Friday, August 29, 2014

Battling shame

Now that I'm back in the full swing of school there is less time for writing on here, but I'm still trying to write something about once a week just to keep the momentum going.  This past week has been better overall with the negative thinking, and I'm getting back in the swing of things with school.  One of the biggest struggles I have going on right now would be the fact that I'm trying to change some habits around eating and exercise.

In therapy the other day I realized, once again, how difficult it is for me to let myself be human and imperfect.  I have no problem allowing that to others, but not so much for myself.  I had so much trouble just talking about wanting to eat better and exercise more.  I was ashamed of the fact that I have put on some weight over the last several years and don't always make the best choices when it comes to what I eat and drink.  Shame is a feeling that comes up often for me, and it came up again this week in therapy when talking about this topic.  Shame is not something I like to admit to, but I know it's a common experience for people who live with depression and other mental illnesses.  The truth is that it is deeply ingrained in me that there is something wrong with me. It is just something I have to grapple with on a fairly regular basis.  This despite the massive amounts of evidence in my life to the contrary.  That's the depression in action.

I know that with shame the best thing to do is put it out there.  Keeping things inside only makes me feel more isolated and alone.  Exposing shame to light takes away some of  it's power, admitting to how I really feel often empowers me.  My shame often comes from the fact that I feel different, alone, or like I'm the only one that struggles with whatever it is that I'm struggling with.  My therapist asked me if I thought I was the only one who struggles with eating healthy and exercising.  It was kind of comical because of course I know I'm not the only one.  And yet, at a feeling level I do feel that way sometimes.  There's a part of me that thinks I'm the only one who experiences any difficulty in life.  Again, the depression in action.

So I am trying to make some healthier choices and also not be so hard on myself when I don't do it perfectly.  One of the positive things I'm doing, that I actually started doing several months ago, is yoga.  Beginning to practice yoga has been really great for me.  In addition to it helping me get back into shape a bit more and gain some strength and flexibility, the spiritual aspect of yoga is really amazing.  The practice of yoga is like the opposite of shame.  The teachers will often say things about recognizing thoughts and feelings without judgment.  Some have even literally said to the class you are perfect just as you are.  It seems to be kind of the message and energy of people who teach yoga.  The clear message I always get when I'm in yoga is that I am perfectly fine just the way I am.  What an amazing and beautiful concept! 

So I will move imperfectly forward in my attempt to practice more healthy habits.  I will try and remind myself that I'm not alone, and that everyone struggles with something.  Nobody is immune to suffering and difficulty in life.  And most importantly, I will continue to write and talk about all of this both here and in other places.  The truth continues to be that I am perfectly imperfect, whether I'm feeling and believing it or not.   

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stress and Negative Thinking

I often forget how tiring and stressful the beginning of the school year can be.  And this year there are a few added challenges that is making it even more difficult.  I've changed from 2nd to 4th grade, so I am learning a whole new curriculum.  I had to move classrooms and am still trying to get some things in place.  We have a new math program that is really challenging for the students (and teachers).  And maybe the most frustrating aspect of life right now is the fact that our house is still in disarray due to the remodel not quite being done.  Having the house be a mess and so many things being where they do not belong is really getting old!

The first week of school has been a real roller coaster emotionally.  When stress hits me I tend to fall into some negative habits and thinking.  Especially the thinking... I'm extremely hard on myself and have difficulty allowing myself to just be human.  Being in a new grade level it's natural that I have a lot to learn.  But time after time this last week when things don't go well with a lesson or I need to ask for help from the other teachers I have really gotten down on myself. I don't give myself the same compassion I would offer any of my colleagues in the same circumstances.  From there it has a tendency to just snowball.  At least, I fear it's going to snowball and I'll fall back into a deep pit of depression. 

So I brought this overwhelmed and stressed out attitude to therapy yesterday.  I went on for about 15 minutes about my negative thinking, the things that weren't going well, and all of the stress in my life.  Once I slowed down she asked me if it was possible that I'm just stressed and overwhelmed because I have a lot of change and challenges in my life right now.  She's right. It's frustrating how when things are tough I just go straight to self-judgment instead of just acknowledging that things might just be difficult and challenging right now.  It's such a persistent habit that I often don't realize it's happening.  I'm working on being more aware of my thoughts, and challenging them with reality.

Another thing I noticed I am doing is focusing on the negative aspects of my day more than the positive ones.  Yesterday, for example, I felt really down and stressed as I went to school.  I was lacking confidence and my energy wasn't very good.  Then once I started teaching things went really well.  The technology in my class that had been broken since school started was fixed, which makes teaching so much easier!  And I was just kind of in a groove all day with my teaching.  The kids were engaged, I was having fun.  It was a great school day!  After school on the way to therapy that heavy and down feeling I had in the morning returned.  I carried that into the session.  But what I notice now is that I was completely focused on the fact that I was having this heavy, overwhelmed feeling instead of the fact that I had felt really good all day at work. 

