“Please don’t write down “stress” on my sick note. It’ll go on my records, and they might get Occupational Health involved. It’s not stress anyway. I’m just a bit run down. We’ve had a lot going on and it’s probably fine and I’ll be fine after a couple of good nights sleep and everything’s just caught up and I need to be back at work next week because I think it’s my staff meeting and I really can’t take much time off as I have teaching commitments in Year 6…”
I knew the doctor wasn’t buying it but she scribbled down "stomach pains" on the sick note, asked me to come back if things got worse and sent me on my way. She hadn’t lied. It had reached the point where I was teaching many of my lessons sat down and was surviving on a diet of caffeine and Buscopan. Stomach pains were part of the problem, but they were in no way a full representation of what was going on.
“Burnout” is the term that I often use to explain what happened to me nearly six years ago. I use it because it’s easily recognisable and people have an understanding of its meaning. I also usually credit Michael Gove (the Education Secretary at the time) as a key contributor to my ill health, but that’s a whole other blog that I should probably never write for legal reasons! If I’m honest, it didn’t feel like burnout. It felt like shutdown. It was as if my mind, body, and spirit decided to get together and hold an intervention. They marched into my office at school one Friday lunchtime, picked me up and said, “right that’s enough, you’re coming home with us.” The truth is that I had been ignoring the signs for a long time. I had been striving to show people that I was reliable, hardworking and dependable. I had only been the Deputy Head at my school for a year, so it was far too soon to be buckling under the pressure of it all. Alongside this, I had commitments at church, was desperately trying to sweep a lot of painful experiences under the carpet and just wanted to move on with my life. I wanted to go “around” not “through” the pain and avoid what needed to be faced at all costs. If I could just plough through, then no one would know what was going on under the surface and I would be fine.
I was fine.
Everything was fine.
I’m sharing this as someone who has come out of the other side of this experience. I hope that someone reading this will recognise that what I’m describing sounds scarily familiar and that they will take the time to listen to their mind, body, and spirit before the official shutdown kicks in. I didn’t hear the alarm bells that were ringing in my life. I was afraid people would think I was weak. Once the shutdown occurred, there was no hiding that I wasn’t coping. Looking back, I know that the people closest to me were exchanging concerned looks and knew that I was unravelling. I ignored the headaches, sleepless nights, the inability to be alone with my thoughts and the constant fear that I was going to be “found out.” If this is where you are at, then my only advice would be to stop, acknowledge that you’re not in a good place and get some help. It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that you need support, it’s a sign of strength.
There were four main areas that I focused on during my recovery.
I tried to improve my physical health by following a diet that would help with my IBS symptoms and support my overall wellbeing. As a lifelong comfort eater, this remains a challenge!
I tackled my emotional health by regularly visiting a counsellor, spending time trying to find out what had got me to this point and how to avoid taking this path again. In the early stages, she would come to my house as I was too scared to drive and didn’t want to go out.
I focused on my spiritual well being, climbing into God’s lap with the book of Psalms and telling Him the truth about where I was at. I found concentrating extremely difficult, so instead of reading, I would listen to audiobooks and podcasts to try and fill my mind with hope, instead of giving in to a feeling of helplessness.
I baked! There were times when I genuinely needed a distraction and an outlet for my nervous energy. My sister would come and visit every Tuesday, and I’ll always remember her face when she arrived on what is now known as “The Baking Day.” I had obviously found my inner Mary Berry on that day, and every available surface in our kitchen was filled with baked goods. As I collapsed in exhaustion my big sister calmly divided the various items into different tupperwares to give out to family members. At no point did she reprimand me for overdoing it or ask me what on earth I was thinking. She just went with it and recognised that I needed a day off from my fuddled mind. To this day, if she finds out I’ve been baking, she will ask me if I’m ok.
I’m sharing this because I know that many people are ignoring alarm bells. I understand it, really I do, but maybe today, on a day set aside to recognise the importance of mental health, it might be time to get some support. It’s hard when you’re in the middle of it as you think there’s no possible way that you can stop or take the time to get the help you need. I thought that too, but it’s not the case. More and more these days, the support is out there, whether it’s phoning a helpline, visiting your GP, chatting to a friend or simply saying no to a few things. As I’ve said to many people since my shutdown, you can ignore it as much as you like but at some point, it will catch up with you and bite you on the backside (I know it’s profound).
So, six years on, where am I now?
It would be a lie to say that my shutdown experience hasn’t left a permanent mark. Some of the impact has been positive, some not so much. The people pleaser in me gets less of a say in my life, but I still struggle with the confused faces when I say no to a request or ask for time to think it through. It requires a lot of effort but I am now capable of walking away from roles or relationships that are damaging as I am no longer terrified that you will think I'm a quitter. I am a lot more aware that I have a limited capacity but still fear overcommitting to things as I don’t want to let people down. I can still have black cloud days where I feel completely and utterly useless. No logical explanations can bring me out of a black cloud day. I just have to ride it out, endlessly play Nichole Nordeman songs and wait for it to pass. These are rare now, because I am alot stronger than I used to be. I have more of an idea of who I am and am getting better at looking after myself.
For a lot of my recovery, I have desperately needed people to understand me and how I’m feeling. The reality is that there are some people who just don't understand! They're not wired the same way as me, and that's okay. I have released them of the expectation that they will know my innermost thoughts because the reality is that unless you’ve been through something like this, then you’re probably not going to get it. I hope that they would show patience and a little grace when I act in a way that doesn’t make sense to them, but they're not going to fully understand, and it’s unfair for me to expect them to.
Everyone’s battle with mental illness is different which is why I have focused on my own story and specifically avoided giving any advice other than ask for help if you need it. My shutdown and its after-effects are only one small part of my story. It does not define me, but hopefully, by sharing my shutdown experience, someone reading this will realise that it doesn’t have to define them either.
In the words of the songwriter who has provided the soundtrack for most of my journey:
You can't rewrite it
You're not meant to be trapped inside it
Every tear brought you here
Every sorrow gathered
Yeah, it's history
And every mile mattered
by Kay Moorby