Redirection

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It took me 16 years to stop being afraid of my students on the first day of school. 17, if you count my year of student teaching when I showed up to observe other teachers and got tossed into a classroom to sub. Not that I knew what I was doing that first year–that year it seems fair that I quivered in my bad JC Penney pantsuit and stumbled through another teacher’s activities with five classes of kids who were only a few years younger than me.

This is the kind of thing you don’t admit out loud, the being nervous. Or, I guess I don’t hear teachers say it, which is why I’m writing it. Last year I finally came to grips with both the fact that I’ve always been nervous on the first day, and the fact that I was finally not. I know plenty of teachers who say they’ve never been nervous, that they don’t care. These are normal people with human emotions (read: not psychopaths), so I’ve been thinking about why that’s the accepted posture. I definitely don’t think it helps new teachers.

Teaching is weird. It’s you, but it’s also not you. I’ve always understood my teaching self as a character and my class as an act. I have referred to my job for years as The Mrs. Partington Show, and that’s not as much of a joke as it seems. The Mrs. Partington in my classroom is me, but she’s me if I carefully selected all the parts of me that were appropriate for teenage interaction and parent scrutiny; she’s the nice me, the patient me. She’s the me that wants to hear about your freshman football game and will joke with you about Fortnite. The me who wants to spend a lot of time talking about data or how someone is not a great test-taker. That is not me, friends. She is not the me who gets down with an episode of Dr. Quinn on a Thursday night or the me who hides in a hammock for the whole summer with Tristram Shandy. The part of that that’s hardest to reconcile is the human self that stands in front of those kids and that views the emails from the parents–she gets hurt when real conflict happens. The character doesn’t shield the real me.

That’s what I used to be so nervous about on the first day. The whole will they like me? thing. I care. Again, there are so many teachers in my life who deny any attachment to likeability, but I feel like there was at least a kernel of that at one time that inspired them to go into the profession. To say it another way–maybe they respected a teacher so much that they really learned well, and they wanted to have the same relationship with kids. And what’s wrong with being likable? I like students. I don’t think it makes me a strange person to admit that likeability plays a role in education.

I wish there was a magic phrase that helped me stop being nervous last year. I heard so many pieces of advice from veteran teachers that I tried to implement for my first decade and a half. Most consistently, the one about not being able to get meaner as the year goes on. While true, the problem with that for me was that I’m not a harsh disciplinarian, either. Frankly, a lot of things just don’t bother me. I tried starting my year off as a drill sergeant, and it didn’t last–it was as inauthentic as any other time I tried to do someone else’s shtick. The surest way to fail as a teacher is to try to recreate someone else’s thing. I had to figure out how to do this as me.

What finally clicked in year 16–which is late for such realizations, but here we are–was that if I paid less attention to myself, and I focused more on recognizable student behaviors, my job became more about gently correcting course a thousand times a day rather than putting on a show that was so fabulous it would hold everyone’s attention for 5 hours. What I know now is that students act the exact same way every single year at every point in the year. There is nothing new under the sun. I can nail it down almost to the day–when a kid will blurt out a joke to make the class laugh as I’m trying to teach. When someone will draw a penis on one of the desks. When a girl will burst through the door crying because her crush broke her heart. When they will leave a mountain of trash under their desks or destroy one of my books. And in the midst of all of this comes waves of different feelings toward their teachers–anxiety, then suspicion, then rebellion (this one lasts a while), and then a long stretch of comfortable learning, joking and testing the waters of adult conversation. Somewhere in there, we read and write.

This year, year 17, I overslept on the first day of school. I could blame it on the medication I’m taking or the fact that we had three days of soul-crushing meetings just before, but I’m sure it’s because I wasn’t nervous. The first day brought plenty of other challenges–large class sizes and enrollment issues, especially, but I spent most of the day being amused by my students. I enjoyed getting to know them, and I enjoyed the pressure being off. Everything was new, and everything was exactly as it has been for the last 16 years.

I read something about meditation long ago–that you’re not supposed to punish yourself for letting your thoughts drift. That it’s better just to note your thoughts and gently direct them back toward your breath. To just breathe. My role in the classroom is the same. Redirection.

 

What’s in a name?

I have Epilepsy, and I feel a little weird about it.

