So as it turns out, I’m not running the Virgin London Marathon this year after all.
Things started out well. I began training in October, but unfortunately something* happened in November, the consequences of which are still ongoing. I stopped running on January 1st, and didn’t run again until February 11th. A mixture of physical and mental fatigue, ill-health and other issues robbed me of any motivation.
My training plan reset itself to the point where I would only be running one-third of the distance by the time of the race, whereas my long runs alone needed to be about two-thirds of the distance. Plus there was no chance of me achieving the fundraising target, especially as half of it needs to be raised by mid-March.
After taking advice from the Mind fundraising team, and the personal trainer that they have contacts with, I have decided that it is for the best to withdraw and concentrate my efforts on the Tough Mudder in May.
Disappointing, but ultimately for the best, for me, for now.
*This something will be spoken about when I am able…
[TW: Suicide, self-harm]
On Friday, I got a new tattoo. It was a spur of the moment decision, made on Tuesday morning and booked in on Tuesday afternoon. The design for the tattoo was similarly put together over the course of an hour around Tuesday lunchtime.
After roughly 45 minutes work, by 6pm I had this on my right forearm:
This will be my most visible tattoo. My other three are (largely) covered up day-to-day. But unless I start to wear long sleeves all the time (and even when I wear shirts these days, I tend to have the cuffs rolled back a few times), eventually students will see this tattoo, and inevitably one will ask me what it means.
The design is a semicolon, with a taijitu in place of the tittle. The taijitu represents my interest in Taoist philosophy, something I first discovered when I was 17.
Why a semicolon? Well, this is the part that requires the trigger warning at the start of the post. I first saw semicolons drawn or tattooed onto wrists a few months ago, associated with The Semicolon Project. A semicolon is where an author could have ended a sentence, but chose not to. So it has been adopted as a symbol by those who at one time came face to face with a moment when they could have ended their own sentences, but chose to let them continue.
The semicolon is a reminder to, and “My story is not finished” is a promise by, those who have self-harmed or attempted suicide in the past, that it is ok to reach out and seek help.
I first discovered Taoist philosophy when I was 17. 17 is also the age at which I can identify I had begun to suffer mental health problems. The two aren’t connected (although the philosophy has helped me to cope at times), but the coincidence is quite nice.
17 is when I first remember struggling with suicidal ideation. From that age, I have regularly struggled with it and there have been times when I have felt like succumbing to it. I have also recently come to realise that I also self-harm. When I am unhappy, when I feel I have done something bad, I punish myself to feel pain in a bid to atone for what I feel I have done wrong. It’s not healthy by any means, and the fact that it has taken me so long to recognise and name it as self-harm is frightening. But I recognise it now; saying it publicly, acknowledging this is something I do and have done, isn’t so that I can boast, or ask for sympathy and congratulations for my “bravery”.
I’m doing it because being open about my mental health problems is important to me as a teacher. In all the time I have worked in education, I have met scores of children with serious mental health problems. Maybe this was kept hidden when we were children, but I don’t recall mental health being an issue on the scale it is now. I have taught and counselled children with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and students who self-harm or are suicidal.
Being open about the problems, saying “I have this too” is enormously liberating to students who would otherwise suffer in silence. I know students who come forward to members of staff and have said that they only reason they came forward was because that member of staff was open about mental health issues. Otherwise, these issues may remain hidden, ignored, slowly eroding a student’s potential to succeed, and potentially only becoming known in tragic circumstances.
It was one of the reasons I undertook ASIST training in 2013. Within three days of completing my training, I had to put it into use, helping a young person in Canada who reached out via Twitter. And I’ve had to use it since, with children and adults.
Suicide doesn’t go away if we keep quiet about it. Talking about it doesn’t “put the idea in someone’s head” or encourage people to attempt suicide, in fact, the opposite is the case. When someone is feeling suicidal, talking is the best thing for them. It takes the smallest thing to turn someone away from suicide, and in most cases that is all they will ever need.
Now I have a visible tattoo which marks me as someone who has faced suicide and self-harm. It is in a place that students will see. I hope that they will ask “Sir, what is that on your arm?”, so that I can tell them. I can explain to them what it means, and more importantly what it means to me. And I hope that if any student is struggling with these issues, they’ll be able to see that they don’t have to struggle alone; there are people they can talk to.
As long as we are talking, no story is truly finished.
On Tuesday I taught my last class.
I’ve known since last week that today would be the day. On Monday I would have scoffed at the suggestion, Tuesday I came to the realisation something needed to go, and on Wednesday I sat in a doctor’s office, reading the text of an Occupational Health Assessment, and agreeing to the suggested course of action that I give up my teaching hours.
I’ve been on anti-depressants for over a year now, but within the past two months have seen the dosage pumped up twice to help me cope. I broke down in tears at my desk one day, and the following week there was a day I simply couldn’t face getting up, and had to call in sick.
