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Essays Mental Health

What My Students Don’t Know About My Mental Health

Being a high school teacher is challenging enough before you add anxiety, depression, and ADD into the mix.

By 8 a.m., sweat has soaked through my shirt. I am overweight, so most people assume the sweat is because I am out of shape. The secondary students in my English Language Arts classes are particularly rude about it, pointing out the dark stains on my chest and underarms.

“Mr. Sweeney, why you sweatin’?” a student says in the underdeveloped vernacular of the poverty-stricken area our school serves in Richmond, Virginia. “You ain’t doin’ nothin’.”

A ruder student grins and shouts, “Mr. Sweeney, you sweat ‘cause you fat.”

Then they laugh. Always, they laugh.

The students’ assumptions about my sweat are only partly true–I am out of shape, after all–but there’s more to the sweat that I am afraid to tell them.

“I get hot when I’m working hard,” I reply. On rare occasions, when I’m feeling especially chipper, I may say something more combative, like: “Mature people sweat; you’ll find out one day.” This usually gets a laugh out of one or two students.

I forgive them. They’re just kids, after all. Most of them don’t see me as a person: they see me as their teacher.

Still, the remarks sting. Because I am a person: in particular, a person struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and mild ADD. And while my sweating may draw attention to my weight issues, it’s not caused by it.

I sweat because it’s a side effect of Effexor, the go-to medication to treat anxiety. Ironic, really. It forms a perfect loop: the kids notice me sweating, they make comments about it, which makes me more depressed and anxious, which makes me need Effexor.

But, of course, I can’t tell anyone this.

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors

The education industry values mental acuity and communication over all other skills. What this means is that I’m afraid to tell people about my mental health issues, especially my superiors, lest they think that my mental acuity has been somehow compromised. It hasn’t, but the stigma around mental health in education runs deep.

My mental health challenges can often make my job more stressful. My principal wants me to appear organized and clean, but my ADD often leads to clutter. When I grade students’ essays, parents me to challenge them to succeed to greater heights, but my depression sometimes affects my mood while grading, making such efforts difficult. Students look to me for answers, but my anxiety causes me to sometimes make mistakes, like muddling my words or misspelling something on the blackboard.

“How you gonna teach us to write and you can’t spell?” a student says. In response, I tell the student that writing isn’t as much about spelling as it is about putting ideas across.

Mental acuity, communication: these are the most prized skills in education. Anxiety and depression may occasionally effect little things like spelling, but they do not impact my ability to communicate ideas or think critically.

As I’ve learned in therapy, life is a series of coping skills. My mental conditions are nothing to be ashamed about.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness.

The truth is, I can be a stellar teacher in spite of mental illness. What one may call clutter, I like to call systemized chaos.  When students want advice, I can empathize to the best of my ability and be honest.

A plump young girl in glasses taps my shoulder.

“Mr. Sweeney, doesn’t it hurt your feelings when these other students call you fat?”

“It does hurt,” I admit.

“How do you deal with that?”

I have rehearsed the answer many times in my head. I’m almost excited that she asked.

“I remind myself that I have ideas and abilities that make me unique. And I work in a profession where I get to show off my intelligence and pass these valuable things on to others. That feels better than the hurt.”

She adjusts her glasses, and makes my day.

“Mr. Sweeney, it doesn’t matter if you sweat,” she says. “I like your class.”

Essays Mental Health

The Diagnosis That Wasn’t

Learning about my son's ADD has finally helped me better understand what was going on with my brother, the black sheep of the family.

When my nine-year-old son, Max, was diagnosed with ADHD last year, I immediately went into education mode. I started reading books. I watched videos. I signed up for a parenting class. So many of the struggles my husband and I had been having with our parenting suddenly made sense.

Something else made sense too—something that had very little to do with Max, and yet everything to with him.

I came across information about a condition that often goes along with ADHD called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD. Children with ODD tend to have a great deal of aggression. They make a habit of bothering, irritating, and provoking other people on purpose. They can be mean, hostile, and defiant, often refusing to comply with adults’ requests or rules. They consistently blame others for their mistakes. They tend to be touchy and easily annoyed. They lose their temper frequently, with outbursts of aggression. Some children outgrow it; others do not. Untreated, ODD can lead to behavioral problems in adolescence, and substance abuse later in life.

This didn’t describe my Max, but it did perfectly describe someone else: my brother, Paul.

In fact, I recognized Paul in nearly every symptom.

