I once had a panic attack during silent breakfast.
I had experienced panic attacks once or twice before, so I immediately knew what had happened after it passed.
But that didn’t make it any less surprising.
It came out of nowhere. The numbness slowly creeping out of the pit of my stomach, spreading to all of my limbs, freezing me in place, heart racing, the edges of my vision going black, my breathing constricted. When I have panic attacks, it’s never the hyperventilating, crying, “I think I’m having a heart-attack” type of panic attack. For me, it’s paralysis, and a slow slip out of consciousness into a black oblivion. It’s tunnel vision and numb extremities. My irises, which are usually green, turn dark brown. Panic attacks, for me, are a brief dissociation into the “upside-down” accompanied by a long, deafening silence.
When it ended, I found the kids still munching happily on Pop-tarts and cereal. They hadn’t noticed.
Seeing that they were fine (and knowing that I wasn’t), I left the cafeteria to find someone to cover my duty for me. I found an upper-level administrator standing in the hallway, and asked if they would step into the cafeteria for a moment. I gave no reason and didn’t wait for a reply, willing my legs to make it to the principal’s office without collapsing.
When I got there, I found the principal sitting at their desk, happily typing an e-mail. I stood in the doorframe, leaning on it for support, struggling to take a full breath and desperately fighting a wave of nausea. They looked up at me expectantly.
“I need to leave. I’m sick. I shouldn’t have come in today,” was all I could muster.
In hindsight, I must have really looked sick, because the principal didn’t question me further. Their brow furrowed, clearly concerned that I was about to melt into their door frame, they simply said, “Okay, no worries, feel better! We’ll get someone to cover you classes!”
I truly do not remember what happened after that. I don’t remember walking to my car, I don’t remember driving home, I don’t remember what I did when I got there. The next thing I remember is waking up on the living room couch, feeling better, and trying to figure out what had caused that panic attack.
At the time, I decided that it was just random occurrence. “Sometimes it happens,” I told myself. “You’re fine. This is normal.” I went back to school the next day as if nothing had happened.
It wasn’t until later in the school year, when I had five panic attacks in twenty-four hours (and, consequently, needed to seek emergency care), that I realized how wrong I was. This is not normal. This never should be normal.
And yet, I think the stress, unrealistic expectations, and paranoia that goes along with teaching in a charter school makes teachers think that this normal. The “no excuses” attitude among administrators makes it seem like the only cure for your panic attacks, or anxiety, or depression is to work harder. That attitude makes it seem like debilitating stress is the price of admission into the teaching profession – the exhaustion of caring is romanticized and celebrated. Teachers have been gaslit into believing that if we only stop complaining, show some “GRIT,” work longer hours, spend more of our own money, give more of our emotional selves, care less about our own humanity (and more about the childrens’ humanity) we will become better teachers, and if we are better teachers, we will become less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
But that isn’t how humanity works. I cannot pour from an empty cup.
In order to give my life to my classroom, I have to have a life in the first place. My home life and humanity needs to be just as loud as my school life and humanity. I cannot silence myself in service of my students. I cannot serve my students in spite of my humanity, I must serve my students because of my humanity.
When I see school districts striking, I think about this. I think about how it is the silence that drives us – the silencing of our lives as teachers, the expectation that we will tacitly accept the premise that we can and will do more with less. Striking teachers have reached a tipping point and are saying, “This is not sustainable. This is a crisis.”
I’m personally a lot better now. I have worked with a therapist to develop stress management techniques, and I’ve read a lot on panic disorder, anxiety, and secondary PTSD, which is a type of PTSD that occurs among those that care for people with PTSD. I’m a lot more aware of the physical signs of anxiety that I feel, and how they often occur well before I have any psychological signs of anxiety and stress. And my threshold for stress is a lot higher now – most things feel trivial when compared to the gaslighting and existential threats that are part of working for a “no excuses” charter school.
But the panic attacks still come more often than they did before. A turbulent flight, a disagreement with a loved one – my brain would rather disassociate than confront it. I assume this is part of the healing process. I assume that, someday, I won’t experience panic attacks as easily or as frequently. Someday, I won’t have to carry rescue medication in my bag. Someday, the silence won’t threaten me. For now, though, I will loudly, noisily, and unapologetically, oppose that silence. For now, I am unchartered.