-by Susan White-
I will never forget the sound I heard from within my administrator’s office; someone was in there having a heated argument with him. I was in shock to hear what sounded like a ticking time bomb. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That is until I stepped back into the moment and realized that someone was me. Then, I was terrified. Who was this person in this argument? I have never behaved in that manner before. I remember shaking as I tried to hold back the tears, and when I got home, I had a meltdown. This, my friends, is a classic example of the dangers of not taking care of oneself, of not taking care of my social-emotional needs. Tick tock. I ignored the warning signs. Would you recognize them before it was too late?
It was seven months prior to this incident when this story really began. On a cold, March Sunday night, as we were getting ready for bed, I received a phone call that my father had been in a car accident and transported to the hospital. My husband and I rushed to the hospital as quickly as we could. Tick tock. About five minutes or so before my arrival, my brother called to tell me that my father was already gone. My world and the world of my family turned upside down that night. Tick tock. I arrived home at 3 a.m. and wrote plans for my substitute as clearly as I could. I slept for what seemed like a minute, then got up at 6 a.m. to deliver them to school. I am a reliable teacher. I can’t let my students down. I can’t burden my team with this.
The day after my father’s passing, we met at my parent’s house, and everyone was looking to me for answers. “What are we going to do? Who is going to take care of mom?” they asked. What are we going to do? Who is going to take care of all of us? I asked myself, hoping my father would answer. Tick tock. Seeing the disparity in the swollen eyes of my mother and siblings, I took a deep breath and told them everything would be alright and that I will take care of things. And, take care of the situation, of my mother and my family, is exactly what I did. But what about me? Tick tock. My response if anyone asked about me: “I’m fine.” I’m hanging on by a thread.
Fast forward five challenging months, with school back in session and a new principal. Stress was building, and I was not sleeping well. I was finding myself more exhausted than ever. Between handling the estate and adjusting to life without my father, my patience was wearing thin with my colleagues, with my students and with myself. At home, life was becoming strained. Tick tock. I started to notice that my daughter, a sophomore in high school, withdrew from friends and activities she enjoyed. She was already receiving counseling outside of school, but something seemed different; I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s just because grandpa passed away? Then, the phone call came from her high school.
After speaking with the school counselor, I learned that my daughter was not only withdrawn and depressed, but she had suicidal tendencies. Tick tock. They recommended that we take her to a behavioral health center for an evaluation. How did I miss this? Is this my fault? Her evaluation revealed that the best placement for her was in a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), which pulled her out of school for four weeks, and required daily drives of 90 minutes, round trip. My husband and I had to coordinate our school schedules, taking turns arriving late to school, or leaving two class periods early, every day. But, because of his basketball schedule, I missed my last two periods most of the time. Tick tock, Tick tock. And then it happened.
It was the last night of fall conferences, and I was lacking whatever energy I might have had left in me. My daughter was having difficulties at home, and I was not there. I was worried sick and felt helpless. My administrator had stopped by to discuss something with me, and in retrospect, I can’t even remember what about. I can recall, however, questioning him and becoming agitated; from his perspective, I was belligerent. Tick tock, tick tock. He requested to see me later after conferences were over, and said I could bring my union representative. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. I have never, in my 20+ years as a teacher, been asked to bring a representative with me to speak to an administrator. I am a rule follower. I am a team player. Nothing could have infuriated me more. I remember sitting down. I remember him saying something about my attitude and negativity. Tick, tock. That’s when I heard it; it was frustration, anger, grief, and anxiety pouring from the mouth of the woman in my administrator’s office. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. I heard me. Boom!
After crying for hours, my husband and I decided that it wasn’t right for me to be at work, not while our daughter was in treatment. I was not handling it as well as I thought. I also decided that I needed to talk to someone. While my daughter was attending her PHP and intensive therapy, I saw a counselor. He uncovered more profound things I didn’t realize I needed to deal with. For example, I put everyone else’s needs ahead of my grieving process. He also helped me overcome my sense of failure and guilt as a mother. My biggest revelation was the realization that I needed to take care of me. No time in my frantic and stressful life was set aside for just me; taking care of everyone else consumed my life. I never wanted to let anyone down.
Those seven months after my father’s passing had me functioning on autopilot. I never talked about it nor told anyone about what was going on. I kept it to myself. I had to be strong. I wanted to wear the mask of perfection. Little did I realize, the mask was transparent. So, while my daughter was going through her treatment, I stayed home and focused on being a mother to her, but more importantly, I focused on my healing. I came back a better teacher, coworker, wife, and mother because of it four weeks later.
“Caring for yourself is the LEAST selfish thing you can do. – Angela Watson
There are many different facets of self-care that I neglected for myself. Were you able to recognize the warning signs that I had missed?
The time bomb was just waiting to go off. Would you be able to identify these warning signs within yourself?
I suppose you are wondering what happened when I returned to work. It does have a happy ending. After realizing my home life situation, my administrator graced me with forgiveness and understanding. We rebuilt our trust and professional relationship. I am grateful that it all worked out, but what could I have done differently? To prevent this from becoming your story, I recommend the following:
In her blog post, How to Keep Teaching When Your Personal Life is Falling Apart, Angela Watson emphasized, “… caring for yourself is the LEAST selfish thing you can do. Because when you take care of yourself, you are giving the best gift you could ever give your family, the best gift you could ever give yourself– the healthiest and happiest version of YOU.” Make yourself the priority. After all, in a flight emergency, you are always instructed to put on your oxygen mask first, before helping anyone else. Taking care of yourself first leaves you in better condition to help those around you.
Think about what could be setting off a time bomb in your life–financial issues, relationships, work pressures, health issues, to name a few. Think about what you could be doing to prevent it. Then, think about the consequences if you don’t.
Watson, Angela. “How to Keep Teaching When Your Personal Life Is Falling Apart.” The Cornerstone for Teachers, 2015, thecornerstoneforteachers.com/truth-for-teachers-podcast/keep-teaching-personal-life-falling-apart/.
Paula Davis-Laack M.A.P.P. “Learn the specific signs and symptoms of overwhelm.” Psychology Today, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pressure-proof/201503/9-warning-signs-burnout
Susan, thank you for sharing about a deeply personal experience that we can all learn from. It is so easy to get caught up with caring for everyone els in our life that we forget to take care of ourselves and miss the warning signs for help.