One of the biggest struggles I’ve had with this whole anxiety thing is figuring out how to handle it at work. While this is tough for everyone, my job as a teacher has some very specific challenges that make dealing with anxiety really difficult. It’s my responsibility to manage and guide the behavior or 30-some students at a time. I can’t leave the room when I want to. I have to be extremely strict about when and how much I eat and drink. I have to balance building relationships with my colleagues and alone time during my very limited breaks. And I have to be attuned to each of my students: what’s their mood, what’s the best way to manage them when they’re in that mood, always always always be the adult in the room.
This is hard on a normal day. It’s extremely difficult on an anxious day. Teaching requires me to put my personal issues aside – both with the students and otherwise – at almost every second. I can’t stop what I’m doing and belly breathe for five minutes. I can’t leave the classroom to go vomit if I need to. I can’t tell them to leave me alone. I have to be available and I have to actually pay attention.
I struggled with this so much when my panic attacks started. I’ve had more than a few mornings where I’ve been getting ready and just couldn’t do it. I’ve spent lunch periods in the dark crying just trying to get through the day. I’ve gone home early. It has not been pretty.
The actual physical symptoms are really hard, but the biggest challenge has been figuring out how to deal with this in my particular work environment. When it started, I really didn’t want anyone to know. I never wanted my students to see me break, I didn’t want anyone to know I was in therapy (because let’s be real, teachers DO gossip. I don’t, but it makes it hard to tell people things and trust that they will keep it private), and I definitely did not want the administration to know what I was dealing with. Part of this was me just being private, but a big part of it was fed by instances of stigma that I had personally experienced. Why would I ever want to share with these people what I was going through, when it was so clear what their reaction would be? It’s important to me to always be seen as a has-their-shit-together-can-handle-anything type of person, and admitting to the anxiety really did not fit that, especially because at that time I was still feeling like something was wrong with me for not being able to control it. (See, it is all about control.)
Therapy really helped me with this a lot. We talked through why I didn’t want to share this with people, what I was afraid of. We talked about who I could share it with, and why I would do that. We talked through worst case scenarios. We talked best case scenarios. We talked about everything. And I realized, as I’ve realized before, that the stigma exists because we don’t speak up. We don’t show people that it’s possible to be dealing with a mental health issue and to also be a competent, complex person. As a result, they rely on portrayals in the media (which are almost always negative, except for the awesomeness of Kimmy Schmidt and Chris Traeger), and thus the cycle continues. I realized that it was my responsibility to the mental health community to talk about what I was going through and to advocate for us.
I started to slowly tell coworkers(big thanks to the Gator, who is the world’s best work husband), and shared with my assistant principal what was happening with me. I even shared it with my students, which is not something I ever thought I would do. And you know what? It was not the difficult, perspective-changing, judgey experience I thought it would be. I found out that some of my coworkers have experienced something similar, whether they went through it themselves or someone they’re close to is dealing with it. And some of my students shared their experiences with me. After telling my students about it, the next time I was feeling anxious at work, they were able to recognize what was going on with me and ask how they could help. I was floored.
Everything at work changed after that. Not only did I feel comfortable speaking up about what was going on with me, but I knew I had a community of supporters around me that I didn’t need to hide this from anymore. Because I was no longer hiding, I also wasn’t fighting what was happening, and so I wasn’t making it worse. I had already accepted anxiety in my personal life, and now I could start to do that at work, too. The symptoms lessened, and I learned how to teach while feeling anxious.
This, more than anything, is my takeaway from this whole experience: you can’t fully start to recover unless you accept anxiety’s place in every part of your life. And how you do that is whatever works for you; but you have to allow room for it in every environment you’re a part of, because otherwise you’re still fighting it, and you’re still treating it like it’s a flaw of yours. It’s not. It’s just a thing that happens to you because your brain is different. Speaking about what’s happening to you helps to break down the stigma because you’re demonstrating that. And that looks different for each of us, but it’s important to do it not only for our community and to combat stigma, but for ourselves. Speaking about mental health helps make room for it. It helps us and others accept it. And ultimately, that’s what helps us heal.