There are many things that I love about my job as a teacher. Among these things is the fact that no two days are the same, that I get to interact with so many different people from so many diverse backgrounds and ages, and that I have the opportunity to share what I know and love in front of an audience.
But on the flip side, as you all know by now, the depression demons that haunt me tend to rear their ugly heads at the worst and most inopportune times. When I become depressed (which has unfortunately been occurring quite a bit in these past few weeks), it is beyond paralyzing. It is downright crippling. When I am having an off day at work, these very same things that I once loved about my profession work against me, like my worst enemy.
Teaching is a job that is generally made for extroverts. While I’m not a classic case of an introvert, I am not gregarious or a social butterfly. There are times I’d much rather avoid people altogether. I’d probably honestly have to classify myself as an ambivert – a bit of each, and sometimes just my own random, ad hoc category, not otherwise specified. I have often said that teaching is not unlike doing live theater, but with about five or six acts a day, five days a week. But in this case, I have no understudy.
Recently, I have fallen into the self-destructive habit of making myself sick sometimes before I start my classes every morning. Seriously. Every. Single. Morning. When I wake up, sometimes it is all I can do to just barely hold it together. On days like these, it’s not acting so much as it is pure pantomime. I want to at least attempt to keep up the pretense for my students and colleagues alike, but some days are harder than others. I can’t help but wonder what I must look like through their eyes, if they can see past the quirkiness and smiles.
Something is clearly amiss, but for right now, in this moment, my #1 priority is to simply continue with my routine, with my job, with my livelihood. After all, the show must go on, no?
I reiterate, I love to teach, but some days, I feel like I’d be better suited for a traditional and solitary cubicle/desk job, where I have the option to hide behind a computer if need be.
Yet I feel that I can’t possibly be the only teacher out there who suffers from depression. I simply can’t be alone in the sense of having a very “visible” job while battling a mental illness. Nevertheless, depression and other mood disorders remain taboo, a sign of weakness, a “choice.”
Since the time that I started teaching classes, about twelve years ago now, I have finally been able to learn some tricks to help me get through teaching while depressed and/or anxious. If I ever have the opportunity to mentor a budding educator who suffers the way that I do, I would surely have a lot to say.
I suppose that I would advise taking measures, however small, to work toward preventing these episodes. One example of this that has worked for me to an extent is practicing deep breathing techniques (before, during, or after). When I find myself dizzy or lightheaded or short of breath for psychosomatic reasons, it’s a strategy that has more than served its purpose.
Sometimes when you’re in front of an audience of squirrelly, mischievous, eye-rolling students, you just have to pretend that you are really doing theater. Middle schoolers are a tough crowd to win over, no doubt, but even if I have to get into character and feign enthusiasm for something as mundane as English grammar (“You guys! The second conditional is my FAVORITE conditional!”), I at least build sufficient momentum to be caught up enough in the moment to just get through it until I class is over. Pretend that my class is a reality show, find spontaneous, humorous moments, whatever. Do I act exaggeratedly like a John Keating or a Dewey Finn on crack? Absolutely. It’s all part of the act. As soon as they leave the room, however, I can go from a jovial, animated comedian to a collapsed, deflated caricature of myself in about eight seconds. It’s exhausting, yes, but I have to get through my depression somehow.
I would also ask a person in my situation to look for a mantra, something to quietly repeat to yourself, to help get you through even just one more minute without breaking down. However, it must be something believable, nothing too “pie in the sky” or Pollyanna-esque (like, “I am in charge of how I feel today, and I am choosing happiness,” the thought of which sends me into a frustrated shame-spiral). I have several quotations that come to mind in trying times, but one of the most effective ones has simply been, “Just keep swimming.”
It is considered a cardinal sin to cry in front of your students. My kids are can sometimes be bonkers in class, and when I am experiencing a hard day, I know that I cannot afford to slip up. In all of my classes, I have a “popsicle stick” system for drawing their names at random to call on them, for forming groups, and so on. I am extremely fortunate because my middle school classroom is in a prime location. Apart from being close to the cafeteria (meaning I can beat the lunch line rush), it is also mere feet from the women’s faculty restroom. If it comes to the point where it’s either fight or flight time, I choose a name from the popsicle stick bag, dub them the “Junior Teacher” for 2 minutes, and am normally able to make a hasty escape to the bathroom to have a brief but powerfully helpful cry. I splash water on my face, put my hair down out of the bun I normally keep it in to shield as much the redness from crying a possible, and am more or less able to carry on until the bell rings.
It’s not to say that all of my students are little hell raisers. Far from it. Quite a few are delightful, thoughtful, and honestly a pleasure to teach. The flip side is that they are also super perceptive when Ms. White isn’t “well.” Keeping this in mind, I keep a Google doc folder entitled, “Teacher Brag Book,” where I keep scanned and photographed notes and pictures that my students have created or written for me over the years. When I most need them, they remind me of why I am doing this job to begin with, giving me the extra push that I need to keep going.
If all else fails, I allow myself one (or sometimes two) mental health days off per school year. I know that there are many people who would frown upon this, but the fact is, I’m not playing hooky or having a Ferris Bueller experience. I’m just trying to unscramble my marbles, recover, and decompress. It may be just one work day, but to me, it makes a substantial difference in my ability to continue to do my job and do it well.
While the advice above is no substitution for seeking real help, and while they are not completely foolproof, it’s worth giving any of them a shot, anything just to get through another day, another hour, another class. There’s no one single, cookbook recipe for overcoming this particular type of adversity, but for those of us who do not wish to jeopardize our jobs, having a bag of tricks to fall back on is like having a small stash of petty cash that we keep in a desk drawer for an emergency situation: it’s not always enough, but hell, something is better than nothing. The show must go on.
In the meantime…
Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…