[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.
I haven’t been feeling 100% for some time now. Mental health issues, physical health issues, stress at work etc have all contributed to me becoming sedentary and somewhat resembling “the Blerch” (and please do read that Oatmeal strip because it pretty much sums up my reasons for running too).
I haven’t gone running since the BUPA 10,000 in May 2013. And aside from the odd bike ride here and there, until the start of June I wasn’t really doing anything that remotely resembled serious exercise. To get out of that, I signed up for the London West Tough Mudder in April of this year. But then the injuries started, and the pain, and the sickness, and the stress, and the Ofsted inspection and the arthritis and in the end I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. As much as anything, I was in too much pain.
My arthritis is not at the stage where drugs will do any good. But what will do me good is to lose weight. And my GP is strongly encouraging that. So I’m making changes. An array of technological devices monitor my daily steps, distances, calorific intake, activities undertaken, amount of sleep I have, volume of water consumed. I take part in the NHS Exercise Prescription scheme, visiting a local gym twice a week for personal training. I’m cycling more, walking more, and trying to be good.
When I ran regularly, my depressive moods were easier to control. I had an outlet. But I don’t run any more, so the depression gets worse. And one thing I feel bad about is my weight, the way I look and feel. Being unhappy with that makes me further depressed, less likely to exercise and more likely to binge on junk. I have photos, and they aren’t pretty. They were taken as a spur to me so that I can see what I honestly look like now in order to motivate me to change. They are embarrassing and a little upsetting if I’m honest, and I certainly don’t have the confidence to show them to anyone.
I didn’t do the Tough Mudder in April because I wasn’t ready for it. But I did postpone it to October. 96 days from now. I intend to be ready. As of today I’m starting a half-marathon training plan to get me back to a level of fitness where I can run a half-marathon again. At the gym I’ll focus on improving strength so I can tackle the obstacles along the course. Provided of course I stay fit and healthy. This didn’t get off to an auspicious start when I tripped over my own feet on Saturday and wound up scraping my left hand, left knee and left toes into a bloody mess.
I’m writing this at 1.25am so it’s likely a bit disjointed and confused. This is part confessional, part motivational. Keeping myself honest be publicly saying “yes, this is a problem and I’m trying to do something about it”. In 14 weeks I’m running this thing and I need to be fitter, faster and stronger in order to do it.
So I’m going to put the information out there so that people can help me stay on track, encourage me when I’m feeling low, and keep me moving forward. Here’s where I am at the moment. Over the next 14 weeks I hope to see this all change…
Figures correct as of 4 August 2014
Body Fat Percentage: 39.5%
End of year reviews. The lazy way to file a blog entry. But I’m on holiday, don’t feel like doing anything original and what better way to get back into blogging than a lazy review post. That and the fact I only made 8 posts in the whole of 2013 means anyone who follows the blog has virtually no idea what I’ve been up to this year.
So here was 2013.
I returned to the new term to two classes of students wholly unprepared to do the poetry assessment we had to do. This 4 hour assessment took the whole of the month to do, and by the end I still had students saying they hadn’t read any poems. We had been working on this since November… In and around all that, I signed up for the Virgin London Marathon, having stopped my marathon training in October after I initially failed to get a place. Still, four months is plenty of time, right?
February saw me join the University and College Union (UCU), something that would have a rather large impact on the rest of the year. I also “enjoyed” a half-term consisting of gastric flu, an eyebrow piercing and 90 controlled assessments to correct in 3 days, courtesy of losing days to the previously mentioned gastric flu. Lovely.
Meanwhile a resignation at work opened up a managerial position in my department which I speculatively applied for…
…and subsequently got an interview for! Given I wrote the application under the influence of the gastric flu of February this was a surprise. As well as the usual tests, I had two interview panels: one with two of the managers, and one with a panel of students!
I was delighted to find out that I got the position, and would assume managerial duties in May.
