My panic attack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Humans have this capacity to carry on in horrible situations for unlimited quantities of time unless something forces them to stop. I was unhappy in my job, I was working 70 hours a week, I was exhausted, I was disillusioned and seriously questioning whether the things I was killing myself to do were of any use to anyone.
This would have continued indefinitely if my body hadn’t said enough is enough. My breathing went wrong, I was sent to hospital, I was told that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the physical damage long-term stress and overwork can do, that I needed a long rest and that I probably need to change my life in some way.
My first month off sick was spent sleeping, crying and raging about the fact that I’d spent nearly 15 years working to get out of the travelling scene and into the ‘real’ world and overcoming all sorts of mental barriers to become the professional teacher that I am now; only to find out that I am too much of a wimp to cope with the demands of the job. I had so much to offer but the education machine had smushed me into a little weeping pulp.
In my second month off sick, in between the crying and sleeping, the world-outside-work began to edge its way back in to my life. It was a complete revelation. I found I could properly listen when spouse spoke for the first time in years – there was real space in my head for his problems and concerns. I was able to cook him meals occasionally because I was no longer home much later than him in the evenings. I could watch films with son 2 because I wasn’t marking or lesson planning. I could see my parents because I didn’t have to spend all Sunday working. I could go out in the evenings. I began to paint and draw again for the first time in years. I was home when the shops were open so I could buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. I could stay up late editing my photographs. I could read whole books which were not work related. I had time to write, and this blog took off. I started to make things again. If someone dropped in unexpectedly for a visit I no longer panicked. I could spend a whole afternoon drinking tea and chatting without that low-level depressing knowledge that I’d now have to stay up extra late to catch up on the work I should have been doing. And most of all, I had time to think about what I want from life. And to realise that living like I had been was no way to live.
A friend of mine once explained how it was she had remained in a horrifically abusive relationship with a mentally ill man for so long before escaping. What sticks in my mind is how she had started seeing the world from the point of view of her abuser. She had begun to share his delusions and feel the same paranoia as he did, losing confidence in her own opinions, and constantly doubting her own judgement. She ended up believing the same things he did, and sharing his warped value system, while at the same time knowing it was all insane. This, I realised, is how I had been working in education (minus the cruelty). The more the management earnestly promoted new impossible and/or contradictory and/or alien ways of doing things, the more I found myself in a state of rampant cognitive dissonance – questioning the system, my own responses to the system and wondering if it was me or it that was insane. I was trying very hard to make it work because I thought I loved it, but in the end I realised it didn’t love me, and it took a hospital visit to make me realise it was over.
In this third month of my being-off-sick I’ve started recovering. I feel as though the clockwork of my brain has been oiled and rewound. I am inspired again. All the clutter and worry of A Level teaching has finally cleared out and space has been made for new ideas. I have a new job for January thanks to a human/fairy godmother (much less money and security, but real purpose again and opportunities for creativity) and I have two new ideas for exciting things to do with my life on top of that.
Just looking at these images and thinking about what they represent fills me with the kind of inspiration and gut wrenching happiness I haven’t felt in a very long time. So thank you panic attack. Thank you very, very much for awakening my brain.