Acceptance at last!

857772_10100506771932164_221268741_oYesterday will go down in the history of my life as the first time I received an ACCEPTANCE letter.  Critical rejections, I’ve had.  Personal, encouraging rejections, I’d come to kind of enjoy.  But an acceptance was new and thrilling.

Except that it was also kind of scary.

I found myself immediately starting to doubt.  If this magazine actually accepted me, it must not be a good one.  Or don’t get too excited, lots of writers better than you are getting accepted left and right all the time.  It’s funny how I have been putting such an optimistic spin on rejection, but hand me the first acceptance and suddenly I can’t see the good in it.

I turned to a handful of other creators–a professional writer I’m acquainted with, the art teacher at my school, the playwright teaching my creative writing class–in an attempt to pacify my spinning mind.  They all told me essentially the same thing:  This is an opportunity to let go of old work and make room for the new.  Because the bottom line is that it’s all about the work.

A similar illuminating moment came this summer when someone suggested that I quit worrying about the outcomes and focus on the process instead.  She was referring to teaching at the time, but I have turned those words over and over in my head when it comes to teaching, writing, marriage, motherhood, friendship, and the list goes on.  I find that it soothes just about any anxiety I have in most aspects of my life because as cliche as it may be, life truly is a journey, not a destination.

So I woke up today with the plan to celebrate my acceptance.  I told a couple of people at work about it, even though I usually try to keep my writing life and my teaching life separate.  I replied to the acceptance email with gratitude and wrote the “third person bio” to include with my piece (a truly strange experience).  And I made a (gluten-free) chocolate cake after dinner tonight and stood in the kitchen with my husband eating it with my hands.

A small celebration for a small–but really important–moment in my writing life.

Why are so many teachers on antidepressants?

FPX57439A few years ago I flew Korean Air on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok with a group of teachers from all over the country.  To date, Korean Air has been hands-down my best flight experience, but that’s neither here nor there.  What was most memorable about this flight is how it compared to a subsequent flight that I took coming home.

On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came on over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of educators who have devoted their lives to teaching young people.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  This announcement was a welcome surprise, as I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do for a living from strangers.

While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty.  Literally.  Children threw flowers down at our feet and hung leis about our necks as we entered schools.  People greeted us with smiles and even small gifts in boardrooms, meeting halls, and auditoriums.  We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions.  In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population.

It was an interesting experience to be treated with such respect, especially because upon return to my classroom at my old school, I was called a “motherf-ing b*tch” by a student on my first day back.  But before that even, on our American Airlines flight home, sitting amidst soldiers returning from deployment, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of brave soldiers.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  An odd coincidence, but true nonetheless.

I don’t begrudge those soldiers their applause.  And I clapped with everyone else, as I have time and time again on flights, in assemblies, and the line at the post office.  But these moments have led me to note that who we applaud represents what we value as a society.

Fast forward three years later to a copy room in a great school with highly qualified educators running classrooms of intelligent, hard-working kids.  A few days ago at this school, I had a conversation with two strong teachers about what type of antidepressants they were currently or had been on in the past.  I realized that I had had this conversation in the good schools and the bad ones, with the kids who wanted to learn and had every resource to do so, and with the kids who hated learning because they had never been given resources or opportunities to love it.  And everywhere you look, in “good” schools and “bad”, teachers are being prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety or self-medicating in surprising numbers.

I think if the general public knew how much being a teacher takes from a person who works as a teacher, it might stop advocating taking so much and give a little more applause.  I’ve known teachers who drink six to seven beers or half to full bottles of wine each night, and teachers who’ve had to take leave of absences in order to check into rehab.  I’ve sat among teachers as we each discuss all the types of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we’ve gone through in order to find one that works, so that we don’t feel like screaming at the end of the day.  I’ve been on the verge of those screams myself and found myself wondering if something from a bottle were the best answer for me too.

I’m not saying that teachers are addicts.  I have found myself in each of the aforementioned situations and have fortunately never struggled with addiction in my life.  But what I am implying is that a lack of respect for teachers embedded in our culture pushes good educators to doubt themselves.  And this self-doubt promotes overwork in order to achieve approval and “success” in all its forms, and the overwork leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and any number of stresses that can cause a person to break down emotionally.

