As I sat on my couch to do some school work at a time when I should not be, because I should be at school, I had a thought…Do I really “teach” mental illness? Allow me to explain my question.
I am ridiculously open with my students about my mental health when I need to be. If there is a student who is struggling emotionally and is diagnosed or is wondering if they should seek intervention, I will tell them that I have biploar disorder, that it’s really hard sometimes, but that there is also hope that it won’t “ruin” my life. I think it’s good for them to know that you can have a mental health issue and still be a functioning member of society.
But then I really begin to wonder just what I’m teaching them in sharing this information.
I’m a pretty together person at school. I’m teacher, mentor, coach, secondary school nurse (I hand out more band-aids than she ever does…and the occasional illegal cough drop!), unpaid athletic trainer (need KT taped? I’m your girl!), auntie, and Mom. I have no children of my own, by choice, so my students are my kids, and I don’t really have an issue with filling these roles. I come to work more than not; I usually only miss for school-related meetings, but today is my sixth sick day this year. Two of these days were for a surgery, a few for god awful vertigo, and today for a slight fever and flu-ish symptops of chills and bone-tired body aches. I’m snuggled in a blanket next to a 90lb fuzzy water bottle…my beloved Mira-pup…and have been alternating an extra blanket and a sherpa fleece hoodie most of the day. But I wonder if sometimes I need to take a day to practice better self care and acknowledge my weaknesses as brought on due to my illness?
Do I create an unrealistic picture for my students by being super-teacher 95 or so percent of the time? Is my high-functioning bipolar disorder a lie in a sense?
I usually don’t pull the “I have bipolar and today sucks!” card as openly as one might think for being comfortable with my disorder. I’ve been excusing my current run of bad days with the “awful headache” reasoning, and while that is 100% true due to weaning of antidepressant two take two for antidepressant three, I don’t think it’s the sole cause of my misery. While if anyone asks, I will acknowledge that the headaches are med related, I don’t acknowledge my bipolar as the root cause. When my bones and joints ache or I’m just dead tired, I excuse it with the arthritis or my patellar-femoral syndrome or with lack of good sleep (often attributed to my bed-hogging, snoring boyfriend…and there is truth to that!), not symptoms of my current bipolar depressive episode. My current episode is a rough one. I have the highest score on the rating scale that I have had since 2010 (months after Matt took his life when I was initially diagnosed), and more days than not it’s been this…
5:15 – alarm goes off
*ten minutes spent pondering if I can really get out of bed and be functional for the day*
5:25 – alarm two, with additional loud puppy barking from Gus, DRAG myself out of bed and make my way downstairs
5:26ish – 6:20ish – Let the pups out; give them food, water & dental biscuits; make the coffee; do random household chores like emptying the dishwasher; eat breakfast & go back upstairs
6:20ish – 6:55ish – “take the pills, Dave” (Jay & I’s play on “eat the sandwich, Dave” from a Wayne Brady and Dave Chapelle skit), shower, dress, text my “child” to make sure she’s awake and coming to school, put on enough make-up to look human, but not pretty…I teach teen boys
6:55ish-7:05ish – get the pup’s Kong filled, water filled, and pop her in the crate; give the dog a treat as she lounges on the couch; lock the back door that Jay leaves from; grab coffee (unless Jas & I are stopping at Dunkin, or I’m making coffee at school); grab all my school junk and head out the door
Once Jas & I get to school it’s usually coach/mom duty until the school day starts at 7:45 and then I’m running until 2:15.
2:15-5:00/5:30 – meetings or coach class & practice or just straight track practice
5:15/5:45ish – take two sibling pairs home from practice
6:00ish-9:30ish – come home to pups and care for them, make dinner and do household chores (because I’m also a housewife!); fall onto couch exhausted & nap; get things ready for tomorrow; go to bed and dread starting all over tomorrow
What I really need in there is more me-time for self care & I just don’t take it. Instead I run myself ragged and hope that the occasional online shopping binge, for clothes that are comfortable (and weight gain/loss flexible) and make me look like I care about dressing for work, will be enough to keep me going. With that in mind, don’t judge my LuLaRoe collection. Buying that is theoretically better than eating as much ice cream as I was just a few months ago…well, and yesterday when I downed a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s with the cookie butter core. I don’t have the energy to properly prep for my upcoming run events. I don’t have the energy to grade during the week. I don’t walk the pups or play with them enough and then I feel guilty. I don’t read as much as I’d like, unless it’s stories on “The Mighty”.
I think there were only two times when I have been wholly authentic about my disorder with my kids in the recent past. They happened within two days of each other a three weeks ago. On one of those days, I had a lunchtime heart-to-heart that ended up with both my sophomore male mentee and me in tears. I pulled it together after that and made it through coach class and coaching. The next day I fell apart 110%. One of my seniors needed to do an interview for the school newspaper, apparently I’m the most popular teacher for teacher profiles, I swear, and in the midst of taking about that I fell apart. He’s a big tough kid, football, basketball, lacrosse, and a hugger, so as it was not odd for me to hold on to his left arm, bury my face in his shoulder and just hide for a minute or two. What was odd was that I then bawled until I just let go and sat on the floor in the hallway to cry. He sat with me, coworkers came out of classrooms to check on me, it was bad. During coach class, I basically sat at my desk with my head down and let my awesome intern deal with the kiddos. Luckily that day I had an appt scheduled with my psychiatrist, and I left at 3:00 to go to that.
My doc switched my meds, because I wasn’t about to stay on the current cocktail if it meant feeling like utter walking-death, and I walked out hoping for the best. That night I hit the couch way earlier and did take-out for dinner. My boyfriend understood (and I felt like shouting “FOR ONCE!”) and I went to bed early. From the next day, up until today, I’ve been struggling along with my false happy face at work (thank you gods of coffee!), walking the black dog of depression with me on a tether, and dealing with the withdrawal from one med and the new side effects from the other. What I have not been struggling with is illuminating my struggles for everyone else; I’m too good at my high-functioning lie for all that. After all, I have been doing it most of my life!
So, if I’m indeed “teaching” mental illness, what am I teaching? That’s something I need to think about. How real is too real? How much hope is too much hope? How can I support self-care if I don’t engage in self care? Teaching is always more questions than answers, I tell my kids that all the time…maybe I shouldn’t expect to have them all.