Sunday, 10 April 2011

On Not Managing It

Well, dear blog readers, I had gone. And now I’m back. Why? What has happened? And where do I go from here? And, furthermore, how long will it take me to write this blog post, since my brain is already refusing to play along and I’m only on the first paragraph?

So, why AM I back, and why have I reopened this blog, which I had closed down in preparation for my return to schoolteaching? What HAS happened?

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, things didn’t go exactly as planned with my return to work. And, as you may also have surmised from the reopening of this blog, I’m not currently in the world of the classroom.

Things started well enough. I’d done as much preparation as I could – spent days at home working as hard as possible, stretching myself, getting up early, giving up on the afternoon snooze that I knew I wouldn’t be able to have when I went back to work, trying to get the housework, the internet stuff, my maths degree, and so on up to date so I wouldn’t have to worry about them for the first week or so I was in school. I’d spent my last lot of benefits on buying respectable clothes to wear to work (the school has a fairly strict dress code) and had even been into school to try to get hold of the resources I would need when I started back to work properly.

However, as we have learnt before, preparation alone is often not enough. The Wonderspouse reminded me of the time we tried to do the Yorkshire 3-Peaks Challenge. We’d walked every weekend for months beforehand. We’d climbed really quite steep hills, we’d made sure our boots were comfortable, we’d gradually increased the distance we walked, and we felt like we’d done everything possible to ensure that we’d be able to do the walk. But, when the time came to do the walk, we failed. Despite all the training we’d done, we simply weren’t fit enough – we were much fitter than we had been, but nowhere near fit enough for the challenge. Furthermore, I’d had terrible anxiety problems for about a week beforehand and was stressed up to my ears by the time the day itself arrived. Added to this, the weather was TERRIBLE, and we were walking with some members of my family who were much fitter than us – as they strode off into the distance while we struggled, we felt more and more hopeless as we realized that the challenge was simply way beyond our capabilities, preparation or no preparation.

And something similar happened when I went back to work 3 weeks ago. Despite all the preparation I’d done, and despite being very very well compared to how I was throughout 2009 and 2010, when I then tried to work, full-time, alongside non-disabled people who were fit, young and strong, I couldn’t do it.

The Wonderspouse and I call this the “mobile to toilet” effect. Shortly after we were married he spent several days in hospital suffering with pleurisy. He was the only patient on his ward who was “mobile to toilet”, and therefore thought he was really rather well when they discharged him. Consequently, he got off his sofa at home and tried to walk normally to the kitchen to collect something – I had to pick him up from where he’d collapsed on the kitchen floor. How well one is depends rather strongly on who one compares oneself with.

So, as soon as I tried to integrate myself into the fully-able world, I realized that I was not as well as I thought I was. Yes, of course schoolteaching was going to be hard work – and the sort of schools that I have worked in (always inner-city, with deprived kids, and “challenges”) are particularly hard work. I expected to be sworn at, to have abuse, and to need to engage the kids and learn their names and so on before I could make real progress with them. I expected learning the new technologies that have entered teaching since I was last in the classroom to present further challenges to me and I expected to feel somewhat out of my depth for a while. I also expected to be tired and to be unable to do anything much out of school time for the first few weeks.

Ironically, although the school was rough in many ways, and there were things that I found tricky to deal with (the idea of playing “getting to know you” games with the students is rather grim for me – it’s simply not the way I work and I couldn’t hope to do it with anything like enough enthusiasm as I’m not THAT good an actress), I actually really enjoyed the work that I did manage to do (I even started to get my year 9 class on side and taught them a really good lesson) but what REALLY floored me was the exhaustion.

First, there was simple physical exhaustion. The school does not have teacher desks or chairs. Teachers are expected to work standing up and to circulate round the classroom, engaging with the pupils. Consequently, I was standing up nearly all day. When I got home on the first evening my legs, feet and back HURT. A LOT. By the time of the second evening I could hardly walk or stand up. The Wonderspouse and I had tickets to go and see Elbow, which we had to throw in the bin as I was simply too exhausted to go. Furthermore, just the distances I was walking around the school all day were bigger than anything I’d been doing on a long-term basis for several years. I simply wasn’t physically fit enough – even though, as with the 3-Peaks Challenge, I was much fitter than I had been previously.

