I am currently 7 months into my second burnout leave from my job as a high school teacher. It’s easy to pretend that I’m off work because of the pandemic. Some colleagues and social media friends assume that it’s a sabbatical. I’m sure most believe that it has to do with my autistic son being home from school. All of those factors have definitely contributed, but the fact is that it’s me. I’m the problem. And I’m starting to think I won’t get better.
Coincidentally, I am writing this around the same time that my first medical leave started. Back then, I wholeheartedly believed it was temporary. So much so that I planned to be off for the 4 weeks between March break and Easter break because it worked nicely with the timing of the curriculum and it was a neat little period of time for a replacement to pop in and hold down the fort while I healed from the effects of having neglected my mental health for over 30 years. So, as any type A control freak would do, I lesson planned for the weeks I would be off, as well as the lessons I planned on doing upon my return. I was so excited about coming back in April to lead the Autism Awareness campaign I had been planning in my grade and throughout the school. That’s what I do to cope – I plan. I plan and I manage (euphemism for control). I didn’t see it then, but I was so neurotic that I even insisted on interviewing my replacement. Administration humored me. I later found out that my principal knew fully well I wouldn’t be back to finish the school year, but she didn’t have the heart to tell me that. I needed so desperately to believe that things would go according to my cute little plan, which gave me 4 weeks to learn how to cope with a generalized anxiety disorder and recurring major depression. Cute.
About a year and a half into that burnout leave, I received a package from my insurer that intimidated me. I decided I would go back to work at the beginning of the next school year. My therapist, who I had been seeing regularly, didn’t think I was ready, but ultimately it was my doctor’s decision. This doctor has always been supportive and solution oriented. She, too, didn’t think I was ready, but I convinced her that being home was contributing to my depression and she agreed to allow me to return on a part time basis. For a while, it worked. I was back at doing something I was good at. My confidence was boosted with my false eyelashes and nicely coordinated outfits. I made a class full of teenagers do what I wanted them to (for the most part) and sometimes they would humor me and laugh at my jokes. These are all things I miss so desperately now that I’m home without them. As I continued working, I began unraveling again. And so the doctor tried to switch up my cocktail of meds to save me. But I kept spiraling, slipping, drowning…
Then the world shut down because of the pandemic and I could no longer distract myself with going to work every day. Fast forward a few (very dramatic) months and the prospect of teaching in person during a pandemic scared the shit out of me. My anxiety completely took over. I would have nightmares about killing my parents (who live with us) and children because I brought the virus home. Granted, I’m sure most of my colleagues felt the same and continue to do so, but the fact is that the only way I knew how to function in the past few years was by viewing my job as my sanctuary. In my classroom and in front of my coworkers, I was poised and in control – a far cry from what was going on beneath the surface. Knowing that the school environment in the context of the pandemic was high stress and bursting with anxiety, my doctor and I both agreed that it was best I stay away.
This time around, though, I can’t fathom ever feeling well enough to be that poised and in control person every day. With some distance, I realize how much that facade wore me down, despite me thinking that it was holding me up. It could be because the cognitive distortions of my anxiety disorder are making it seem much more unsurmoutable and catastrophic than it is. But how can I mask the brain fog well enough to sound eloquent and educated when I can barely complete simple every day tasks? How can I ignore the fact that, despite all the medication and work I have done on myself, the cycle keeps repeating itself and I find myse…
I’m not going to go there. I will not list all the hardship and dark moments.
The fact is that it’s hard to break cycles. But I can do hard things.
I have done, and will continue to do hard things.
It knocks the life out of me, but it gets done. I am not as strong as people on my social media feed perceive me to be. At least not strong in the conventional sense of the word. Brave, maybe. I read something somewhere once and it stuck with me. I repeat it to my daughter all the time. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid – it means you feel the fear and go forward anyway.
So even though it’s scary as hell to think I may not ever “get better” and I don’t have a plan for how the next year will look like, I choose to go forward.
As the wise Anna said in Frozen 2, I’ll…
“Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing”