Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A cautionary tale of PVCs in the workplace

Okay, I've been dreading this post. I've wanted to do it for awhile but every time I start to think about it, I hesitate because in some ways I think I'm still traumatized. It's going to be a long post, so if you don't read it all, that's okay. It's more for me. As children start heading off to school this year, a flood of emotions always catch up to me as I relive my first (and only) year of teaching in a public school.

Palpitations have certainly wreaked havoc in my life from time to time, but none more so than 6 years a go when I ventured into a public school classroom and began teaching 2nd grade. Previous to that year, I survived what could only be called a "hellish" student teaching experience. It was not that it was so bad for me, but my good friend who was at the same school as me, was partnered with a horrible mentor. She made her life hell and in turn, I was left shaken by the experience of watching my friend suffer. Trust me, it was bad. But despite warning signs about that school district, I went ahead and signed on as a new teacher in a brand new school. It was in a wealthy neighborhood, and I soon came to find out that most of the mothers' main job was harassing the teachers. Despite constant bombardment from these helicopter moms and a principal who was about the most type A person I've ever met, I muddled through the first semester. 6 months into teaching, I wasn't eating or sleeping well. I remember coming home from school every day and passing out on the couch. I cried every Sunday night. I don't remember seeing my husband that entire first half of the year. But everyone kept telling me that the first year was the hardest and I was doing such a great job. I kept at it. But high levels of stress eventually always catch up and I was about to learn the hard way.

It started when I was driving. I started getting nervous on highways and at red lights. I started having panic attacks on my lunch breaks at school. I weighed in at less than 100 pounds. I remember dreading recess duty because I started having feelings that I might pass out in front of all the children. I attended a teaching conference held in a huge auditorium. I remember having the feeling that I had to get out of the building. I sat there the whole 2 hours in constant fear that I was going to faint if I didn't get out. All of this acute anxiety was new to me. I had some general anxiety before my teaching experience, but never panic attacks. I could feel the world closing in on me. But still I muddled. I began seeing a therapist but looking back I should have been seeing a doctor. I still wonder if I had taken medication if it would have helped.

The real nightmare began in the middle of March. I was teaching math that day and I could feel my heart go whump...whump...whump. Where do you go to take a breather when you are teaching? And as more and more kids needed help with their math assignment, I could feel my anxiety level start to rise. My heart was doing the dance. It was in constant bigeminy. I went next door and got a teacher to look after my class, while I headed down to the nurse's station. At this point, my principal (remember, she's type A) came barging in and wanted to know what the matter was with me. I proceeded to tell her that I've suffered from heart palpitations over the years and it was particularly flared up today. At that point, she FREAKED out! She started telling me about her dad who had heart palpitations and how serious it was. How he almost died. Clearly, not the thing to tell someone when they are experiencing them. Then she starts telling me that she certainly won't let me go back to the classroom and that she was going to call an ambulance. She mumbled something to the effect of "teaching isn't for the faint of heart." Again, I tried to reassure her that I could deal with them and that I was in no danger. But she wouldn't have it. We finally compromised and my husband came and picked me up and took me home. I took a personal leave the following weak.

But when I came back, things hadn't changed. I was just as stressed and anxious and to make matters worse, my principal acted like I had some terrible disease. I remember dropping off some books in the library, and the librarian stopped me and asked me about my panic attacks. How the hell did the librarian know about what had happened to me a couple weeks a go? It seemed like the whole school thought I was some sort of mental freak. I plummeted into a depression. As the heart palpitations became more frequent, I finally had to pull out of school for the rest of the year with just a couple weeks left. My heart broke for my precious 2nd graders who couldn't understand what had happened to their teacher.

I was given a couple weeks to move my stuff out of my classroom. But my principal thought I wasn't acting fast enough and yelled at me on the phone that she was taking charge and moving my stuff out of my classroom herself. I told her she better not touch any of my private stuff. I came up to school with my mom and sister and we started boxing everything up. At one point the vice principal started yelling at my mom that it was a privilege that we were even able to move my stuff out. My mom who has been a teacher for 20+ years, said that she had never been spoken like that in her entire life. He even yelled at her that if she didn't stop arguing with him, he would call the cops. What? Call the cops on a teacher and her mom because we were arguing with them? I was on medical leave and I had every right to get my stuff out of my classroom before the deadline.

What the f*ck? Is that how you treat any human being, especially one diagnosed with MVP, PVCS, panic disorder? If I had had cancer, do you think they would have done the same things to that person? What crime had I committed that they thought they could treat me like that? Up until the time I met my principal in the nurse's office, I had only gotten positive raves. My principal had even watched me do a lesson and said it was one of the best she had ever seen. So where did they get off and treat me like they did? Despite the statistics that one out of five people in a typical office can be expected to suffer from a mental condition, mental illness and the workplace is still considered taboo. Many people fear opening up to their co-workers and supervisors for fear of being stigmatized when they seek help. And in my case and in many others, the fear may be well founded.

How can a workplace combat the myths, lift the stigma and make sure people with mental illness get the treatment they need?

A clear message needs to come from the head of a company and be communicated to every employee. The main point to be made is that the organization has a nondiscriminatory attitude—it sees mental illness as no different from physical illness in terms of how people are treated in the workplace. “A company needs to tell people that, if they ever seek help for mental illness, it won’t be held against them,” says Robert Dinerstein, a law professor at American University in Washington D.C., who focuses on disability issues.

If only I had had that message. :(