Last night I dreamt that I had returned to work. I experienced great relief as I promised an auditorium full of eager students that I would be their teacher for the rest of the semester. But Dreamland is fickle, and when I tried to get to work the next day, the streets had turned into warm tumultuous waters under ominous black skies. I could swim at a snail’s pace through the streets, but I could not lift myself out of the water onto a mess of nets and ropes meant to test my strength and agility. Nor could I attend to the 17 rainbow-coloured cats I had committed to feeding, and this was all, undoubtedly, my fault.
There were times during this past year when going to work exacerbated my symptoms to the point that I was more-or-less in constant pain. A lot of times, I was not able to take care of myself in basic ways, let alone withstand a long commute on trigger-ridden public transit to facilitate the learning of 31 perplexing young minds all crammed into one dirty perfume-filled room. But despite understanding this obvious, medically documented limitation, I continue to feel a peripheral guilt about not being able to do my job.
Perhaps this guilt is, in part, piggybacking the persistent feeling that no matter how much I do as a teacher, it is never enough. I do not know a teacher who feels that the system in which they teach is adequate. It’s the type of job where you can work, and work, and work, and you can still keep working because there is just so much to do (and while I still don’t have much sympathy for the burnt-out teachers of my own high school career who kept Captain Morgan in their desks and had us read aloud from free magazines –all the while calling it English Class– I do easily see why teaching is not a suitable or sustainable career for many). But even in classrooms where I am constantly frustrated by non-sensical structures, important relationships are established. It is not news to me that students routinely fall through the cracks of our largely dysfunctional factory model of an education system, but I worry that a few might have fallen even further as a result of my leave.
But come the end of semester, I’m guessing they mostly did okay without me. And in the end, my influence is minuscule in the face of the rest of their lives even when I’m healthy and present every day. And in the end, I did what I had to do.
So why is this guilt still cropping up my dreams?
Well, maybe it’s because I’ve been taught to feel this way.
How many times have you heard someone say that a person’s pain, misfortune, or situation is their own damn fault? How many times have you heard very real conditions and their associated emotions flippantly reduced to “women’s problems”? How many times have you thought “if that person would just make better choices, they wouldn’t suffer as much.” I’ve heard these things over and over and internalized them well, hence my subconscious asking things like:
Why aren’t you trying harder to fix this? Is it just that you like being sick?
Does it allow you to have a physical expression of bottled up emotions that you refuse to deal with, like all those man doctors conclude in those archaic library books you (probably shouldn’t have) read?
How dare you suck the teat of society with your cushy union job, lying on your lazy ass getting paid to be unproductive while other migraineurs struggle to make ends meet like the rest of the world.
How dare you allow yourself to keep being sick.
Nonsense, right? But this is the sort of judgement that is totally normalized in our glorified, busy, capitalist, consumerist, work-yourself-to-the-bone-or-the-economy-will-crash-and-burn culture, and it’s a culture that just doesn’t support the well-being and talents of so many people.
Here is a list of some things you should try to understand:
1) I’m doing everything I know how to do to try and get better.
2) I want to do my job, and in the past months I have been unable to do it. There is not much to be done about this.
3) When done well, teaching is a really hard job that generally lacks the kind of built-in supports that even its consistently healthy workers need to stay afloat. Finding ways to take better care of myself while doing my job is going to take time. Career changes might have to happen.
4) Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the way my life is changing as I learn to manage chronic pain, and I let myself cry and cry while eating a whole cake that contains several known migraine-triggering ingredients. Although it may seem to contradict point #1, in those moments crying and crying while eating an entire cake is exactly the right thing to do.
5) My unproductive lazy ass deserves just as much love and support as the next person.
6) When you try to blame me for my pain, you are taking the easy route and avoiding the contemplation required to understand that this shit is complicated, and blame is the farthest thing from helpful.
7) I have not chosen to experience frequent, mind-curdling migraines so that I can shirk my responsibilities. I am not choosing to have chronic pain. It is not my fault.
p.s. I know I didn’t make it to Pride this year, and that I forgot to feed my friend’s cat that one weekend last month. Enough with the rainbow-coloured cat dreams.