It’s been a while. Forgive me. I’m been in school mode and it’s been hectic and tiring and I feel like I don’t quite have enough time for everything. Yet.
It’s also been pretty great, though, in more ways than one. Not only do I have a couple of students who have advocated for themselves in terms of their anxiety, I also, as a whole, have a pretty empathetic and understanding group of young people.
For every unit, we study 20-25 key vocabulary words that show up in the text(and also on standardized tests). For each word, I tell them a story about my life and use the word in it, then they guess what they think it means. I reveal the definition, and then we generate synonyms and antonyms. Most of the time, these stories are funny because I’m not me if I’m not making a joke about something, and sometimes (read: a lot) they’re about lost love or break ups. Sometimes, though shit’s gotta get real, and it did on Friday.
I was teaching them the word subsided, and while lesson planning and trying to think of a story, I just kept returning to my first panic attack. I haven’t told many people in great detail about what they’re like; generally I just say panic attack and let people fill in the rest (which, admittedly, I should stop doing, because it’s become clear to me that people do not fill in the blanks accurately). I sat with it for a while, because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share something so intense with them. Not just for me, but because I don’t know them very well yet and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason. I tried to get away from it for a while. I watched an episode or two (or five) of Golden Girls. I hung out with the dude. But I just kept coming back to it.
I’ve learned the hard way, many times, that if I keep feeling like I need to do or say something, I will get no peace until I’ve accomplished it. So I put one of the pictures of me and the dog from that trip onto the slide(see above), and wrote myself a little reminder that I was going to tell that story.
I didn’t think about it much until the morning I was to teach that lesson. I sat down to look over the powerpoint and decide how I wanted to tell the story, what I wanted to include, and then my class walked in. It’s weird; I felt almost no anxiety about telling them something that I’ve kept pretty close to the vest as far as work is concerned. It was way more important to let them see an adult they interact with every day be open about their challenges than it was to keep it private.
I write a lot that a big part of why there’s still a stigma is because we’re afraid of mental health issues. We associate them with personality flaws and weakness. We don’t treat them the way we treat other illnesses, and we don’t talk about them for fear of being judged by those parameters. And, while I have definitely felt all of those things – and strongly – I also feel the need to step up. I feel the need to be an example of someone who has to consistently work on their mental health and also is funny and competent and capable and compassionate and smart. Now that I’m through the worst of it, I feel like I can really own that it’s part of me, and I can talk about it without it being so close to the surface.
I told them about what physical symptoms I get and the memory of sitting on the bathroom floor. I gave my students the opportunity to ask questions if they wanted to, and while there were a few (“How often does that happen?” “Do you take meds?”) there weren’t as many as I thought there might be. I’m sure some questions are more private, and they’re waiting to ask. But when I described what my panic attacks are like and then asked how many students knew someone who goes through that, fully half of each class raised their hand. HALF. This is why we have to talk about it; because it’s everywhere. And everyone deals with it in some way. And it was evident as I was watching them watch me: some nodded knowingly, some gave me small smiles, some sat up straighter and made more eye contact. They know. And I like to think that they understand, that they have empathy not just for me but for others dealing with similar experiences. Not one student snickered or snorted or made any kind of derisive noise, and I think that is a testament to how prevalent mental health issues are. I bet that almost every single one of them knows or is related to someone who has or has had a mental illness. If fact, I’d be surprised if they didn’t.
I liked hanging out with them all day already, but now I love it. As annoyed as I am when my alarm goes off every morning, when the first student walks into my room, I forget about it. They’ve allowed me to share a big piece of myself with them and they have all, all, been open and accepting. I cannot imagine a better group of people to spend my day with. I’m excited for class in a way I haven’t been in a long time, and honestly, it’s all them.