My previous school had a 90% free and reduced lunch population, was audited for many years by the state, experienced excessive teacher turnover, and was eventually closed down.  I worked with many talented educators while I was there (many of whom I consider war buddies to this day), and I felt my heart go out to hundreds of students.  But I also worked with some people who couldn’t take it because of some (and eventually most) of the students who ran completely wild with no consequences to any actions.  One of those colleagues found herself in the news and facing a suspension for throwing a chair at a student.  To be fair, I will admit that the teacher did have some questionable mental faculties at the time, but I found myself feeling sorry for her knowing full well the abuse she endured for months from that student before the incident.  But when she finally lost her cool, she was the enemy.  And everyone in town, even fellow teachers, were ready to burn her at the stake for it.  I’m not excusing her actions, but I am suggesting that the more we hear  and talk about these “horrible” teachers, the more we create them.

A friend of mine just began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at a pretty needy school.  My advice to her before her first day, and to all new teachers I meet, is to find something far from the realm of teaching to help you get through it.  My first year of teaching I started a jewelry business and sold jewelry at craft fairs.  At the time, it just felt like a hobby–a way to sit in front of the television at night (after not getting home until 8pm and then eating microwave popcorn for dinner) and let my thoughts go while twisting wire with tiny pliers.  But in hindsight, I see that it was much more than that.  It was an escape, a release, a way to be normal in a day filled with unbelievable abnormalities–a much healthier antidepressant.  And the funny thing is that I got more validation from making jewelry–customers complimenting the earrings at a show, coworkers sending emails with orders–than I ever did from teaching that year.

The value our culture places on educators does not compare to the value educators place on their own role.  Teachers feel the world atop their shoulders, and the world refuses to admit the support it receives there.  This dynamic leads to teachers who work hard for validation that rarely comes, like the kid who works hard for a B only to be questioned by a parent as to why it wasn’t an A.  I’m not advocating for flowers thrown at our feet on our way to work, but until our society changes the way it views teachers, we will continue to have teachers who suffer in secret until they make the news for finally losing their cool.

Image taken from Google Images.

Let it go. Let it happen.

As you’ve gathered by now, I have always suffered from anxiety.

I remember being a small child and, after hearing my parents argue that my dad would have no money while on the road for another low paying carpentry job, I put a five dollar bill that he had given me back into his duffle bag because I worried that he wouldn’t get to eat.

As a seven year old, I watched the news religiously during Desert Storm out of constant fear that my dad would be deployed, even though he hadn’t been on active duty for years.

Yet, oxymoron that I’ve always been, I was also really adventurous. In high school, when none of my other friends dared do it, I was the first to dive off a 25 foot cliff into the lake, not once considering the string of possible injuries. Of course, upon reaching the riverbank afterward, I fretted for half an hour about how “icky” my hair would be from the lake water. That was and is my M.O.: Jump now. Worry about it forever.

Then, three years ago, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Thailand and Vietnam with other educators, and when the acceptance letter came in the mail, I began mentally packing for the trip of a lifetime. To say that the trip was life-changing is an understatement: If you met me an hour before the plane took off and then an hour after I returned, you would have sworn you’d made a mistake. Although I had hopped on the plane without a doubt in my mind, when I got there I was riddled with doubt. Will this fruit make me sick? Did I hit the wrong note while singing “I Will Survive” on karaoke? Will this tuk tuk car turn over taking that curve? My brain would not be quiet.

Near the end of our time in Thailand, we went to an elephant conservation camp in Lampang. As usual, when they asked who wanted to ride one through a river, I was the first to volunteer. I climbed the ladder (yes, ladder) up the side and slid onto his back like a professional mahout. I laughed when others feared falling into the rocky water and being trampled to death. When we reached the other side, the elephants mingled with us. They bathed in the water and splashed around. They strolled up to people and took off their hats or tugged at their shirts. I found all of this amusing at first, but then out of nowhere, my old friend anxiety reared his ugly head. When one of the elephants offered kisses by sucking the cheeks and necks of the my friends, I stood back, quietly alarmed. I couldn’t tell you why.

Elephant kisses.

