I am a teacher. It is my calling, my passion and my life's work. I truly cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.
But teaching is emotionally exhausting. I do not teach in an area where my students' families have a lot of resources. My families deal with poverty, abuse, violence in their neighborhoods (perhaps in their homes?). Many of my families are native Spanish speakers. This immediately puts them at a disadvantage to their white teacher, especially in today's cultural climate and political atmosphere. I get to enjoy privileges they do not simply because my skin is white. Many of my families also did not get an opportunity to be educated when they were children so they do not know how to "do school" as it were. You don't know what you don't know.
Other people judge my students and their families. I have heard it my entire career. "Oh, you work there," like that makes me a lesser teacher because I don't work with children who have privilege. I have told my students before that the world around them automatically thinks they are lesser because of where they go to school. Not because I want to discourage them, but because I want to light a fire within them that they CAN (and WILL) be amazing. It's going to take work, but they can do it.
I bring this up now because my students are affected by trauma in ways teachers in more affluent areas simply cannot understand. As a teacher in an area where kids see and deal with so many things that their young minds simply do not know how to process, there is a lot of absorption from the teachers as they try to help their students cope. My job, as a teacher in a large urban district, is much more emotionally exhausting and taxing than that of a teacher in the district I live in (more suburban). I don't mean to imply that any teacher's job is easy, but theirs is definitely easier.
Just yesterday I was speaking to my intern about this. When I was a teacher assistant (my first field experience), I was placed in a more wealthy area. Even then I knew that my cooperating teacher could just be a teacher. Yes, there was always work to do and the job never ends, but she also didn't go home every day worrying about her students and whether or not they would eat or whether or not they would have a warm bed to sleep in or whether or not a student's parent was going to go to jail because of something s/he did. In fact, her biggest issue was a set of parents who didn't want to "label" their child with a reading disability. Incredibly small peanuts in the grand scheme of things.
I finished my student teaching in the large urban district I currently work in. Being 100% transparent, when I was in college, I was like "Oh I don't want to work in that district..." You see, I believed the propaganda and crap put out there (even back then!) about what was happening in my future district. I share that because I feel ashamed that I bought the lies and drama. Then I student taught there...and everything changed for me. I found kids who I adored and cared for deeply despite all of the issues they face that can be hard to deal with residually. I also found some incredibly passionate teachers and staff who go above and beyond for the students in ways I could not imagine before I was part of it.
This is my thirteenth year teaching in the district. I love my kids and I push them hard. I don't care if they don't love me right now...because they will see in time that I push them because I care about their future so much. Yesterday we did our usual gratitude circle to close the day and four kids said they had gratitude for myself and my intern because we are always pushing them to do more and be better because "they care about our future." (Yeah, it was a tearjerker moment.)
But here's the thing. I mentioned how emotionally exhausting it is to be a teacher where I am. It is emotionally exhausting. No one who has done the job would disagree.
Now imagine, however, that you also suffer from depression and anxiety. The residual emotional piece piles onto the depression you already deal with and the anxiety that loves to rear its ugly head at the absolute worst time. And what do you do? You have to deal with it. The kids need you. They can't have a basket case for a teacher. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just make it happen.
I have worked with many, many people in my career. Most of them are some of the absolute best people that I know. There are some who are incredibly privileged though. They did not grow up in an emotionally manipulative environment. They were not abused. I don't doubt that they love their students...but some of them really do not see what I see. How can I see it so well? Because I was my 7 and 8 year old students, just in a different school. The only other difference is that I'm white. We didn't have a lot when I was growing up. I experienced trauma too. And unfortunately, it doesn't just go away.
You can't just "brush it off" and move on with your day. Most people whom I spend my days with have zero idea where my head goes (they are lucky too because it's not always a fun place to be in my head). They are blessed in that they don't have the same effects of the residual trauma and emotional exhaustion that I feel. Sure they are tired too and they need a break too. I don't mean to discount that.
