I am trying to work out what came first: was the depression first or did teaching give me depression? I am not sure. In writing this blog I hope to tease out the truth and maybe find some answers. Maybe it will help people.
I have probably always had depression. Even as a young child I used to cry at night for no particular reason. My childhood was no better and no worse than anyone else’s. There wasn’t really a reason for it. It was just how I was. I felt alien and different. I didn’t fit in. I was sensitive. I had horrible nightmares which were horrific in content. I had no idea where these images came from. They bore no relation to my actual life. I always sensed that I was in the wrong place, that I needed to escape. I suppose I never felt loved. I loved dogs and horses, had few real friends after primary age. I was good at school and excelled academically. I loved to read. Reading was my solace. I liked the other realities I was shown, other ways of living. I was a classic depressed teenager. It was okay though because goth was cool in the 1980s. It was trendy to be miserable. I thought I had found my tribe. I hadn’t though. Underneath the eyeliner and the back combed black hair goths were the same as everyone else I knew. They liked heavy drinking, drugs, casual sex and music. They weren’t interested in anything refined like literature or art or politics. They didn’t want to discuss ideas. I still felt like the odd one out. I put up with people for the sake of having friends but I felt no connection with them.
I got straight As in my A-levels and go into Edinburgh University. I felt much better about myself. Here was something I could do. I was clever. Maybe I could be an academic or a writer and truly escape. In first year I still felt quite depressed. University was not the Brideshead Revisited version of my imagination. I didn’t meet interesting people who wanted to discuss ideas. My hall was full of engineers and scientists who were “nice”. They worked hard, got drunk on a Friday night and had nothing to say. They were fluffing up the CVs for the good job they wanted to get. I had nothing in common. Where was Samuel Beckett and WH Auden? Nowhere to be seen. I took solace in my goth image. In second year I became more confident socially. I dyed my hair peroxide blonde and wore a short leather miniskirt. This was something else I could do. I was my own art project: a living installation. I loved wacky clothes. I stood out among the bland sweatshirts and jeans. Out and about people always thought I was at art college. It made me laugh because I couldn’t draw for toffee. I started to feel better. I got a proper boyfriend and lost my virginity. I felt I had found my tribe. I was thrown out of English Literature for not getting high enough marks and had to do a Philosophy General degree. I was totally gutted. I wasn’t clever. I was thick as shit. I loved books and writing. It was all I had ever loved. Here I was told I couldn’t do it. Of course it wasn’t about writing. It was about analysing. I couldn’t analyse in the way they wanted. All my ideas were always poo pood. Everyone else seemed to know the game. I didn’t. I did better in Philosophy and the tutors were much nicer. But English was my first love. I lost my boyfriend. I felt depressed again. I retreated further into the alternative underworld of Edinburgh. I went out and got drunk a lot. I danced away in the subterranean goth clubs. I had a lot of one night stands. I swigged my contraceptive pills with my pre loaded bottles of beer and I didn’t give a shit. I kidded myself I was happy but I wasn’t. I became friends with lots of non-students. I came to quite like Philosophy. It kind of blew my mind. Space and time don’t exist. Nothing is real. You can never get outside your own head. Reality is an illusion. It was hard to care about petty things after that. Nothing really mattered. I started to smoke a little pot. I still drank too much. I got a new boyfriend. He was kind and gentle, not judgemental. I felt better. I was less depressed.
After university I drifted for a year. I stayed in Edinburgh and lived in a crazy flat in a tiny room off the kitchen with a platform bed. I read Dostoevsky and listened to The Swans. My flat mate was a Satanist. She was evil. She turned the living room into a temple. It was very strange. Thankfully she moved to London and some more normal people moved in. I didn’t have a job but in those days the dole was enough to live on. I embarked on this secretarial course at Sight and Sound in the hope of becoming more employable. My flat was in the middle of Edinburgh and my course was just over the road. In spite of the lack of money I was almost happy. I didn’t have much confidence about getting a good job because of my useless degree. Most of my friends and acquaintances became journalists. In hindsight I wish I had tried this.
