#136: The Mental Health Day

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In continuing my trend of discussing personal issues, such as my health, I’ll today be discussing mental health and what it was like last year, when I decided to take better care of my mental health.

When I used to work in Milford, I would make sure to take time off for my mental health. Little did I know that working in that place would actually deteriorate my mental health to the point of an actual breakdown and collapse of sanity, but I’m sure my decision to take mental health days contributed to the preservation of my sanity in a temporary sense. Taking mental health days helped me stay afloat, basically.

I highly recommend you make the decision to take mental health days for yourself. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and for some reason we only equate sick days with being physically ill. If someone is mentally ill and is in need of immediate help, then taking a day for yourself is a great way of getting back on track and resetting things. Not just for yourself, but for the good of others, too. If you’re mentally ready for things, the people at work will benefit from your aptness. If you’re not mentally ready, you risk alienating and making things worse for yourself and others. Think of it the same way you think of physical health!

I’ve tried to convince Alex to take more days for herself, similarly to what I did, but it hasn’t been super successful yet. It’s still a work in progress for sure.

Plus, above all, I get to spend days with Angus, my best friend and greatest companion of all. Nothing compares to the benefit of mental health bestowed by being with a dog companion.

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#115: Stress

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Stress. We all experience it, one way or another. Stress over work, stress over school, stress over relationships. It’s normal to be stressed, unfortunately, despite it being so toxic and corrosive to our mental health. There’s always been talk about how stress and challenges are essential to learning, that in order to be truly engaged or challenged in a task, there has to be some degree of urgency associated with it.

In some ways, I agree completely. How can I ever expect to learn how to handle stress, for example, without having experienced it in a more constructive, educational way in school? School is and has always been a reflection of life after school, but with handlebars and the bumpers up. Teachers are dictators, at least according to kids, and counselors are helpful, guiding friends. School has the makings of a microcosm of life itself, and the lessons learned in school help students in that they can apply those lessons when they reach adulthood. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. I don’t claim that this is what everyone’s school experience was like, or even mine for that matter, but I hope I can convey a sense of idealism, not realism, in this.

So, looping back to stress and the factors that go into it. I am somehow who gets stressed easily, and the second a student says one thing that’s slightly disrespectful, I am taken aback and reeling all the way home. My mind absorbs all the emotions and energy of the room around me, internalizing it all. That’s the life of an anxious mind. But in order to overcome stress, I like to think some advil and World of Warcraft does the trick. (That’s partially a joke; I do play WoW to unwind, though.)

Breakdown

Nothing wrong with a little
concern, a couple Q’s
about life and work,
she says,
excuse my inquisitive side

I say, breaking down is like
watching a horror movie in
slow-motion,
uncontrollable dramatic irony
steps into view and
watches you slowly until
you open the closet

I say, forgive me
for not reaching out when
I was at my lowest,
my deepest regrets are more
debilitating than I thought
and I forgot to say “Hello”

Hello
I had some troubles
last year, summer to
fall to winter to now,
you don’t think during a
breakdown, no one thinks
no one

#70: The Rust

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Inevitably, time attracts rust. Nothing avoids it, except for ample preparation and productivity. Yet not everyone has access to those traits. Let’s talk about how corrosive unemployment can be, how it eats away at your mind and leaves you with a relic of what you once were, so that when you do inevitably return to work, you are a shade of your former working self. It takes time to rebuild habits and routines, rinsing and repeating. It takes time to make yourself a worker again, to build yourself back up after months of tearing down your self-esteem and happiness. Once a mountain erodes, it takes centuries to reform.

Being unemployed means you are always searching for a way out of being unemployed. At no point during my unemployment did I think, “I would rather stay this way than work again.” I had fun memories with friends that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise, but reliving my college summer vacation schedule while no one else is “on break” is not as fun as it seems. Every hour I was scrolling through and resetting my inbox to see if another application got back to me, or to hear back on an interview. There’s patience and madness in expecting an email that never comes. There’s doom and gloom in never receiving the validation you need. Being unemployed takes persistence, and it takes heart, and it takes your mind away, bit by bit. Slowly but surely. Sand castles build in your head, and they disintegrate upon close inspection; when you zoom in on any preexisting mental structure, its foundations appear shakier than they initially seem.

