me. I won’t let it be an option for anyone whenever I can prevent it.

There are agencies out there invested in supporting people with mental health issues, including the affects of grief. There are people out there willing and wanting to help.

Don’t suffer in silence.

I’m sorry – an open letter to people who are good at what they do

Being good at your job sucks. It shouldn’t. Being good at what you do should lead to increased job satisfaction; it should make your days easier but it doesn’t.

 

And here comes the first apology. Bits of this blog are going to sound like showboating. I will, at times, talk about myself in a manner that could be perceived to be arrogant. I will lump myself under the category of ‘people who do their job well’ and for that I’m sorry. I hate talking myself up for two reasons – 1. when I’m honest with myself about my work ethic and when I compare myself to other teachers, I don’t rate myself highly. I truly don’t think I’ve been the best educator I could be.   2. teaching isn’t about me. Whatever success my students have is success they have earned. I might be there facilitating and encouraging but they’re the ones doing the work.

Okay… insert awkward pause here.

 

So, the absolute worst part about being good at your job is that you continually get asked to do more and more because of it. I mean, it makes sense. If Ed Sheeran was hanging out at my place I would be asking my four year old to bang out a tune on his mandolin. It makes sense but it’s not fair.

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A number of times throughout my twelve years of teaching I’ve been asked to take another teacher’s challenging class (generally in a trade that sees me lose my best and brightest students) or be on some committee. My colleague has it even worse. He’s always being asked to oversee or lead any tech based initiative at the school. It’s ok for us, we’ve been around the block a few times, but it’s happening more and more to our younger, greener workmates. The pressures of this are ninja-like because you never see them coming. One day your responsibilities don’t stretch beyond the walls of your classroom and the next day you’re swamped. It’s tricky because, in isolation, many of these initiatives and programs have minimal impact on your workload. The problem is that you don’t notice how much you’re being asked to do until all the little increments come to a head.

 

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this well. Let me try to elaborate…

I’m one of two Associate Deans of English at my school (that’s just a fancy way of saying second in charge of the department). We’re a large school too so there’s 20 people teaching English. I’m not responsible for them as line manager or anything like that (although I do lead two of them through the Performance and Development process) but I’m expected to support them and lead them through curriculum changes. With this role I teach one less class than other teachers but two of my four classes are high performing, high profile classes with heavy marking loads. Beyond that, I’m involved in a new program at the school designed to increase student engagement through better content delivery. I’m supporting a year 11 student who has started a poetry group, mentoring ATAR students, tutoring students after school hours and writing exams for an external provider. BUT, I also want a life of my own so I’m playing football and I’m a member of four writing groups. Or at least I was. I’ve dropped one of my writing groups recently because I felt like I was spread too thin and wasn’t able to do the group justice. Likewise, in the past few years, I’ve abandoned some of the projects I was involved in at work and have stopped engaging in opportunities to write for or present to professional bodies.

* it feels like a lot when you put it down on paper (or online) – somewhere in there I hope my wife and kids feel like I give them the attention they deserve.

 

Please, if you haven’t fallen into this trap yet, learn to say no. Know your limits, choose when to engage and when to walk away.

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This leads into the next point. Remember that ninja comment from before? Stress is often invisible until it has almost broken you. You need to speak up.

 

Another downfall of being good at what you do (or even just appearing that way) is that people assume you’re free of problems. That massive department I said I work in has seven people in their second year of teaching and a handful of others whose experience doesn’t stretch far beyond that. Without describing them in any more detail you would assume our office is a madhouse. It’s not. I am blessed to work with a group of educators whose confidence and abilities are more akin to people who have been in the role for many years. Anyone on the outside looking in would struggle to identify our beginning teachers. It is a credit to them and to the people and institutions that helped shape them.

 

But, because they are so good, no one asks them how they’re going. No one checks in to see if they’re okay. I’m complaining about it here but I’m not exempt from this. I don’t ask about their classes or their work load or their job satisfaction. I look at them and all I see are ducks. What I mean is, when I look at them all I see is what’s above the surface – they are calm, cool and collected. Who knows what’s going on under the water where the eyes can’t see? I don’t and I can’t use the fact that we’re a busy school (big too, with roughly 1800 students) as an excuse.

 

So, here it is. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all those people out there who find that their expertise has become a burden. I’m sorry for all those people who keep on keeping on without assistance. More importantly, I apologise to the people in my office who (hopefully) get the support they need but aren’t getting the support they deserve. I apologise for not being proactive in asking about your mental health. And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry that the system doesn’t reward you for being awesome, that it won’t always allow you to be your best.