You will remember that I had a rough autumn of bad health: headaches and insomnia and tongue-biting in my sleep. I felt like I couldn’t control my stress, and I was on the verge of tears all the time. My doctor thought I might be having nocturnal seizures, but he didn’t know for sure. My EEG was inconclusive, even though I bit my tongue in the middle of it. He gave me a long list of things to do to improve my health, and that was overwhelming and hard. Many of those things were for the migraines, and a few were for the seizures: cut out all caffeine, make sleep your new religion, cut the stress. Plus the old medical standard: wait and see.

I started taking Topamax to treat both problems: the chronic migraines I’ve had since my twenties, and the [maybe] seizures. If I stopped biting my tongue, that would tell us something. Well, I stopped biting my tongue. I started feeling way better. It’s amazing how groovy you can feel when you’re not biting your tongue all the time. About three months into the meds, I had another appointment with my neurologist, and he said that we could assume it was seizures, and I should stay with the meds.

Then as is always the case in the spring, I started having discussions at work about next year’s teaching schedule. Immediately, my stress level was through the roof. My health was better, but barely. Worrying about it getting bad again was going to make it bad. I tried to be honest about my health issues and take things off my own plate, but I struggled to say no because I’m a wimp. I felt like I should have a doctor’s note on file so it would be clear that I wasn’t making this stress/seizure stuff up. It’s hard to explain something that you can’t see. It felt like dumb excuses. I asked my neurologist for a letter that explained my condition. I didn’t know how to convey what it was, anyway. Did it have a name? Was there something more specific than nocturnal seizures? Could he put it down on paper in a way that would make sense so people wouldn’t have to Google what was wrong with me?

He did. It took about a month, but he finally sent me a letter, which said, “Heather has nocturnal seizures caused by Epilepsy.”

What.

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The funny thing is that I wanted the letter so nobody else would have to Google anything about me. But the letter sent me Googling. What the Google Machine told me is that Epilepsy is what they call repeated seizures without a known cause. So: me. I think my neurologist didn’t use the word at first because we didn’t know, and then he was just being more specific, referring to the specific type of seizures.

This is what I tell myself, anyway. Because he just hadn’t used that word at any time before.

But I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. For at least the last 15-20 years, I had a terrible daily headache, and I woke up every night in the middle of the night with anxiety and insomnia. That’s not happening, anymore. I still get headaches, but they’re rare, and they usually have a specific cause. I’m still sad I’ve had to cut so many things out of my life–don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty much off caffeine, soda is gone, and I haven’t had a drink since October. I don’t take OTC pain meds more than twice a week. But I’m at a point where decaf tastes like real coffee, and the amount of uninterrupted sleep I get has made a notable difference in my energy, anxiety and migraines. The meds help, but I think that all the lifestyle changes were huge. Damn it.

And I’m not having seizures. To my knowledge, I’ve only had two since October. One, about a week after I started on the meds, and another a few weeks ago. Both times, I was up way too late, and I was unusually stressed. That tells me that what I’ve been doing is working. Sure, it stinks to leave our friends’ houses early, or to go upstairs when my whole family is still hanging out, but I’m better.

Not having seizures all the time is great. I can recommend it.

What we call things doesn’t give them any more power than they have on their own. I know this. As Eric says, nothing is different in my body now that I have that letter. And yet: feelings.

My 60 Day Caffeine and OTC Pain-Med “Wash-Out”

I hate my neurologist.

Of course, this isn’t a static emotion. What was first a panicky hate for his long list of changes has grown into an affectionate grumpiness for the smart man I wish hadn’t been right. Damn him.

In September and October of last year, I kept waking up to bite marks in my tongue. Bad ones, ever-worsening. Besides being confusing, they made teaching difficult. One day I woke up from a nap with my face covered in blood from a deep wound in the right side of my tongue. I didn’t wake up when I bit it. I felt like shit: heavy, weird, and confused. Every muscle ached. Fearing I’d had a seizure, I made some doctor’s appointments.

I was worried because there is something in my head. This isn’t a figure of speech. Midway through getting my MFA a few years ago, when my migraines increased, I had what seemed like a cursory MRI before I could be put on Topamax, a daily migraine medicine. During that MRI, the technician slid me out of the tube and asked me a bunch of questions that were too pointed to seem normal. Have you ever had an MRI before? No. Have you ever had any head trauma? No. Are you sure? Yes. Has anyone ever told you that you had any abnormalities in the left side of your head? No. And at that point, the technician told me she needed to push me back in and do the MRI all over again because she couldn’t be sure of what she saw. My Ativan had worn off. I couldn’t reach my ears through the head cage to get the earplugs back in. I lay there and I cried through the booms and clangs, in full panic attack. What was in my head? An arachnoid cyst, just behind my left ear. My general practitioner wasn’t great about helping me understand it. She sent me an email. She said they’d keep an eye out, wait to see if I had any neurological symptoms. And that was that, for a few years. So when I bit my tongue, when I suspected this might be a seizure, I was terrified.