And yet there is always rust. After being away from work for months, actual months, is there any surprise that work can feel alien? Anxious minds gravitate toward worst-possible outcomes, as a natural way of things, and so prior to restarting work, I felt anxious that I wasn’t ready to go back, that I needed more time to prepare myself, without realizing that the longer I wait, the more rust that will build up around me. Rust from not working, from not being a 7-3 guy every day, from experiencing deep sleep and waking up whenever you feel like it, from going to CVS during the day and traveling to White Plains to get my prescription in the afternoon. So many things no longer possible, but thankfully, that phase of my life is behind me. It is time to move on, and the best way to move on is by releasing inhibitions and anxieties and just pushing forward. Pushing and pushing until something breaks.

#65: The Employee

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You read it right. Anthony’s a newly-employed man. After a couple months of job searching, and a previous few months of deliberation and summer vacation, it feels surreal to say that I’ll be returning to work again on Monday. To put things in perspective: I went to a conference and workshop over the summer of 2018 and even attended a few curriculum development meetings, too, but for the most part, my summer was barren of work. Then, a day after school resumed session in August, I took a sick day to see my therapist, spent another few days adjusting to my head and new medications, saw family and updated them on my status, and signed up for an FMLA. That first day rocked me to my core, and put me in complete collapse. A month and a half later, I decided to resign from my job, knowing fully well that I would be saying goodbye to that world I was briefly a part of in Milford. There was sadness attached to my resignation, and I would feel, in the coming weeks, overwhelming guilt, regret, and nostalgia towards that job. It’s impossible to replace the feeling of being a teacher; even through all the negatives, the positives still found ways to be front and center in my head. The more I failed in my job search, the more I returned to happy memories from the very same job that put me in a mental health crisis in the first place. It didn’t make sense, obviously, to beat myself up so much over a decision I made for my health, but when it comes down to it, we do what we have to to survive.

Now, I begin work at a new school, in a new role, fulfilling the duty of a Literacy Interventionist. It is a responsibility I feel ready for, and I hope that I have the same success here that I did in North Haven.

#9: An Attention Deficit

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I’ve lived with attention deficit disorder since as long as I can remember, and the best way I can describe it is as a persistent mental fog. A sentient haze that floats overhead and infrequently drops into my mind to torment me. But that almost sounds too cliche, as if every other writer with ADD has written the same description of their disorder: a fog or haze over the brain. It’s the metaphor that makes the most sense to me, so please pardon the lack of originality.

When I write, the fog dissipates briefly, allowing me to step in, structure my thoughts, and produce a somewhat-cohesive written piece. When finished, it becomes an achievement or accolade that I can herald to myself, as proof that my disorder is conquerable. It gives a temporary happiness.

Writing helps me stay focused on my life while writing about my life. When I write, the guard rails and guidelines appear around my thoughts, helping me focus on my objective. I was never very good at structuring my essays, but I am much better structuring my cognition on the page than I am in the lawless Wild West that is my head.

But living with ADD is difficult. I wish I could say that I’ve conquered it, in some small way, since I was young. Conquering it once is praiseworthy but ultimately easy; it is when the haze descends unexpectedly, catching you off guard, that it strikes hardest and leaves the most lasting impact.

