On Self Worth

About two years ago, I was running a local 10k race. I do it every year, and there’s this particular point on the course at around 8km where it goes quite steeply uphill. It’s a section of road called Phoenix Bank – I’m sure because when you run up it, you feel like you’ve died and been reborn in the flames once you get to the top.

At the bottom of Phoenix Bank, a woman I didn’t recognise said to me in snatches of breath that her kids were in my class and that they both really liked me and my lessons. She said it to me at that moment to give me a boost to get up the hill. What she couldn’t have known was that she’d caught me at almost my lowest ebb, that if I’d had any liquid left in my poor, sweaty body, I’d have probably burst in to tears.

As it was, I had Phoenix Bank to conquer, and I couldn’t spare any energy on anything else. Which saved me a humiliating public sobbing session, and allowed the words to be the boost they were intended to be. I went on to beat my best time by about four minutes.

Why did those words have the ability to drive me to breakdown? Because I knew they were lies. Four years of teaching had driven me into the ground, and even though I can look back now and know that she wouldn’t have said it to me if it wasn’t true – why make the effort to lie when you’re gasping for breath and about to run up a massive great hill? – at the time I knew. I had no capacity to believe in myself and my ability anymore.

Less than a fortnight later, I was signed off work by the doctor and my notice was handed in. At that point I was having mild panic attacks every day. It took being signed off to give me the wake up call that I needed to quit.

I was diligent about applying for work, and within a month or so I had something else lined up. I thought that in a couple of months I would be feeling close to 100% myself again.

I was wrong. I started my new job in mid-August. By October, I was, in a lot of ways, feeling worse than I’d ever felt. Objectively, I knew that it was just my body and mind processing all the pent up stress, anxiety and pressure that I’d been holding back all those months while I was teaching because I’d had to. I had the space to fall apart, and my brain made the absolute most of the opportunity. But that didn’t make it any easier.

The thing was, I’d removed myself for the situation that had robbed me of any sense of self worth, but that sort of thing doesn’t come back overnight. I’d grown so used to believing I was terrible at everything, it was very hard to believe that I wasn’t going to continue to be terrible. The job I was doing at the time was an easy ‘have you switched it on and off again’ IT support role, and, again objectively, I knew I could do it. But every time my line manager looked at me, I was convinced that she was judging me and finding me wanting. I spent a couple of weeks doing breathing exercises at my desk to stop my hands shaking.

During this time I was applying for the job I have now. I should probably have gone easy on myself and not stressed about getting better work until I’d recovered, but I’ve never been that way. That ability to look at things objectively from time to time was coming back to bite me, because I knew I was worth more than the job I was doing. I didn’t want to be a financial burden in my relationship, didn’t want to be placing any additional stress on my partner who was also looking to leave a job and take a pay cut. So I applied, and I got the job I’m doing now.

Around January, when I first started, I hit my second lowest ebb. I wasn’t having panic attacks during the day anymore, but at night my heart would beat so fast I couldn’t sleep. My partner was away training for his new job. To cope with the isolation and the anxiety, I timetabled every second of my day, keeping myself busy. I spent almost a month completely exhausted.

I was probably ill enough to get signed off by the doctor again, but I’d just started a new job and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be at home all day on my own either. So I battled through, all the time waiting to be told that I was failing, that I wasn’t good enough. Even as I started to pick things up at my new job, started to get a feel for the work and a sense that I could enjoy it.

I remember having a conversation with my line manager about a month or so in to the new job. She was checking up on how I was getting on, how I was settling in. I remember the jolt of fear that accompanied her request to talk to me in a private space, the sick feeling as I sat down in the chair opposite her.

“I find it difficult to tell if I’m doing well,” I remember saying. “I hope that I am.”

I used to be the annoying person who could tell you within a couple of percent what their score on an exam was. I was the pupil who knew what her strengths and weaknesses were – to the point of arrogance at times. And yet, six months after leaving the job that had worn me down so much, I still didn’t quite believe I could be good at something.

Things don’t magically improve overnight. Recovery from depression and anxiety takes time and diligence and lots of self-love and forgiveness. For some people it takes therapy and medication. Writing was my therapy, running was my medication.

Nearly two years after handing in my notice and finally leaving teaching, I know that I’m recovered. How? Two weeks ago, I published a book.

I wrote the book in 2012, and though it’s been through a couple of edits, there’s not a massive amount that’s changed about the story. I’ve changed a couple of things that bring it more in line with the rest of the series, but the major story arc, the writing style and quality are all the same. I could have hit publish in 2012. But I didn’t.

At the time, too much depended on it. Writing was an escape from a job that, in 2012, I knew wasn’t right. I wouldn’t hit low enough to leave for another two years, but that downwards spiral had begun. I wrote for the dream of being the next JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, EL James, the next author who hit it big. I looked to writing to solve all my problems, but I knew it wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t handle that dream of escape being dashed, so I never pursued it. I wrote the books and left them to gather dust.

Now, I have a job I love. And after eighteen months in the role, I’m finally starting to feel confident that I’m good at it, that I’m valued by colleagues and clients. People have requested to work with me. I’ve had a very positive appraisal. I’ve achieved good results. I have my self worth back.

The writing matters, it will always matter, but it’s not my ‘escape’ any more. Not the golden ticket that I’m depending on to lift me out of my horrible situation. It’s just something I take a great deal of joy in, and want to share with the world. If it makes me enough money to buy my wedding shoes, then that’s a bonus.

The last two years have been a little like the last two kilometres of that 10k race. The first nine months or so were the steep upward climb of Phoenix Bank, the death and rebirth in the flames. But after turning a corner, a gentle downhill followed, allowing momentum to increase even while still catching my breath. Other inclines were nothing after Phoenix Bank, and before long, the finish line was in sight. I crossed it on 6th May when I released my book in to the world. It’s Amazon page is my medal.

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