I’ve been wanting to write about TFA and mental health for a while, and have recently had the opportunity to voice the somewhat muddled feelings I have on the subject. I know many of you are starry-eyed and brand new, so this may be inappropriate so soon after you’ve clicked “accept”– but if that’s the case, then… just let it fall into the archives for a couple months. This is mostly for me, for anyone who might still feel awful leftovers of whenever their “October” happened, and especially for anyone who is intrigued by the questions it raises about how TFA staff and CMs can best prepare for and address mental health issues within the corps.
Navigating the curious relationship between TFA and mental health has been a trip. It may be that my experience is relatively rare and that most CMs who end up reading this won’t really need to. But my inkling is that there are a lot of first-year CMs out there who feel (or will feel) the way I felt for months, who need to know that feeling this way is not normal, that it’s not okay, and that they just might need more help than they’re getting.
I guess I have to acknowledge that I was a little unstable even before Institute started. By the time I finished college, I was eating at a rate of about a banana per week, more or less (for non-TFA-related reasons that I still haven’t exactly figured out). While I thought starting TFA would be exactly the fresh start in a new city that I needed, I plowed through Institute by starving myself at school and then gorging myself and throwing up each night. I thought things would “calm down,” as everyone said they would, once I started teaching in my region. Though my eating habits did repair themselves by the beginning of Round Zero, I wasn’t working as effectively as I could have been, and I started the year behind and unprepared.
The beginning of the school year held all the usual trials and tribulations. I called my PD in tears on Tuesday night of the first week of school—she helped me decide what to do with my kids the next day and reassured me that I wasn’t the only one in that position (apparently I was the third CM that night to call her in a panic). As we settled into the chaos that was that first September, that was the refrain I seemed to hear from all sides: everyone was in the same situation; everyone else was going through the same thing.
As the weeks went by, however, the comfort I initially got from this sentiment wore off. For one thing, I didn’t see evidence of it. Yes, I often saw other corps members in tears, but they always seemed to be able to express a “but I’ll be okay” feeling immediately afterward that I couldn’t muster. Their tears were stress-induced, not despair-induced. And soon, CMs started talking about changes that had begun to take place in their classrooms. Someone’s kids were finally listening to them; someone else’s principal had noticed their hard work. I saw lots of RPR and SoPo—I didn’t see other corps members feel the type of aching dread I felt whenever I thought about going into my classroom one more time. I knew they couldn’t be feeling what I was feeling—if they were, how could they be smiling? How could they be hanging out and having fun on the weekends? My reactions with other corps members were infuriatingly positive; and as more and more of them seemed to round the corner and see their tiny improvements, I felt more and more alone.
My classroom was a mess, literally and figuratively. Every morning, I would wake up absolutely convinced that this was all a horrible dream; it felt like I’d open my eyes and still be at Institute with the whole school year still ahead of me. At 5:00am, I would drag myself into the shower with a gigantic knot in my stomach, drag myself to school digging in my heels every step of the way, and drag myself into the classroom to prep, moving slowly to try and put off the moment when I’d have to face my students again. I became physically sick every morning, dreading the long hours of being cussed at and ignored by the cruelest bunch of 10th graders that had ever existed. Immediately after the last bell, I would close and lock my classroom door and be utterly brain-dead and worthless until I mustered up enough energy to throw some things in my bag and head home. Then, slowly, my catatonic state would give way to high-level anxiety as the clock ticked away toward midnight and I was still trying to trudge through planning lessons for the next day.
When my PD asked me what the biggest obstacle to my success was, I would invariably say “I just can’t seem to do any work!” and it was true. I was so upset by my whole situation that I would literally sit for hours just staring at my blank computer screen, trying to will myself to start planning. I didn’t start working until I had decided to go to bed—at which point I’d throw something together for the next day and finally fall into a restless sleep, only to have it shattered by the reality of the next day.
Once, I got to school and had a major panic attack in front of my kids, triggered by the morning bell. Another day, I felt so nauseous and sick on the way to school that I called in a sub, only to realize on my way home I was fine, and only felt sick because of school. One night, I lost control at the end of a TAL workshop and hyperventilated for fifteen minutes at my ED, PD, and two other corps members. I was absolutely dysfunctional for weeks and weeks. Meanwhile, of course, my depression manifested itself in my classroom and in my students’ learning, which made me feel worse.