 

 

 

 

 

NB – while on the topic of apologies… I suck at compliments. I’m sorry to everyone who deserved positive feedback from me and got diddly-squat. My bad.

Once cherubic

I’ve just written a post on mental health. It’s a touchy subject and I’m saddened by the fact that at least two of the younger people in my extended family have self-harmed and attempted suicide. I’m saddened too about the number of young males in my local area who have taken their own lives this year. This, then, is a poem I wrote when my cousin first went down this path…

 

“Once Cherubic”

 

In such a sanitary world

I should be wiped from the face of the Earth.

I’ve caused little but trouble since birth

and I tire of the slaps on the wrist;

perhaps it would be better for all

if I simply ceased to exist.

 

This isn’t a new train of thought

(this engine has seen its fair share of use)

but it’s a busier line than I remembered.

I look around at the other passengers

– so many of us

– so many, so young

when I see a familiar face among the fray.

To gaze upon her soft skin

and eager eyes

hurts more than any blade.

I numb my pain with alcohol;

she number her with drugs

until her liver failed.

Doctors spent days

bringing her back

but she’ll never be the same.

Once cherubic,

she will forever be known now

for her darkness;

nothing will be innocent or easy again.

 

An invisible tattoo

labels her as a suicide risk.

It has become an unshakable

part of her history,

its shadow cast over her future.

 

In my darkest days

a black hole dwelled in the pit of my stomach.

It would drain me,

destroy me –

an emotional void that caused physical pain.

I would plan my demise.

Occasionally I would make my death bed,

set up what I needed,

but I could never follow through.

 

She has taken the first step,

I hope she never takes another.

Invisible Illness

I’ve been holding off on writing this. I pride myself on my way with words. I teach English, I write poetry. Words are my life and yet, sometimes, words aren’t enough. I’ve been holding off on writing this because I’ve been afraid of getting it wrong, of not doing justice to the people it has impacted. In the novella “The Body”, which became the film Stand By Me, Stephen King wrote:

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The reason our language keeps expanding is because there will never be enough words to articulate our feelings nor to explain the world around us. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, most of what we know is defined by what we know it’s not. Don’t believe me? Try explaining what hot is without giving reference to cold, or give a meaning for darkness that doesn’t use the word light; it is part of the reason similes and metaphors exist – because they allow us to explain things we otherwise couldn’t.

 

As I said, I’ve been holding off on writing this. With good reason too, I’m already concerned about how far off topic I’ve gotten and I haven’t really started. This is meant to be about mental health.

 

There’s a stigma attached to mental health that exists only because it’s a largely invisible illness. Many people discredit the resilience of the current generation and, at times, I agree with them. But there is clearly something affecting our youth and, just as clearly, not enough being done to support them.

 

Near where I work there have been 5 suicides in as many weeks.

 

What does it say about us when suicide is the leading killer of Australians aged 15 to 44? We preach ideals of this being ‘The Lucky Country’, of a fair go for all. I don’t think we can still claim that “she’ll be right” when this many people choose death.

 

I’m no stranger to suicide. At a time when I was struggling to find my place in the world and my sense of self-worth was practically non-existent, my uncle and aunty took their own lives. While my mum was crying over their loss my dominant feeling was jealousy – I wished I had their strength. I know now that strength is the wrong word and I have seen the effect their deaths have had on their children but at the time I cursed them for completing actions that I had dreamed of and occasionally prepared for but never attempted.

 

I was in my teens and there was a darkness inside me. There still is. My life is better than I could have ever hoped for and yet I still imagine my own death. I don’t feel the emptiness anymore, however. For much of my life I had struggled to articulate how this felt but a student of mine recently described it as like an apple without its core – it’s still an apple but it lacks that part that gives it life.

 

With that simile I’ll hark back to what I was getting at towards the start of this blog post, that many people lack the words or understanding to comprehend what people with mental illnesses are going through. Another student confided that his relationships with his friends fell apart because he turned to drugs to combat his depression. His friends labelled him as stupid for putting his physical health at risk but they didn’t necessarily understand the ‘need’ behind the drug taking, in that they made this student feel normal – something that had become unfamiliar to him. In our conversation, this student identified that people don’t understand depression because they “can only empathise with the saddest they’ve ever felt”. If you’ve never felt the lows of depression, how can you possibly understand what people are going through?

