There are so many ways to begin this conversation. "People may not want to hear about your problems," a friend said to me during our walk through the Barton Creek greenbelt. I'm a little more free mentioning my disorder now, so I referred to it in passing as we continued our talk about the uplifting nature of life, passing belayers spotting people suspended in air, hiking through white limestone trails alongside the natural spring beds of the Austin landscape. Even this friend who writes 10k emails, who went to Hawaii to drop sorrows into the mouth of the Kilauea Volcano, who has a life coach, warned me about the not-so-uplifting parts of life that make people want to treat you like band geek. And in turn, his warning about others felt like subtle hands pushing my shoulders back or tidying my hair, reminders of social comfort-levels, acute and attune to the fine lines that appear on my face.
I began teaching six years ago at a school right around the corner from my apartment in Lincoln Park. I didn't know what I was doing. I hadn't even taken one education course. Actually, I can't remember why I decided to be a permanent sub in the first place. I was finishing my final semester of grad school and planned on teaching freshman comp at any college that would take me. Maybe I didn't know if I would be able to cut it as a professor. It seemed like an accusation that I was making even to try. But I did try. People called me "Professor Haley," shocking, but a good shock, a nice sound.
After my two-year stint as an NYC Teaching Fellow, I left that job to return to college teaching. But I've been struggling with it. It's what I've wanted to do ever since I walked into that bare classroom on the fourth floor of a downtown Chicago office building. The teenagers and early twenty-somethings looked at me funny for my small stature, long hair, and mid-twenty-something self. "What shall we call you?" "Vanessa," I'd tell them. That detour I took to the NY public schools ended up destabilizing me to a much greater degree than I have been able to understand. I have decided that this will be my last semester as a teacher.
. . . . . .
The first time I realized there was something wrong with me was a few days into the second school year of the Fellows program. The principals were very strict about the dismissal--no children allowed back in the school, period. I always took my orders seriously. We were the ones keeping the school together, each one of us with fingers ready to plug the dyke. Ms. Gordon had the front of the line and I took the back. When we reached the ground floor, three of my boys tore off the line for the restroom. I was right behind them, putting my foot down and demanding that they leave the building (probably pointing my finger at the end of an outstretched arm and literally stamping my foot). They stopped, turned back around, and headed out the door.
That is what happened on the outside. On the inside my body heat shot up so high it felt like that hot adrenalin you might feel if you were in danger. As I walked back around the building to collect my things I was dazed--stunned at their attempt to break the rules in front of me, at the heat in me, and my immobility afterwards. By the time I sat down on the subway tears began to fall. I couldn't stop them.
The scary part was that I knew my response was a far extreme from what the situation called for. I wasn't in control. I could cover it. Not one person would have known anything was wrong, but the inside part was terrifying. People call those types of things panic attacks, but I don't think that's what it was. It was some sort of web that had a source. Something had embedded itself in me right below the surface and was ready for triggers.
My life was one giant trigger at that time--the hour-long subway ride in the morning, for one. Stepping inside the dingy metal casing just about killed me. The doors would open and close again, so many opportunities for freedom that I never took. Immediately, I was on the phone searching for help. I chose a cognitive therapist on the Upper East Side of New York City. She was a PhD, a pretty woman. I could talk easily with her. But our therapy was technical. It involved charts and note taking. It involved retraining my mental talk to give kinder, gentler responses to the situations that triggered the anxiety. I can't say that it helped much, a little, but nothing significant shifted inside me.
The thing that got me through that second year was Ms. Gordon. She controlled those children. I was rarely alone with them. If I would've had to face a second year on my own, I would have crumbled. My second year was different. I'd had a break in time. My capacity for staying the course wouldn't have won. The first piece of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder puzzle is in that first word, "post."
. . . . . .
So, Ms. Gordon got me through that second year. I was able to finish the Fellows program. I was able to maintain my ability to pay rent in New York City. And I was looking forward, with a little trepidation, to returning to my field of work. It's important to have a field; it's how you know more about yourself. Sometimes it's how you know yourself. The magic that happened in those Chicago classrooms told me that I could explain how language works. I could develop someone else's writing. I could challenge someone expressively and emotionally. It's important to draw out the meaning from inside someone. I found that I was good at it. It stimulated me. It pushed me to a place I almost didn't recognize. An academic? I'm so casual and free. But it worked.
I have reached for it again since leaving New York, since leaving public school teaching, to settle back into normalcy. It hasn't worked.
I suppose I haven't been talking much about the specifics of post traumatic stress. I actually avoid them as much as possible. "Anything related to the situation that caused the trauma produces an avoidant response," something like that. For me the avoidance has been strong this year--the journey to the classroom in the morning, walking up to the door, preparing to greet the students--it all makes me miserable. How do you explain the difficulty of something when you go right through the motions like anyone else?
I have also discovered that loud noises are no good: alarm clocks, phone ringers, sudden bursts of noise, they all make me gasp like a teenage girl trying to gain attention. Even though the triggered responses bring waves of fear and crying, they don't happen that often anymore. What fills up the rest of that space is dread of the time when you will face a trigger. You go on with life. No one can tell. You carry out your functions, but underneath it all is dread. You carry it, and I'm tired.
I've been in therapy again, this time with the eighth wonder of the world. She said to me recently, maybe it just ruined teaching for you, referring to my Harlem days. I said, "yes." It's hard for me to say yes, to admit defeat. Walking away feels like defeat, and it feels like I have to let go of some of the magic that is me, that took me twenty-seven years to find, receive, and then have to let back out of my palms again.
I have this thing. I don't know how long it will be with me. I don't dread it so much anymore, because I have been feeling things shift inside me. Leaving teaching behind has also given me great relief within the sadness. I went from five classes to one this semester. I've been better for it. As I reach the end it all comes back up again.