Thursday, March 28, 2013

Stress Hangover: I WANT MY LIFE BACK

The class I just taught was a disaster. I'm sitting here at my desk, counting the minutes until I can leave for the day and escape to the sweet oblivion of my bed. 39 minutes until crisp sheets, PJ pants, lemon seltzer and Ice-T's sarcastic quips about the latest murder-rapist to terrorize the streets of New York City. 38 minutes until fuzzy socks, cool air, the evening stretched lazily in front of me in that special way that only Thursday evenings before Friday holidays can (Sidenote: Thursday evening is more glorious when there's no work Friday. Fact). 38 minutes until I start my usual weekend dance of trying to shove the stress of the work week out of my head for long enough to enjoy the 2 days off. 37 minutes until I can shut my eyes and try to sleep and probably fail because there's too much in my mind but somehow trying unsuccessfully to sleep beats purposely being awake.

When I started student teaching and grad school, my mom stopped incessantly yelling about my terrible sleep schedule. At first I didn't know how to respond. No one yelled at me to get up at a reasonable hour on Saturday. No one cared if I slept until 4, which I routinely did. No one screamed at me when I was going to be late for teaching. Instead, I woke up to hot coffee being poured into my mouth and a warm "Morning honey!" When I finally confronted her, she said, "Honey, you're working extremely hard. I can't imagine taking on that courseload while teaching all day. If you need to sleep 20 hours a night, by all means do it. In high school, you were just lazy. Now, you deserve those 20 hours." 

I took this to heart and I'm glad I did. It's so easy to feel guilty for the time it takes to recover from teaching, especially in a tough school system with many troubled students. Even the greatest teachers -- you know, the annoying ones who seem to have perfect systems in place for discipline and instruction that promote student accountability, consistency, inquiry, and growth -- come home and sit on the couch for awhile to decompress. Trust me. I've asked them. I'm not saying I'm thrilled about it. I would love to be able to leave work and DO things for the several hours until I go to sleep. I would love to teach summer school if I weren't so destroyed from the school year. I would love to have real hobbies that require regular time commitments and friends I see more than once every other month when I don't bail because I'm too tired or upset. I would love it. But I've come to terms with it. I no longer apologize for my SVU binges, or clicking DECLINE on 99% of the weeknight facebook event invitations that come my way. I'm not happy about it, but I spend enough time feeling guilty about the fact that I could have done this or that better at my job. I'm not going to feel guilty for how I recover from that job. 

But this year has not been typical. Nothing about it has made sense. And somewhere in the last few months I began to wonder if things are getting worse. Somewhere in the last few months I began to think maybe I should replace "well-adjusted" with "in denial" when describing how I deal with all this stress. 

Did I always take things so personally? Did I always get this destroyed? It's hard to remember. This year has been terrible, worse than other years by far, but my reactions have been astronomically more severe. My first year was pretty bad. I taught 7 different classes at one point (non-teachers: I mean I had to prepare 7 different lessons each day). My second year (or was it the third?) I had those 8th graders in the morning that gave me HELL, and then there was the year I had to plan different lessons for each 7th grade class because they were each dysfunctional in completely different ways. Last year was awful, the worst I thought I'd ever deal with, until this year happened. I was upset frequently. I slept a lot. But I wasn't this unhappy this often for this long. Lately it seems like every little thing sets me off, and the panic and anger and pain that set in last for longer.

I used to go weeks without going out on the weekends. I used to sleep 20 hours a day. But somehow I remember it being a choice I made, which implies that I could have made a different one. Last weekend, for the first time in 2 months, I went out on Saturday night. I karaoked with my friends and for awhile, it was actually fun. I didn't drink, because I can't control my emotions sober let alone drunk, but I love being with my friends so I still enjoyed myself. Sort of. Mostly. For awhile. I thought if I looked the part, dressed the part and acted the part, it would be enough. As it turns out, pretending to be okay isn't the same thing as being okay, so I ran out of Hong Kong in Faneuil Hall crying.

There you have it. There's no set of circumstances that could allow me to go out and for ONE NIGHT not fall apart. I can't be normal. It's not an option for me anymore. I'm at home alone every weekend night watching TV and reading because I HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE, unless I want to make crying while sober in crowded bars a habit. 

Remember when you realized you couldn't drink like you used to? It happens to all of us at different times. I was about 25. Losing 30 pounds and being 3 years out of college combined was what did it for me. Suddenly, I could count the times I HADN'T gotten wasted, instead of the times I had. Suddenly, I was hungover until 7 o'clock at night. I started losing Saturdays and Sundays. Eventually I realized why: My tolerance had gone down. My body chemistry had changed. My outlook was the only thing that hadn't shifted. 

That's how work feels. The stress from one tough class leaks into another. The stress from one terrible day is still there the next morning. I run and sleep and box and watch SVU and I still can't get away from it. The stress is like a hangover that never ends. You can reevaluate the way your body handles alcohol, and change your habits accordingly. You can drink more water, drink less beer, get more sleep, and be hungover less frequently. But what can you do if your job is what's making you sick? What do you do if your life is one neverending migraine headache,  your mornings are spent bent over the toilet, you've been sick with one thing or another since October, and your doctors tell you the stress is causing your body's systems to malfunction? What do you do when you panic the second things seem calm because it's so unfamiliar that you're unprepared? What do you do when your body rejects the place you have chosen to do the job you love more than anyone has any right to love a given job? What do you tell the ER doctors when you're throwing up blood for no reason? What do you do when what's wrong with you doesn't show up on blood tests, and there's no medicine to make you better?

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