My PD was amazingly supportive and gave me countless ideas and things to work on in my classroom—but she couldn’t fully realize at first that my classroom was just a symptom of what was going on with me. To make matters worse, I grew increasingly self-conscious about asking her for help—she was my PD, after all, not my counselor. Her job was to support me as a teacher, not to be a shoulder to cry on, and definitely not to provide counseling. Luckily for me and for my kids, she did all of those things and more: she called me regularly to check in, provided me with names/numbers of psychiatrists and therapists that accepted my insurance, and even called them on my behalf since I found it so hard to do it during business hours.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been looking for help. Right before I graduated, I spoke with a counselor at the health center on campus, who strongly advised that I make arrangements to see a specialist while I was at Institute. During Institute, I called the mental health hotline TFA provided, and was connected with a “support group” in the area (which actually turned out to be a very awkward one-on-one interrogation that I couldn’t escape for almost three hours). In my second week of teaching, I made an appointment with a counselor who was very similar—she was distant and detached, and seemed judgmental of TFA and its expectations of corps members. My PD arranged a mental health session for CMs at one of our workshops, and when I made a follow-up appointment with one of the therapists who spoke, he flat-out told me “These kids who make your life miserable—just remember they’ll never amount to anything anyway. They’ll probably end up in jail.” I had two sessions over the phone with a counselor during my conference period. Later, I literally paid $585 basically to have a man tell me I needed to go to the gym. I knew I needed to exercise. I didn’t know how to make my body do what my mind told it to do. This was the same man who told me my job was “to teach Geometry–not to take it upon yourself to make sure those kids graduate.”
I wanted so badly to be a decent teacher, to push through the awfulness, and to just get enough work done so I could have one good day in the classroom—but no matter how long and hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself do the work. Still, while no one else around me seemed to have this problem or feel this bad, TFA kept sending the message “You’re not in this alone. Everyone’s going through the same thing. You’re being too hard on yourself.” No one, not even my wonderful PD, fully believed me when I told them my classroom was in shambles. No one took me seriously when I said I thought I was doing worse than everyone else—when I told current (and former) CMs how worried I was about myself and didn’t know how long I could keep living like this, I invariably got the reply “yes, but just remember—it does get better.”
I was trapped. When I asked mental health professionals for help, they said awful things about my kids, told me “you can’t reach them all” and said I should stop holding myself to such high expectations. When I asked my family and friends at home for help, they listened helplessly and asked me if I shouldn’t just quit. And when I asked TFA people for help, they gave me next steps for my classroom and said “it does get better” (and, truly, did everything they could do, within their roles, to help me). There was nothing I could say that would convince them that I was not just an over-achiever being hard on myself—I was really scared that I was going crazy. To TFA and my PD, the mere fact that I was accepted into Teach For America meant that I was going to succeed. It meant that I was an intense, hard worker who would always feel like what I did wasn’t enough, who probably wasn’t doing as badly as I thought I was. My staff couldn’t see that I was not the person who got accepted to TFA. I was a brain-dead, lifeless, un-motivated shell of the over-achiever I had been before. I was printing off worksheets from TFAnet every morning and handing them out to my kids. I was writing random tests and giving them out simply because I didn’t have the energy to actually teach anything. There were times when I would stand paralyzed in my classroom for minutes at a time, just staring into space and not thinking about anything, while my kids went crazy. Whether or not they did, I remember the distinct feeling that nobody I talked to really took me seriously when I said I was in real trouble.
I kept looking for therapists, and in October I found one who talked to me about me and not about how unrealistic TFA’s (and my) expectations were. But I still began to wish every night that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. I started crossing streets without looking for cars, thinking that I might accidentally be hurt or killed and not have to quit TFA. On the plane at Thanksgiving, I remember the moment when I realized it wouldn’t be so bad if we were to crash en route. I couldn’t teach for one more week—I couldn’t—but somehow, I did. And then I did it again. Somehow, I didn’t actually quit.
In December, my therapist finally told me that it didn’t seem like our sessions were helping me. She suggested I find a doctor and ask for a prescription. I struggled with this for weeks. I knew I had a problem, but my problem was with my thinking—my problem was that even in my most motivated state, I couldn’t get myself to get anything significant done. My problem was that I was stuck in a rut. Yeah, maybe medication would help me feel better on the surface—but I seriously doubted that it could change my thinking. I needed to just GET OVER this “I’m sad and can’t work” thing and realize that there were kids’ LIVES at stake here. By chance, however, I spoke to a former corps member who’d been on antidepressants before her time in the corps and was able to recognize in her first year that she needed to start taking them again. She was able to describe exactly how I was feeling, and strongly suggested I try it. I was out of options, anyway.
So during the last week before Christmas break, I made an appointment with a regular old general practitioner (an awful, awful doctor who looked like the female, albino version of Gollum and stared at my shoulder the entire time) and got a prescription. I knew it wouldn’t take effect overnight, and I knew I’d probably go back into my classroom in January with the same awful sick-to-my-stomach dread… but I was doing something. As long as I popped my pills every night, I could still say I was in the fight.
But—lo and behold—it worked. As I’m sitting here writing this on February 27th, the following questions come to mind: “What is the thing I want readers to come away with? When someone searches Teach For Us for “depression” or “mental health” or “therapist” or “suicide” or “I hate being a teacher, get me out of here” (yes, I searched for all of these and more) and they come across this blog, what do I want them to find? What do I want them to discover?”
