I’ve lost count of how many times people have asked me how I appear to just carry on despite rapidly falling to pieces. Just as often I look confused at them & say “err I just do. It’s nothing special.”. Looking at it objectively, actually my ability to hold down a full time job is thanks to a million little tricks and adjustments. This series of blogs is all about unpicking those adjustments & sharing them. Number 1 shared some tricks on making it through the day in one piece, or at least in as few separate pieces as possible. This week, I’m focusing on mental health.
For those who don’t know, I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – a genetic condition which affects connective tissues throughout my body making them stretchier than they should be. For me this meant undiagnosed joint pain, weird injuries, & enormous anxiety as a child; later this became chronic pain in my back & gastric issues; finally (and this isn’t my final form) in my mid 30s I dislocate daily, have dysautonomia, intense fatigue, & the joys of adrenal imbalance making me easily “stressy” and unable to sleep at appropriate times.
Life could very easily get very dark; I could easily dwell on the potential of overdoing it & rupturing an important organ; it’s not unusual to do the 2am game of “which body part hurts the most?” – tonight, come on down thoracic vertebrae! We have a winner! ; I am human & the odd week long pity party for one is allowed (and frankly, quite health behaviour when you are faced with similar pain to a broken bone all the time & for the rest of your life). At my PIP interview the assessor took Mr Geek aside and said bluntly “keep.an eye on her, that brave face is going to slip soon & she will crash and burn”. PIP or Personal Independence Payment is the UK disibility benefit to enable us to pay for care & mobility aids. It has a very bad press & the process tested my mental health to the absolute limit. I lucked out with my assessor who was kind & fair and was so jaded by the system that he just asked me straight rather than trying to trip me up. I thought he was being dramatic when he said to look out for my mental health. He wasn’t.
So here’s some pieces of advice on mental health in the workplace when you have chronic pain.
1. Every Little Helps
It’s very easy to feel like Sisyphus forever rolling that boulder up a hill & getting nowhere. As teachers, even after years, we have this idea in our heads that we can create a community of well behaved & engaged kids. That ideal will never go.
When I first used my wheelchair at school, I was scared that it would impact on my authority and the kids wouldn’t behave. Quite the opposite. It’s allowed me to be softer with them because I’m in less pain, so have more patience, and they copy my more happy style.
It’s not all sunshine & rainbows though. This week I’ve encountered all sorts and it’s worn me down. We’ve had uniform “adjustments”, monosyllabic grunting (that drives me up the wall), swearing, use of the words “retard” “gender bender” “gay” “mong” (can you say detention with an essay researching the history of why that is offensive?), graffiti, large items thrown through windows, parents complaining that I’m horrible. I’m painting an awful picture, but this is not business as usual.
I work in an outstanding school. Not because Ofsted say so, but because it’s a place I want to go to. I gladly increase my pain levels to spend time with the kids & my colleagues. And you can bet any amount of money that each of those issues will be dealt with in a style similar to Thor’s Hammer.
Yes, I’m sick to the back teeth of kids talking to me like something on their shoe, but what they don’t realise is that I’m grittier than them. They will pass this course if I have to drag them kicking & screaming. I secretly like them. Even when they’re making my life hellish.
And that’s my secret weapon. They don’t need to like me, they need to know I have their best interests at heart. They initially think I’m evil. I set all this homework and demand proof that they’ve revised. Then had the audacity to set a test for year 11 on Tuesday. They got their results today & the majority did wonderfully. I gave them proof that their hard work paid off. I won.
2. It’s not personal
Meet the teenager who greets you with “let me sing you the song of my people: that teacher hates me”. The song translates to a number of things:
- “that teacher set me work that I don’t immediately understand and they won’t do it for me”
- “That teacher won’t let me sit with my friends and chat”
- “That teacher doesn’t understand why I’m struggling in class”
In the 3rd instance, yes, we’re in the wrong. And we are not infallible and do miss things. But when those complaints come in because you set high expectations & push for independent thought (and they will), it’s not personal. Not for you as the teacher. It’s hard for children (and nd adults) to adjust from being spoon-fed answers to being investigators. It’s natural to dislike the person who is pushing you out of your comfort zone. I hated my programming teacher. As he strode around the classroom proclaiming we were all useless & a waste of his precious time so no he wouldn’t lower himself to giving us the answer! We resolved to make him look stupid by proving him wrong and aceing the module. We were played. Looking back, he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
I’m not suggesting his style of teaching. But be firm. Follow your behaviour guidelines. Write home. Know that you are the target for their fear of failure & self doubt. And by knowing that, you also know it’s not as personal as there words suggest.
3. Cake Monday
Make time for your colleagues. They are your support network. This year is arrived on our first day back with a home baked black forest cake and declared Monday breaktimes “Cake Monday” where we all stop, Drink tea, eat cake, and most importantly talk about us (not work, but what’s going on with our lives). That 20 minutes each week allows us to touch base & gauge if anyone is wobbly. Case in point being my wobble over going to hospital in October – I talked about my fears & whilst they can’t fix it, they are keeping it low key with questions about it banned unless I bring it up.
4. Mark your work!
Err how is this good for mental health exactly? Well, set a routine with books. Collect then in each week & leave a minimum of one positive comment in there. Where they need to improve, ask a question instead of telling them.
When you write down positive things about your class, you feel more positive towards them. This is especially helpful for new classes, or ones you find challenging.
My favourite right now is to buy packs of DC & Marvel stickers which go on the cover of their books if they show effort or grit or self control. These also equate to housepoints, but they love my silly comments of “super effort” or my personal favourite “incredible homework ” accompanied by a sticker of the hulk.
4. Ask for help
Do as I say, not what I do. I am so bad at this & am paying the price. My job this weekend whilst away is to put together a list of tasks that are causing me pain, or issues at work.the reason being so I can propose a change in my support from Access to Work. I’ve reached a stage where I’m aware that I’m overstretching my physical capabilities and need a support worker in some capacity. Travel in a converted van with my wheelchair strapped down is painful & noisy to the point of tinnitus.
As part of this, I used an accelerometer on my phone to measure some of the bumps over my 30 minute journey into work. These show a reading in m/s2 (meters per second squared)
Remembering that travelling in a wheelchair means you are sat bold upright thus placing the ptessure of any bumps directly onto the spine: at it’s highest reading, this was a 3g pressure downwards. That’s on a par with a roller coaster. This could explain why I start each morning with tea & painkillers.
This kind of data will help me to legitimately ask for help & not be seen as moaning. It’s unlikely that’s they would, but I’m my head I’m biting the hand that feeds me.
So, a bit of a long rambley post which I guess is fitting for looking after your mental health when you’re dealing with life & chronic pain.
Until next time xx