At the beginning of my sick leave, I would avoid public areas for fear of being seen by one of my colleagues. I felt guilty for being well enough to go to the mall, but not well enough to work. I was afraid of being judged… so I wouldn’t put eyeliner or bronzer, fearing that if I looked too good they’d think I was a fraud, but if I would forgo the concealer and mascara altogether, everyone else whose path I crossed would think I was stepping off the set of Walking Dead (which I have never actually seen btw). I would wake up every morning asking myself if I would have been okay to teach, and if I was in fact a fraud.
I wasn’t at my lowest when I stopped working. I had gotten back to a point where I was able to recognize that if I continued that way, I would never make it to 40. I had kept working through my lowest point. In fact, I kept doing EVERYTHING while I was at my lowest, and I am still paying for that. Adrenaline, high levels of cortisol, autopilot, coffee, and meds go a long way. What got me through those days was work. It was putting a face on every morning and going to do something I was good at, while the rest of my world at home fell apart. At that time I felt like, despite not being a good enough wife, daughter, friend, mother, therapist, nurturer, etc… at least I was a good teacher. I couldn’t control my children, but I had control in the classroom. The students I taught that year when they were in 8th grade just had their last day ever of high school.
Last night I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague who is on the prom committee. In the 13 years I have taught at this school, I’ve never ever felt compelled to go to prom, because by the time they graduate, the students usually forget about the English teacher who did a mediocre job at getting them to speak a second (or third) language three years prior. This is the first year that I wanted to be there, because those monsters hold such a special place in my heart. They lifted me up when I was crashing, and they had no idea. They changed me just as much as my son did… because they molded me into a more human teacher. I cried with them and I may have even said a few inappropriate words to them during the classes when, for the first time in my Type-A career, I said “to hell with the lesson plan” and sat on the desk and spoke with them as people. We were going through hard times together, and that gave me purpose. Seeing them on prom would have been a celebration of not only their success, but of my own journey. But I am not allowed to go. Because I am on sick leave, and if I am not well enough to work, I shouldn’t be well enough to go to a party, apparently.
I know that it’s more complicated than that. I know that administration supports me and my struggles. I also know that they need to protect themselves from the judging eyes who would tear me apart if I showed up with my eyelash extensions, red lipstick and glammed up hair. If that one night, I did exactly what I had done every day I taught those kids, which is to show up and give the best of myself, I would be judged. I get it. Despite mental health awareness initiatives, most people don’t understand how you can simultaneously fight debilitating demons and yet paint a face on and walk into a room radiating with your head held high. They don’t know how many days you will spend lying in the dark afterwards to recuperate, and they don’t know how good it feels to feel alive while you’re rocking it, albeit for a fleeting moment. So I am not bitter because I am not allowed to see my little monsters on their prom… and instead, I did my hair today and put real clothes on and strutted into my workplace with my head high and asked for a few minutes of class time, on their last day of school, to speak to those students from my heart. I stood there bravely as I bawled my eyes out in front of them. Brave, because I was terrified. I tell my daughter all the time that being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, but it means you do it despite your fear.
I dodged most of my colleagues, because, honestly, I couldn’t face them. I left with a heavy heart, but my soul felt lighter and brighter. Those kids will face the real world with the knowledge that although some people are fighting a battle you have no clue about, you can be their guiding light just by being yourself. That sometimes, what gets you through the hardest days is just showing up. That it’s okay to crash. That it takes bravery to say what you feel, and that those who judge you may win the fight at the moment, but the battle is yours to slay.