Eighties’ popstrels will recognise the Smash Hits euphemism for being drunk but now “tired and emotional” is a neat summary of my daily, sober condition. It is the week of World Mental Health day and my mental state has definitely been wandering into the realms of the unhealthy of late. A combination of the following and others: trauma as a result of having cancer AT ALL; that cancer being misdiagnosed; the effects of the radical treatment on my body and psyche; the realisation that my cancer is actually Stage Three (no one has thought to tell me this officially — but I know it is); fatigue, hot flashes, other less publicly shareable side effects, and emotional fragility as a result of hormone therapy; fatigue and stomach problems from the clinical trial drug I take; my quest to eat healthily and exercise every day, that often fails (partly due to exhaustion being a bad place to make good decisions from); being back to work with a timetable bursting at the seams; marking and planning; additional responsibilities in my department (intellectually stimulating– but takes up a lot of mental space); not wanting to miss out on seeing my friends and family but also needing to be on my own to cope with the sheer volume of people I see every day at work; anxiety about (alleged) ovary removal — no date yet, but supposed to be next month; remortgaging the house so we can buy a camper van; my son’s secondary school application; wanting and needing to write much, much more but not being able to fit it in most weeks; a total lack of response from Brighton and Hove Hospital Trust to my two complaints about their treatment of me and, to cap it all off, the looming spectre of Brexit rendering all skies grey and filled with daily, incessant rain — is it just a special effect to conjure up pathetic fallacy that the director of the final season of the UK has decided on? These are all conspiring to render me a wobbly jelly brain at best and a full on rampaging, wailing banshee at worst. I am always just one computer taking too long to start up away from an earth shattering meltdown. LIFE + ADDED CANCER.
Thankfully, the kids at school and their various shenanigans are not adding to this list. On the whole they have been absolutely delightful, as they always are. It’s just that working in a school — any school — is exhausting and draining. I defer to the exhaustion of police, paramedics, front-line medical staff in A and E and other high stress public serving roles but you have never known the mind numbing tiredness a teacher feels until you have done it yourself. Imagine being in a small, hot room for up to five hours a day. This room has windows but they don’t open wide enough to allow in actual fresh air or a breeze and there is a faint smell of rugby socks and lunch. A succession of people — mostly between the ages of 11 and 16 — troop in and out all day, in batches of 25–30. The next batch is waiting to come in while the others are still leaving. You have to know everything about these people — from how they use a full stop, to how they are emotionally and everything in between. They don’t all necessarily want to be there, but you have to make them do things anyway, like read and answer questions about what they have read or write creatively on demand. And answer their questions. And stop them from shouting out “Foreskin!” endlessly. And reassure them if they are anxious about doing well enough at this school business (too many of these since Gove happened to us). And make sure they are in the right uniform. And not chewing gum or going to the toilet too frequently. And a billion other things. If you leave this room, you have to pass through busy corridors where you may encounter any number of people who need to talk to you. This is the same literally anywhere in the building. In person, via email, by telephone or by note, you are fair game at any stage in your day to be asked to do something or answer a question. I would not be surprised if a carrier pigeon flew in through my window with an urgent message one afternoon. Dont worry about feeling unwanted once you get home, because via email, your working day extends to any time of the day or night if you let it. Don’t even think about going to the toilet. You can’t. In the one minute you have time to do so, there is always someone else in there and if there isn’t and you make it in, someone can still talk to you through the door.
Our English staffroom is a drink of water in the desert, a refuge, a safe haven of funny souls who like nothing more than to laugh together at the most ridiculous things. We all love our jobs but we all understand that a day at school leaves you as drained of life force as if Dracula himself had decided to make you his birthday feast. By this point in the term, with two weeks to go before half term, the daily drainings are taking their toll.
If I sleep, I can cope. And mostly, sleep does come. The energy-removal service that is school usually means I fall asleep after two and a half pages of Fleishman is in Trouble, before Smooth Classics comes on at 10 pm. I might wake up at 1 am and 5 am but this I count as a massive sleep win.
In order to get to this point, I need to follow a routine that even my routine freak grandma might have found restrictive. If I can, despite the tiredness, I try to exercise as many days a week after school as possible.I know this will help me to resist cancer recurrence and of course it is good for my mental health. It has slipped recently because there has been so very much going on but it is always on the agenda. I might be home between 5.30 -6.30. Cook and eat dinner. Do washing. Do school / life emails. Talk with friends and family online. Do boy’s life admin. Chat with boy (full run down of every minute of the day). Try not to look at any devices beyond 8pm. Run his bath. Chat more with boy while he has bath. Read with him. Sort washing. Bed. Read. Sleep. During this period I will drink about 90 cups of Rooibos, a constant source of comfort and soothing. I need no contentious things to happen between 5.30 pm and 6 am that might rile me up and raise my cortisol levels. I cannot be overstimulated by people or television or even books if I have to get up for school the next day. The goal of every day is the sleep I can achieve at the end of it. Macbeth was so, so right. I definitely avoid killing any kings in their sleep on a school night.
The problem comes when I miss my sleep window. If this window is missed because I have got upset by a work email, or my son has a problem at school which needs a lengthy family discussion or we have to go and visit school open evenings or I have planned to do something cultural or social then the natural winding down rhythm from about 7.30 pm onwards doesn’t happen. If I am in bed and have not sufficiently decompressed by 10 pm there are too many things for my brain to obsess over and not let go of, and sleep does not happen. I have missed several nights of sleep in the past month for this reason and it has on every occasion completely broken me. Gone is any rationality or perspective — I allow each and every awful thought and feeling to consume me and become quite distressed. I have not got time to write any days off — even weekends or my Thursday off — because I have so much I need to keep up with or things will start to collapse. The past few weeks have just been a succession of cancelled plans. What was I thinking? How did I think I would be able to work AND have a social life?
Of course this is not a good way to live. Some days, even with enough sleep under my belt, I do not cope. I cry now more than I ever have in my whole life, and I have always been a crier. Probably because of Zero Oestrogen, the tears are like water in a hot spring, boiling and bubbling away close to the surface, frequently bursting out. Each day is a series of small negotiations with myself to get bloody on with it. You will often hear me telling myself quite kindly that I can do it, followed by a stern telling off. I am both Good Cop and Bad Cop.
Because I am incredibly lucky. I could be Stage 4. I was on the point of being Stage 4 and the cancer spreading up through the lymph to my lung, liver, brain or bone. But I got to the breast clinic again just in time. I will never stop being amazed by that. I could be metastatic in the future of course, and that thought periodically engulfs me like a winter wave and drowns my hope. But I am not now, and may never be. I have a husband and son who I adore, both healthy and coping in their own ways with what has happened to us — some days with more success than others but overall we are a happy unit. I love my family. I still have a mum — lots of my friends don’t. I have wonderful friends. I love my school. I love where I live. I have money (for now). Apart from the cancer, I have won the life lottery.
I need to be grateful because it is too easy to succumb to the darkness. I am inspired every day by a woman in the US who is fighting a very rare form of cancer but has the world’s best attitude. If I ever get too despondent, a look at her Instagram @kimcankickit soon sorts me out and stops me dwelling. But I need to carve out more space to breathe, reflect and process my feelings. I am not quite sure who I am at the moment and how I do things or feel about them. I am in dire need of more counselling but cannot fit it in yet. It is an unusually busy period — so much life is happening and for that, I should be thankful. Hell, I’m not bored. I’m here, experiencing it all. Tired, emotional but still very much alive.