I had too many commitments all at once. All the people who said back in May that I was taking on too much and might struggle to cope were–as much as I hate to admit it–correct. Although I didn’t have a lot of teaching hours, every hour of teaching had to be made up elsewhere as I also have a full-time management job. The work entails long hours, as does the preparation for teaching, plus the marking, meaning my work-life balance is screwed. Add in the fact I’m also studying for my PGCE, act as branch chair for our union and do voluntary work outside the College and it’s all getting too much. And that’s before adding in the pressure of an imminent Ofsted inspection, my inexperience in a management role, the increase in my line-management responsibilities, the pressures of the new programmes of study, and it’s a recipe for something to go “ping”, and it was my brain that decided to ping.
One Thursday afternoon I broke down in tears at my desk for no reason, and had to leave early. The following Tuesday I simply couldn’t face leaving the house, and had to take the day off. It took me a while to accept that the depression and the stress were getting too much for me, but I informed HR once I realised this, and swiftly had an Occupational Health assessment where it was recommended I give up my teaching hours.
So I am no longer teaching. I’m partly sad, but also partly relieved. I wasn’t connecting with my classes this year, and they need someone to teach them who is on top of their game. The pressure to succeed in exams, the marking, the disciplinary aspect; I’m not going to miss these. But I will miss my classes.
On the day I taught my final class this blog post by edublogger and teacher Old Andrew came out. There was a lot in there very familiar, not just to myself but to the lives of teachers I’ve known for years. If you want the realities of life as a teacher, this is it.
Term has now finished. And I’m feeling a huge weight lifting from my shoulders. I do not intend to do any work during this holiday, which in an ideal world should be the norm for teachers. It isn’t, but this year for me, it will be.
Have a merry, stress-free, no-thinking-about-school Christmas, and a happy new term!
All being well, my story from the Literary Mix Tapes: Eighty Nine anthology should be live on the site for a limited time only. If you’re reading this in the future then sorry, the story is no longer available for free. But hey, you can buy the book!
For those who don’t know, the concept behind Literary Mix Tapes is a playlist of songs which then inspire a selection of stories. For Eighty Nine, songs from the year 1989 were selected. I was assigned “Summerland” by King’s X.
So how did I get from a power ballad to a crappy little waxworks in a rundown seaside town?
Summerland suggests to me loss and regret, about someone past their prime who is looking back on their life. Now hold that thought…
In May of 2010 I had a weekend break with my wife in Great Yarmouth, a seaside resort I hadn’t visited since I was a child. Very little had actually changed, even down to the acts appearing in the theatre on the main pier. Whatever else Great Yarmouth is known for (and for my family, a running joke is the open-top bus tour we took which showed us the “Findus frozen food factory–now closed down”) it is known for Louis Tussaud’s House of Wax, reputed to be the worst waxworks in the world.
Shortly after this break, the idea of a town where nothing much changed, where the acts of twenty years ago were still appearing, where the waxworks is quite sinister in its awfulness, played about in my mind. And a story started to form.
A story about a washed up comedian, playing to small audiences in seaside towns across Britain. A “Northern club comic” type, specialising in blue, slightly racist, slightly sexist material that has fallen out of favour and meant he doesn’t get much of an audience any more. And about his visit to a seaside town with a waxworks. One where the very people modelled in wax also still appear on stage, at the very time their exhibit cases mysteriously empty…
I had the story, but never the push to write it. Until I was offered a slot in Eighty Nine and given “Summerland” as my prompt. The comedian, Barry Doyle, regrets the path his career took. In a longer story I would have explored his decision to go down the “blue” comedy route, and the fact that he is an intelligent and calculating man, trapped portraying an ignorant and offensive buffoon because that’s what the people who pay to see him want. We would have met his manager, a young Asian man who is often the brunt of his off-colour jokes, yet who he increasingly relies upon.
And Mr Mould and Mr Clay would be far more obsequious, far more loquacious, and far more sinister…
The sense of the song Summerland fitted Doyle as a character, and gave me the impetus to write it down. I named the theatre after the song, and the initial setting of the story is in 1989.
1989 is the year I first visited Great Yarmouth, and the son mentioned by Doyle is based on me.
As for Great Scarpool itself, it is an amalgam of all the seaside resorts my family holidayed at when I grew up. The name derives from three of them: Great (Yarmouth) Scar(borough) (Black)pool. I enjoyed my holidays as a child, but returning to these places years later as an adult, and time has not been kind. With the advent of cheaper foreign holidays, a downturn in the economic fortunes of the country and the change in the tastes of the public have left many of these towns struggling, at times retreating into the kitsch of the past.
All the elements combined together to create a disturbing little tale of wax and regret…
Well, it has been a while hasn’t it?
How has everyone been? Gosh, it has got dusty around here…
I have been particularly negligent of the blog. I can blame this on work, I can blame this on outside commitments, but in reality I’m just lazy and lacking in motivation. Simple as that.
Anyway, the Vacation Necronomicon School is back in session. It’s like Bible camp, except with more damnation, and a higher quality of writing. I had intended to take part in last year, but failed miserably to do so. This year? I’m going to give it a damn good try.
So over the coming two(?) weeks I believe, you might actually see one or two posts from me, of a Lovecraftian nature.