I told Linda that I was feeling good today. I said I really wanted to spend the session talking about how I feel about going back to work and that I hadn’t really thought much further than that. She asked if she could suggest that we focus first on how I feel today, right now then we could relate it back to how I have felt in the past. She said, ‘rather than focusing on how you have felt in the past and relating it to how you feel now, does that sound okay?’ I sort of laughed and agreed and looking back I think I folded my arms. She asked me what came up for me and I said, ‘well I think it always pisses me off a bit when you say that coz I spent so long avoiding talking about the past and Anna really worked hard at getting me to talk about the past and I know it’s not the same as this but a lot of the time I think it’s really important that we do talk about childhood stuff.’ She seemed really keen that I understand her, she explained that she absolutely didn’t mean that we should avoid talking about childhood stuff, she agreed that’s really important and reiterated, ‘I’m really glad you asked that Lucy because you misunderstood me. We are talking about you as an adult dealing with returning to work, so I think it would be a good idea to focus on how you feel right now… today… how do you feel about going back to work?’
I said, ‘yeah it is really important to clarify that so I’m glad you said all that. How do I feel about going back to work? I don’t want to go back. At all.’ Linda asked me why I didn’t want to go back and basically I spent the rest of the session meandering through the many reasons why I don’t want to go back.
I told Linda that the General Teaching Council and the union have been trying to come to some sort of working agreement that fits around the governments plans to open schools from Monday 10th August which is a week early. I told her that my work is back different days to my kids which is annoying. I then went off on a bit of a tangent to let her know that Adam found out today that he isn’t being made redundant which is fantastic news. I told her this was great because we want to move house and I didn’t want to add ‘new job’ to the list of stressors. She asked where we were moving to and I explained we’d be staying local but wanted to move to a bigger house, ‘but that’s another topic for another time,’ and we both smiled. I ranted a few other things quite quickly and Linda threw her hands up and said, ‘woah that’s a lot… that’s a lot going on.’ And my heart started racing and then I felt floaty. I said ‘it is a lot, it’s such a lot, and I feel weird now that you’ve said that… I think… the thing is it is such a lot and there’s so much more as well and it all feels too much for me and I never know how to focus on any of it.’ Linda acknowledged my overwhelm and reassured me we would focus on things as and when they came up and that today was for focusing on work.
I explained the main points:
- We’re expected to maintain a 2 metre physical distance from other adults and children
- Children don’t need to distance from each other
- Teachers will have to teach at a 2 metre distance from the kids
- There may or may not be Perspex shields at the teachers desk
- We are responsible for maintaining good hand hygiene in our classrooms
- We are responsible for keeping our classrooms clean through the day
- We will have a full class of children up to 33 kids with any additional staff needed
- We should keep the rooms well ventilated, windows open
- If we’re unable to physically distance or we are in a poorly ventilated room we should wear a mask
- Children will not be wearing masks
- It is all down to the individual, none of the above will be ‘policed’
- Don’t mark jotters or touch anything within 72 hours
It took me a long time to work through all these points and as each one came up I felt very uncomfortable and spacey and would give a reason why the specific point is problematic. I told Linda that the management haven’t been very forthcoming with instructions as it’s the summer holidays still, that often we are expected to hit the ground running when we go back after the summer and that this seems to be no different. We will have an in-service day but that in itself is stressing me out because usually it’s a classroom with on average 40 staff all sitting next to each other for 6 hours.
I told Linda that I will be going into a pupil support role when I go back so I will be in contact with over 300 children each week. I will not have my own classroom and I will have to go into multiple classrooms each day. I will have to trust my colleagues – that they are maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. I will have to accept their room as it is, ‘I can’t exactly stride into their classroom, open the windows, hand gel all the kids and begin bleaching all the surfaces!’ I won’t have my own classroom so there’s nowhere to keep my belongings with the certainty that no one will touch them. The staffroom and kitchen are too small to use within the regulations and the toilets are communal. I know that to avoid conflict the rules will be left to interpretation and down to the individual. It makes no sense for me to be the only person wearing a mask, that doesn’t protect me from everyone else and will just make people think I’m a weirdo.
I know from social media that many of my colleagues haven’t been as careful as me through the lockdown and they have been out for big group meals, and events together. I, in contrast, have been very careful. I have stayed in my house, gone for walks outside, met a friend in her garden and maintained distance, attended osteopath appointments wearing a mask where they have been in full PPE, had one hairdresser appointment with masks. I have not been in anyone’s house, I have not met up with large groups, I haven’t even been in shops. I am now in the position where I have been super careful and I’m going to have to suddenly be in a building with over 300 people having no idea what the past 5 months have been like for them or how careful they have been. It just doesn’t feel safe and it doesn’t feel fair.