I promise you, this is about coffee, too. I’m getting there.

My tongue-biting episode led me to the neurologist, which is where I should have gone after that first MRI. He asked me if I wanted to see the last few MRIs of my head. He showed me the surrounding, healthy, brain tissue. He told me I was probably born with the cyst because my brain had grown around it. He said that it couldn’t be causing either my migraines, or the episodes I was having now because of both where it’s located and how it hasn’t changed in several years.

See? I told you he’s smart. He’s kind and comforting, too. That made it hard to ignore him when he told me that I needed to give up caffeine and all OTC pain meds for two to three months if I wanted to make my headaches better.

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“How often do you take over-the-counter pain medication?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably four days a week?”

“How much?”

That answer was too high.

“And how many cups of coffee a day?” he gestured to the cup in my hand.

“Oh, this? This is green tea.”

“Green tea has caffeine in it, too.”

“I know. But, uh. Just one cup of coffee a day.” His fingers fluttered across his keyboard.

Diagnosis: rebound headaches. People like me who have chronic migraines can get them from being too used to caffeine and over the counter pain meds.

Prescription: cut out all over the counter pain meds, any use of Imitrex (a migraine medicine I take when I get one), and all caffeine for two to three months. A “wash-out.” After the “wash-out,” I could return to these things, but in an irregular pattern. Caffeine was okay, as long as it wasn’t every day, and I had to do one week a month with zero caffeine. Pain meds no more than twice a week. The hope was that it would lessen my headache frequency.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Your headaches are going to get worse before they get better.” No Tylenol, or Motrin, or Excedrin. Nothing. No coffee, or green tea, or black tea.

Cool.

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He wasn’t wrong. The two weeks I cut caffeine were awful. I weaned myself with decaf (first three quarters caffeinated, then half, then one quarter, etc), then decaf for a few days, then nothing. Water and herbal tea only. It sucked. When I say “it sucked,” I mean that I had headaches and I was tired and I hated everyone and my body ached. And I wanted to murder my neurologist a little bit.

He also cautioned me that in order to stop the seizures, I needed to get at least eight hours of sleep, and I needed to “reduce my stress.”

Sure, Buddy.

This is my sixteenth year of teaching high school, but it feels like my first. We have all new curriculum–entirely new anthologies–as well as new novels at each grade. I teach two grade levels, which means I am teaching something new to me four times a day, every day. Not to mention learning one hundred and fifty personalities and trying to accommodate each soul as it needs to be taught. We also have an entirely new, entirely confounding computer database this year (and in the fall, I was a trainer for our staff), and the combination of new computer system and 180 days of new literature–times two grades–proved to be more than I could fit into my brain. By the second month of school, I wasn’t sleeping. I would wake up at 3:00 AM, worrying, and I’d think, well, that’s an extra hour of work I can get done. I’ll just get up and create a user guide for the computer system. I was borrowing sleep from both ends of the day, falling asleep late and getting up early. Usually I would wake sometime in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I’d lay awake trying to make lists of all the things I needed to do.

Sometime last fall, my friend Lizi sent me this podcast from NPR, with scientist Matthew Walker. It inspired me to start harassing my children by telling them that “sleep is the Swiss Army Knife of health.” I believe it, though. The podcast is wonderful, and I can also recommend his book. Cliff Notes version: if you ain’t sleeping, you gonna die, friend. I was putting myself at risk every day. The real science behind how much we need a real chunk of sleep is pretty scary, and my recent brush with nocturnal seizures is proof that I need to stop messing around.

Robbing my sleep was the worst thing I could do. I just didn’t know. I’m a morning person because I like the peace of a quiet house. I like the sunrise and the sound of the coffeemaker. But that means I need to be an early-to-bed person. I like knowing that I’ve given time to the most important task on my list so I won’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day. But I was taking so much time from sleep that my body was shutting down. My neurologist diagnosed me with nocturnal seizures. (Biggest contributing factors: sleep deprivation and stress). Since I left his office in November, I’ve been religious about sleep. I’ve set an alarm to get in bed (not to sleep, but getting in bed about an hour before I want to be asleep makes a huge difference). I try for eight hours, but I usually get about seven and a half. You know what’s happened since I started getting all that sleep? I haven’t been sick once.

