ATA Magazine

The great overwhelm

The Great Overwhelm featured image.

Coming up to the green light, I pondered the concrete sound barrier across the street. How far away is it? How fast would I be going if I were to gun the engine and crash right into it? Would I burst through or stop dead? Hospital or morgue? 

A good maiming wouldn’t be so bad, would it? A few days’ quiet in the hospital – complete with green Jell-O and tiny tinfoil-lid juices – sounded really appealing. Between the excessive and never-ending demands at work, supporting my chronically ill mother who lived with me, and being a single mom to a neuro-divergent daughter with serious mental health issues, I was so overloaded. I couldn’t imagine tying one more knot in my fraying rope.  

The appeal of that lovely grey wall was almost too great to resist, but resist it I did. I turned left as I was supposed to, looking wistfully into my rearview mirror. I turned the music up louder as I made the first of two right turns to get to my school, hoping to drown out the awful, suicidal thoughts invading my day like a disease. Gathering up my bags from the car, I chastised myself for entertaining such dark thoughts on the way to helping “shape young minds.” How could I be trusted to do a good job depositing positivity into the small children I was charged to teach when, unbidden, terribly dark thoughts crept so easily into my own head? I was weak, silly, unfit.

I imagined telling on myself to a trusted colleague, but only a sardonic chuckle escaped my lips. Who could I trust with such things? And when I imagined what I would say, it sounded only like complaining. Again. Life had not dealt me an easy hand. I had shared with those who leant an ear, venting now and then and perhaps too much. I imagined I remembered eyes glazing over and feelings being packed away, but was that the case, or was I only too much in my own head about it?  

During the hour before my class arrived, a colleague appeared at my door. She was wearing her "I-can’t-do-this-anymore-please-help!" face, and so I listened. For 15 minutes we shared our woes, and I felt a parting of the shadowy curtains that had surrounded me. For a moment, I felt the benefit of sharing and listening, but as she left, those heavy curtains closed once more, and my brief relief evaporated.  

I dug for a happy mask. Could I wear it all day? It appears so. No one noticed my neurosis, and, of course, this was to be expected since I rarely saw adults during teaching hours. I congratulated myself on hiding. My burden was not and should never be passed on. But my issues waited for me in the car at the end of the day.  

A year-long search provided me with a counsellor that I still see to this day. I was Cinderella missing a shoe and she fit me just like she’d been cobbled for my high arches and grand, supportive toes. She listens with empathy, speaks to me as though I were a colleague, honours the mental health knowledge I have gained over the years and adds to it with compassion. Our time together has built and continues to build on the tools I access: daily prayer and meditation, some kind of exercise and lots of grace for myself.  

My thinking routines have undergone an overhaul that has been no small feat. Sitting with my counsellor is only part of the work. I have learned how to apply the things she teaches me, like talking to myself as though  I am my own best friend rather than my worst critic, or taking that deep breath as I recall or read affirmations that stave off suicidal ideation. Certain thoughts still cling like static-filled nylons in the dryer, but I have a better toolkit from which to draw my help. And, in the meantime, I have learned to accept and appreciate the work that I do rather than focusing on the things I have to leave undone due to systemic shortcomings.  

The ”Great Overwhelm,” as I like to call those dark years, is in my rearview mirror these days, and I have redeveloped my thinking about my work, put in place stronger boundaries, and learned that
“no” is not just a healthy answer, but an essential one. 

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