I’ve always enjoyed reading self-help books, ranging from how to get more energy or be more productive to how to raise your self-esteem or improve your relationships. But it wasn’t until five years ago that self-help became a necessity rather than just an interest. On this blog, I’m going to distil some of the advice that is out there, helping you to pick and choose actions that will help you to become your best self. But I’m going to start with the story of how I hit a low point and began to climb out of that pit to become a better version of myself.
Five years ago, I was working as a teacher in a primary school. It was the job I had dreamed of as a child and it became the thing that defined me. If anyone asked me about myself, I started with, “I’m a teacher.” And it took over my life. Gradually, I slipped into working every evening and weekend, convincing myself that I’d be a better teacher if I created the resources for my lessons from scratch, which I enjoyed doing. I prioritised work over hobbies and relationships. But it was never enough – I could always be better, more outstanding… there were always more books to be marked, more lessons to plan and more resources to create.
A few events preceded my breakdown. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). I had been in a relationship for six years, but my partner seemed reluctant to commit. And then I proposed on Leap Day and he said no. I had always been a ‘good’ teacher and this formed the basis of my self-esteem. And then in one observation I was graded as ‘inadequate’. This was all heaped on top of issues with self-esteem arising from childhood and early adulthood.
I had been feeling ‘run-down’ for at least a year, with a persistent but unexplained pain in my side and a general feeling of tiredness. I found myself crying whilst driving to work in the mornings. When I started thinking about driving into a tree as some sort of ‘solution’, I knew I had to do something. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with depression caused by long-term work-related stress. He signed me off work for two weeks, prescribed anti-depressants and suggested I look up some information about mindfulness. I blogged about it at the time here and here.
My two weeks off work turned into six weeks as I allowed myself to experience the full extent of my low point before gradually coming back to a feeling of being a bit more like ‘me’ again. In a future blog post, I’ll share what I did in those six weeks before I returned to work, but for now I’ll carry on to a more positive part of my story.
My headteacher was understanding and allowed me to return to work in a different role, providing one-to-one tuition, small group intervention teaching and covering classes. I continued in that role for almost a year before she put me forward for a temporary secondment to a nearby school in a leadership position. That secondment turned into a permanent but part-time job and I found a similar part-time job at a different school to make up my income.
Just before I started the secondment, my partner broke up with me. With hindsight, I should have broken up with him after he turned down my proposal as it was clear that the relationship wasn’t going anywhere, but I had clung onto desperate strands of hope. Things could have gone very wrong again as I started a new job, with greater responsibilities, and found myself newly single. But, somehow, I coped.
And the next time things began to get rocky, I had even more coping strategies. The second part-time job became very difficult after several changes of leadership, so I eventually made the decision to leave in order to preserve my mental health. Things worked out and I now have a full-time job at the other school. A few months into a new relationship, I realised that I wasn’t happy with the way things were and my perception of his level of commitment to me. I explained to him how I was feeling, knowing that the only solution might be to break things off. We broke up, but have remained good friends.
As I recovered from the episode of depression, the recurrent pain in my side went away. I was able to reconnect with hobbies and interests that I had previously enjoyed. I discovered a newfound ability to be present in the moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. There are still aspects of my life that I would like to work on, but I feel I am now thriving rather than just surviving.
My aim on this blog is to share with you some of the things that have helped me to recover and to feel more comfortable with who I am. I’m planning to start with a few general ideas and then to focus on a specific area of self-improvement each month. I hope you will join me in this journey.
I’d like this to be an interactive journey and to help others to feel part of a supportive community, so please introduce yourself in the comments below and share your story or the things you’re currently working on.