Dear Saffie-Cat.


Dear Saffie-Cat,

I had a meeting at work last week.

As you know, I haven’t been at work since before Christmas, because the private occupational health psychiatrist signed-me-off. This was due to Autism, deteriorating depression, OCD, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I begged the psychiatrist not to stop me from doing the job I adore, but her “hands were tied”, and she sent me back through the Crisis Team and the mental health services.

At the meeting, there was my head teacher and the head of strategy and operations, my representative from my teachers’ union, the human resources manager, myself and my friend Lesley. I had written down everything I wanted to communicate in a letter, and had photocopied it for everyone present. They encouraged me to read the whole five pages, from start-to-finish, and they listened to every single word.

I spoke about what I had been like as a teacher: my systems, my strengths and successes. I talked in detail, and referred to specific moments in my career that stood-out. I talked about how I saw my job, and my passion shone through as I spoke. Everyone remained silent and listened. I spoke about my results, the progress of the children year-on-year. I told them all about what I had loved: coaching other teachers; thinking around corners; creative lesson structures; inventing new initiatives and a whole-hearted dedication to making the children happy, no-matter-what.

My head teacher, who knows me very well, knew all of this already.

I spoke honestly about how things had been at home. Things, at that time, had been bad and, because I had no idea about my conditions, I had disguised the gravity of my situation to my family, my friends and my work colleagues. I had wanted people to see me as being a perfect, happy teacher, and a perfect, happy girl.

I spoke about how, on receiving my promotion to Infant Phase Leader, I developed obsessive ‘checking rituals’ regarding in-coming and out-going emails, which resulted in chronic paranoia and irrational fears surrounding communication and the internet. I lost my confidence when communicating with adults. My brain was constantly telling me that I was not good enough. I quickly realised that, although capable, I had never really wanted to come out-of-the-classroom to do the management jobs: I loved teaching the children too much.

I made many attempts to return to work throughout this year. I was constantly being signed-off-sick with disorientating support from the mental health services, so I was signing-myself back in. I was so terrified of letting my children and my head teacher down. I wanted to be in control of my own life and my own decisions, because I did not feel supported by the health professionals that were signing-me-off without a plan. So, of course, I pushed myself, and consistently failed.

One of my biggest struggles is knowing when to stop. Work had been keeping-me-going over the past ten years. When I go to work, I only think about the children. The more mentally unhealthy I was getting, the harder I was working. I can see this now. I was hyper-focussed on work because it was my coping mechanism, and I fixated on it so much that I didn’t remember to look after myself. At work I could always find a solution: I was efficient and reliable. At home I was afraid of phone-calls, afraid of shopping: queuing and paying. Everything to do with every day-life wasn’t happening: I was anxious about money; I was scared of the bank; the flat was untidy; everything was broken including the heating and the light bulbs. I stopped sleeping in my bed, but I would fall asleep occasionally on the sofa, doing work. I wasn’t cleaning because I didn’t have time, but then I would clean obsessively. I didn’t eat. I did not know that I had Autism. I did not know that I was ill. I think this is because I was avoiding my friends and my family, which is normal behaviour for any depressed, ashamed person.

During one of my attempts to return-to-work, I was moved to Year R, in another one of my head teacher’s schools. I was thrilled by the idea of this, but had no idea how hard I would find it at this time, and I was sad to leave behind the children and their families at my previous school, where I had been for seven, fantastic years. I did not have the skills to cope with such a big change at a time when nothing felt stable in my life.

In my meeting today, I told my head teacher that I am totally loyal to her. I thanked her for always being wholly supportive of me. I told her that I have complete respect for her, and for all of the decisions that she makes.

My head teacher said some things to me that I will never forget. She said that I am one of the most outstanding teachers she has ever known. She said that she would be mad not to have me teaching in one of her schools. She said that, as long as she is a head teacher, there will always be a job for me. She said that having Autism is a wonderful thing, and that once I have a greater understanding about my Autism, it will be a great strength. She said I was highly-intelligent. She made me feel quite valuable.

She and my union representative presented me with options. I had naively expected that one of the options would be for me to return-to-work on Monday, or at the very least in September, but for reasons that make-sense, this is sadly not the case.

I am lucky to have their incredible support, and I have made up my mind which option to take.

Although this is not what I want, I know that to be able to teach I need to be well. I wish I could have had some more robust help from the mental health team so that this didn’t have to happen.

I’m just letting you know that I am now unemployed, Saffie.

I’m telling you because I am ashamed and I know you will not judge. You don’t care that I have lost my house and my job, or that I do not have a husband or children like I’m supposed to. No matter how I am, or what I am, or who I am, I know that you are always there.

Thank you my girl.

2 thoughts on “Dear Saffie-Cat.

  1. Lovely Claire. As a fellow teacher, I can only imagine how hard that decision has been and as always, I admire your courage and bravery. My heart goes out to you but know this, you will always be a teacher in your heart, it is, like your autism, part of who you are and what makes you, you. Perhaps one day you will be back making a difference to children’s lives and sharing your knowledge and expertise about a job you love with your colleagues, as part of a school community who clearly care greatly and respect you. Just not now. Now you have made the brave decision to step away and spend some time understanding what you need to do, for you. So you may not be able to be in a classroom with thirty something little people constantly needing your help at the moment but as your headteacher has clearly seen, you have so much to give and to share so be patient and concentrate on you for a while, instead of other people. You are still helping people Claire, by sharing your thoughts and your feelings through your blog, you are undoubtedly helping people to understand more about autism, so you are still teaching Claire, just in a different way. Thank you Claire.


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