Giving up coffee was emotional, in a surprising way. I didn’t realize how it was linked to writing and reading, entirely a part of my routine. I got past the caffeine withdrawal after a few weeks, but I never made it to a point where I didn’t miss the emotional pull. I gave up soda, too, but I couldn’t care less. But at 8.5 half weeks, when a bad day finally sent me over the edge and I gave up on this “wash-out,” it was because I needed a cup of coffee. For my feelings. This process has taught me both that I have a serious lack of vices, and that I am tied more to a daily cup of Joe that I thought. More than once as I tried to muscle through, I thought, maybe it’s just worth it to have headaches, because I really, really love coffee so much.

But of course my doctor was right. After the initial miserable pain, my headaches lessened. I still have them, but more more infrequently. Not being able to take even a Tylenol made me pay attention to headaches before I got them. Before, I’ll admit that I’d just get a headache, and then worry about it later. Now, I’m more likely to try to prevent one before it starts. I’ve found that a lot of my headaches are from bad posture: specifically, sitting badly in bad chairs. I sit to read or type for long periods of time. I need better neck pillows and desk chairs. My tension headaches often turn into migraines (I had three migraines during my “wash-out,” and I couldn’t take anything for them. That was fun.) An added side effect of cutting caffeine was that I slept better.

I found that without coffee, I ate more. I had less of a reason to get out of bed. (Who gets up for tea? Not me.) I realized I drink coffee when I’m bored, rather than eating. I also found that I had to be more honest with myself about how much caffeine I’d been consuming before. Sure, I only drank one cup of coffee when I was home, but if I was out, one “cup” meant a Venti black coffee, and usually a large iced tea somewhere else in the afternoon. Oh, and when I was stressed last fall? I’m sure I was also pounding down the Coke Zeroes. So if I really think about that answer I gave the doc? It wasn’t honest because I wasn’t telling myself the truth. No wonder I had headaches, and no wonder I couldn’t sleep. The other thing this taught me is that most people are completely stupid when it comes to how much caffeine they’re consuming. Decaf is not caffeine-free, dummies. Now I know that herbal tea is just gross water (I never really got on the herbal tea train, although I will say mint tea and chamomile are the least offensive of the herbal teas), and it’s not good, but most people are just downright ignorant about what they consume.

I made it 60 days without coffee or pain meds. I couldn’t do the full three months, but I’m still glad I did it, and I do feel like it had a positive effect on the number of headaches I’m having. For now I’m sticking to decaf for as long as I can, and I’m still not drinking coffee every single day. More importantly, I’m still trying to sleep close to eight hours, and I’m practicing saying no to the constant demands on my time. That’s the hardest part of all of this. It feels like my health is under control, but barely. I need practice.

 

Currently.

Reading The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Novel #2) by Elena Ferrante–as an audiobook–while I drive around in my car. I blasted through the first one in the series, My Brilliant Friend, once I started it, and I couldn’t wait a single minute to start the next one. Here’s to reading a series after it’s already published, so I don’t have to wait. Ever.

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I also just unpacked War and Peace, so I can get back to my not-just-for-summer-anymore project reading that big ass book. I was enjoying it quite a bit before we started the move, so I’m looking forward to getting back into it again. My rules for War and Peace Project? Go slow. Feel free to get confused. Underline things. Reference online character guides whenever necessary. Call your best friend/former history teacher when you need help with Russia/France/Napoleon. I’m sure it will take me a long time to get through it, so you’re going to be hearing about W&P for a while, peeps.

Watching Justified every night with Eric. He’s been trying to get me to watch it for years, and I tried once before but a few random moments of violence put me off. Well, I gave it another shot, and I’m hooked. It’s hokey, and like Sons of Anarchy, it’s a total dude show. But it’s fluffy enough that I can play games on my phone and follow along, and it doesn’t give me nightmares or make me want to barf. So far the female characters are not written with a whole lot of complexity, which is not super. But Timothy Olyphant.

Other than that, I am just celebrating the crap out of the fact that we have satellite TV once more. During our month between houses, we gave up regular TV, and I failed the experiment miserably. I was not a nice person. I love TV. I need TV to be there for me. I need to tune in to Chopped when I’m bored or get sucked into a marathon of Naked and Afraid. So as you can imagine, there’s been a lot of Bravo happening since the reinstatement of my satellite privileges.