Elephant kisses.

Then, Marilyn, a feisty sixty-something English teacher from North Carolina, pushed me closer and said, “Let go. Let it happen.” Not the first nugget of wisdom Marilyn had shed that trip, but my personal favorite. So I walked up to that elephant, a little bell on his neck tinkling like a shop keep’s door, and it was like he had been waiting for me the whole time. He wrapped his trunk around my shoulder, pulled me closer, and sucked up the skin from my cheek like a wet, furry vacuum cleaner.

Hands down the best kiss of my life.

And I’ve tried to remember Marilyn’s advice every day since: Sometimes you just gotta let go and let it happen. It’s the only thing that will ever really quiet the worrying mind.

I Am Not My Neuroses

This is supposed to be a sad face...can you tell? Call it hormones.  Call it summer boredom.  Call it whatever you like, but the bottom line is that I have had a shit storm brewing in my brain since June.

Allow me to explain.

Really it’s longer than that.  Over the last few years (if I’m being honest, since I started teaching) I’ve come to believe that I am a neurotic person, and that’s just who I’ve always been.  Anxiety disorder and Ashley are synonymous in my mind.  I said this to my best friend who’s known me since freshman year of college and she corrected me.  I was not always like this.

So why is it that I cannot have an idea without doubting it?  Why can I not have a polite exchange with a colleague without wondering what she thinks of me afterwards?  Why do I feel good about myself one minute, and then completely worthless the next?  The answer is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I have become my anxiety.

The good thing is that I am self-aware.  In fact, maybe a little too self-aware.  I’ve recognized this issue for a while, and since summer began, it’s gotten progressively worse even though I’ve done all the right things.  I’ve walked, traveled, spent time with friends and family, found creative outlets, and eaten (mostly) healthy foods.  But I just can’t kick it.  So I found myself a few days ago in a therapist’s office vomiting the nonsense that has been swirling in my brain.  She cut me off mid sentence at one point and said, “Listen, Ashley, you’re thirty-one now.  You’ve got to stop relying on other people to provide your confidence.  You will never get over this anxiety until you do.”

Easy for her to say.

The truth is I don’t know where the border between me and other people begins, and I’ve spent years (maybe a lifetime) expecting that praise and approval will eventually make me whole.  Last night I was relaying all of this to another of my best friends and she said, “Ashley, you might have an anxiety disorder, but you are not an anxious person.”  For the first time, I’m realizing that there is a difference between the two.

There’s been much talk lately about mental illness with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and I know many are asking the same question I am:  If I’m not blank [an addict, anxious, depressed], then who am I?

I grew up with a mother who hated having her picture taken.  I have few pictures of her, and I’m pretty sure past a certain age, I could probably count how many there are.  Somewhere along the way, I developed the same phobia.  To my credit though, I can take some pretty awful pictures.  My husband, who loves to take photos, calls what happens to me when a camera comes around as “turning into a gremlin.”  Exhibit A is the photo above.  My friend and I were on a girl’s trip to Jamaica and on our last day, she said, “Make a sad face for the camera.”  What you see is apparently what happens to my face when I’m sad.  For others, it’s a frown or a slight grimace, but I literally turn into a golem.  Such mutation has become the reason why I avoid having my picture taken, and if I must do it, from ever looking at the picture to avoid the self-criticism that will come with it.  But I wasn’t always this way.  There are countless pictures of me as a teenager and young adult being silly and clearly loving the camera.  Somewhere along the way worrying about how I look in a photo changed the way I think about myself.  Now I just accept it as fact that I take bad pictures most of the time, when that is not really the case.

But I don’t want my daughters to worry about how they look in pictures or to run when someone pulls out a camera.  There’s more at stake for me now that I’m a mom.  Thinking of myself as an anxious person, constantly thinking and expressing negativity, and ruminating on nonsense that doesn’t really matter will not only impact me (and my relationships with others), but how my daughters see me and themselves.  It’s just not a risk worth taking.

The shit storm will still be a-brewing, but I would rather acknowledge that I happen to have a disorder that I can control instead of believe that the disease is who I am and I just have to live with it.  It’s not easy, but it will be worth it.  And maybe I’ll learn how to take a better picture along the way.