I love J K Rowling’s word muggle. I use it to describe the scary normal people who inhabit the world, the people who care about petty things and watch X Factor on the tele and think Cheryl Cole is talented. People who are not like me. People who fit in. I knew I had to try to become one of those people. It was expected of me. I was letting everybody down. So I applied for a PGCE (teaching certificate in primary education) and was accepted by the University of Hull. I wasn’t very sure about it even at the time but there was no work in Edinburgh. Everyone was a wannabe: postman wanting to be a musician, waitress wanting to be a film director, call centre worker wanting to to be an artist… I didn’t even know what I wanted to be. A few people told me I should be a writer. I didn’t take them seriously. I had no confidence. I had sat around in enough bars and cafes waiting for Roman Polanski to discover me to know it was never going to happen. Jobs just seemed mostly awful. At least teaching had some kind of meaning. You were helping people. It was outside of the capitalist bubble. Maybe it would be ok. I moved with my boyfriend to Hull which was supremely awful. We lived in a freezing cold terraced house. I got through the course reasonably ok even though I wasn’t very good at behaviour management. It didn’t seem to matter. I was reasonable happy.
I got my first job in South London. I thought London was going to be a bigger more glamorous version of Edinburgh. How wrong I was. South London was a vast expanse of Victorian terraces going on forever. There was very little greenery. The school had a yard only. It was all so urban. I thought it was what I wanted but it wasn’t. I didn’t really get on with the muggles at school. Most of them were posh Surrey ladies who came up to do their little job to stop them being bored. Their husbands were rich. They were all terribly terribly middle class but left wing in a really false way which didn’t mean anything. I just managed it. It made me feel incredibly tired. The parents were always critical and thought I was too young to do a proper job. The children preferred their previous teacher. It was hard but I passed my probationary year. I decided to leave at the end of the year and go back to Scotland to be with my boyfriend This was to prove career suicide in hindsight. At the time I was full of hope. I had been much happier in Edinburgh and I imagined living there again but this time with a teaching job. Throughout my London year I probably had a low level depression. I remember when driving back to the north I used to have this awful sense of this was all there was going to be. Doing a job I didn’t particularly like in a place I didn’t particularly like in relative poverty. I used to sometimes think I could just let my hands let go of the steering wheel. I didn’t. I knew I had to keep going.
We ended up in Dunfermline. I could not get a teaching job. At that time there was no work in Scotland. Thatcherism had seen to that. I got some supply but only a few days a month. The schools were actually really nice but they had no permanent positions. Scottish education seemed much less faddy than in England. There was more emphasis on basic skills and less on being artsy. It would have been great if I could have got a job. I didn’t like Dunfermline. It was small and insular. My boyfriend’s friends didn’t like me. They didn’t like that I was English and loved to slag off my home town as if theirs was anything to write home about. We bought a tiny flat. The people next door were mentally ill and the hallway stank of piss. I hated it. I spent my non-work days reading. I read everything in Dunfermline library. I dreamed of starting a new life abroad. I wanted to get away from Dunfermline. I got a job in the Sky call centre and left after two days because it was so awful. My family came up with a term of work for me back in Middlesbrough that they knew through a friend. Stupidly I went to do it. It was just awful. The class were extremely badly behaved and had had about six different teachers that year. They were completely unsettled and lazy. I didn’t have enough experience then to know what to do with them. I became really ill with stress, lost weight and cracked up and left. My parents seemed to think I should just carry on teaching even though it obviously wasn’t right for me. I applied to lots of teaching jobs and didn’t get any of them. Middlesbrough was just as bad as Scotland for lack of jobs. A desert. I had a low level depression through out this time which got worse in Middlesbrough. Living with your parents when you have been away just doesn’t work. I longed to be independent again. I knew I had ruined my CV by going back to Scotland and getting no work. It just looked so bad. My confidence was at a very low ebb.
I went back to Dunfermline and got married. It was actually a really nice day and the sun shone in Dunfermline Glen. I felt better. It was a new beginning.
