I've been doing a lot of reminiscing lately. Reminiscing and recollecting. Particularly about defining moments in career that occurred last year.
I found myself disillusioned last year. It was only the beginning of the school year and I feel both lost and confused. I didn't know if I was coming or going. Whether I was Arthur or Martha. Eventually, after consulting with other colleagues and talking to trusted friends, I decided to go and see my boss. After all, as my boss she did have a duty of care to me I was told....
So I sat there and told her everything...
In hindsight, that was the worst mistake I've made in my working life. I told her more than I should have, and in doing so, I changed her view of me forever. At first she seemed supportive, listened carefully, tried to understand where I was coming from and gave me both advice and options I could take.
And I took the measures I thought were necessary to make myself healthy again. I started seeing my psychologist again. I focused more on my diet and my exercise regime. I looked for work-life balance on my weekends and in my spare time. I tried to find my 'sparkle'.
Eventually I felt better within myself. I felt like I had returned to me. Like I was working towards the person I had been becoming. But all the while there was something off with my boss. I distinctly remember a day, early on, not long after our meeting when she had come to me at a carnival (in front of students mind you) and asked how I was doing. I remember lying straight to her face and trying to avoid the question. I couldn't believe I was being asked it in such a way.
Then, as the year continued and I got into full swing, I discovered that no opportunities were coming my way. Where I had previously been offered relieving positions in promoted roles, I wasn't being given anything. I had written an expression of interest for leadership opportunities and they were all passing me by. I had gone backwards. My career wasn't just stagnant, I was regressing. So I summoned up the courage and I went back to see my boss.
I don't think I'll ever forget that meeting. Nor some of the things that were said. I asked my boss why I didn't have any opportunities coming my way and why relieving stints as assistant principal were going to other people. And I sat there as I was told that those opportunities were on other stages which made them harder to perform and that considering I struggled during report writing periods previously, she thought it was best that I stick to opportunities on my own stage. But she also told me what we already both knew about that - my assistant principal wasn't going anywhere. There were no plans for leave. So there I was....stranded....with no opportunities on the horizon.
But, you see, that wasn't the kicker. Not really. I was told I lacked experience (tell me something I don't know!) and that I needed to get more. I was told I wasn't assertive enough. That I was sensitive and I took on people's energy, particularly their negativity, too much. Again, this was not news I was unaware of.....
No. The kicker was this question: 'Do you think you're resilient enough for the job?'
And that ladies and gentlemen, was the moment that defined who I am today. That was the moment I realised that you couldn't confide anything in anyone anymore. The moment I realised that it didn't matter that it was 2018 and we were starting the 'awkward conversations'. Mental health still had a stigma attached. And I would still end up labelled.
It took everything I had within me not to launch across the desk that day. To not show any reaction. To act as if I wasn't absolutely raging on the inside.....What my boss didn't realise was that she had started a fire in me that wasn't likely to go out any time soon.
I was both gobsmacked and flabbergasted at her question. If I'm honest, that question still haunts me. In fact, it became the focus on my obsessions and compulsions for a long while. My poor stage partner heard about it more times than I can say. She kept reminding me that I wasn't defined by the opinions and feelings of others. That I could rise above them.
I think in my heart I knew I was resilient back then. In fact, I know I did. When she had asked the question my mind had swirled with so many examples of when I had been that I could hardly comprehend that she was in all honesty asking it.
The most notable reason, that I had suffered from OCD, anxiety and depression since the age of 7, yet I had functioned. I'd made and maintained friendships, had relationships, gotten married, studied hard, finished a degree and obtained a permanent job. I didn't let my mental health stop me.
She also knew that I had balanced a term long job change where I taught my class Literacy and Numeracy in the morning and the school gymnastics all afternoon, whilst also visiting my uncle every afternoon after school because he was dying of cancer. I missed 2 school days that term. 2. My reports were on time too and to an acceptable standard. I also managed to play Premier League women's soccer and rarely missed a training session.
