Bullying in the workplace is an issue facing an increasing number of workers (Bredeson, 2003). It is a major cause of physical, emotional, and psychological issues for employees and exacerbates an already demanding emotional burden on the part of a caregiver like myself. In a familiar pattern of emotional abuse, I received an e-mail from my principal pointing out more mistakes that I had made at school; things forgotten, things she needed me to change or fix. I knew I was not working at my best and I realized that I could not face this work situation. It was intolerable. My father had to come first.
When we have stress it is like filling a glass with liquid. Each time a stressful incident occurs, a little more is added until it fills us up and we soon overflow. This is what depression does to us. We develop inertia and cannot tackle anything that needs doing. Despite needing to complete numerous tasks, we cannot fight the inertia. Fear of failure secures our feet to the ground. I felt threatened as I perceived that my boss was questioning my methods, my beliefs, my timetable, my work with the special needs students, and my commitment to her school, her students, and her community. I was physically, socially, and emotionally exhausted and felt defeated. I realized that I could no longer face her anymore with my increasing self-doubts reinforced by her critical eye. In my readings, I had found that those who were depressed faced increasingly low levels of self-esteem. People like me, who were juggling home and work, despite having previously achieved success, sustain high levels of self-doubt.
I read an article, published in our local paper, that related loss and bereavement issues to a loss of self-esteem. It was an article published by The Caregiver’s Support Network, which was partnered with our local Hospice Group. If only I had known that they existed! They abound in Canada, but I was unaware of this and unable to seek help. I thought I had to do it all on my own.
I tried to be tough. I tried to shoulder a burden that was unsustainable. Daily I questioned myself, as a wife, daughter, and teacher. I was having doubts about my teaching ability and my purpose in life. I knew Dad wouldn’t last too much longer, and wondered what I would do with my life then. This article talked about setting realistic goals. I had not been able to do so. They talked about a sense of fear, which indeed I possessed. I wondered if I was good enough to do the job I had been assigned. I could not make decisions daily and juggle thousands of lesson plans; I was unable to decide what to teach--or, more to the point, what not to teach. Ontario Ministry curriculum expectations are so great that educators have a hard time meeting them all, while integrating learning, focusing on the big picture, connecting learning to students’ personal and community life, and all the while differentiating curricula for special needs students. Our two-week fixation on the camping trip left little time to establish routines, set up classroom expectations, and dig into the multi-layered literacy, numeracy, history, and geography units buried in our textbooks. We were interrupted more than daily for bulletins, important assemblies, PA announcements, and changes in plan. It was unnerving.
For me, just getting dressed in the morning involved decisions I was unable to make without forcing myself to keep moving. The article went on to say that low self-esteem could manifest itself by complicating the grieving process. I was grieving my mother, and the father whom I used to know, at the same time. This kind of stress could result in substance abuse, risk-taking, thoughts about risk-taking, suicidal ideations, negative mind chatter, fear of new situations, and distancing oneself from family and friends. I checked positive for all of these symptoms.
I spoke with an absence management representative at the board office. I told her all that had gone on in my life. She suggested I go back to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), despite my failure to find an adequate counsellor last June. (I spoke once to a counsellor on the phone, and she suggested, after forty minutes, that I really didn’t need to talk to her again.) My contact promised she would speak directly to her contact with the EAP Management group. I was glad I had reached out. She advocated for me and ensured that I spoke to someone who would guarantee that I had an experienced counsellor who would guide me through this chapter in my life. What a blessed relief.
I began to see this counsellor weekly. He helped me work my way through the issues that I was juggling. He complimented me on how well I was handling the stress. I had lost all perspective. I laughed a great deal and tried to step back to look at some situations with amusement. This made life endurable. He assured me, after I told him my previous experience with counselling, that I would not be left high and dry this time. I had lost my peer support system and social network by moving away from friends. I felt so much better; now I had someone in my court other than my beleaguered husband and my children, from whom I had unconditional support. As I talked through my issues, I began to realize that my priority had to be me and my dad.
