“Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In”

depression-anxiety

Note:  Thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition for the title (you have to go way back to know that one!)

 

Of course I’m depressed. I mean, who wouldn’t be. Ebola, climate change, Supreme Court decisions, police injustice, terrible things going on in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. There are days that I have to avoid the front section of the newspaper altogether. I withdraw to the sports section where I can be comforted by the complete meaninglessness of whether or not the Sixers will win more than one game this year, or court the anxiety of my Chargers trying to stagger, once again, into the playoffs, and ponder if the Padres are about to make yet another horrible trade.

On my worst days, I figure that anyone who is not depressed is just not paying attention.

And this is one aspect of me that drives my wife just a little crazy. After all, I don’t actually have Ebola. Like most Americans, I have little say over the direction of the country, and people much smarter than me have failed miserably to guide events in the Middle East. No one at the Padres or Chargers seems much interested in my advice as sound as it might be.

Instead, right at this very moment, I’m writing as I sit out on my deck, drinking a beer, and enjoying a lovely, San Diego sunset. I am in reasonably good health. I’m retired which means I don’t have to do anything on a given day, although I do enjoy substitute teaching occasionally, attending adult school classes, hiking, taking long walks, reading, writing, doing yoga, swimming, traveling, and gardening.

In other words, from the outside, it would seem that I have no good reason to be depressed. I have no good reason to be anxious.

And yet, I do get anxious. I still slip into depressive periods. I start to see every setback as a personal failure. The car breaks down and in my mind, it spirals into a catastrophe. I make a simple mistake on a project and I curse myself as an “idiot.” I get disoriented in an airport, and I start to panic. How come everyone else knows where they are going? I am a sponge for other people’s sadness and for the troubles I see in the world. I get a headache, I worry about brain tumors.

I’ve been seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety for over ten years now. I was encouraged to seek out help because I kept slipping into depressive episodes as I became overwhelmed with work (an almost constant condition for a teacher), and because I noticed how I increasingly reacted to everything and everyone negatively, sarcastically. I resisted for quite a few years, but now I take medication to even out the highs and the lows. The sessions were frequent at the beginning. Now, I go in every couple of months, just to check in, just to make sure that I’m still moving in a positive direction.

It’s not something that I share lightly, but also something I’m not afraid to share especially with my former students who from time to time have in the past, and still today, seek me out in times of distress.

I came to know early on in my teaching experience, just now little I knew about the lives of my students as I interacted with them for my 54 minutes per day. If I saw a kid obviously in distress, I would take him aside and offer support and give him a chance to talk. Some students welcomed the attention. An equal number resented the intrusion.

Others were in pain so close to the surface, that the slightest interaction was enough to cause them to open up. One girl came in after school, ostensibly to talk about a problem with writing, and promptly dissolved into tears. What she really needed was to talk to someone about her mother who was creating chaos in her life. I once teased a young woman about the baseball cap she was wearing, whereupon she burst into tears. I took her aside and we spent the next two hours (and a good chunk of the following year) talking about the very painful break-up she was experiencing with her first boyfriend.

Just last week, helping a former student finish her college essays, we ended up talking about the pressure she was feeling from her parents, how she often felt isolated, how she felt guilty about moments of enjoyment, about how she felt somehow she didn’t deserve to be happy.

All three of these students were young, vibrant, bright, engaged young women. They were all high achievers who expected much of themselves. All three had a very hard time seeing beyond their present crisis or beyond their present way of thinking about it.

Somewhere in my conversations with all of them, I brought up my experience with therapy, with having to seek out some support, with how I came to realize that I needed professional help. Invariably, my students are surprised by this because the impression I give to my students when I am in front of a classroom, is that I am a positive, happy, high-energy person. They come to assume that I am like that all the time. What they didn’t know was that persona would pretty much collapse after 6th period on any given day.

Like these three young women, before therapy, I didn’t have strategies to cope with outside forces that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t quickly bounce back from the debilitating pain of loss. I often felt like a fraud and was incapable of accepting a compliment gracefully.

The most startling part of entering therapy was discovering how normal I was. I still remember in the first few sessions, as I started to describe the thoughts that plagued me, as I unburdened myself of all of the stuff I had been carrying around with me for so long, how utterly unimpressed my therapist was. “Yeah.” he responded. “You have a number of what we call “cognitive distortions” which is just a fancy way of saying that over time, you’ve come to distort the way you look at yourself and the world around you. You’re not an idiot, every setback is not a crisis, lots of people get lost in airports, and you probably don’t have a brain tumor.”

Then he handed me a list of “Common Cognitive Distortions”. There were 15 of them. They had neat little labels. The situations I had described fit nicely into 5 or 6 of the categories and I could see hints of how I perceived the world in 4 or 5 more.

I felt a little deflated. I thought I had really serious issues and here they were all boiled down into nice little boxes, all described on a single sheet of paper. I wasn’t anguished after all; I was mundane.

That last sentence is an example of a cognitive distortion. I just can’t remember which one right now.

Of course, my concerns and the pain I felt were real. The work it took to begin to recognize and respond to years of perceiving myself negatively was hard, and I have had to learn some lessons over and over again. The ruts in my ways of thinking are deep and even now, I fall back into them. That’s why the check-ups continue to this day.

I certainly do not share all of this with my students who are in distress. What I mostly do is listen to their concerns, share similar experiences that I have had, and most especially make sure there is help and support available to them. If I feel they might need the help of a professional, I try to demystify that experience for them. It’s amazing how comforted they seem to feel to know that a trusted adult has also struggled, has sought out professional help, is still working on personal issues that are not always all that different from their own.

If anything, I try to help them to feel normal again, to feel mundane—but in a good way.

 

 

 

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I Don’t Hate Poetry

poetry

I really don’t.  But I don’t love it either.

As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical.  Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.

Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me.  But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think.  Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best.  When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure.  Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.

So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test.  I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.

I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.

Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected.  My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.

The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow.  The shock to me was that the participation came.   The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see.  What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job.  Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me.  I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me.  Those days felt like good teaching.

Not every Poetry Day went that well.  The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days.  My role evolved also.  I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element.  Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again.  We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it.  In fact, it became part of our lexicon.  Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…”  I absolutely loved them for that.

My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”

Like a car stuck in gear,

a chicken too stupid to tell

its head is gone,

or sound ratcheting on

long after the film

has jumped the reel,

or a phone

ringing and ringing

in the house they have all

moved away from,

through rooms where dust

is a deepening skin,

and the locks unneeded,

so I go on loving you,

my heart blundering on,

a muscle spilling out

what is no longer wanted

and my words hurtling past,

like a train off its track

toward a boarded-up station,

closed for years,

like some last speaker

of a beautiful language

no one else can hear.

I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say.  I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.

The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem.  In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness.  Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.

I truly loved poetry on that particular day.  Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry.  The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation.  They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.