I think over the last several months I've been working on changing my perspective about how I react to my moods.  Somehow I have this expectation that I should always feel good.  That's not realistic.  Nobody feels good all the time, especially those of us who battle depression.  So I'm trying to change my expectation.  I'm trying to be okay with the fact that sometimes I won't feel well.  Sometimes I'll be stressed, sad, tired, frustrated, angry and a variety of other not so great feelings.  It's okay to not feel okay sometimes!  The real trouble I think is not that I have these feelings, it's that when I do I get so down on myself.  I think they won't pass, or they mean there's something wrong with me.  But the truth is that life can be hard at times and I will not always feel good.  The bad feelings pass and I can often remind myself that the negative thoughts are just the depression lying to me.  It does that a lot, for everyone who suffers from depression. 

The truth is that the beginning of the school year is challenging and takes a lot of energy!  I'm going to be tired sometimes.  Stressed.  Frustrated.  Overwhelmed.  But I can't let myself forget that I also love what I do.  And I'm good at it.  I connect really well with my students and the other teachers.  I laugh and smile a LOT during the day.  I also have amazing co-workers.  We work well together and really do our best to do what's best for kids.  Not all schools have that.  All of this is true!.  The negative that often creeps into my head does not take away the positive.  I have a feeling I'll be reminding myself of this fact a lot over the next several weeks...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Beginnings

After four years of teaching 2nd grade I've moved up to fourth grade. Today was the first day of school.  I'm tired.  Really tired!  My wife actually just looked over at me and told me I look exhausted. She's right. But I'm excited also!

Last year was the most difficult year of teaching I've ever had.  There were many challenges that eventually just overtook me.  It was a very emotionally exhausting year.  The truth is, I took things a bit personally and took the struggles of some of my students on as my own.  I know from talking to teachers over the years that everyone has a year like that every once in a while, last year was mine...

A year like that definitely made me question a few things, including my abilities as a teacher.  It made me doubt myself for sure.  So I entered this year with that hanging over me a bit.  But at the same time, I'm determined to not have a repeat of last year. I do think I've learned a few things from the struggle.

Over the last several days as I've prepared my classroom I've been doing a lot of thinking about things.  I have a summer of perspective on my year and it's allowed me to make some shifts in my thinking.  There were many of my students who did make great progress last year both academically and socially.  I was also able to remind myself that there are many things I cannot control and that I did my best to help all of my students.  But most of all I regained perspective on what's most important to me as a teacher.

Teaching for me has always been about the relationships I build with the students and creating an environment where kids feel safe and empowered.  Everything flows from that.  Teaching and learning happen so naturally when you build a strong community in the classroom.  I know these days there is so much emphasis on high stakes testing and data.  It's easy to slip into thinking that's what matters most because of all the pressure put on teachers and schools to get good test scores with no excuses.  But teaching kids how to score well on a test is such a small part of what I believe will ultimately make them happy and productive people both now and down the road.  Kids need to learn problem solving, social skills, empathy and teamwork.  They need to feel valued as people and gain confidence that they can be successful.  And that's just scratching the surface really...

I was able to bring that perspective into the classroom today and had a great time.  We did some art, went over rules and procedures, and got to know each other a bit through some other activities.  It was a really wonderful day. I'm hopeful about this year.  I have the opportunity to make a positive impact on my 26 students' lives, and for that I am very grateful!


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ready or Not....

I want to be a mental health advocate.  I have come to accept my own depression and I want to let people know that there is nothing wrong with having depression or any other mental illness.  I know this work can save lives and help me grow as well.  I'm done living in the dark and pretending like this doesn't exist.

But at the same time, it's not like I make my statement and I'm done.  These steps are opening doors that I'm not sure I'm ready to walk through. I have issues with anxiety, I think and worry about things.  Change scares me, putting myself out there scares me, and taking risks in general scares me.

The most recent door that has opened for me is an opportunity to share my story in public.  My pastor is aware of the process I've been going through with coming out in the open and working to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.  This week he asked me if I would be willing to share my story with the congregation in church.  I was thinking he meant giving a 2-3 minute testimony near the beginning of the service.  But in fact what he meant is my speaking would replace the sermon.  Or rather, I guess my talk would BE the sermon.

As he brought this up to me in person earlier this week I told him I was interested.  But inside I was thinking there is no way in hell I'm getting up in front of the whole congregation and sharing my story.  Here's what was running through my mind.  I can't do this.  I don't know what to say.  I'll freeze up, panic, shake, shut down, etc... Who would be there?  What if _____ shows up?  These are just some of the fears that immediately began racing through my head.  And yet, I told him I'd think about it.  I figured this was something that would happen down the line and I'd have plenty of time to hopefully warm up to the idea.

