So I made it two and a half days into my readjustment to work before I totally melted down. To be honest, I thought I would last longer, and I’m both disappointed and scared.
On Monday, I felt shy and sneaky. I arrived at school when I knew that the whole student body and faculty would be in the chapel for morning meeting. I chatted with the secretaries, turned some paperwork in to the business office, and stopped by the IT department to update my expired password to the school server. The IT guy who helped me is also covering one of my classes, so we caught up on how the kids are doing. He’s young and enthusiastic and SO excited to be teaching the class. When I thanked him for taking it, he said, “No, thank YOU.”
Be careful, buddy, I wanted to say. With that attitude the next thing you know you’ll be 36 and rifling through your dirty laundry room for the least dirty pair of dirty sweatpants so you won’t smell too terrible at the grocery store. Just PLEASE tell me you’re not teaching the class for free, as I probably would have done at your age.
The process of changing my password took about 20 minutes (all technologically bureaucratic tasks must take at least five times as long as you would think they should), and I made it about 14 minutes into the process before my eyes started glazing over and my shoulders started hurting and slumping. This can’t be happening, I thought. I have to make it at least to 9 am before I collapse.
Next I went over to the building where I teach and have an office. I slinked in a back entrance and was at my desk in my office before the students and faculty arrived from morning meeting. My office is in an out-of-the-way location, so no one saw me except a couple of the maintenance guys, who stopped in to welcome me back [and as someone who was regularly berated and screamed at by the maintenance guys at one of my previous schools, their warmth and kindness in a) knowing that I was gone in the first place, and b) being honestly happy to see me come back was genuinely touching]. I sat down at my desk and began reading Julius Caesar. Why Julius Caesar? No reason. I just wanted to read something and take notes on it so I could start to feel like an English teacher again.
I was there a good long while. My attention drifted in and out of the Shakespeare, and at some point I put that book down and picked up A Streetcar Named Desire. After an hour or so my officemate stopped in. He’s a good friend and didn’t know I was coming back this week, so we hugged and chatted and caught up. Then he left to go teach, and I went back to my reading.
You know how when cartoon characters get angry, their bodies start to fill up from feet to head with some kind of red substance? You know they’re about to burst when the horizontal line of redness starts to reach the top of their head. Well, this is often how my headaches come about, except that instead of starting at my feet they start in the middle of my torso – and they manifest themselves not as redness but as tightness and throbbing and pain. At this point the line of pain was at my shoulders. I knew that it would just keep rising all day and that I was going to have a mighty headache by the end of the day. I was worried.
Around 10:45 my assistant head of school emailed me and asked me to meet her in the faculty room so we could talk about the candidates who would be visiting for interviews later in the week. The faculty room? I thought. You mean, like, with faculty members in it? I nervously headed over there. The first thing that happened when I stepped in to the room was that a colleague saw me, stopped what she was doing, crossed the room, and locked me in a gigantic hug. She was really and genuinely happy to see me, and it felt good. When we started to chat, another teacher – from my English department – heard my voice and called me over. We hugged; then I settled into a couch and we started to catch up on news about kids and classes.
I am always leery of people who say that the environment at their workplace is “like a family.” My stock response to that comment is “If we treated our co-workers the way most people treat their family members, we’d all get fired,” and for the most part I believe that. There is a certain danger to becoming too emotionally comfortable at work. But my return to work did feel like a return to the unconditional acceptance that we associate with family. A few others, including the assistant head, joined us there in a moment and we caught up on news and made plans to interview candidates.
I was happy. But the pain line had risen to my ears. Not officially a “headache” yet, but close.
I ate lunch with a small group of colleagues. By the end of the meal the pain was in my temples and throbbing. The headache had officially begun. But I was diligent. I had said I would be at school from 8 am until 2:45 each day so I could get an honest sense of how the routine of work would affect me. So I settled back into my office after lunch but didn’t even try to go back to reading. I diddled around on the computer and chatted with my office mate. I visited one of my classes, and they gave me a card they had made. “We made this like three months ago,” they said, “but we never sent it.”
I left at 2:30, totally overwhelmed by pain. I didn’t feel safe to drive home. At one time this was a very familiar part of my routine: getting on the highway with lightning bolts of pain flashing in front of my eyes and just hoping to make it home before someone swerved or I lost my ability to focus on the road and hit a tree or ended up in Webster Lake. I don’t remember climbing the stairs or going to bed, but I know that I woke up three hours later feeling less pain but more discouraged. I couldn’t even make it through a day of reading and talking to people without collapsing in crippling pain. I was awake for a few hours and then went immediately back to bed, slept all night, and was still worn out in the morning.
On Tuesday I was scheduled to watch a candidate teach at 8:20 am. Then I was free until 11 am, when I had an hour set aside to interview this candidate. My plan was to go home right at noon and take it easy in the afternoon. On Tuesday I couldn’t even try to hide from students and colleagues the way I did on Monday. All day long I bounced from hug to hug like a creature in some G-rated video game. At one point I turned to the candidate and said, “Really, people always treat me like this. I am a really nice person to work with.” I saw many of my students and advisees, and over and over again they kept asking, “Are you coming back?” “That’s the plan,” I said, aiming for the least dishonest form of evasion I could find.
And then there was today. I woke up feeling as if it were February 2 all over again, and all I wanted to do was crawl into my groundhog hole and peek out occasionally – just long enough to say HELL NO! and disappear back inside. All I was scheduled to do today was cover a class for a teacher who was out at a family funeral – and I knew that I needed to turn in more paperwork to the business office. I had said I would be there at 8:00 am as usual, but I didn’t get there until about 10. I returned some library books, turned in the business paperwork, chatted with a colleague for a while, covered the class, and got the hell out of there at 11:30.
Then about an hour later I emailed my boss to say that I can’t come in tomorrow.
I am in pain all over. My brain feels as if it is full of wet cotton. My rib cage throbs. I can’t read or follow the plot line of a TV episode. I don’t want to eat or drink anything. I couldn’t muster the energy to do laundry or go to the grocery store. I can’t even sleep – I just lie there in total silence and stillness and am aware of my own sadness.
I don’t know what to do.