Secondly I was away from home for hours at a time. In order to take my medication, have breakfast an hour later (as is necessary), then drive the distance to work and get there at a reasonable time, we had to set the alarm for 5.15 am. In order for me to get the amount of sleep on which my body functions best I would have had to go to bed before supper each work night! I thought I’d get used to living with less sleep and I tried to work through it, but by Wednesday morning I was already exhausted and in tears on the way to work in the car, already desperate for some sleep.

Thirdly, I didn’t have enough time on my own. In a Garbo-esque way “I vont to be alone”! In fact, I do need quite a lot of time on my own. One of the reasons the Wonderspouse and I work well as a couple is that we give each other a lot of space and don’t put great demands on each other. When I am with other people I am ALWAYS, to some extent, acting. I’m not a natural “people person” and the acting I have to do to fit into the social world is, for me, utterly exhausting. Not having the time to take off my “public persona” and just relax was more of a strain than I anticipated it would be.

However, I’m no quitter. I didn’t want to back out as soon as things got tough, and I’d undertaken to work for the last 3 weeks of term before the Easter holidays. So I negotiated a couple of days when I wouldn’t be in for the 2 weeks leading up to the holidays and finished the week that I’d already started. When I felt tired, I just used willpower to get me through. I went to work, ate supper, slept, got up, and went to work again.

Towards the end of the week, things started to unravel though. I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to do this job in the 24 hours that there are in the day. I was on a light timetable, without duties, and without a tutor group, yet I STILL couldn’t manage to write a lesson plan or do adequate preparation. It didn’t help that, for example, it took me 20 minutes to work out how to get the SMART board working, or that I was using a SIMS system for taking registers and consistently pressed the wrong buttons (the challenges of the new technologies) and that I was finding it difficult to concentrate on new systems while also having to cope with the pains in my legs caused by standing up all day. Furthermore, since I’d started earlier than originally scheduled, I didn’t even have a key to get into the classroom until 10 minutes before my first lesson. I didn’t have class lists until my computer was properly set up half way through the first afternoon, and I didn’t get a board pen until around the same time. Coping with all this while wearing uncomfortable clothes, dealing with unruly teenagers, and getting more and more tired as the week went on just became impossible. When I wasn’t actually teaching a lesson I sat in the empty classroom staring at the wall trying to get my head together – although, as was pointed out to me, we were not supposed to sit in classrooms during our non-contact time – we were supposed to be working out in the corridor and keeping an eye on kids who might not be where there should be.

Since I couldn’t do adequate preparation within the school day, my only option would be to do it at home. However, once home I was hardly even capable of eating I was so exhausted. My Mum wondered whether I could “drop everything else” to manage to do the job. I already had. I didn’t even eat properly, drink enough water, or wash any clothes, let alone do accounts, buy food, take exercise, or do anything like playing my viola or doing any of the other things that usually characterize my life.

And it was only going to get worse. Once I was fully installed with duty (which would take up breaks and lunchtimes) and had a tutor group and a full timetable, I’d need to do even more.

I survived the Saturday after my full week (possibly buoyed up by Oxford’s triumph in the Boat Race) then, on Sunday morning, I went into meltdown. The “recovered” me, that had been around for all of January and February this year had gone, and my head started to go wrong again. The Wonderspouse had to e-mail school to tell them I wouldn’t be in on the Monday morning.

And so it has been left. I am due to start on contract with the school just after Easter. They arranged for me to go in for a meeting last week, but I wasn’t well enough to go in. I don’t know what is going to happen. I received a “health questionnaire” through the post a couple of days ago – I suspect they’ll send me for some sort of medical once I return it (I seem to have to fill in something on almost every page) and possibly they’ll rescind the job offer on the basis of me failing the medical. This seems likely on the showing of the last few weeks. I COULD see whether I could negotiate with them to work part-time – I could probably manage one, or at most two, days per week. However, with maths it’s difficult – each group has 4 maths lessons per week, spread throughout the week – someone who can only appear from time to time isn’t that much use from a “consistency” point of view. And, in any case, being part of a team where everyone else is full-time and where doing the job really means doing the “whole job” may not actually work very well.

So, I now need to get well enough to sort all this chaos out, since I’m now back where I was around last November health-wise. I’m meeting with an advisor at the Mental Health Centre this coming week – since I’m a good girl I came off benefits the day before I started work. I still haven’t been paid for that work, and have therefore had no income for 3 weeks now. I don’t have a GP appointment to get any sort of Medical Certificate until the week after because there weren’t any appointments. It’s all rather a mess.