Then just a couple of days ago I received an email from him giving me an actual date, September 28th, that he would like me to speak in church.  Again the fears started running wild and the anxiety started running through my body.  My mind was racing.  Public speaking in general scares me.  I mean, I'm an elementary teacher and I speak in front of kids (and often parents who may be in the room) all the time.  But this is different. This is new.

I often talk about my depression here, but anxiety is something I also have issues with.  I've definitely been  having some anxiety with this.  Intrusive thoughts.  Difficulty quieting my head enough to fall asleep. General nervousness.  So part of the struggle with both depression and anxiety isn't just the depression and anxiety, it's the negative thinking and self judgment that go with it.  So I'm working on that with this whole opportunity to speak in church and share my story.  What if it's just scary and anxiety producing because it's new to me? There are plenty of things that used to scare me terribly that I do now regularly with little or no fear.  Maybe with practice speaking in public about my depression can be the same.

I'm going to do it.  I'm going to share my story for whoever shows up at church on September 28th.  For years I have let fear rule me.  As a teen and young adult my fear and anxiety played a role in nearly every decision I made.  Since starting therapy nearly 25 years ago it's become a process of learning to live out of love instead of fear.  It's an extremely slow process... So despite the fact that I am really scared and full of self-doubt at the moment I'm doing this. 

There's also something else I sense within me.  Excitement!  Behind and mixed in with all the fear and doubt I'm currently experiencing is excitement.  I'm not excited about the actual act of getting up there and speaking, but I'm excited about the effect it may have on me as well as others.  I'm excited about a chance to touch other people's lives.  Somewhere inside me hidden amongst this fear I know the message I have to share is powerful and that speaking up about mental illness can change and save lives.  This is an amazing opportunity, and I'm not going to let my fear keep me from it this time. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On my Mind

I've been writing this blog now for just a couple of weeks, and I find that at times it consumes me.  I've never really been much of a writer.  I avoided writing at all costs in high school, and thanks to a great city college instructor I learned to at least gain a little confidence with writing throughout college.  However, other than writing in my journal and sending personal and professional emails I haven't really written anything in the 20 years since leaving college.

So how does it consume me?  I find myself thinking about things I want to write about all the time.  Multiple topics float around in my head, but there are so many different topics that focusing what I actually want to say is not easy.  I suppose with practice I may get better at organizing my thoughts and getting them out in a coherent way.  I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I find myself not wanting to "publish" anything on here until it's just right.  Well, not today!  Today I think will be more about what's been going on in my head and whatever else I seem to be thinking about.

I start thinking that there is somehow a "right" way to be doing this.  It's been great that I've been invited to this mental health bloggers group on Facebook.  I'm learning a lot, reading some great articles, and realizing how many people are out there working to reduce the stigma and raise awareness about mental illness.  The other side of this coin is that I tend to compare myself to others a lot.  When I compare myself to others, I'm always the one not measuring up.  I tend to look at their blogs searching for the correct way to do it.   But the reality is I am going to find my own way, find my own voice, and write my blog the way that fits for me.  I have to remind myself it doesn't have to be like other people's writing. 

The other thing on my mind is that I'm going back to work next week.  Well, one of the other things on my mind... I am an elementary school teacher.  For the last four years I have taught 2nd grade, and I'm very excited to be teaching 4th grade this year.  I do better with kids a bit older, so I think this will be a positive change for me.  I also will know many of the kids because it's the same group that was in 2nd grade two years ago. 

The other part of going back to work that's on my mind is that I started writing this blog over the summer and many of the people I work with have read it.  I know many of my coworkers as well as some of the parents are aware of and have probably read this blog.  There's a part of me that really doesn't give a shit to be honest.  What I write is simply the truth. I'm perfectly clear on why I'm doing this and I'm committed to bringing light to depression, anxiety, and mental illness in general.  But that doesn't mean it's not scary.  That doesn't mean I don't worry that others will think badly of me or wonder why I would want to share such personal things with the world.  I'm back and forth between these two sets of thoughts and feelings constantly.

This line of thinking reminds me of another blog post I read just the other day.  It was about stigma and the shame that those of us feel when telling others (either in person or in writing) that we have a mental illness.  The point was that we have to keep working at it until that shame and stigma is gone.  The article reminded me why I need to continue to putting myself out there to the world to show both myself and others that there is nothing "wrong with me".  I can have anxiety and depression and still be an effective teacher.  Actually, I feel that my experiences with depression and anxiety have made me a much better teacher.  And as that sentence makes it's way to the screen, my mind begins racing about how I can write a whole entry about how fighting depression and anxiety has made me a better teacher.  But I'll save that for another time, no need to worry about that now.