Alone in a Crowd

(Photo credit: Iguanasan)

This was a letter Chris received from a CM not long ago. We think her story is very compelling and may reflect the experience of other corps members.

It may be that my experience is relatively rare and that most CMs who end up reading this won’t really need to. But my inkling is that there are a lot of first-year CMs out there who feel the way I felt for months, who need to hear that feeling this way is not normal, that it’snot okay, and that they need to get help.

The beginning of the school year held all the usual trials and tribulations. I called my MTLD in tears on Tuesday night of the first week of school—she helped me decide what to do with my kids the next day and reassured me that I wasn’t the only one in that position (I was the third CM that night to call her in a panic). As we settled into the chaos that was that first September, that was the refrain I seemed to hear from all sides: everyone was in the same situation; everyone else was going through the same thing.

As the weeks went by, however, the comfort I initially got from this statement wore off. For one thing, I didn’t see evidence of it. Yes, I often saw other corps members in tears, but they always seemed to be able to express a “but I’ll be okay” feeling immediately afterward that I couldn’t muster. Their tears were stress-induced, not despair-induced. And soon, CMs started talking about changes that had begun to take place in their classrooms. Someone’s kids were finally listening to them; someone else’s principal had noticed their hard work, and they seemed not to feel the aching dread I felt whenever I thought about going into my classroom. I knew they couldn’t be feeling what I was feeling—if they were, how could they be smiling and having fun on the weekends? I felt more and more alone.

My classroom was a mess, literally and figuratively. Every morning, I would wake up absolutely positive that this was all a horrible dream. At 5:00am, I would drag myself into the shower with a gigantic knot in my stomach, drag myself to school digging in my heels every step of the way, and drag myself into the classroom to prep. I became physically sick every morning. Immediately after the last bell, I would lock my classroom door and be utterly brain-dead until I mustered up enough energy head home. Then, slowly, my catatonic state would give way to high-level anxiety as the clock ticked away toward midnight and I was still trying to trudge through planning lessons for the next day. I would literally sit for hours just staring at my blank computer screen, trying to will myself to start planning. I didn’t start working until I had decided to go to bed—at which point I’d throw something together for the next day and finally fall into a restless sleep, only to have it shattered by the reality of the next day.

Once, I got to school and had a major panic attack, triggered by the morning bell. Another day, I felt so nauseous and sick on the way to school that I called in a sub, only to realize on my way home I was fine, and only felt sick because of school. I was absolutely dysfunctional for weeks and weeks. Meanwhile, of course, my depression manifested itself in my classroom, which made me feel worse.

My MTLD was amazingly supportive and gave me countless ideas and things to work on in my classroom—but didn’t realize my classroom was just a symptom of what was going on. And I grew increasingly self-conscious about asking her for help—she was my MTLD, there to support me as a teacher, not to be a shoulder to cry on, and definitely not to provide counseling. Luckily for me and for my kids, she did all of the above and more, providing me with names/numbers of psychiatrists and counselors that accepted my insurance.

When I asked mental health professionals for help, they said I should stop holding myself to such high expectations. When I asked my family and friends at home for help, they asked me why I didn’t just quit. There was nothing I could say to anyone at TFA that would convince them that I was not just an over-achiever being hard on myself. To TFA, the mere fact that I was accepted into Teach For America meant that I was going to succeed. My staff couldn’t see that I was not the person who got accepted to TFA. Whether or not they did, I remember the distinct feeling that nobody in TFA or at my school really took me seriously when I said I was in real trouble.

In December, my therapist suggested I find a doctor and ask for a prescription for antidepressants. I struggled with this for weeks. Yeah, maybe medication would help me feel better on the surface—but I seriously doubted that it could change my thinking. I needed to just GET OVER this “I’m sad and can’t work” thing. I spoke to a former corps member who’d been on antidepressants before her time in the corps and was able to recognize in her first year that she needed to get back on them. She described exactly how I was feeling, and strongly suggested I try it out. So during Christmas break, I made an appointment with a general practitioner and got a prescription. I knew it wouldn’t take effect overnight and that I’d probably go back into my classroom in January with the same awful sick-to-my-stomach dread… but I was doing something.

And… it worked. As I’m sitting here writing this on February 27th, the following questions come to mind: “What is the main point I want Chris’ readers to come away with? When someone searches for “depression” or “mental health” or “therapist” or “suicide” or “I hate being a teacher, get me out of here” (yes, I searched TFAnet for all of these and more) and they come across this blog, what do I want them to find? What do I want them to discover?”

I want you to know that other people search TFAnet for “depression,” too. I want you to read something that convinces you that someone does know what it feels like to be there. Someone knows how you can’t make yourself do anything, and how your good intentions tell you that you know you could be a kick-ass teacher if you could only stop hating every minute of it. I want you to get a really clear picture of me crying after a morning of professional development because of how alone, confused, and just generally awful I felt after listening to so many of my fellow first-year CMs list their successes. One by one, the people around me “saw the light” and started feeling better, and I felt like the only one who couldn’t get herself to put energy into giving her kids a better future.

I want you to get what I couldn’t have understood without talking to several mental health professionals: even though some people are more susceptible to depression, if anyone lets their brain marinate in ‘sad juices’ for long enough, eventually it’s going to stop responding in the right way. I want you to see that though depression medication doesn’t solve everything, it does give you a lifeline to hang onto while you figure out how to solve it yourself. It gets the ‘sad juices’ out of the way so you can come up for air and your brain can remember how to make the chemicals it normally makes to deal with normal ups and downs.

I want to address the TRAPPED feeling I had, between the “you’re being ridiculous; stop holding these ridiculously high expectations!” from mental health people, and the “first year teachers always feel this way, just wait it out and THINK about it different” from TFA. I want you to know there’s a third perspective that acknowledges both your mental healthand your high expectations. I got this perspective from a corps member I happened to meet, and I’ll rattle it off to anyone who’ll listen: CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY THAT YOUR “OCTOBER BLUES” ARE ACTUALLY SOMETHING MORE SERIOUS. And maybe you should be holding your ground when people try to tell you that this is just your “disillusionment” phase, that it’s not as bad as you think it is, or that everyone else feels the same way.

I guess I also want you to see that things went fairly smoothly for me—I got the right medication, at the right dosage, and things improved for me. I want you to understand that it might not go as smoothly for you—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. I have a friend who was on medication before I was for anxiety and depression associated with teaching, and it took him months to find a medication/dosage that started to work. It was so inspiring to watch him slowly emerging, because I really admired the strength it required to see that things were changing, however slowly.

I want you new, possibly depressed CMs to know how proud I am of myself. I was so, so seriously considering quitting—but somehow, I never actually did it. I used to compare myself to other corps members and feel so weak-willed and guilty… but knowing now that I survived the first semester of teaching while clinically depressed makes me feel very strong and very proud of every day I dragged myself out of bed and braved the three hours of nausea before school started, kept on lesson-planning through tears, just kept on goingas a teacher. I felt like I was failing my kids so hard, but now I feel like I fought a battle for them, and came out on top. I came out finally able to work my butt off for their sake.

Advice, commentary, suggestions, interactions, etc. on this blog or in response to emails do not constitute a clinical or counseling relationship with any individual or group. These comments are intended for a general audience, and if you have any specific medical or mental health concerns you should consult an appropriately qualified medical doctor or mental health professional for an appointment. Your MTLD can help connect you with these resources. If you are in the midst of an emergency, call 911. If a situation is urgent, please call the National Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in emotional distress. Your call will be routed to the nearest crisis center to you.

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