Bottled Up

Anniversary-ing in Big Sur
The good news is I haven't been writing because my day to day fell into a rhythm of good/not bad/not bad/alright/not bad/OK/not great, but not bad... Which is to say that work life is thousands of miles better than it was last year--especially this time last year.
Dear self from on year ago,
  You made it. It gets better.
      -Self, one year later
As I write this, I'm cozied up in a woodsy loft of a house tucked away in the woods of Carmel Valley, CA. Brian and I are celebrating our 4 year anniversary with expensive dinners and beautiful coastal views. One year ago, he and I were cozied up in a woodsy loft of a tiny house in Sebastopol, CA, celebrating our 3 year anniversary. At the time, I was regularly coming home from work exhausted or in tears or both. He was underemployed and starting to question his hireability as an engineer. What a difference a year makes. Since then, we've made strides at work, maintained a healthy social life, and hey, are even planning a wedding.

Some thoughts and experiences I've gathered along the way and haven't had a chance to nail down on paper (or blogpost):

I learned how to shut off work and stress after leaving work. For the past several months, I routinely shut off the stress. I left work at 6 or 3:30 or 8:00 (seriously), came home, vegged out, had dinner, and went to bed. Then, I woke up and did it all over again. It didn't matter what sorts of little stresses I faced during the day or the emotional load that I carried after one student or another confided in me over the stresses of their own lives--like clockwork, I shut it off, went home, and then came back to work the next day. I forced myself into a routine. I focused on doing precisely three things after work: have dinner, shower, and be in bed by 9. The days started marching by quickly, robotically, and, well, unemotionally. Coworkers who knew me from last year celebrated with me that I hadn't cried at all since August! Three whole months! Yay!

By last Monday evening, I started noticing that something was off inside of me. No matter. I pushed the thought aside and persevered through Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Thursday morning, I voiced to Gia that I was feeling... blah. Empty. Bored? Weird. Then, I pushed/skated/floated through Thursday. 6pm, leave work. 6:30, lay on the couch, stare vacantly at the wall while my sisters and their friend chat around me. Brian comes home, I continue to sit. Finally, I pull him into our room, I shut the door, and I make him sit next to me on the bed. He now notices too that something is off. He asks what's wrong and I respond with... broken sentences, confusion, finally, only tears.

I'm not stressed out. I'm not overwhelmed. So what's with the tears? What's with this feeling I can't name?

We had a concert to get to that night, so I washed my face, put on a braver one, and we set off into the cool Oakland night. I let myself settle into the singer's crooning and even groove with the warm, jazzy funk. I felt like a shaken up soda bottle whose bottle cap was finally, slowly, being opened.

The next afternoon, I went on a hike with Gia and Marisol, our school counselor. For possibly the first time since the school year started, I didn't shut off work. Instead, I talked about it. I talked about how I felt when one student told me she'd been absent from school because she and her family had been living out of their car--how I'd felt myself start to well up, but then I 'successfully' shut off the emotions and just listened and tried to be a support for her. I thought about the dozens of times each day that a student chooses chat, or mess around, or be on their phone, or walk out of class, or talk back to me, or be mean to each other, and how I shut off my frustration in the moment, and do my best to 'respond' and not 'react'. I talked about how I'd gotten so 'skilled' at shutting it off--all emotions--that unfortunately, even when daily little good things happened, something inside of me stays turned off. Like when one girl came into my classroom demanding a hug from me (seriously) because of something she was grateful for from me, I robotically hugged her, put on a face that I hoped fit the situation, and reminded her that I am always here for her. But I couldn't feel happy with her. Now, as a second year teacher at my school, I have dozens more positive interactions with students and dozens more successes in the classroom--why wasn't I happy? Why didn't I feel pride or joy or accomplishment? I felt nothing.

Now, after crying with Brian, getting lost in some feel-good music, talk therapy with friends, a hike, and writing, I'm starting to feel re-centered. Marisol told me that sometimes when we faces stresses, we dissociate to turn off the stress. However, if we don't process what we're going through and let our emotions run its course, it will start to build up. The negative impacts of shutting off stress includes shutting off all emotions--hence not being able to properly enjoy happier moments. She told me about vicarious or secondary trauma, when empathy causes one to be affected by the trauma of someone close to them. Vicarious trauma is as real and as direct trauma and needs to be treated and faced just as we all know that trauma needs to be treated.

These past few months have shown me that I can shut off the stress when I need to. But now, I've also learned of the importance of letting myself feel sadness and frustration when it comes and to not run away from those feelings. That way, I can make room for other, better, feel-good feelings. I need to take care of myself emotionally. I want to start working it into my schedule to do the things that make me feel good--like blogging, talking through my emotions, and listening to really, really good music.

Anyway, that's where I am right now: better than last year, and hopefully on a track to continue to be better and better--as a teacher and as a human person :) .