After many years of serious illness, relapse and recovery making sense of my experience has not always been easy. At times it has been helpful to liken it to building bricks. A simple metaphor, but in times like these simple is sometimes best. As I have built my life, it has been brick by brick. Education, relationships, career, friends. Each brick contributes to my identity. As each brick stacked up, my confidence grew, I felt a sense of stability, gained a little expertise, developed a sense of belonging and a sense of self. With the right conditions hopefully I like what I’ve built. It isn’t perfect, but it is me. These bricks form a strong foundation, they allow me to understand my place in the world.
Illness can often come in an instant, the life I had, what I had thought to be solid was knocked over. The bricks now scattered around. All the benefits of having a strong foundation were gone, I had lost my confidence and my sense of self, I no longer understood my place in the world. My circumstances meant there was no time to think about a rebuild, for the moment construction was on hold. Appointments, treatments, scans, surgeries, tests, followed.
I was diagnosed with Leukemia at 18, the beginning of my adult life. Over the journey (I'm now 35) I have relapsed 4 times. The most recent when I was 30. Generally, those milestones of reaching a certain age represent an entrance into a new phase, an exciting time of discovery, creation and excitement. For me, it was not. Managing the anger, grief and frustration of relapse and recovery was my introduction to those new stages of life. With each relapse came a different form of treatment and a different version of a rebuild. Once I was lucky enough to recover, I was left with the task of reconstruction. Again, I started to build the bricks, one by one, taking some of the things I used before, discarding some of the parts of myself no longer of value.
I found the difference between rebuilding at 18 and 30 to be stark. Each time I relapsed, the wall was a little stronger, enough to withstand a complete collapse. Each time I went into remission, I had developed strategies to not allow the rebuild to overwhelm me. While every version of recovery was different the questions circling in my mind were similar.
How do I not let the anger and frustration consume me, shape who I am and how I engage with the world?
How do I reconnect socially and professionally when I am well enough? How do I trust my body, so that I can make plans for the future?
Having to repeat the process of relapse and recovery made clear to me the benefit of experience, I was better able to deal with the incredible challenges that I faced during recovery. A reoccurring thought during this time was that my experience was not unique. People with experiences like mine are largely expected to rebuild our lives on our own, especially when it comes to the professional space. Quite different from my personal life, many in my professional space had not been on the journey with me. I had left suddenly and reappeared a year later ready to work. I returned radically changed from my experience, the way I thought about life and my priorities had changed. How was I to adjust and communicate these changes with my colleagues?
What felt odd to me at the time still does, these are not new experiences. There are countless people who had struggled with these ideas. Why was I doing it alone?
I would have loved to be able to reflect on my experience with someone who had been through similar things. Someone who understood what it was like to be in a classroom, and to have that taken away from you. Someone who understood the challenges of adjusting meetings, schedules, deadlines. What relief it would have been for someone to tell me that it would get easier, I didn’t have to be so hard on myself, to allow me the space to reflect on my progress and provide guidance. These are not easy discussions to have, particularly with people who might be managing you or have influence over your job prospects.
My experience informs my work at Greater Space, a service that provides a space for educators to reflect on their practice and improve their mental health. A service that psychologists would call clinical supervision. A mix of counselling and professional development, Greater Space is changing the idea that you must work it out yourself. I would like us to rethink the way we return to the workforce after significant life changes. While my experience is unique, it has many similarities with those returning from pregnancy, bereavement or having to provide care to a loved one. The relief that my clients feel when speaking privately to an independent practitioner fills me with the hope that we are on the right path to better supporting the mental health of educators, allowing them to be their best for their students. Brick by brick we are changing the way we look after each other.