Living with ADD is teaching an English class of teenagers when, suddenly, your focus drifts from the students you are managing to your break twenty minutes from now, while leading a conversation about Of Mice & Men. It’s reflecting on your ungratefulness in your head while asking questions about George’s characterization. It’s having to ask a student for clarification after embarrassingly losing track of time during your own lesson. It’s having to contend with laughter and mockery while recognizing that you can never take it all too personally, and yet it feels so personal to you. It’s having to contend with flashbacks to fourth, fifth, and eighth grade, when you felt your ADD most abused, during your so-called professional dream career. It’s having to watch as the classroom’s attention drifts to other anxieties or preoccupations, just like your attention has. It’s having to listen to professional development meetings where, after hearing about wellness and honesty and community-building among the faculty, you walk silently and quickly away from everyone to the safety of your classroom because someone pointed out your unusual habit of taking persistent notes during meetings; it helps you pay attention just a little bit better, but that doesn’t stop others from laughing about it. It’s having to say no to social outings with colleagues because of your medication schedule. It’s having to sit through new teacher seminars, hearing once again the information you learned in graduate school, but this time, it feels more precise and directed at you and your failings as a teacher. It’s having to contend with all these regrets months later, a decision eternally shaping your future. Your anxiety is what keeps your ears perked and your mind sharp, but it, too, betrays you from time to time.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about forcing myself to read as a kid to expand my creative horizons. I made the choice despite my ADD, just as I do when I write like this. I write despite my struggles and weaknesses. My initials are ADD, and just as my name was given to me without a choice, so also was this curse thrust upon me, without regard for how it would mold my life in the future.

#7: Mistakes

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It’s easier to make mistakes repeatedly than to learn from them. A part of my mind always presents to me the easy option during a judgement call. When the going gets tough, when circumstances are dire, you can guarantee I’m looking at a morally correct decision and the easier decision. Of course, I’ll choose what’s right the majority of the time, but I cannot deny that the temptation towards ease and convenience exists. This feeds into mistake-making.

People make mistakes despite learning from them, too. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that knowledge itself prevents mistakes from reoccurring; in some part of people’s minds, knowledge exists but is not acted upon. For whatever reason, whether it’s leisure or a general unwillingness to comply, people can know better but still act worse. It’s a puzzling conundrum faced by new teachers all over.

I saw this a lot during teaching: students would act up during class, but they clearly knew how to act appropriately. They acted fine in many other classes, so the ability was present. When I would talk with other teachers during lunch, you could almost feel my confidence wane as I tried starting up conversation about a student giving me trouble who, to some of the other teachers, wasn’t a troublemaker for them at all. Something about how “students just act up around younger teachers, even if they know better.” Even if they know better.

Irrationality is something I had to wrap my head around, as a teacher. Humans are not rational beings who always make the logically appropriate decision at every opportunity or interval. There are dozens of other factors influencing human decision-making, especially adolescent decision-making, such as social skills, environment, time of day, class history, and background. Nothing comes easily in teaching.

Mistakes are easy to make, difficult to learn from, and even more difficult to fully comprehend enough to make a meaningful difference in one’s character. I hope that by writing these blogs I am, in some way, atoning for a mistake I hope to learn much from. When staring down a mistake from years ago, with roots traced into the present day, anxiety comes from looking too closely at it for too long. I hope not to make that mistake, as well.

#4: Smiling at Work

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I’m the kind of person who smiles a lot. I like when a sunny disposition empowers another to smile. I share a smile while ordering coffee, just to communicate to the barista that I mean no harm, that I am sorry for inconveniencing them, and that I know what it’s like to wear their shoes. I keep my distance and make sure not to over-complicate my order. If the coffee isn’t great, I drink it without showing signs of dissatisfaction or complaints arising. A new coffee isn’t worth the initiative; I’m sure the barista is busy with other things, or if not, then they deserve whatever break time they get. Peace of mind is underrated.

When the credit card machine stops working, I apologize, even though I had nothing to do with it breaking. It just felt like the appropriate thing to say. I see a line start to form behind me, and I worry that my order has now interrupted some kind of natural flow. A water stream cut from its source. A snake without a head.

Every service or retail worker has stories of being cussed at, spit on, stressed out, maybe all at the same time. I smile because I know how difficult but rewarding it is to spot a friendly face while behind the counter. I remember creating a radar that judged to what extent people would make my life miserable, based on outside factors. Depending on how loudly the radar blinked, the more misery I would expect. When I say “Thank you, have a nice day” before leaving, I mean it. Not enough people mean it. There’s no replacement for sincerity.

Trust is hard to come by. When your job depends on trusting the strangers you are servicing to not ruin your life, when the cards are in their hands, when your power is limited to wrist-slaps and detentions, you wish it were easier for you to trust people outside of your job. You have trouble telling trustworthy and untrustworthy people apart on first glance. After all, you have enough stories of being yelled at by the one customer you trusted not to ruin your day.