There were so many points where I felt very spacey and in one of those moments I said, ‘I don’t know what this feeling is but it’s horrible and it starts in my chest and creeps through my whole body and makes me feel spacey and floaty and it’s what leads to the dissociation and numb feeling… like now I uh… it’s this, I lose my train of thought!’ There was a quiet moment and Linda said, ‘is it powerlessness?’ and I just sat there looking at her. ‘Exactly that,’ I finally said, ‘powerless… I feel like I have no choice, this is all happening to me regardless of how I feel about it. Shit I hate feeling so powerless.’ This felt like such a massive breakthrough in this tiny millisecond moment. It’s a feeling of powerlessness that pushes me to dissociation. Wow. I mean, obviously! But also, wow.
I said, ‘Linda, I don’t know how to teach while maintaining a two metre distance. I can’t teach without constantly formatively assessing the kids work, it’s no use waiting 72 hours and you can’t do all of this verbally with 30 kids… I don’t know how to do my job to a high standard with all these restrictions in place and that makes me not want to even try… and a Perspex shield around the desk? In my 18 years experience since I first set foot in a classroom as a student I have never taught from my desk! I only ever sit down at my desk at the end of the day to mark and plan… the shield is useless!’
Linda asked what communication I’ve had from my work and I told her nothing. I told her that because it’s the summer we won’t hear much until the first day back. I told her that I felt it might be wise to speak to my boss next week but I’m very anxious about having a confrontation. I said, ‘if I wasn’t worried about what she thought of me I’d tell her that I really want her to be more prescriptive with the rules so that all staff know what’s expected of them. I want her to say that it’s our duty to maintain all of these safety guidelines in order to keep everyone safe. But she won’t do that because they are ‘just guidelines’ and because she won’t want to butt up against people and put the management under pressure to enforce the rules. So it would be pointless for me to say this… if I was the head teacher I would have a list of expectations that I wanted everyone to follow like a ‘one out one in’ rule for the toilets, wear a mask at all times if in an unventilated room or unable to maintain the physical distancing (and the school should provide the masks!)…’
I stopped and sighed and Linda said, ‘there are just too many variables… you’re really up against the system.’ I said, ‘yeah… fucking hell that’s how I’ve always felt. I hate it. Every year I grapple with the idea of leaving teaching but what could I do with a teaching degree!?’ Linda said, ‘loads of things! I always think of teaching and social work and other similar qualifications as being really transferable.’ I said, ‘I thought they were really restrictive. It’s basically a degree to be a teacher.’ Linda said, ‘yeah but the skills and knowledge are very sought after in loads of different jobs. You have an honours degree and years of experience… think of all the skills you’ve built up.’ I said, ‘well that’s for another time because I really can’t see me doing this for the next 30 years until I’m finally allowed to retire!’ Linda said, ‘yeah, my sister was a teacher for 30 years I have a bit of an insight into the job, just a little…’ I said, ‘oh sorry for patronising you with the over explanations then,’ she said, ‘you didn’t patronise me at all, my sister took early retirement and I think she’d admit she’s very relieved she doesn’t have to teach through this pandemic. The thing is Lucy let’s be realistic here, none of us have a fucking clue what we’re doing. None of us has a fucking clue. We are literally making this up as we go along and it’s very strange and scary and unknown. Tomorrow I will be going on two planes… wearing a mask the entire time, just so I can go and sit in my friends garden for 5 days and you know I think, well that’s going to be an interesting experience, I’ve never done that before! And the other day I went to a restaurant and could barely understand what they were saying because of the mask… so yeah, and that’s NOTHING like going to work in a classroom… I get it. We haven’t got a fucking clue how to do this, the whole world over!’