Paul in 8th Grade.

Hostile? Mean? Defiant? Check, check, and check.

Deliberately trying to irritate and provoke? Does snapping fingers in front of your face, stealing your stuff, calling you names, monopolizing the conversation, and immediately changing the TV channel when walking into a room count?

Losing temper frequently? Let’s see, there were the broken phones (from being slammed down in anger), the holes in the wall (from being punched in anger), and the bruises he left on others (from being shoved in anger).

Refusing to comply with adults? We have examples of the less-serious variety, like when Paul insisted on wearing cut-off jeans instead of swim trunks one of the very few times my parents could afford to take the whole family to the pool—and then refused to wear the swim trunks that my mom bought for him at the pro shop, and instead sat there miserably, thereby making all of us miserable. Then there are the more serious examples, like sophomore year in high school, when Paul refused to do one single assignment. He failed and then dropped out.

Many families can point to “the difficult one.” The black sheep. The one you wonder about. Sometimes, it’s more humorous than serious, when the stories start flowing about the crazy things they did. With distance, stories of defiance and acting out almost have a theatrical quality. One sibling starts: Remember when he stole that bike? Another sibling picks up the action, Yeah, and then he put it in a tree! Everyone laughs. There is a shared acknowledgment. How did we all survive growing up with him?

This is all presuming that it got better. That it was a difficult phase, but that the family member is now laughing with you, because they’ve come out the other side and now their life is together.

Or . . . that they’re dead, and telling and retelling the stories is like continual group therapy for the survivors.

In our case, it’s the latter.

For the majority of my life—that is, every minute of my life until I read about ODD—I never had any explanation for Paul, other than he was the anomalous difficult person in an otherwise high-functioning family.

For the majority of my life—that is, every minute of my life until I read about ODD—I never had any explanation for Paul…

Born in 1960, Paul’s childhood was of another time period—several decades before so many behavioral problems were diagnosed and treated. He was the second of seven children, whereas I was the last of the gang, not coming along until 1974. This means I’ve learned about his childhood through the people who were around for it. I’ve got these snippets of moments and tail ends of conversations—but mostly, what I recall is a general feeling of things not being settled. I remember my mom in the kitchen kneading dough with a fury, the smell of worry and bread baking in the oven.

My parents struggled with him early on, and it never let up. He demanded so much more attention than any of their other children. His reactions were more extreme. The discipline methods that worked on the rest of us (mostly just being afraid we would disappoint our mother or our father would yell) did not work on him. In fact, they only provoked him more. And then he provoked everyone around him. When Paul was around, things were always at their edge, whether it was the edge of a fight or the edge of irritation—that was true even after he moved out, got married, and had a son. We doted on my nephew (the first grandchild), but things never smoothed out for Paul, because he opposed every attempt at help. He blamed others instead of problem-solving. His marriage failed. Multiple jobs as a roofer failed. He had alcohol and drug problems his entire adult life. His dependence on pain pills would ultimately be his end at the age of 49—nine years ago.

The Ketteler family in 1983.

My five siblings and I still go over the details of Paul’s life, like a hat full of stories sitting in the middle of the room, with each of us taking turns picking one out. This is part of keeping someone’s memory alive, and none of us want to forget Paul, as challenging as he was. In fact, with each passing year, we’ve softened toward him. I held him in judgment for so long, and I’ve worked to let that go.

Now though, I find myself looking back through the lens of diagnosis and intervention. Because there was very limited awareness about conditions like ODD, there were no interventions for my family—other than the one time my parents tried family counseling with a nun, who offered prayers, but no solutions. Teachers routinely complained about Paul, but there were no 504 plans. No assessment form from the pediatrician. No blogs. No parent support groups or education. “Hyperactive” kids were sometimes prescribed stimulants, but our knowledge base about these behavioral conditions was so slim. We had a loving home with exceptionally good parents. What we didn’t have was information about conditions like ODD.

We had a loving home with exceptionally good parents. What we didn’t have was information about conditions like ODD.

I know there is a way in which it’s moot. What good could it do to go back and figure it out, some post-mortem diagnosis that cannot change the outcome? Partly, it’s that I want to present the evidence to my mom, who is still sharp at 82 (my dad has passed), to say: See mom, you couldn’t have known. Nobody knew.

