Swimming

A few weeks ago was the birthday of a friend of mine who passed way too young. I have also had a number of conversations with people who are struggling this month, so when my Facebook feed showed that I had posted the blog entry below, I felt like I needed to follow up on it. Go ahead and click on that first.

https://theaccidentalselfie.com/2016/04/03/one-year-crazy/

Basically, two years ago I wrote about my decision to take medication to help control anxiety issues and depression issues. That blog was largely about that decision and the positive effects.

Where am I at?

Two months after posting that blog, I felt like I had figured things out and stopped taking the medication.  I continued to see a counselor for another year after discontinuing the medication because I wanted to make sure I really did have my stuff together.  Last summer, I told him “Have you noticed that what we have talking about for the last year is not even close to the reasons I came in here two years ago? I think I’m done.” Basically, I took Lexapro for a little over a year, but have not touched one of those pills in over two years.  I’m fine.

What’s different?

I am better at distancing myself from work. I’m a school psychologist. Most people find it hard to believe, but the job is mentally brutal. The average career of a school psych is extremely short. Do not quote me, but I believe it was around 3-5 years the last time I checked. We turn over psychs at an alarming rate and the number of school psychs on anti-anxiety medications is staggering.  Basically, it is not me. It’s a mentally damaging job filled with conflict, isolation and frustration that breaks many many people at some time.

Here are three quotes said to me this year that would have crushed me in the past. “You made that call?  F**K you, man!”  “I just want you to know that I think you f*****g suck,” and finally, “Don’t as Erik. He’s just collecting a paycheck.”  Sadly, those came from staff with whom I work. Imagine what I get from parents and students. In the past, I would have lost sleep or tried to find ways to reconcile the problem or frankly, get the person to like me.  Now, I go home and go on with my day. I am actually really good at my job. I know that. People get mad, people get angry. Whatever.  Maybe they really do think I suck. Maybe they were frustrated and blowing off steam. I do my best and move on. Of course, I do collect a paycheck as well, so that kinda helps. A nice big fat public-school employee paycheck.

I have really learned who I can depend on and it is the people who were there for me when I was a mess and when things are great. When I posted that blog I got bombarded with “What’s the matter?” “We should get together and you can fill me in,” “I am always here, what do you need?”  I struggled because when I posted it, I was through everything. I did not need anything anymore. I wanted to yell, “I’m fine. Where was this twelve months ago when I needed it?”  In fairness, most of them had no clue. Some I had flat-out lied to. Perhaps others, I wasn’t direct enough with when I tried to reach them. I am certainly not blameless but what I have learned is that people love riding the big red fire truck with sirens blaring to spray water on the inferno, but fewer people like to spend time quietly checking smoke alarms.  Those are the people I can depend on and I have them in my life. You know who you are and I love you.

Chicken or Egg?

In my professional life, and in my person life, I see countless people basically say, “I need to find out what I have so that I understand why I think/act like this.”  When I started in therapy one of the first things I said was, “I do not believe there is anything wrong with me. I think I am depressed and anxious because I think certain ways and have certain patterns that I need to break.  I do not think I ‘have something’ that is beyond my control and causes me to do this.”   Some people have genuine disorders that they can not help. That is a fact and I am not discrediting that at all.  For me, that was going to be my last resort, not a starting point. I wanted to change everything I could before saying, “I have X.”  It may seem minor, but I do believe that if I had walked in and relinquished that locus of control I would not have been as successful.

People will still occasionally make a comment about by “mental illness.”  Initially, it infuriated me.  Not because there is anything wrong with mental illness, but because I do not consider myself mentally ill.  I had a tough spell, took some pretty serious steps to correct it and feel like I am back on track.  If I blew out my ACL, had surgery and went through a year of rehab, I doubt people would refer to me as “physically disabled” three years later when I was walking and running around. Again, something that I would have stewed on years ago, but now am much better about letting it slide.  Who knows, maybe someday I will have another “mental-injury.” It is possible, but I am not overly concerned about it right now.

In Conclusion 

I am as happy as I have been in a long time. In a weird way, I am almost glad I had that bad stretch.  I feel more insightful, resilient, and content. Mostly, I feel more grateful. I just felt like I needed to give some closure to what I put out there a couple years ago.  Two final things.

First, take care of your friends and family.  Check in on them. Say something if you notice them struggling. Listen to them. Check their smoke alarms. Do not wait until it becomes a blazing fire and then try to throw buckets of water on it. Stuff is already burning at that point. You will never regret touching base or checking in.  Even if you meet resistance, or even lies, your gesture will be appreciated on some level.

Finally, if you are struggling. Get some help. If your loved ones say you are struggling,  you are struggling. Get some help. It does not mean there is anything wrong with you and any help does not need to be permanent.  I will close with this analogy.  It was like I was spending my life slogging on the ocean floor and drowning.  On the good days, I could swim twenty or thirty feet above the floor and say, “Look at this. This is not bad. I am well above the floor. I’m swimming”  However, after spending so much time on the floor, I’d lost perspective and did not even realize that even though I was twenty or thirty feet off the floor, I was still 100 feet below the surface and drowning.  Getting counseling and meds was like tying a life jacket on me and shooting me to the surface.  Once my head got above water, I thought “Wow, I had forgotten this is where I am supposed to be. I need to relearn to swim.” As I swam stronger, I untied the life jackets.