My father required increasing amounts of support from us. While the Ontario government has a plan whereby employees could take six weeks off from work to care for a family member in palliative care, it is leave without pay, and would cost me pension dollars. I had taken time off work before beginning my teaching career, and had little enough pension as it was. The penalties for a shortened career due to child-bearing profoundly impact mothers in their retirement years. In addition, one needs a letter from the doctor stating that the patient has less than six months to live. How could a doctor predict this?
With Dad’s ill health and current deterioration rate, I thought that maybe he might have had two weeks left, but it was hard to tell. I had little choice but to take some sick leave now to try to look after my dad and myself. I had to call in sick. I was determined not to let my work determine or limit my ability to care for my father. I would never regret the decision to move to Muskoka.
Until now, I had enjoyed going to work. It took me away from my concerns. It helped me keep life in focus, as opposed to peering into the valley of the shadow of death. I felt that I had much to offer with my background and experiences in dealing with many types of students of varying abilities, disabilities, learning styles, races, colours, and creeds.
My mental health was the most important issue right now. I was truly suffering from a difficult work situation: a new school, new boss, and new culture. My students were delightful; my colleagues had remained supportive and understanding. They lauded me in my efforts. They listened and helped. But despite this support, I could not face work anymore. I felt devalued and unrecognized. I had had enough. I felt very strongly that God had something else in mind for me.
I decided to give up my career and my teaching practice. I held fast to my faith, determined to retire as soon as was possible in December when I turned fifty. As I drove past each school, with a schoolyard filled with laughing children, and school buses motoring on down the road, the regret at ending my career left me feeling like a failure. The shadows loomed in the dusk as I faced my demons.
Brian continued to go in and feed Dad breakfast, while I tried to heal myself and “look after me.” This was the advice many, many people had given me based on their own experiences. I had always agreed with the flight attendant’s advice: to demand that mothers put the oxygen mask on themselves first, and then their children. I was drained of energy. I found it difficult to begin any tasks, let alone finish them.
We were slowly getting the house in order; it began to resemble a home. I found solace in cooking and going back to being the homemaker I once was when my children were in their early childhood years. I began nesting. I told my counsellor that I wanted to hibernate for the winter. I wanted to cocoon, eat better, drink less, exercise more, and get myself back in shape.
After each afternoon visit with my father, I came home either numb or in shock. We would often go out to dinner, as preparing a meal was beyond us. At times I had an immense sense of gratitude for living in this beautiful place and surrounded by nature (tourists having gone home for the winter). At other times I did not know how to manage my new reality: that of homemaker/caregiver. I ate a lot to keep my hands busy, and drank just enough to be able to sleep. One glass of wine would lead to another until I could not feel the pain anymore. Something would give if I did not stop and take it easy.
Old dreams die hard. I had given up the notion of being a principal here in Muskoka. I realized that once retired, I could not go back to delivering workshops, either. They want current practitioners to deliver workshops. I could not do so. Finally, we had found a good doctor. He worked in a practice with a drop-in clinic and, while I had put off looking after myself, he seemed to be able to help me. He asked me several questions and came to the conclusion that I was clinically depressed. Basically, my neurotransmitters were not firing properly, and it was the fight or flight response to my stress that had sent me off into a tailspin.
I could not go on this way, worrying about school, my father, and our new home. My physician prescribed anti-depressants. I was not sure what they would do to me-- many drugs have side effects--but I knew there was something wrong and agreed to take the drugs. The first lot gave me headaches. I could not abide the headaches. I knew one had to start them slowly with a half dose, but I also knew there was something wrong with me that I could not fix with sleeping pills, exercise, or relaxation tapes. The prescription cost $117. Thank goodness for my drug plan!My doctor gave me a medical note to stay off work for a month. I felt incredibly sad, but quite relieved. I could not live with the workplace stress and the angst I felt at having to face my principal feeling like a failure. I could retire in December at the age of fifty with an early retirement penalty and a huge reduction in my income. I believed that my mental health and my ailing dad were worth more than just money. I filed the papers. As the old ad said, “I am worth it.” I had 130 sick days that I had brought with me from Ottawa, and did not have a history of being ill. It was time to use those days. This past year had sent me over the edge. I was travelling at top speed down a slippery slope, headed towards disaster. My teaching career was over. It was a hard life passage to face.