 

I’m not saying I was ever clinically depressed. I had a low point that was pretty damn low but, for all I know, it could have been just a portion of what others go through. I don’t pretend to understand mental illness. I’m not a doctor. What I am is an empathetic human being with two functional eyes. Any idiot can see that too many people are taking their own lives.

 

I don’t have solutions.

 

But if you have anxiety or depression or any other invisible illness, what I can offer you is advice. The saying ‘time heals all wounds’ is false but time does provide many things. Mental illness is still relatively new, it has only recently been accepted as reality and, as such, the medical industry and the general populous are still coming to grips with what it means and how it may be treated. Time will provide greater understanding and, with that, greater support. Time will also give you a chance to grow. What incapacitates you now may only aggravate or annoy you in future; you will develop strategies to cope and greater resistance to the things that currently trigger a response.

 

Time won’t heal you but it will help if you let it. In the words of Dylan Thomas –

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 

 

Millennials and Mental Health

What sort of society do we live in?

It’s certainly not a dystopia. When you read dystopian fiction the majority of people leaving in those worlds are oblivious to the negativities of their societies; I’m pretty sure the majority of the people living in the world today (especially in my pocket of the world) know that things are far from perfect.

Working in a high school, it’s alarming to see a dramatic increase in the numbers of adolescents with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. In a way, I’m hoping the numbers lie. I’m hoping that things are no different to when I went through high school. I was depressed (self-diagnosed) – I often felt as though I had a black hole in the space between my stomach and chest that threatened to implode my body at any given moment. I’d planned my death a number of times and admit to jealousy when my uncle and aunty had the strength to go through with it. At times, things still get pretty dark.

^ I don’t tell people this. It feels very weird to see it on the screen in front of me.

Anyway, my hope is that modern teenagers just feel more open in revealing their anguish – that the number of my current students on Risk Management plans is no different to the number of students with mental health issues in years past, it’s just our awareness that has improved.

I have these discussions a lot. Why do our kids seem less resilient? Why does stress seem to have such a big impact on today’s youth? How do we get them through it?

I’ve blogged before that I think much of this weakness stems from society’s coddling of our current crop of children. We are unwilling to expose our kids to failure to the point it seems as if we’re afraid of what it will do to them. We don’t score in junior sports, we give out certificates of participation and we modify our education system to reward students for minimal effort.

^ this is a particular gripe for me. If a student (without extenuating circumstances) only completes 75% of a task, why should I mark them as if they’d completed it all? I wouldn’t pay a tradie if he only completed 75% of a job… and if their parents had only completed 75% of ‘the deed’ then I wouldn’t even have to ask this question. Plus, for the most part, the students failing to complete work are the sort of kids who won’t be demonstrating much knowledge or ability in their planning and drafting. (I could say heaps more on this and articulate my ideas better but that’s not the focus of this particular post.)

Ultimately, I think the biggest issue is our desire for immediacy. The rise of technology and the internet has made information, music and movies so much more accessible. Western societies have a love affair with fast food.

What do we want? Stuff!

When do we want it? Now!

Fad diets fail because people want immediate results. In a school context, system initiatives last for 5 years before they are replaced – hardly enough time to measure the outcomes they were targeting.

When I went through my ‘issues’ I knew it would take time. Everything did. We had dial-up internet and a random phone call would disconnect you from the web. In my house, we washed dishes by hand and chopped wood for the fire (no dishwashers or reverse cycle, ducted air-conditioners then). #firstworldproblems

Now, adolescents say they are depressed and they want medication thinking that mental anguish can be extinguished with a single pill. They say they are anxious and when a session with a psych doesn’t help their anxiety increases. Some of them say they are considering committing suicide and then… they’re gone.

My school is celebrating its 10th year this year and we’ve lost two young members of our school community (that I’m aware of) already.

There is no easy fix.

I do my best where I can. I tell ATAR kids that the exams are not the be-all, end-all. I tell them that I failed my TEE and still made it to where I wanted to be – one door closes… break a window and take it if you really want it. I try to make my classes engaging. I want my kids to want to come to English. The course content can be dull and difficult but I can help them through it if they’re there.

I tell my students when I don’t know something. I tell them when I’m down (and sometimes I tell them why). I let them know that I am human.

I make mistakes. I have regrets. I’ve upset a few people along the way and the pain of that guilt still lingers. BUT… I honestly believe that I am making a difference, that for some of these kids I am improving their quality of life.

Life.

It’s a precious thing (clichéd as that may be).

This world would be a better place if we could just love one another, if we could just live and laugh with each other.

Live, laugh, love.

Peace.