We moved to Manchester as my husband was embarking on an Optometry degree. He was trying to be a muggle too. I felt a failure as a muggle but we were going to be broke so I would need to work. I signed up for supply. My first contracts were awful. The standard of behaviour in Manchester was absolutely abysmal. The children seemed profoundly damaged and neglected both emotionally and physically. There were chilren crawling with lice and stinking of urine. There were children who were never fed by their parents arriving at school starving and eating anything they could find. There were children you would see begging outside the chip shop at night hoping someone would take pity on them. We were so broke we lived in a council flat in Hulme which was an area with a bad reputation. There were some eco warriors we became friends with and they were quite fun. At least they weren’t muggles. The locals were usually pretty awful. We moved out to a flat in Whalley Range which was actually much nicer though it was damp. It was a big Victorian block split into flats. It was still rough with prostitutes parading past with cans of beer at all hours of the day and night but it was better than the other one. I did as much supply as I could get, some short term contracts and then finally got a proper job at a reasonably nice school in the northern suburbs. I had got better at my craft. I had seen so much nothing fazed me. I was a little better at managing behaviour. The problem with this school was it was in special measures due to bad management but it had a news parachuted in super head. The Labour government had introduced all kinds of reforms. It was all about testing now and levels. The way of teaching was proscribed. Creativity was out. Gradgrind was in. Supposedly it was raising standards but I am not sure it ever did. Children just became better at jumping through hoops and doing certain things in a certain way. It was no way as much fun for them. I tried incredibly hard to be a good teacher. I read everything. I went on all the courses. I stayed up late working. I got good reports from the myriad of inspections. I became more confident. The school inspections were incredibly stressful. I used to come out in eczema all over my hands, great weeping sores. In spite of the stress I was happier in this phase. My husband now had a job and we had more money with the joint income. We bought a little house on a new development back in Hulme. It was part of the regeneration project and very cheap for what it was. The school got out of special measures and things should have been going well. Then the death knell sounded. We were victims of a home invasion. Men with guns broke into our house to rob us. We survived but it was a horrendous experience. I became more depressed than every before. It seemed that nothing would go right for me whatever I did. When I got back to school after two weeks off to recover people were really strange with me. I realised I was being edged out. The concensus was I was not the person I was due to what had happened to me. I couldn’t believe how uncaring and callous the management were. They didn’t give a damn about individuals, only the school. All I would have needed was a little time to recover, a little gentleness. I had got good reports from inspectors and the Educational Psychologist loved my behaviour management. Internally though I was never rated. The superhead seemed to hate me. It was constant passive aggressive comments and belittling. In spite of all my hard work I was never given any additional points or promotion. I fell apart and left.
My husband and I escaped to the West Highlands of Scotland. He had a job. I started a Kip McGrath franchise which was tuition in small groups. It was lovely for a while. The scenery was breathtaking but it did rain every day all winter which was quite hard to take. The people were mostly very nice. The atmosphere was calm and the air clear. My depression started to lift. I started a Psychology degree with the Open University as I had dreams of becoming an Educational Psychologist. I couldn’t get enough pupils to pay the premises rent so I had to give up my business. It was such a shame as I loved doing it. It was real teaching with individual tuition and I felt like I was really helping people. I went back to teaching which I should not have done. I worked for a year in the Catholic school which really struggled to get staff. It was pretty hairy and once again badly managed. There were some nice staff but also some pretty awful ones. I don’t think I was rated very highly by anyone. Then for once luck shone on me and I was offered a temporary job on a tiny Scottish island. There were only three staff and a handful of pupils. It was lovely. Standards were high but it wasn’t stressful. There were no levels or public tests. This was education as it should be. Unfortunately, the serpent had as usual to enter Paradise. My husband had a really bad boss which made him hate his job. We left and moved to Suffolk. I thought I had healed and I felt mentally a lot better at this point.
