Anatomy of a breakdown

This is a tale I have been intending to tell for some weeks. I don’t want comments saying I am brave: honesty isn’t brave unless you are oppressed for expressing truth. I want anyone who finds echoes of this story in their life to see their GP as soon as they can; that’s what this post is for.


Read my last blog from six months ago “Hey SLT, you are making me sick”. It is true and accurate but doesn’t place due weight on the grinding anxiety of THAT class; the frustration at one’s impotence to secure the intended learning in the presence of the four or five or six or seven (depending on the day) Disruptors. The humiliation of that public sabotage of the lesson without commiting a severe enough act of defiance to warrant the threshold of school sanction. The post doesn’t mention the personal and external stress of death of friends, personal ill health and the critical illnesses of close friends and family: for me, a perfect storm that built on the foundations of unreasonable work stress to make a cathedral of illness for my mind.

Ian Stock (@TeachPers) who blogs and tweets as Teaching Personally read it and contacted me, a stranger, to offer advice and support including urging that I see my Doctor. He was having problems of his own which he has explained in his blogs, please read them, and recognised some of the warning signs in my post. He has been a great help in my recovery, and yet we have never met: he still lights the way forward as a pathfinder to salvation. Thank you Ian, stay well.

My closest friend Gill also chided me for not seeking medical advice. Ultimately, she would be a key factor in my rescue from madness: I would not have avoided mental disaster without her. She knows I am grateful.

One of my friends is also SLT. He saw me safe and compassionately oversaw my return. A GP friend insisted I saw mine, I finally made an appointment to help with my ‘anxiety’; it was for the week after THE week.  All of these people saw the iceberg of disaster, I knew better: I was a rock, invincible, tempered in the flame of thirty years of teaching and twenty in that blowtorch intensity of ‘middle management’. Unbreakable.

Up, sick and school.

Another tough day but the class that gatecrashes my mind had been quite good. Some of the intended learning had taken place and the Disruptors had been more easily contained. The lovely lot which was almost all the rest were slowly absorbing the study culture that suffused the content and activities, they would underachieve far less than would have been the case without me. The nonsense of hyper scrutiny by panicked Principals and a frantic MAT continued but was slightly alleviated by the obvious fact that they needed me, or any semi-competent teacher really. If anyone hinted at a ‘support programme’ for me I would refuse and request competency, no I wouldn’t play that sick game: put up or shut up.

Mark half a set of books, so behind with this, and set off to see Mother in the stroke unit, picking Gill up on the way. Quick and easy parking thanks to the relative pass available after the first two weeks. Entertain Mother trying not to be distressed by her confusion, her dementia accentuated by post-operative stroke following her fall. Clearly, I must get on with enacting the powers of attorney I arranged just in time. I must try to avoid the panicking latent explosion of worry about her future care, one thing at a time there may yet be some recovery. I buy a ‘pinger’ from the Hospital shop, drop Gill off and head home to the microwave, the TV and bed.


Awaken to nausea, wash, puke, dress, puke, school.

Another reasonable day. Was I making progress with THAT class or is this a temporary truce? Gift horses and small mercies fool, accept the improvement don’t hope for a solution. The rest of the learning went quite well and the slow settling of anxiety from those bloody briefings, bulletins and e-mails that start when the managers fingers settle on the keyboard on Monday morning had taken its usual turn.

The usual drill: finish the multi-step planning process for tomorrow that began a week ago, Mark a few more books and off to see Mother. Solo today.

The Nurse sat on the edge of the bed: consultants round, not for rehabilitation, outlook poor, dementia prevents concentration for OT, move to discharge team, very sorry. Conciliatory platitudes mumbled through the shock: the bastards have given up on her. Her future is boredom, bedsores and that death rattle of pneumonia. Shit. How long have I got? A few weeks yet. Right.

‘Pinger’, TV stared at but not watched, bed, exhaustion.


The usual morning ritual of retching until the stomach is bullied into yielding some phlegm, the walk to school with a whirling mind. The familiar tutor group (bless them, I’ve known them since they were little), assembly, they win the trophy as usual. A good lesson with the Disruptors and then duty.

Halfway through duty tears roll down my face. A trickle becomes a flood. I turn away from the kids to compose myself, it won’t stop: I am not sad, not crying but the tears are there, real. Confused, I go upstairs and see the checking AP, will she take my duty for a minute? To the toilet and tense every sinew to stem the tsunami of distress that is rushing at me. Shocked and uncomprehending I head to my room and my lovely year eleven class, the AP is there, go to her office? No I’ve got to teach my kids, their exams are imminent. I reassure her and open the door. She isn’t reassured and is looking at me strangely, the kids go in strangely quiet. My world had got very small, only what was directly in front of me could I see or hear. A strange dark quiet has enveloped me. The AH has gone, start the register. Who is roaring that tortured howl? Me? What’s that tugging my arm? It’s my friend the VP. The AP has got him. What is he saying? Concentrate! Go with him? Office? He is gently insistent. Something is very wrong indeed, something is deeply wrong with me that is unseen, unknown and frightening. I stand and blurt an off the cuff excuse for the kids and am led away. In that private space I am overwhelmed by the thing, I howl a visceral torrent of despair whilst desperately trying to rationalise this explosion of distress. Gill is here, she hugs me and says she will take me to the Doctors. I am led away in catatonic surrender.