The Easter break saw me dealing with rescuing students stranded at the NUS National Conference. Because those in education only work 9am to 3pm, 5 days per week and not at all in the holidays…
The defining moment of the month however was when I crossed the finish line at the Virgin London Marathon. It was gruelling, I felt awful the next few days, but I did it, and it is probably what I’m most proud of in 2013.
I took up my managerial position (part-time) to allow me to finish off teaching, as with one month before the exam it was felt it was too disruptive to the students to change teachers. This gave me confidence that if I could handle 12 hours of teaching plus the managerial job, then 6 hours the following academic year would be manageable. This misplaced confidence would come back to bite me later in the year.
I hadn’t run since the Marathon, and almost forgot I also had an entry for the BUPA 10,000! A 10k run is a walk in the park after 26 miles, so what had previously been a challenge was a nice little stroll around London.
For my birthday, Julia and I visited The Magic Circle headquarters in London for an evening of close up magic and laughter. It was incredible, and something I’ve wanted to do since childhood.
If you work in education, December isn’t the end of the year, it’s June. And in June I finished the first year of my PGCE, and saw off my classes for the year, most of whom sat the GCSE, and many of whom did so at Higher Tier, the first time I’d entered students at that level. Needless to say I think I was more nervous than some of the students.
I had only been a member of UCU for 5 months when proposed redundancies at my place of work threw me into frontline union work and I became part of the committee who responded to the paper. Then a funny thing happened at our AGM. Despite not even attending, I found myself elected Branch Chair. Which was unexpected, but rather flattering.
I celebrated the end of the (academic) year with a new tattoo. Shortly after The Red Wedding aired. Great timing Paul…
July saw me wrapping things up at work before going on annual leave. Further meetings with members and management about redundancies and restructuring, setting up for the Freshers’ Fair in September and generally getting to grips with the role.
I also undertook Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which was emotionally difficult but very worthwhile. Three days after completing the training, I had to put it into effect.
My annual leave started at last, and began with a trip to the Anniversary Games, courtesy of some tickets generously provided by my father-in-law.
August was all about family. We travelled to Scotland for a gathering of the clan to celebrate my grandparents’ diamond anniversary. Then soon after we were off to Nottingham for Julia’s parents’ coral anniversary, then only a week later my mother-in-law’s (*significant*) birthday (21 again, for those interested).
And all too soon it was straight back into the firing line of enrolment and a new term…
A second AGM of the branch saw my election to Branch Chair confirmed. The Freshers’ Fair I organised was a great success, so I passed the first public assessment of my abilities in the new job. I also successfully negotiated resumed teaching (but only 4 hours per week), continuation on the PGCE and secured how I would carry out my union duties. Because I would easily be able to do all of this, and more (for those paying attention, this is foreshadowing).
The rest of the month sucked great big sweaty donkey balls for reasons I cannot go into. But trust me. Sucked. Donkey. Balls.
A significant amount of October was concerned with the last bit of September, and after an incredibly long and stressful term, the half-term break arrived, which saw me, Julia and two dear friends heading to Wembley to see my beloved San Francisco 49ers steamroller over the Jacksonville Jaguars. With Wembley so well attended, how long before London gets a permanent NFL franchise, and can they play at Twickenham instead (since I can walk there!).
October also saw the tenants of the building where I live informed that the whole place was being sold, raising the question of whether we could afford to collectively buy a £2m listed building…
Union politics returned to dominate with a ballot for strike action called. I of course set an example as Branch Chair by voting yes.
The answer to the question about buying the building was no, and for some time the whole sale was in limbo as a cavalcade of surveyors and agents turned up or got in touch purporting to be handling the sale.
The month started promisingly enough with a nationwide strike by UCU, and some nice local press coverage of the day.
From there, December sort of slid rapidly towards the end of term. I’d been struggling all term to try to get through to the majority of my students. I put it down to the length of time I had with them, that they were a far worse crop than previous years. But breaking down into tears at my desk for no reason in November signalled that something wasn’t quite right, and my inability to face going into work the following week really should have put me on notice, especially after my antidepressant dosage got increased.