I said, ‘Yeah, it’s so unknown. I have been so grateful to be living in Scotland through this. I feel like Nicola Sturgeon has done an incredible job of managing this really fucking horrific situation and when I look at some other leaders around the world and how much they’ve messed it all up… all the deaths and all the people with lasting illness… it’s terrifying. I have felt, with so much uncertainty, I’ve felt like she has given us a lot of clarity. I’ve watched every one of her briefings and it’s helped to see that there’s an intelligent, empathic person at the head of our government making decisions based on the safety of the human beings in this country…’ Linda said, ‘yes absolutely, but now Nicola has decided schools should go back..?’ and I said, ‘well yeah exactly… so this is the first move she’s made that I’m not happy about. Schools can go back, millions of children and adults returning to buildings without the same safety restrictions in place that we see in other workplaces… and before gyms, offices and other things opening. How is that safe? The past 5 months none of us have had a cold or a stomach bug or viral infection or anything, that’s usually unheard of. Because we pick up all sorts from the school! But I get that she has a lot to balance. She has to think about the attainment gap that will have widened beyond comprehension through the lockdown, the kids who are living at risk of violence, abuse, the kids living in severe poverty who don’t have enough to eat one day to the next. I get that she has all that to consider and of course that’s important to me too. School is the safest place for so many. I get that. And it’s selfish, I know it’s selfish, but me and my family, we are safe where we are. The minute I send my kids into their school and I walk into mine that’s us putting ourselves at the biggest risk we’ve made since March. I am so uncomfortable with it.’
Linda talked a bit about these issues with me. I explained to her that whenever we go back after the summer holidays there’s the awkward ‘first conversations’ you have with everyone where they ask you where you went and what you did with your summer. Almost all of my colleagues are better off than me because they’re either younger than me, childless and have higher disposable income than me or they’re older than me and their husbands all have much better jobs than mine. They go on a couple of holidays abroad in the summer or they spend their whole summer in their second home in Spain or wherever and I just hate all the competitive/comparison chat. So when we go back this time round there will be people who have gone away in the last couple of weeks… one of them is holidaying in Blackpool right now… why would you go somewhere that has higher figures than here? It’s so risky. And anyway… most of them will say they’ve loved the lockdown, it’s been a slower pace or they’ve learned how to play the trombone or ride a unicycle or whatever and all this quality family time or they’ve put a new kitchen in and landscaped their garden… and me? I’ve barely survived. This has been the hardest 5 months of my adult life.’ I sort of paused, lost my place and Linda said back to me, ‘This has been the hardest 5 months of your adult life. I mean, wow.’ And of course my brain used it’s inner critic filter and translated her very caring tone into some sort of mocking, sarcasm. I said, ‘well… I mean I know you probably think that sounds completely over the top and like I’m exaggerating but…’ Linda said, ‘no, I don’t think you’re exaggerating. That’s me empathising with you Lucy, it has been the hardest 5 months of your adult life I mean, of course going back to work is going to feel so hard after everything you’ve been through and what you’ve lost.’ It felt weird to hear her say it like that, I wanted to make her say Anna’s name. I wondered if she’d hoped I was over it. Or maybe she just didn’t want to go deeply into it before her holiday. I’m aware I was starting to become hypervigilant.
I continued, ‘When we go back to work everyone’s going to be asking how we all are and what the lockdown was like. What do I say when they ask me? Do I lie? I’m shit at lying. But I can’t tell them the truth… we have a work whatsapp group and one of my colleagues let us know a couple of months ago that she lost her dad. She’d been nursing him in the final stage of his cancer, her mum died last year and so she sent this message and we all replied with messages of love and condolences. And I know this is selfish, I’m making this about me, but I couldn’t put a message on the group chat when Anna di…left. It’s like it was a secret relationship and I couldn’t rally a community of love around me you know? I had to do all of that here in my video sessions with you.’ Linda said, ‘I know. Could you have taken that community of love and support in? If you’d had it would you have been able to take it in?’ I said, ‘probably not to be honest. I wouldn’t have put a message on the group chat. I mean, my grandpa died at the end of the year and I didn’t put a post in the group chat. It’s just not my style I guess.’ Linda said, ‘I mean, it is what people do. They put posts on social media… group chats,’ I said, ‘yeah I don’t really do that.’