At the Doctors, the receptionist says that I can have an emergency appointment at tea-time. I take no interest, Gill is dealing with her, she looks up and sees me: wait she will phone the Doctor. Jeez! do I look that bad? He will see me in his lunchtime in fifteen minutes. Wow! Why am I an emergency? We go in. Gill explains the history. I am detached, calm separate, shut down. Eventually, the Doctor turns to me: concentrate hard now stupid, you have to answer the questions. I explain what I can rationalise from a kaleidoscope of weirdness that denies rationalisation. ‘Dark thoughts?’ No, indifference to existence really. Breakdown? Well I suppose so. Medication? No, counselling perhaps. Medication? No. Medication? I summon enough conscious thought to consider that I am consulting a professional who is recommending an action to help me, trust him. Medication? Ok. I leave guilty at having taken up his lunchtime for forty minutes; only weeks later do I realise he was assessing whether I would be referred for psychiatric assessment and possible sectioning if uncooperative. That takes time. The final shock: my sick note says depression! He has made a mistake, I don’t feel sad, I don’t feel anything really. It is quite odd!

Gill takes me for lunch. Sunny, calm, detached, automatic. At home I do gardening, automatically, no thought. Gill takes me to Mother, acting, a front, I am good at that. Meds, bed exhausted.


Up late, nausea, sick. Gill takes me for lunch again. It gets me out of bed. Colours very vibrant, relaxed then tense then relaxed, automaton. Concentration such a monumental effort. Walk. MUST get back before school finishes to hide in my house. Lots of pooing, must be the drugs.

Mother, getting good at pretending to her, no more news. ‘Pinger’, bed.


Up, puke, poo, puke, poo, bed.Gill gets me up and takes me for lunch and walk. MUST be back to hide before school is out.

Watch TV without seeing, more intestinal activity, Mother, ‘pinger’, bed.

I got worse, much worse. Ian had warned me of this. The side effects ebbed. Concentration was still hard. The anxiety eased and at the next appointment a week later I finally accepted that I couldn’t work for a while. Eventually, I understood that I did indeed have a depressive illness; I was mentally ill: as debilitated as if I had a severe virus that lingered. I finally comprehended that depression wasn’t sadness and ANYONE CAN GET IT. There is no immunity to mental illness.

Weeks went by, I got better. The drugs and the break saved me. I arranged care for Mother, took over her affairs and returned to work, full-time.

The symptoms came back the day I did. I have struggled with them since but with my new knowledge of the edge of madness, the drugs, my friends and a decision to finally quit at the end of the year keep me from crumbling.

If there are familiar echoes to your experience please see your GP, they’re great.

Finally, the reason why I teach is shown by the beautiful card signed by all of my tutor group and even more by the members of the previous years year eleven class who when they discovered my illness (I am never absent) took me out for supper, sixteen of them, with a further six e-mailing apologies and bless them, none of them drank alcohol because they knew I wouldn’t approve.

They are all MY children.

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7 Responses to Anatomy of a breakdown

  1. ijstock says:

    Straight to the point, as honest and insightful as usual. I echo your point: It can happen to anyone. But I would also say as in both your and my cases, it isn’t always easy to see it for oneself until it gets pretty severe. If someone is concerned, take them seriously.
    Stay well too,

  2. Pingback: Take care of yourself – seriously | teaching personally

  3. The Oven Spring says:

    This is becoming increasingly common amongst teachers, and it’s important not only that people like you have the courage to share your experiences (honesty isn’t brave, but showing your wounds to the world is not easily done), but that people pay attention, and that awareness is spread.

    There are schools in which every full-time teacher is on medication or getting counseling. At the very least, teachers who need support need to be able to find and support each other.

    • bottomsbray says:

      Sadly, since my semi-recovery two more have ‘broken down’ and join the two others that I know are on anti-depressants. I had another meal with former colleagues that are the wreckage of the managerial culture that prevents school improvement. When I have quit in a couple of terms I will bite down hard on this unseen epidemic via blogs and tweets: I am coldly furious about the damage done to my friends and colleagues. Thanks for your comment.

      • The Oven Spring says:

        No problem. It’s frustrating seeing this happen and not knowing what to do about it, so I won’t pretend to understand how hard things are for the suffering teachers.

        Have you been able to find a support network?

      • bottomsbray says:

        Interestingly, we seem to find each other: I am meeting one this week to have an inane chat about everything except work and depression that I know will help (him particularly). I am now ok, just in an icy fury about the complicity of Ofsted, MATs, Consultants and SLT in wreaking this havoc.

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