That’s why I make sure to smile, even a little bit. Life is too short to throw tantrums at customer service workers. Smiling is more worthwhile.

#3: To Be Happy in 2018

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Terrible news stories threaten our basic humanity and sanity on a daily basis. There is so much to grieve for, so many lives ruined or worse, taken away, and for nothing. Racism, xenophobia, and bigotry abound. Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Florida, Reno. Sandy Hook, which took place fewer than 30 minutes from my apartment. The news punishes us for paying close attention with overwhelming anxiety for the state of the world.

But it’s more than the news. It’s the reaction to the news, the callous, thoughtless tweets and statements made, the petty arguments, the reactions to the reactions, the cruelty and inhumanity and total hostility. The lack of empathy in the world. The dwelling feeling that the universe is inherently cruel and nothing will change, that you will wake up another day this week to another tragedy or crisis, another friend directly targeted or another group unfairly prejudiced, and, by this point, you know that feeling is right.

But you feel selfish when you decide to avoid the news. Have to keep your finger on the pulse, have to monitor everything. Can’t be without knowledge. Not knowing means not caring, but you do care. You care a lot, perhaps too much, for other people. “You’re a feeler, like me; you absorb the feelings of the room,” my therapist said once. You feel the high happinesses and glories, but when doom and gloom dominate every corner of the news, you take it all inside you and curl it up until it disappears. You prize happiness with your life. 

You wish it were as easy for you to not care as it is easy for all the heartless and careless, the ones who cause all this to happen in the first place.

There is a way out, though. The world is a hectic, chaotic place, and nothing is certain to last in our lifetimes except us. From studying existentialism in college, I recall Sartre’s Nausea. When all around you appears confusing and exhausting, look within. Stay calm inside the eye of the storm, knowing that your life is the only thing that is truly yours. If you erased all knowledge of the things you cannot directly influence or change, it would leave you with purely auto-biographical knowledge. You are you. Invest in others, but hold on to yourself, too. Remember to help yourself up first when your life is threatened. Avoid the news if it’s taking such a mental toll on you. Spread goodness through how you treat others. That’s the most we have control over. 

#2: Peace and Pride

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Finding peace and pride in our past lives is terrifying. The idea that you can review the past objectively, without shame, is completely foreign to me.

In 5th grade, three boys in my class bullied me, called me homophobic slurs, and worst of all, imagined dirty, disgusting dares for me to complete during our bathroom breaks before returning to class. If I didn’t complete their dares in time, the boys would stand up from their desks and point and laugh at me as I returned from the bathroom. The teacher never stepped in, not even when my parents called the school about it.

This wasn’t the first, nor the last time I was bullied in school. But it comes to mind because, like most victims of bullying, a part of me has always blamed my own dweebishness for the treatment I received. I resented those boys, but never stood up for myself. I had braces, a lisp, an awkward gait, and regularly brought my nerdy interests to school during show and tell. I remember expressing total enthusiasm for my new Gamecube the day after Christmas break, and I remember feeling embarrassed when others didn’t take the activity as seriously as I did. In short, my peers encouraged a sort of cooled resentment towards sincerity. Sincere emotions, whether passion for a gaming system or sadness after school, were signs of a weak spirit. I didn’t get the hint until it was too late, until after my reputation had already settled in the school community.

One of the reasons it can be difficult to be prideful in the past is because history tends to repeat itself, allowing past failures to reconstitute into new forms that make you question whether you’ve really changed much at all since 5th grade. Even though you know you have.

Peace and pride come from accepting failure and absolving our past selves of guilt, from seeing through the facade of total free will and manifest destiny over our lives that justifies our victimhood. Nothing in this world is completely under our control. There is a nice calm from throwing your hands up in the air and admitting defeat in that pursuit.

When I realize that I was an ineffective and incomplete teacher, I find peace and pride in my decision to leave teaching. My decision to leave, on its own, is evidence of the fact. The world was corrected in some small way when I made that choice.