As of today, I don’t even know where my life jackets are anymore.

 

 

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Moving on

I have worked as an elementary school psychologist for about eighteen years.  This year, I asked to be moved to middle school.  The schedule works better for my family, I feel like I had burned out anyway and had fallen into habits that I did not see myself breaking. For many personal and professional reasons, it is just time to move on.

Without boring people with details, this is a huge career change. The duties are different but the biggest difference is that I am leaving a lot of really good friends and am now in a situation where I do not know anyone.  Things are going to change for me and I find that scary. I am not a fan of change and this move is not something I would typically take a chance on.

I have obviously spent a lot of time reflecting on the past eighteen years and have decided to write a series of posts about my favorite experiences in elementary. I am not going to post the sad, heart-breaking or scary stories. It is just going to be the ones that I like.  And don’t worry.  I am changing names, some details, locations, etc so that I am not risking breaking confidentiality

Todd

Todd was a seven-year-old student with Down Syndrome. Along with severely limited cognitive skills, Todd’s language was generally limited to two or three word sentences. Todd could also be naughty and thought it was hilarious to get his teacher worked up. It was easy for him too because his teacher had been involuntarily transferred from high school and was always quick to tell everyone that (see also: disgruntled)

We also worked in a very old building.  My wing had Todd’s class, my office and that was it. We were really isolated.  My office also had its own little bathroom.  One day I accidentally mentioned that to Todd’s teacher and she said it would be a good idea to use my office for her kids in a emergency rather than taking them the length of the hall. Being a nice guy (see also someone who has trouble drawing the line between servitude/consideration/putting others first and being being a doormat  a.k.a  chump) I did not say anything.

However, it quickly became an issue. The teacher made my bathroom her class’s own facility. It did not matter if I was on the phone, with a student, meeting with a family or anything. She would barge into my office and take her student to my bathroom. And she was loud. Always telling the student to hurry or talking at them. Worst, she would sit down and start griping about not working at high school and how she did not have to deal with this at high school.  It got old fast.  It was worst when she brought Todd in.  He would lock himself in the bathroom and just start laughing. She would pound on the door and try to negotiate with him, beg him, threaten him with loss of privileges or whatever before giving up, sitting down and telling me about high schools.  It was disruptive and killed huge chunks of my day. Todd would just laugh until he got bored and then he would eventually come out.

One day I was very stressed out and working on a very hard case. I heard yelling, my door burst open and Todd ran into my bathroom, locked the door and started laughing. Eventually the teacher trudged in and started banging on the door and doing the whole song and dance before sitting down and beginning to complain. I reminded her the student bathroom had no locks and she should use that. She stated it was too far. I reminded her that if she was going to use my office, she needed stay with Todd so he could not get ahead of her and lock the door. She reminded me that she did not need to do that at high school and started yelling across my office at Todd from my chair.  I was done and told her that this could not continue.  She said, “Fine, you get him out.”

I walked to the door, knocked and said, “Todd, I am counting to three and you need to open the door.”  Todd cracked up laughing.  When I hit three, I reached over, popped the bolts out of the door hinges, lifted the old wooden door off the hinges and sat the door aside.  Little Todd’s eyes were huge and his mouth hung open.  Without ever breaking eye contact, Todd dropped his pants, jumped on the toilet and took care of business.  As his teacher walked him back to class, Todd looked over his shoulder at me every five steps with eyes that were a combination of awe and puzzlement.  When he got to his room, he looked back, smiled, gave me a wave and went into his class.  From his perspective, someone lifting the door off the hinges must have been almost like a superhero.

The next day I heard the teacher yelling and Todd came bursting into my office.  He locked the bathroom door and the teacher came in and started the usual complaining. However, this time, before she could sit down,  the noises coming from the bathroom made it clear Todd was doing work.  A very short time later, the toilet flushed, the door opened, Todd strutted over to me, put his hand in the air and said.

“Poop fast. High five?”

“Todd, wash your hands first. Them high-five.”

*Hands washed, “Poop fast, wash hands, high five!” Todd blistered  my  hand, smiled and went back to class. The teacher looked at me and followed him back.

Todd never locked himself in a bathroom again and after a couple weeks we were able to get him (and the rest of his class) using the student restroom instead of my office.  However, every day I would hear a knock at my door and would open it to Todd’s giant smile.

“Poop fast! Wash Hands!  High-Five!”  He would slap my hand and move on with his day. No bathroom charts. No food incentives.  The boy just wanted a high five from someone he was impressed with.

If he was goofing around class and I walked by he would look up, run over to his seat and immediately start complying with directives  while giving me a thumbs up and a giant smile.  Eventually we had to teach him that he could not run down the hallway yelling, “Poop Fast! Wash Hands! High-Five!” whenever he saw me but that was a much smaller task than his earlier behavior.

I love the story because of how unexpected it was.  I simply needed Todd (see also: teacher who was driving me crazy) out of my office and lifted the door as a last resort.  However, the visual of that completely changed how Todd looked at me and he was determined to please me from that day on.  Nothing really profound but just funny and something I will never forget.

“Poop fast! Wash Hands. High-five!”

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