On the surface, I think I’ve done a fairly good job of hiding the fact that, for the most part, I feel so achingly sad. I’ve always had a tendency to get down about things, but don’t we all?
It’s a problem that I’ve been aware of since I was 13 years old, if I’m completely honest. A tendency to get exceptionally introverted, gloomy, find it difficult to connect with people at times, and feel a great deal of anxiety at being in group situations. I always thought it would pass, and for a number of years it did; these periods of strange melancholy would visit me every several months or so, and then I’d get over it. However, there came a time when I was feeling like this more and more often, and worse still – when it barely left at all.
By the winter of 2010 I was feeling like a zombie most of the time. I knew that I should be happy: I had one term left at university, I was about to send off my teacher training application, and I was going to New York to celebrate my 21st birthday. You’d think I had it all worked out, but in fact I felt like I was drowning in a thick, muddy swamp with reeds wrapped around my ankles, pulling me further and further down. I could barely breathe, and it was beginning to show. One night over the Christmas holidays when we were alone, mum asked me what was wrong, and I cried so much I scared her.
“You need to go and see the doctor,” she said, gently.
“Yes,” I said.
The appointment was made. I didn’t go.
So, I didn’t send off my teaching application because I was in no fit state to embark on anything as demanding. I am passionate about my subject (English Literature) and I know I work well with teenagers, but the thought of omitting positivity and creating an engaging lesson seemed as impossible to me as flying to the moon on a phoenix made of jam. It was never going to happen.
For a while I panicked; I was finishing university in five months time, and I had no idea where I would go next. As someone who has lived her life structured by solid future plans, this new void that I was about to enter was extremely daunting. I felt overwhelmed by all the decisions I had to make, and scrambled around desperately trying to find some semblance of a life that I could hold up in front of the black hole that was my existence and say “Look! I’m doing THIS! I am THIS person! I have a purpose! I’m doing STUFF so everything is absolutely fiiiiiiine!”
I don’t really think I knew what I was doing when I applied for these jobs; I was so focused on getting one, I didn’t contemplate what the role of teaching assistant actually involved and how I’d be able to manage it. Nor was I of sound mind when I applied to do the part-time Master’s degree at the last minute, still on a temporary high from my graduation. In hindsight, I think I was looking for ways in which to fill every bit of time I had, in the hope there wouldn’t be room left to feel like I was being devoured by gloom. It turns out there was.
It was now September 2011, and I felt no better that I had done nine months before. In fact, I felt worse. My new job was stressful, as I struggled desperately to try adjust to working with an Autistic pupil for the first time, but also, I was forced into large social situations daily, in the classroom and the staff room, and making basic conversation was a challenge sometimes. It drained me of every last resource I had daily.
On top of this, I was starting at a new university, studying at a higher level, and again there was an influx of new people I had to meet and attempt to relate to. I had several panic attacks over these few months, and came close to quitting both the job and the course more times than I care to count. The only reason I didn’t is because I feared without them, I’d never find a reason to get up in the morning.
Around the same time, I started to lose some of my friends. As is typical when university ends, everyone disperses across the country again, and staying in touch requires effort. As each of us began on our own path, miles away from one another, even the closest friends started to drift.
It couldn’t have helped matters that, even before leaving university, I had got into the bad habit of cancelling plans with friends because I didn’t feel comfortable doing anything other than hiding away. I know it sounds incredibly melodramatic, but there are times when having a proper conversation feels like climbing a mountain, and I’m just not up to being around people. I suffered from enough fantasy illnesses to fill a medical encyclopaedia so that I could sit at home, which is all I felt able to do, yet still wondering why I felt so alone.
All the while, I knew I was feeling worse and worse. There were days that I could manage, but there were others where I’d be dragging myself through the working day minute by minute, avoiding talking to people at all costs and just waiting for the moment I could leave. I’ve been know to spend break times in the loo just so I don’t have to make small talk. I didn’t know what to say, or do. I didn’t want to do my hair, or put make-up on, or wear a nice outfit; I’ve been out looking hideous over the past several months and been so far past caring it’s surprised even me. I told my mum. We cried. Another doctor’s appointment was made. Another was missed. Finding the courage to actually speak to someone about this was proving to be a tough challenge.
I think one or two people had an idea something wasn’t right, and would say things like ‘You’re not yourself lately. What’s wrong?’ I couldn’t be bothered explaining it properly, and I felt too ashamed to. What was wrong? Even I didn’t really know. I wasn’t terminally ill. I hadn’t suffered the loss of a loved one. I wasn’t living in the slums of Mumbai. I was able to get an education, and I had three good meals every day, and I had people who loved me and a flushing toilet. I felt ungrateful, unworthy, and pivoted between self-loathing and self-pity.
As the months passed, depression became more and more unbearable. The only way to describe it is to say it feels like there is a thick, grey fog in front of me that I cannot penetrate. I felt completely disconnected from the world; as though everyone is able to get something from this that I just can’t see. Even when I was doing something that I should enjoy, I would count the minutes until it was over. I used to love to read, bake, and go to exercise classes, but those things became lost to me as more of my identity was consumed by this greedy, relentless enemy. I can watch people taking part in life – loving it, even – and be amazed at how and why they’re able to be like that. I was always conscious of the fact I am a young woman, who should not be feeling or acting in this way – and I didn’t want to be, either. I wanted to be care-free, fun, and social; I wanted the world to know me. But however much I wanted it, that person wasn’t someone I was familiar with.
I was definitely missing something, and I was frustrated because I didn’t know why. It’s not that I didn’t want to live anymore, it’s that I didn’t feel I had a choice. I didn’t know how to do life. And I was so very tired of trying. I realised that these feelings aren’t due to circumstance, either; I wouldn’t feel different if I moved house, or even country. I wouldn’t feel better if I had a new wardrobe, or a new job, or new friends.
I was barely sleeping and was awake for most of the night, crying and crying and crying. Night times in particular were hell. At times I would physically ache, with no real cause.
It got to the point where enough was enough; I was desperate for help. I went to the doctor’s after work one night – third time lucky. I actually made it to my appointment this time, and mum sat in the waiting room to make sure I went in. I was so nervous I was worried I was going to be physically sick, but I told him everything. He was very sensitive and sympathetic; he listened, offered advice, wrote a prescription. He seemed confident that I won’t always feel this way, and even though right there in his office that was impossible to imagine, I tried to trust him.
I’ve found it incredibly difficult to talk about this with people, and have hidden it from almost everyone. But one of the biggest sources of strength for me throughout all this has been Twitter; in the two and a half years I’ve been a part of that social network, I’ve made friends – real friends. Some I’ve met, some I’ve spoken to on the phone, Skype, or email. It has been an invaluable source of distraction when I’ve needed it, and I’ve had endless laughs with the wonderful people on there. Many heart-to-hearts too, which have brought great comfort. I found it so much easier sharing the most difficult aspects of myself in bite sized chunks with someone I don’t have to speak to face to face.
Despite everything, my job has helped me enormously too. Yes, there have been times when I’ve come home completely broken, but there is a lot to be said for the healing power of children. I have watched the year seven pupils I’ve been working with grow so much since September, and know I’ve grown along with them. They have been endearing, hilarious, irritating, infuriating, kind, thoughtful, but most of all they remind me what it’s like to live for the moment. I know now that, when the time is right, I will do my PGCE and become the best teacher that I can be. I’ve learned just how much I’m capable of, and that under extreme pressure I can keep going. And I do.