It’s about my own reckoning, too. I grew up in the shadow of an extremely difficult individual. But I put the difficulty all squarely on Paul’s personhood—assigning his poor choices to the core of who he was. It’s the easiest thing in the world to hold an uncomplicated belief that everything comes down to personal responsibility when your prefrontal cortex functions in the way that makes the “right” choices not so difficult.

Before the ADHD diagnosis, I was making the same miscalculation with my son. “Why would you choose to do that?” I would often ask Max when he had failed to control some inappropriate impulse, like doing a backflip in the library. I would level this question at him, using the same scornful tone my dad would use chastise Paul.

It makes me feel almost sick to think about the way I would talk to Max before I understood the ADHD brain. I tell myself, though: Your information was incomplete, the same way your parents’ information was incomplete. Now you know better, so you can do better.

Forgiveness, patience, and acceptance: These are beautiful things we need as humans living inside families.

Forgiveness, patience, and acceptance: These are beautiful things we need as humans living inside families. They are things that make love flow, but they cannot necessarily change outcomes. For that, we need information.

For my brother’s memory and for my own son, it’s my job to take the information my generation now has and use it to move forward, to a better place. Some days it all feels peculiarly non-linear, more a circle than a straight line. But I don’t think the past is such a bad thing to keep with me on this parenting journey.

Essays Mental Health

Find Her In The Fog

Living with adult attention deficit disorder is like living in "endless, seeping fog," writes Erin Ollila. In that fog, she perpetually searches for the person she wants to be.

I’m not the homemaker I wanted to be.

I listen, empathetically, to my friends complain about their partners, and the lack of help they receive around the household.

“All I’m asking is that he just takes the trash out. That’s it! Is that too much to ask?”

“I’m so frustrated. We both worked all day, so why am I the person cooking dinner, cleaning up, and doing the laundry, while he gets to sit on the couch and watch TV?”

“I have to ask for his help. I know he’ll help me if I ask him, but why can’t he do these things on his own? No one asks me to do everything around the house.”

I hear them. These hard-working, overtired, selfless ladies. I hear them, and I recognize myself in their words. I hear them, and I wonder what my husband thinks when he looks at me. I hear them, and I vow to be different, to be better.

Every morning, I wake up and think: Today is going to be the day. Today will be the day that the laundry and the dishes are done before my husband gets home. Today, I will sort through the box of loose papers on our desk. Today is the day I will fill the dog’s prescriptions, sign my son’s agenda book before he asks me to, put away my daughter’s too-small clothing instead of just tossing it on top of an overflowing pile in a storage room that’s already bursting at the seams. Today will be the day I leave a love note in my husband’s lunch bag. Today will be the day I clean my son’s room and organize my daughter’s toys. Today will be the day things change—because I want them to, so badly.

But I have ADHD. So today is never that day.

Today will be the day things change—because I want them to, so badly. But I have ADHD. So today is never that day.

It starts innocently enough. I make my children breakfast, bring my son to school, open my computer to start work, and vacillate between that and playing with my toddler all morning long. In reality, I simply move from room to room. Dining room table: computer, numerous open internet browser tabs that I hover between. Living room floor: crayons, plastic kitchen toys, stuffed animals. I float between these rooms, accomplishing almost nothing in either. I make lunch for us. The baby, who is really not a baby anymore even though I can’t stop calling her that, takes a nap.

Ah, the blissful quiet. The moment I can devote to work. I scan my to do list. Before I begin, I realize I need to pay an almost-due bill. Then, I open Facebook—for work, I promise—but fall deep into the rabbit hole of important, semi-important, and utterly unimportant information. I check myself, jump back into my work, and get distracted by a text message.

I realize I never started the laundry, so I go to grab it in the bathroom, but instead I notice I’m wearing a tiger-ears headband and I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet. I brush, saunter back to my computer, work, look at the clock, and realize it’s almost time to pick my son up from school. Though, first, I scoop the crayons off the floor. I put away the toys that are scattered around the kitchen, and cram stuffed animals back into their bins. I change, because I’m likely still in my pajamas, and rush out the door to make it on time for school pick up.

It isn’t until I’m on the way that I realize I didn’t do the laundry. Of course, while driving, I come up with a great idea for work—one that I will almost immediately lose, like all the others.

Erin Ollila has struggled with ADHD for most her life.

If you’re a neurotypical human, you might inherently understand all these situations. Life is distracting, and a house full of children, a job, and activities complicate things. It can be difficult to remember which day of the week is your son’s baseball game, the school concert, or your parent–teacher conferences. But what happens when you ADHD adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD) into the mix? Suddenly, your grocery shopping lists are missing key elements that go unnoticed until dinnertime—which, of course, is already too late. The laundry piles up. So do the dishes. So does the guilt.