In the middle of all this I’m trying to get myself well again – really I need another 3 months of rest, home, exercise and so on. I’ve dug out my “relapse prevention plan” from my psychiatrist and CPN. It tells me that I should eat and drink properly, play music regularly, take exercise, get plenty of rest etc etc etc. These are all things I can’t do when I’m working – I simply don’t have that much energy. I’m JUST about beginning to be able to think about these things now (and, in fact, one reason I’m writing this blog post is to try to get my head straight about it all as well as trying to get everyone up to date about what has actually happened).

And I’m also faced with a dilemma. Do I TRY to get back to school somehow – part-time, graded return, workplace adjustments (the DDA says I can ask for them) and so on, or do I walk away and try to find something else to do? A bit of me wants to try to make a success of the school job, a job I could do relatively easily if it weren’t for my bonkersness (or mental health disability as the powers-that-be would say).

Or should I leave that job (on grounds of ill health), spend a few months trying to get my strength back, and try for another teaching job? It is, after all, the best paid work I could get, and I have HUGE debts that are causing stress from another direction. People have suggested that independent schools might be easier, although I’m not really suited to independent schools – the confidence the students has scares me a bit, I have an accent that marks me out as a state sector product, and when I’ve applied for independent sector jobs in the past I’ve never been successful.

Or should I give up on teaching and do something else completely. Maybe private tuition, or some other work. It’s not easy to know what – my medics have told me I shouldn’t go back to the “office junior envelope stuffing” jobs because doing such jobs for years has eroded my self-esteem so much. I had JUST about got myself to a position where I felt confident enough to go back to work when I returned to school – that confidence is now gone again and I need to rebuild it.

BUT, my redundancy money from my last job is run out, so I can’t spent the next 3 months recovering to the level I was at before I returned to work or get better enough and regain enough confidence to have another go. I HAVE to do something in the meantime. The situation is bad – my current income doesn’t even cover my debt repayments, let alone food, petrol, council tax, vet bills, or anything else. Fortunately the Wonderspouse’s salary pays the rent and has a bit left over, but there’s still a massive shortfall – when they calculate benefits entitlement they look at income, not expenditure – my massive debts are not part of the equation, even though many of them were generated when I was too ill to work in the past but unaware that I could claim benefits at the time.

The teaching job was meant to solve all these problems, but it turns out I am simply not capable of doing it and maintaining my health. Every time I think about what to do I end up going round in circles. The only way I’ve found so far of not going utterly stark-staring bonkers is simply to stop thinking about it and hope that “something will come up”! When it gets really bad I self-medicate with alcohol (bought from Waitrose, since my John Lewis card is the last remaining source of credit when everything else has run out – wonder whether I can persuade the council tax people to accept it?)!!!

So, dear readers (if there’s anyone still reading at this stage, which I rather doubt) this is how life goes at the moment. For the whole of my childhood it was assumed that I’d get on well in the world because I was bright and had a talent for passing exams. I told my liaison officer last week that I’d always been told that if I was bright (I was), kept my nose clean (I do, pretty much) and worked hard (I certainly do) then I’d be successful in life. Her response was “Yes, but that was before Bipolar Disorder was factored into the equation”.

There is no conclusion to this post at the moment – I’m just going to have to stop writing because it’s already much too long. I can, however, answer the last question I asked at the top of this post – it’s taken about 3 days to write – I started it on Friday morning and it’s now Sunday evening!

If you want a shorter version, then you could always check out the pome I’ve written on the subject – it may be more entertaining than this post too!


  1. Oh dear, I'm really sorry things have not been easy for you. x

  2. sending you hugs luvvie, I know that's not much consolation but I'm not sure what else to offer. Really hope you can find a solution, and one that protects you aswell as helps out financially. much love xxx

  3. I say that it's cruel and unusual punishment to make teachers stand up all day. What are they thinking? Take care of yourself and eventually you'll get to the other side of this. We'll all be cheering for you. xxxx

  4. We spend all our time climbing to the top of the ladder ,only to realize it is against the wrong wall.Stop andlook around,get another job doing something you love,you have given teaching your best shot and now its time to let it go.My partner also has bipolar,has had it since he was 24.Stress is deadly so we live a very smple but happy life.,and l wish you the same.