But I also know that other people do not internalize what is around them the same way I do. I have been called an empath. I don't necessarily disagree with that...but it's also hard to be one. Empaths are highly sensitive people. Weirdly people are drawn to us. I have had several experiences where complete strangers will come up to me in airports or other places and share an incredibly personal story with me, then walk away. I had a friend once (also described as an empath), who told me that it's like we have a light inside of us that draws moth to flame and people are just compelled to tell us things, to get it off their chest and then they are relieved and unburdened. It can be incredibly emotionally exhausting to have so much empathy because we take on others' pain and then suffer ourselves. This is not something you can choose to be or be able to control; you either are one or you aren't.
I hide my anxiety a lot of the time. I don't want to burden people with it. And to be honest, people just expect more from me. When I try to tell people that I'm emotionally spent and just need to pull back, rarely am I given the grace to do so. People just expect that I'll push through whatever I'm dealing with and make it happen. They see my ambition and need to do more and be better as "well she can handle it."
But what if I can't? What if they are pushing me so hard that I simply can't anymore?
Sometimes that is how I feel. That I can't do one more thing or be one more person's anything because there is no space left in my head for that.
It's sort of funny really because I thought finishing my doctorate would open up some head space...but it really hasn't. I still have books sitting on my shelf that I've been DYING to read, but I can't get more than 1-2 chapters in because I don't have the cognitive stamina right now to process them. It's like having an academic hangover.
But I also now recognize it as my depression rearing its ugly head. I am a go-getter. That's how people describe me. They use words like passionate and ambitious. But they do not see underneath that to know I'm struggling. I struggle every.single.day. Every day. Especially lately. This has been an incredibly weird school year with a lot of changes; I feel like every time I find my way, something else changes and throws a wrench in it all.
To speak to me in the hallways though...you'd have no idea. Not a clue. I am very good at hiding what's really happening in my head. And let's be real, most relationships we have are surface level, right? There isn't a need for people to go deeper.
I even told my co-teacher (when I still had one) earlier this year how much anxiety I felt with all of the adults in our class and that new environment. She said to me once that she thought I hid my anxiety very well because she couldn't tell...and that's why I'm writing this today.
Often people with depression and anxiety will hide. It's easier to withdraw and hide inside of yourself, letting your fake facade on the outside rule because when it comes down to it, people don't really want to know. In my experience anyway, people don't want to know when you're not feeling like yourself, because they do not know what to do with that knowledge and it makes them feel uncomfortable.
I hide it because I don't want to be a burden for other people. Plus, deep down, I don't really think people see me enough to care if I did tell them (and I don't mean see me in the hallway, I mean really SEE what is underneath the surface). There are some who do, and some who have gone out of their way to check on me and that makes me feel warm fuzzies toward them...being noticed goes a long way.
But the reality of the matter is...I've been struggling since August. People haven't noticed. People I LIVE WITH haven't noticed. Why? Because I can hide it that well. I pull it inside of me and don't talk about it, don't share it, fall back on the thought that if we ignore it, it'll go away.
It doesn't go away. It's like a warm blanket that envelops me all the time...except it's not a warm blanket. It's a cold one. It's one that isn't healing or helping, but rather hurting me. And I don't share it with people because I don't want to burden them. Plus, I have to hide it because I can't be a basket case in front of my class. I have to be strong, their role model, someone they can look up to.
The biggest reason I decided to write this out and put it into print is to say this: You have no idea what goes on in the minds of those around you. My daughter, who also suffers from depression, posted this on Facebook earlier this week:
I am successful. People believe in the work that I do. I have connections all over the country (and a few outside of the country).
But I still deal with depression. I am not in a place where I want to harm myself, but the thoughts have crossed my mind during other dark periods of depression.
You just don't know what happens in people's heads. You can't.
It's incredibly important to notice those around you and try to see if they are not acting like their usual selves. Even those of us like me, who are incredibly adept at hiding it, still have tells (mine is to twist my fingers together or compulsively scratch my arms). You have to notice. You could actually save someone's life.