Friday, May 13, 2011

Surviving On My Own Terms

Today, I mostly stared into space. I have things to do, I just didn't do them. And then, while rummaging through a box, looking for some spare printer paper, I found a holy card, given to me at a funeral at the beginning of the school year.

I met this woman only once or twice. Our only connections were these: I had taught her son at St. Dympnha's for a quarter, when his regular English teacher was on maternity leave, and we had met in a few planning meeting at St. Attracta's, where I went to work this fall, and she was also employed.

She killed herself the night before school began. It seems ridiculous to say that perhaps my tenure at St. Attracta was cursed--it seems like a pathetic attempt to make drama out of someone else's tragedy--but I will remember always meeting the principal at the door of that first school day, and the words tumbling out of her mouth. I didn't remember who this woman was, at first. I was surrounded by her grieving friends, people who had worked with her for many years. I was responsible for children who'd known her their whole lives.

I have no idea, finally, exactly what pushed her past breaking. She'd struggled with depression for years, a bad, deep, depression that put her in the hospital at one point. It seemed terrifying to me that she did it the night before school started. Was it an attempt not to start the school year, not to begin anything she didn't plan to finish? Was it coincidence? Was the thought of being surrounded by the children again too much? She loved her job, I was told. The kids said they could see when the depression began to get the better of her...she stopped laughing, she stopped playing with them on the playground.

The first year I taught, I was so overwhelmed that I had no idea what was going on around me, but I did notice in February when I got an e-mail saying that one of the eighth-grade English teachers was taking the rest of the year off for health reasons. I barely knew this woman. I assumed she was getting cancer treatment, or going for back surgery. It was the next year that I learned that a combination of terrible job circumstances forced on her by the administration had pushed her depression and other heath issues to the point that, on Valentines' Day, she ended up in a locked psychiatric ward. A forty-year teacher, this woman. An acknowledged giant at what she did.

She came back in the fall to finish off her last year before retirement, and when people asked how she was, at the staff meeting in the fall, she smiled and said, "I'm on three very powerful psychoactive medications, thank you, so I feel fine."

This last winter I was so deep under the depression that I stopped eating. I have never stopped eating in all my life. I lost fifteen pounds. I had them to spare, but it was deeply frightening. I eat when I'm sad, I don't fast. I was so deeply stressed that I was responding to stress in ways I had never done before.

And I thought of them, the woman who killed herself, the woman who was hospitalized.

I told everyone, and laughed, that I quit because I didn't want to end up in the psych ward like my old coworker. But it was deeper than that. I was afraid I wouldn't be hospitalized, that I wouldn't break, that I would become sicker and sicker but never let go of the rope, never give up, and let my self-loathing take over from the inside out, while I kept going to school every day, and pretending I could get the situation under control.

I was pretty sure that something horrifying would happen if I tried to do that until summer.

It's really hard for me to remember how important it was to let go, to let myself find a place to hide and heal. I'm scrabbling for work right now, and my finances are just a mess. It's easy to tell myself that I should never have left a perfectly good job. (Perfectly good=pays the rent).

But I was in serious emotional and physical danger, and I could not stay. I had to start over. I had to be serious about my own survival.

The woman who killed herself left behind a sixteen year old son, one of the best kids I have ever met.

The woman who had the breakdown retired to the Russian River with her husband and took up flyfishing.

And I am going to go on to the next thing, and thank God for the strength to get myself out of harm's way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quiting when you did shows amazing strength!
sara g