This feeling was not to last. The job in East Anglia was utterly horrendous. The children were deprived and badly behaved. The academic standard was as low as I have ever seen. It needed superhuman energy just to get through. The staff were hostile and unsupportive. They were without doubt the worst staff I had ever had to work with. An inspection loomed and the school was put into special measures. This time we were not to get out. In the end the school closed and opened under a new name. All the staff were got rid of except the absurdly young deputy head who managed through some fast talking bullshit to keep her position. The place was incredibly badly managed and the advisers who were supposed to be helping us gave incredibly bad advice which the inspectors didn’t agree with. Again I worked incredibly hard to try to make it work but I just couldn’t. I became ill again and lost lots of weight. I felt extremely depressed. I wished I had stayed in the Highlands. Regret washed over me like a sea. I had made totally the wrong decision to come back to the English system. I had finished my degree and applied for the Educational Psychology PhD. I didn’t get on it. The one interview I had I messed up the group task. It was my social anxiety again, social awkwardness, not knowing when to speak and when to listen. I was gutted that I couldn’t get on. I thought it was the ideal position, utilising my experience but not at the chalk face. I had failed again. I felt seriously depressed again. The doctor told me it was better to manage without medication if I could. So I did. Or rather I didn’t. I just survived.
I got a job in Luton as they were desperate for staff. It was actually quite a nice school. I wanted to prove I could teach again and I did. I spent a year there without much incident but I didn’t like the urban environment and longed for the countryside. It was a long way from my home in Suffolk. I rented a flat in the week. I was horribly lonely and spent most nights crying to myself. It really wasn’t worth it. My depression had lessened from the severity of the previous school but it was still there all the time gnawing away at me.
I landed a job near my home in a boarding school. I hoped this was going to be my last stop. There were some good things about it. It was free of the National Curriculum and fairly free form. The academic standard was much lower than it should have been and a lot of the children were lazy and spoilt. Some of them were delightful. The staff were generally awful, terrible snobs in spite of their paltry salaries. I was managing reasonably well until a new headteacher came. He was a classic bully and seemed to have a big problem with me from the beginning. Men were praised to the skies while women were belittled. The parents were in charge. There was no professionalism. We were back again with the passive aggression and the belittling comments. Again, I became extremely stressed. It had happened to me once too often and I couldn’t go through it again. I felt angrier and angrier at the way people behaved. I just kept telling myself if only I worked harder everything would come good. I was like Boxer from Animal Farm. But it wasn’t true. I had a full on nervous breakdown, did some very stupid things and was on the verge of total mental collapse. I spent weeks in bed barely able to move or do anything. Eventually, I pulled out of it with diet, exercise, meditation and yoga. It still recurs though but I have learned to ride my depression like a rip tide, accepting it and getting it back to a manageable level. I will never teach again.
So what came first the depression or did the teaching cause depression? I think I have always been mentally fragile. I have always had a tendency towards depression. Teaching made it worse. When I felt happiest was when I was in control, when I felt mastery over my tasks, that I was being successful. Unfortunately, this did not always happen. Children are not tins of beans and cannot be standardised. In the high stakes testing environment of England stress is built in to the system. I cannot cope with high stress environments. I have always had high anxiety which makes me unsuited to teaching. Even an ordinary day is a superhuman effort for me. In hindsight, I see that I chose the wrong career. I often wonder what would have happened if I had become a journalist or something. Would I have kept the black dog at bay? I wonder as I read this why I didn’t get out sooner, why I constantly kept on going. I don’t know. Part of it is the still small light of my Christian faith which kept telling me I was making a difference, that I was doing good, that I should put others before myself. Why do I get so stressed and why do I lack resilience and a thick skin? I am not sure but I think it may have roots in my childhood: the general feeling of lack of love. I was relentlessly bullied by my sister but my parents themselves weren’t much better. They were quick to criticise and slow to praise. I was the family scapegoat. When I read about this in my psychology textbooks I recognised it instantly. I have learned now to distance myself from them. I rarely visit and I allow their judgements to wash over me. They have no idea of how much I suffered trying to please them. I will not do so again.
I know at this stage I still have much to give. I need to get a true handle on my depression and get it truly under control. It is much better now but still there under the surface waiting to pounce. Perhaps if I figure it all out I can help others. My spirituality has kept me going. Whatever people do to you you can remember that you are part of something bigger, that you are divine. I am stardust. Nothing can bring me down unless I let it.