*First published at https://www.bradshreffler.com/ on 08/08/2020
Today, I want to tell you a story.
Spoiler Alert: I have anxiety and depression.
I haven’t said that in public before. In fact, I’ve only said that to about five people in my life at all. I didn’t know I had anxiety and depression before six months ago. In fact, before six months ago, I didn’t even understand anxiety at all, couldn’t wrap my head around what it was and how people didn’t just push through and keep going.
This started to come to light for me with the start of the Covid Pandemic. I am extremely extroverted, a true extroverted extrovert, who could be around crowds of people, groups of friends, co-workers, students, whoever 100% of my waking time and be energized and excited. So, getting locked in my house with the same two people for multiple months, was not an ideal scenario for me (even though those two people were my wife and son, who I love more than anything).
At the onset, the solution was easy. I am a Instructional Technology Coach, and overnight the entire education industry needed tech coaches desperately. Between Facebook Groups of teachers, Twitter questions, and emails from my own school’s staff, I stayed busy. And I don’t mean typical teacher busy where we always work extra hours doing grading and such, I mean work from 7 am to 7 pm with maybe a 20 minute lunch break, and then continue to answer emails/messages while I sit on the couch half watching TV or playing games with my family.
At first, it was exhilarating. I was needed. I was helping. I was building my reputation. This last reason was especially nice, since at the same time, I was in my last term of my master’s program for my degree in Educational Leadership, and I knew I would be throwing my name into the hat for Assistant Principal jobs in the fall. Things were exhausting, but it was a good exhausting, and it kept my mind off the isolation.
Slowly though, I started to feel…off. I could come up to my office/podcast studio and be totally fine, get on Zoom calls and be myself, do interviews for the show and be personable and engaged. But once I left this office, I felt disconnected, like my self wasn’t engaging quite right with my family. I chalked it up to being exhausted and focused on work given the increased responsibility, and pushed through.
By May, it was starting to get bad. I specifically remember my birthday, May 1st, and a few of my friends put together a surprise Zoom game day. I played along, but the whole time I kept thinking, “I just want this to end so I can go back to watching TV and not talking.” That is about as far from a me statement as I can imagine. At that point, I started to realize something was really wrong with me.
I started to talk to a couple of close friends and my wife about what I was feeling. It wasn’t easy, and the conversations didn’t always go well. It took a lot for me personally to admit out loud the problem was there, even when I had already accepted internally something was wrong. “It’s just the pandemic. Everyone is struggling. You can get through this. It’s not a big deal. You’re just tired. Don’t be so weak. Suck it up.”
Even then, it struck me as funny how much of a hypocrite I was. I advocate on my show constantly for trying to overcome the stigmas that have traditionally been placed on mental health. I talk about teacher self-care, the importance of finding someone to talk to, how we, both as the field of education and the country, needs to take this stuff more seriously for teachers and students. And yet, faced with my own mental health, I followed none of my own advice for two months.
Saying “two months” probably isn’t true. Looking back on my life, this wasn’t the first time I had felt this way, and it also didn’t start when the pandemic hit. Those are convenient false internal narratives that allowed me to ignore the problems for longer, but they aren’t true.
I finally reached out to get professional help in the middle of May, and with one telehealth appointment, the doctor said confidently that I had moderate to high anxiety and depression. By the time I had the appointment, I was already 99% sure I had depression, but something about that “moderate to high” hit me. This wasn’t just a down moment I was going to get over. This wasn’t just being tired, being overworked, or any of the excuses I had. This was more than that.
I was prescribed antidepressants and suggested to see a therapist as well. Despite the fact that I had avoided this for my entire life, the diagnosis felt good. It was an admission of something I had denied for a very long time. Because, once I got the diagnosis, and I considered how I felt, the symptoms that made up anxiety and depression for me, I realized I had been this way before, had dealt with this before. At many times throughout my childhood during custody battles between my parents, moving to new areas, particularly stressful school experience, and in my adulthood in college, during my first marriage, and for sure throughout the divorce process.
It became clear to me the signs, and looking back, the waves, ups and downs, flowing through the timeline of my life. The rise and fall was gradual through the years, but it is definitely there. Despite the fact that I choose to believe I’m highly reflective and hyper-aware of myself, I just didn’t want to see it.
I am not a fan of medication. I just really don’t like needing to take a pill every day. And, honestly, when asked, I can’t say for sure the medication I am taking is working. I definitely feel different, but I don’t know if that is because of the medication or the other changes I’ve made. Or, if the medication pushed me to make those changes.
Within a week of starting the medication, I was out on a bike ride listening to Mandy Froehlich on another podcast and, as she usually does, she was talking about teacher mental health. It hit me differently this time, for obvious reasons. And, when she mentioned meditation with the Calm app, I stopped my bike at the little dock I happened to be riding past, downloaded the app, and did my first meditation. Meditation (and most of the time the bike ride) are now part of my daily practice.
A week or two later, I found another hobby: woodworking and carpentry. Honestly, not really sure where this came from, but it has become a huge part of my life. In fact, I include it in this piece of writing mainly because I just enjoy talking about it. I spent pretty much every day this summer building planter boxes, headboards, garage shelves, workbenches, and other furniture. Even started selling some, mostly to pay for all the new tools I kept buying.
So, why do I tell you all of this? First, because I think it’s important to admit this. If I can’t admit that I am dealing with this, I have no right to tell people that we need to overcome the negative stigma of mental health issues. I will not be a hypocrite any more.
Second, and more importantly, I know I’m not the only person that feels the way I do. Not just the anxiety and depression, but the excuses too. It is far too easy, and far too common, to avoid seeking professional help. It is far too easy to say “this is just me” or “I will be fine.” And sure, most times you will eventually be fine. And maybe you don’t need medication, just someone to talk to, or a new routine. But even when you think something is normal, explaining it to a professional might bring new things to light.
So please, if you are feeling off, aren’t feeling yourself, or are feeling down, or worn down, consider seeking help. Most school districts include employee assistance programs that will make your first 6 or so appointments free. And, now that most are still telehealth, you don’t even have to go anywhere to talk to someone. Maybe they say you’re just fine, maybe they suggest you try something new, or maybe they help you work through things you didn’t event realize you had weighing down on you. What I know, is it doesn’t hurt to talk.
I don’t like asking for help. I don’t like taking medication. But, I like the me that has come out the other side of this thing.