This topic went on for a bit and I talked some more about how I’d hoped the pain and longing for Anna wasn’t going to be such a powerful force anymore. I knew it would come back from time to time, the ebb and flow of grief, but I hoped it wouldn’t hurt as much as this, or at least I’d hoped it would only crop up when I had time to feel it… not in the run up to going back to work. There is something beside the sadness and longing, it’s a panicky feeling… like I want to get her back, I want to get my life back. My pre-lockdown life, I want it back. At one point I stopped and couldn’t regain my train of thought. I um’d for a while and Linda said, ‘what was it you were just going to say?’ I paused for a bit and said, ‘I’m too ashamed to say it.’ She said, ‘oh why are you ashamed Lucy?’ I told her I felt like I should be over this by now. I said, ‘I was going to say that life feels like it has been frozen through the lockdown, everything has been paused and I guess it’s been easy to sort of imagine that my sessions with Anna were paused temporarily too… but as the restrictions lift and everything goes back to normal, when I go back to work… well, the last time I was at work I had her. She was part of my week, you know? And it’s going to be so obvious when I go back to work. The last time I was teaching, she was a big part of my life and now when I go back to teaching she’s not going to be there. I just feel like I should be over this by now like you’ll be thinking ‘here we go again, still not over Anna!’ but it does still hurt, I do still miss her.’ Linda said, ‘of course you do Lucy. I don’t have any judgments over how long it’s going to take you, you know? It takes what it takes and this is how you’re feeling right now and that’s valid and important and real. The thing is Lucy… the deal is, the feelings come up and they have to be felt or they’re not going anywhere. There really is no use denying that the feelings are there, pushing them down, they’re only going to crop up again at some point down the line. Best to let them come up and be felt.’ And as if by magic the tears came. Just a little and I sort of breathed myself back to a calmer state. I had no idea what the time was and didn’t want to cry my eyes out two minutes before the end. As it happens we had about fifteen minutes left.
Anyway, we made our way back to talking about the fear of the virus, ‘the logical part of my brain knows the facts. I know that it is very rare to develop a severe case of covid, I know that most people have very mild symptoms. But then I read about the people who were healthy and got covid in February/March and are still bed bound with ME symptoms, post viral fatigue, lung disease, organ failure… these cases exist. People who can’t work anymore. Dying from covid isn’t the only thing to worry about… I don’t want to get it. I don’t want Adam to be ill or the kids. Very few kids have had it really bad but they have still had symptoms and there are loads of weird ways the virus is impacting kids.’ I started to feel the panic rising again. This is really the first time I’ve explored my feelings about the virus in therapy because the whole lockdown was really focused on Anna being ill, leaving, coming back and then leaving for good. My worries about the virus itself always seemed way down the list. Also, when we were all locked indoors it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I knew I was keeping safe. Linda asked me if I had any underlying health conditions and I told her I don’t. It feels so self obsessed to be stressing about this. There are people who have continued to work on the front line through this whole thing. But as Linda said, that’s part of the problem. I have been safely hidden away since March so to come out of that hiding feels very unsettling.
I glanced at my phone and noticed the time and felt this massive disappointment that THIS was what I’d spent my last 50 minutes with Linda talking about. I said, ‘This just seems so pointless, I can’t believe I wasted my session on this!’ Linda said, ‘Why does it feel pointless, Lucy? Why do you feel like you’ve wasted your session?’ I thought for a bit then said, ‘Why am I talking to you about any of this? You have no control over any of it… you can’t change or fix any of it for me.’ Linda was nodding a lot and said, ‘And neither do you… and I think that’s part of the problem… none of us do.’ I nodded and felt very sad. Linda said, ‘you may not be able to control any of this but you can control how you respond to it.’
Linda said, ‘it’s a horrible situation to be in, I’m not going to sit here and say ‘oh its fine, just you float on in there, carefree…’ you know? At the end of the day, working in a school and being asked to go back into that building in the middle of a pandemic is really crap. It’s fucking crap, I’m not gonna lie. The important thing is that you do what’s right for you. Whatever you decide it needs to be what feels right for you.’
She asked how I was feeling and I said I was going to miss her next week. She reassured me that we have a session on Tue 11th (we’re changing our session days because of my work). I told her I had a couple of things booked in during my session times to get me through, ‘which was a little tool that Anna gifted me… maybe avoidance but it’s a good one.’ Linda said, ‘nothing wrong with using a displacement activity to get you through. Listen Lucy I want you to use this week to really tune in to how you feel.’ I said, ‘I’ll make you guess at the start of the session, you can guess whether I’ve decided to go in to work or not!’ we laughed and I said, ‘that’s if you come back!’ Linda said, ‘what do you think is going to happen?’ I smiled and shrugged and she said, ‘you think I’m going to decide to not come back?’ I said, ‘well it would fit with my experience… my therapists have a habit of leaving and not coming back.’ And with a playful firm voice she said, ‘Lucy! I am going to sit in the warm sun for 5 days. I will look after myself.’ I said, ‘and you’re gonna be on four planes!’ she said, ‘yes and there will be four plane journeys… I’ll wear my mask from the minute I enter the airport to the moment I arrive at my friends house.’ I said, ‘I do hope you have a lovely, relaxing time… please look after yourself.’ She said, ‘you too Lucy, whatever you decide to do. See you Tue 11th.’ And we said goodbye. I sat for about twenty minutes breathing and trying to feel.