“When we deny our story, it defines us.
When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
– Brené Brown.
In recent months, I’ve been increasingly inspired to open up about my own personal struggle with anxiety – either through writing, teaching or speaking – as a means of both allowing myself to be imperfect and vulnerable, but also as a means of better connecting with my audience.
Today, I figured, was as good a time as any to share a little more about myself here, as a means of explaining my reasons behind doing the work that I’m doing in and out of schools.
I went to school in the nineties, daughter to lovely parents, student to lovely teachers. I worked really hard and as such, managed to achieve a solid set of GCSE results. To the abstract observer, I was a success story. Inside, though, I was miserable.
My shyness was exacerbated in the high-school environment, over time morphing into something much bigger; anxiety, self-loathing, fear, panic and dread. Every day.
My method of coping was avoidance of anything that made me uncomfortable, especially socially, leading to a hardwired habit of avoidance that amplified all that I was afraid of. When I was forced into a situation where I had to ‘step up’, I hated every moment and got through it as quickly as possible, seemingly unable to cope with the eruption of physical sensations that ran through my body. I didn’t know it then, but I’d developed a fear of the sensations of fear, rather than the actual situation that triggered it.
See…mental health just wasn’t spoken about back then, not at home or school; not by me, or anyone else.
So nobody explained to me that I’d simply become stuck in a cycle of listening to unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and visualisations, that fuelled what I felt, said and did (or didn’t do.) Nor did anyone point out that the physical sensations I experienced, when I was asked to participate in class discussion, didn’t mean that I was insane; that it was simply my body going into fight, flight or freeze as a means of protecting me; something that I could manage with my breathing, body language and focus.
Had I learnt these things, maybe my experience of high school would have been a happier one; maybe I’d have chosen university courses I liked, rather than the ones that didn’t involve a speaking element; maybe I wouldn’t have wasted years in an IT job that I had zero talent for or interest in; maybe my PGCE year wouldn’t have been the worst year of my life; maybe I wouldn’t have needed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, years of mindfulness and an obsession with self-help, to get me to a point where I can even begin to imagine myself capable of what I hope to achieve.
I’m not complaining here. Without my experiences – without my struggle – I would never have found my way to the path that I’m on today; a path more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined.
When I walk into schools today, ready to talk wellbeing and emotional intelligence, I take my struggle with me. After all, it’s this that gives me the empathy, knowledge, skills and understanding to do this kind of work. It’s what allows me to break down barriers with the children and adults I work with. It’s absolutely what gives me the courage to walk forward, despite feelings of fear, self-doubt and discomfort.
I do what I do, because I don’t want my story to become the story of others.
I want kids today to know that they can challenge limiting thoughts, beliefs, reactions and habits; that they can achieve what they set out to; that they’re enough, even when they don’t look or act like their favourite social media star. More than anything, I want them to learn these things now, in school, rather than hearing them from a therapist years down the line.
The following slides from staff training demonstrate what we’re working towards, in school:
We can’t ‘cure’ mental illness just as we can’t foresee the direction that our students’ lives will take. But if we arm them with knowledge, skills, strategies and self-awareness, chances are that they’ll have an easier time finding their way towards purpose, potential and happiness.
There’s just one last point I need to make. In today’s climate, overworked teachers are increasingly stressed, anxious, depressed and resigning. Expecting them to pull together a lesson on mental health without any warning/training/experience, feels ineffective if not slightly unethical. We need our schools to acknowledge that our teachers often need as much support in this respect as our students do – and there’s an increasing number of organisations around the UK that offer this.
Put upon, as teachers so often are, it’s so easy to roll our eyes and view mental health as just another thing to do – another box to tick. Hopefully, in sharing my story, I’ve shown you that it’s so much more.