I want you to know that other people search TFAnet for “depression,” too. I want you to read something that convinces you that someone does know what it feels like to be there. Someone knows how you can’t make yourself do anything, and how of course you have the best of intentions, and of course you know you could be a kick-ass teacher if you could only stop hating every minute of it. I want you to get a really clear picture of me sitting on my couch on a sunny Saturday afternoon after a morning of professional development, crying literally at the top of my lungs for three hours because of how alone, confused, and just generally awful I felt after listening to so many of my fellow first-year CMs list their successes. Maybe I even want you to know how I skipped the after-dinner dance part of our TFA Christmas celebration to puke in the bathroom after hearing inspiring corps member speeches about things finally improving. One by one, the people around me “saw the light” and started feeling better, and I felt like the only one who couldn’t get herself to put energy into giving kids a better future.
I want you to get what I couldn’t have understood without talking to the SEVEN mental health professionals I talked to: even though some people are more susceptible to depression, if anyone lets their brain marinate in ‘sad juices’ (my own professional terminology) for long enough, eventually it’s going to stop responding in the right way. Anyone who is sad enough for long enough will eventually become depressed. The work we are doing is definitely enough to make that happen, even to one of the strongest-willed people I know (me :P).
I want you to see that though depression medication doesn’t solve everything, it does give you a lifeline to hang onto while you figure out how to solve it yourself. It gets the ‘sad juices’ out of the way so you can come up for air and your brain can remember how to make the chemicals it normally makes to deal with normal ups and downs.
Maybe I want you to try out my whacked analogy of a mouse in a barrel of cream—how just by virtue of the fact that the poor mouse kept swimming, even though there was absolutely no hope for survival and no way out, his surroundings eventually, slowly responded to his relentlessness and the cream churned into butter solid enough for him to walk on. How not even the most persuasive or convincing person would be able to convince that mouse he was actually going to make it. To him, the smooth walls of the barrel and the liquid-ness of the cream would dwarf anyone’s attempt to console him. And those trying to convince him are stuck just repeating themselves over and over, to no avail: “It will get better. It does get better! I promise, it gets better!”
I want to address the TRAPPED feeling I had, between the “you’re being ridiculous; stop holding these ridiculously high expectations!” from mental health people, and the “you know, every first year teacher feels this way, and you just have to wait it out. In the meantime, change your perspective. Just THINK about it different!” from TFA. I want you to know there’s a third perspective that acknowledges both your mental health and your high expectations, and urge you to seek it out. I got this perspective from my PD and from some very special former corps members and other mentors I happened to find, and I’ll rattle it off to anyone who’ll listen: CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY THAT YOUR “OCTOBER BLUES” ARE ACTUALLY SOMETHING MORE SERIOUS.
Mostly, I want you to think about the possibility that NO, the suffering you’re feeling is not normal, and you should be making a fuss about it. AND maybe you should be holding your ground when people try to tell you that this is just your “disillusionment” phase, that it’s not as bad as you think it is, or that everyone else feels the same way.
I guess I also want you to see that I was lucky—I got the right medication, at the perfect time (over winter break), at the right dosage (I think), and things changed for me overnight (literally). You might not be so lucky—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. I have a very good friend who was on medication before I was for anxiety and depression associated with teaching, and it took him months to find a medication/dosage that started to work. He struggled and struggled, went back to the doctor, increased his dosage, and then things slowly started to change. He started to have about one good night a week, where he felt really productive and motivated—then his general attitude started to change over the course of January. It was so inspiring to watch him slowly emerging, because I really admired the strength it required to see that things were changing, however slowly.
The hard part of all of this is that if someone’s not in your shoes, they just can’t understand what it’s like to be you. Even if they have been there and came out of it, their perspective is still removed enough that they should never operate under the assumption that they know what you’re going through. Trust yourself—no one’s advice, however experienced or profound or well-intentioned, is perfectly suited to your situation. If you’re worried, just make something happen! Don’t assume that the “it does get better” or the “phases of first-year teaching” necessarily apply to you, that you just need to wait until your “rejuvenation” phase and figure out how to deal in the meantime.
I want you new, possibly depressed CMs to know how proud I am of myself, and I want you to feel proud, too. I was so, so seriously considering quitting—but somehow, I never actually did it. I used to compare myself to other corps members and feel so weak-willed and guilty… but knowing now that I survived the first semester of teaching while clinically depressed makes me feel very strong and very proud of every day I dragged myself out of bed and braved the three hours of nausea before school started, kept on lesson-planning through tears, or just kept on going as a teacher. I felt like I was failing my kids so hard (and I was), but now I feel like I fought a battle for them, and came out on top. I came out finally able to work my butt off for their sake.