I know these scenarios too well. My son wakes up in the morning and goes to his closet, only to realize his school uniform pants are still in the laundry. Now, he will be forced to use the sacred dress-down pass he wanted to save until the end of the school year. My husband returns home from work to a sink piled high with dishes and a dirty high-chair tray. Yesterday, he washed the dishes when he came home, made dinner, and washed the dishes yet again after our meal. Today, the cycle will repeat. I am desperate for the day he returns home to an empty sink and a clean kitchen.

I’ve always owned my ADHD. My faults were my own. The text messages I failed to respond to, the laundry that didn’t get washed for weeks, the school assignments that only got completed last minute were my shortcomings. While I did try to set up organizational systems to keep me focused and on track, I accepted these regular failures as an integral part of my chemical makeup. I was a good friend who wasn’t the best at following through. I was a clean person who lived surrounded by piles of randomness. I was a hard-worker who thrived under the self-enforced stress of deadlines, but failed with the freedom of time.

The problem wasn’t that the ADHD medication didn’t work. The problem was that I didn’t allow it to work to its full potential. So why bother? After a few medicated years, I said goodbye to the moments of clarity, determined to find them on my own.

When you’re living alone with ADHD, you’re only responsible for yourself. There’s no one else to let down.

When you’re living alone with ADHD, you’re only responsible for yourself. There’s no one else to let down. No one else to notice the chaos. When guests come over, it’s easy enough to stuff the laundry in the closet and toss the piles of paper into a storage bin. When you live with others, especially a spouse and children, this changes.

I’m suddenly under a microscope, whether it’s self-imposed or not, and my capabilities and concentration (or lack thereof) can no longer be just a part of my personality. People rely on me. Children have a cacophony of needs. My husband cannot be responsible for the entire household as I wade through the fog of my misgivings.

The thing is, I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I always wanted to work, too. Now that I work for myself from home, I have the best of both worlds. Everything I ever wanted. So, why is it  so difficult?

On occasion, I miss the medication. When I’m staring at a blank screen and my head feels too full and empty at the same time, I long for the sweet feeling of focus. My brain is fog—the dense, deep cloud you cannot see through on the highway—and I cannot concentrate because there is already too much information taking space in there. I can either choose to dig deep, pulling the weeds of dead thoughts so my best ideas can thrive, or I can float through it.

Have you ever driven through a snow squall or endless, seeping fog? You rationally know there is a road to follow, but you also cannot see the path. If you cannot see it, you can’t be sure it’s there. You’ve lost direction. You’re navigating blindly.

This is ADHD.

Have you ever driven through a snow squall or endless, seeping fog? This is ADHD.

The truth is: I can barely remember to take my vitamins every day. I forget to brush my teeth, wear deodorant, all normal every-single-day-I-do-this necessities. Remembering to take the meds—or worse, fill the prescriptions—will take more effort than I have to give right now. Plus, on the good days, those rays of clarity are as sweet and strong as I remember they felt on the medication. My chemical makeup, as sordid and random as it is, will stay untainted for now.

It’s the systems that save me: the routines, the lists, the reminders. My family—their needs—are my medication. My children dictate my a timeline for the day. What gets done, gets done, as long as their needs get met. My toddler is the current anchor in my life that keeps me from drifting off. When everything is centered around her immediate daily needs, I meet them. My son, with his endless extracurricular activities, pushes me from one moment to the next. My husband, without complaint, assumes responsibility to make sure everything gets done.

“You’re a great mom,” he says. “You’re doing the best you can right now.”

The days roll on, and my friends’ words play through my mind. I wonder if my husband thinks those thoughts, too. I wonder what stage of frustration he feels. Does my forgetfulness weigh heavily on him, like the spouses my girlfriends so often complain about? What does he think as he shifts the piles I tell him not to touch so that I can take responsibility for something that never seems to get done? I ask him, for this essay, if he thinks I’m failing.

“You’re a great mom,” he says. “You’re doing the best you can right now.”

I’d like to think he’s right, that I’m doing the best I can, but I’m not sure that’s true. I can do more. I want to do more. I can see the better version of myself peek through the clouds just a short distance away.

I just don’t know how to reach her.

Creative Commons photo by Craig Cloutier.