I wasn’t coping, and the quality of my teaching, and my attention to the PGCE, was wavering.
I received another increase to my dosage and informed my employer. The side effects of the medication includes memory problems in general, and remembering words in particular – not something you want to combine in teaching and management.
After an occupational health assessment, I came to a conclusion that others had made before me, but that I had argued against for half the year. I simply wasn’t coping. I was doing too much. And the teaching was what had to go. This freed up time for my main job, removed the requirement for prep time and the associated stress.
And with that the term – and the calendar year – came to a close.
Oh yes. I had root canal work done on Christmas Eve. That was a very special Christmas treat.
So that’s a potted account of significant events in 2013. There are other things that happened of course, but these are things that it is inappropriate to talk about in public, unwise to discuss publicly, or are simply far too boring to mention. Apologies for the lack of salacious gossip, but y’know… stuff.
What is ahead in 2014? This term sees me freed from teaching commitments, and a sense of relaxation for the first time in a long time. And I can see myself having time to get back into doing the things I love.
Like reading. I haven’t really read things in 2013. I want to change that in 2014.
And writing. I’ve written so little recently that I’ve actually excised most of the references to being a writer from my social media presence. Since the whole “being a writer” requires “actually writing”. But now I feel I have time, and energy for it. And ideas. Oh yes, there are ideas…
And sport too! I got a bike in September. It’s really nice. And gathering dust in my basement. As is my unworn running gear. So to rectify this, and get rid of the waistline I’ve developed, I’ve done something rather silly…
At the end of April I’ll be taking part in a Tough Mudder. Go follow the link to see what that’s about. Then come back and tell me you think it’s a good idea.
Hopefully, I’ll post a little more here. But we’ll see.
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!
This academic year I have:
- gone from being unemployed to getting a permanent job at College
- gone from having 0 teaching hours per week to 12 teaching hours per week
- successfully completed the first year of my PGCE
- entered students to the Higher Tier of the GCSE exam, rather than all Foundation Tier
- managed to become a manager at the College (I know, how???)
- became quite active in the Union.
All told, quite a busy year. My management job is full-time (my previous job was part-time, allowing me to do 12 hours of teaching). But I need to be allowed to finish the PGCE, so next year I will (fingers crossed!)be allowed to carry on the minimum teaching load to keep up with the PGCE, 6 hours per week. As coincidence would have it, that is the amount of time given to the challenging students for English, so I can carry on teaching those classes for another year (I hope).
The exam is on Tuesday. I’m nervous. The majority of my students are sitting the Higher Tier paper. That includes almost half the challenging students. I hope my faith in them pays off, not for me, but for them. The Foundation paper may be capped, with a maximum mark, but the Higher Tier paper fails you if you don’t get a D. The students are capable, but sometimes they don’t want to work for it. But I at least hope that I have impressed upon them the importance of the exam.
Things that my students have taught me this year?
- Apparently if I were to kick one of them in the head it would constitute the Best. Lesson. Ever.
- I overestimate how well my students know internet memes.
- 34 years old is apparently “ancient”.
- Star Wars references are wholly lost on my students.
- As are Harry Potter references.
- And biblical references.
- Don’t even mention topical news references.
- There is no more inappropriate way to end a controlled assessment assignment than with “peace out homie and shit.”
- Students will still demand to “watch a film” during every class except the ones when they have to write a film review and therefore watching a film might actually be of benefit to those who keep moaning that they “don’t know what film to pick”…
- My students own more smartphones than any person has a reasonable need for.
- My students can hide smartphones in more places than any person has a reasonable need to contemplate.
- Despite having to read less whilst studying it, my students cannot abide poetry, and would much rather we had studied Of Mice and Men.
- I am still irrationally against teaching Of Mice and Men and am thinking about tackling 1984 next year…