I'd had depressive episodes that had lasted for what seemed like months. I'd been suicidal and contemplated driving my car off a cliff. But I'd come through the other side of that. I'd kept going. If that's not resilience, I don't know what is.
During this time I also received an email that had been meant for my supervisor, that detailed a number of things about me. My boss was effectively asking him to watch and monitor me, because I seemed better but she basically wasn't convinced. My heart sank and my anxiety sank in. I felt like I all of a sudden had 'a danger to society' tattooed across my forehead. So I screenshotted it and passed it onto him. He eventually spoke to her about the email and the fact that I'd received it. I never got an acknowledgement of that fact or so much as an apology. I guess she stood by what she wrote...
So, finally, after realising I'd been wallowing in self pity and frustration for long enough, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and tried again. I went and spoke to my supervisor to gain ideas and tips. He was particularly supportive and started sending me jobs to apply for. I spoke to other people in the workplace to gain ideas and experience. And eventually I went back to my boss, telling her that I would like to try again. That I would be applying for temporary and permanent relieving roles. She listened and discussed the matter, but was very clear that she wouldn't lie to anyone who rang. That she wouldn't say I could do things like leading a team when I couldn't. That she hadn't seen those qualities. I had to show her.
And then, as if I hadn't been punched in the guts enough times, came the words that will stay with me forever: 'Do you think considering your mental issues you could lead a team?'
If ever there was a time for maniacal laughter that was it. I could have done so many things in that moment. So many things. I often play it over in my mind because I could have done it different. But I didn't do those things. I looked at her, thanked her for her time and walked away. Because it wasn't worth it. She was never going to see me the way others saw me. She was never going to understand. And no matter what I did, I was never going to be good enough for her.
So, with the support and blessing of so many of my colleagues, I applied for a role another school for a term. And even that wasn't without hiccups. In the end there was a misunderstanding about a letter I'd written my students. I realised then, that I was being asked to be someone I wasn't. Less feeling, less sensitive, less emotional, less caring. To be black and white and straight down the line. But I wasn't any of those things....nor could I ever be.
The term away was a blessing. I loved teaching again. I loved my new school and I made new friends. I was mentored by an absolutely wonderful woman. And I was successful in gaining a temporary position as a relieving assistant principal in 2019. I did a public speaking event called 'Stories of Survival' about my mental illnesses. I began to shine again....
Fast forward 6 months or so, and here I am typing this blog. What my boss didn't realise was that whilst I appear to toe the line and follow the rules, I have a rebellious heart. I don't like being told what I can't do and why I can't do it. I never have. So she gave me all the ammunition (and strangely the permission) to be whatever the hell I wanted.
I reflect on her question a lot, because it still burns in my soul - 'Do you think considering your mental issues that you could lead a team?
And whilst I'm usually a woman of feelings and words, this time I've been one of action. I've given her my answer of "Why the f*** not!?!" I've successfully run a team for a semester in my own, unique way. I've continued to show up, even when I thought I couldn't. I've never given up, even though I've had a thousand reasons to. I haven't changed who I am, regardless of the circumstances.
It may not always be pretty, or well done or the 'correct' way, but I'm living my life. I'm working towards my dreams. And damned if I'll let small minded, stereotyping people with fixed mindsets get in my way.
Yes, I'm fully aware I have issues. I'm pretty sure the astronauts can see them from space. But that doesn't make me any less than anyone else. It just makes me different. I'm here doing the same thing everyone else is, their BEST.
So for the record (and let's face it, anyone who is still reading after all of my ranting...) my mental issues can causes problems, but they are also an opportunity in disguise. Because of my mental issues, I'm:
· Understanding about mental and emotional health
· Able to read people and situations really well
· Highly empathetic
· Supportive and encouraging, especially during stressful times
· Mindful of being positive for others
· A good listener
· Aware of when people need time, space and a break
· Able to articulate what is going on internally and recognise when things need to change
· Constantly seeking self development and betterment
· Continually striving to be more than I am and achieve my lofty dreams
· All in
Because of my mental health, I'm me. And that's not something I can any longer apologise for.
Written by Carly Jeffrey