Eating pretty much all of the Halloween candy that I bought for Halloween. Whoops.

Drinking all the La Croix. Pamplemousse and Lime, specifically. Sugar-free to balance out the candy, duh.

Listening to all of the 90s music that I should have listened to in the 90s but wasn’t cool enough to know about. I love Chris Cornell (lead singer of Soundgarden), and for years I’ve listened to all of his music (solo, with various bands) with and because of Eric. All of the sudden my Chris Cornell Pandora station is introducing me to so many other bands and I’m like oh, this is what everyone knew about in high school when I just I listened to the same Sarah McLachlan and Cranberries CDs on repeat every day. So that’s fun.

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Teaching Beowulf to high school kids for the first time in my career, and geeking out over it. There’s nothing better than sharing this story I love, and it was very cool to show them a picture of the manuscript in the British Library and talk about being there. You know I got a kick out of making them say “hwæt” too.

Wondering If my health is going to get better soon. And trying not to assign any meaning to how long it’s taking me to heal, because it doesn’t have to mean anything. Since I’m me, it’s hard not to overthink it. I’m just trying to accept this as what it is, and keep moving through it and keep doing my best in each day to take it easy.

Dreading Halloween. I just don’t love Halloween. I don’t really know why. It’s not my jam. Maybe because I’ve decided I’m pretty much done being out of my bed/house after it gets dark? That would also explain my ambivalent feelings about July 4th.

Looking forward to Thanksgiving Break. Pie, being home for a whole week, pie, naps, and more pie.

Dog Friend and October Things

I am happy as a clam, but I’m nowhere near as happy as Hurley, who has made it his personal mission to follow me around the new house. I suppose this isn’t too different from how he had to be near me in the old house, except the old house was so small that he didn’t have to get up. There are so many new dog places in the new digs. He’s been busy trying to never be more than two feet away from Mom.

The house is good. It doesn’t feel like ours yet, but I’m not complaining. I think this is due to two things: 1) it’s not in my head yet that we deserve something so nice. Yeah, I know that we are paying the mortgage, so I am not being completely ignorant about how it works to qualify for or pay a home loan. But space is so NICE. After you tell yourself for years that where you are and what you have is good enough, I think it just takes a while to adjust.

2) All of our stuff has a place to go. I have never experienced this in my married life, and since my married life is basically the history of my entire adult life, I have never experienced this in my entire adult life. No, all of our stuff is not here. But most of our regular day-to-day stuff is, and it fits in the cabinets. I can tell you that that was something I never imagined happening. Not because we had a crapload of stuff (I think we do okay, Marie Kondo-wise), but because the storage in our previous homes was just so teensy. Eric’s favorite room in the house is the giant pantry under the stairs, and I totally get it. When you can have your extra AppleJacks and your extra TP in the house, you are livin’ right. Thanks, Master’s degree!

UntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledDon’t go all OCD on me. Those TV wires are going in the wall, stat.

School is good. October is here and busy as ever with Homecomings and ordinary school doings, but that’s when I’m happiest. Everyone always has something to do, which means there’s less attention on everyone being new and having to prove how awesome they are. And if I manage my work (paper) load wisely,  by October it doesn’t get so out of control that I need to take days off so I can grade. My kids (students) get it–well, I hope, at this point–they get me and they get what The Mrs. Partington show is and is not going to be. It’s routine time, and I thrive on routine time. The monkeys are wrapping up swimming (shh… I can’t wait for a break from sports!) and even though I pretty much hate fall, I am ready for some time inside my new house under 25 blankets.

I haven’t done anything extraordinary lately in terms of reviewing, but I do find that having an office feels like an extravagance. It’s a luxury to leave my stuff out on my desk and to know I can walk in and sit down in a quiet room whenever I need to read or write. I’d been having a rough stretch while we moved from house to house, and now that we’re settled I feel like myself. Reviewing comes with occasional waves of self-doubt and frustration, and I (fingers crossed) think I’m heading out of a bad one. It helps that I have been reading good books–I’ve been excited to work through them on the page. I hope now that I am back working every morning again and since I have a place to “go” to work I can also get back to some serious pitching and planning. It should surprise absolutely nobody that I work better when I have a place and a plan.

So that’s October. I just read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly yesterday because I was having a bout of surgery-related pain (I know, still?) and I decided the cure was a long day in bed with a self-helpish book. I was inspired by everything Brown had to say, but particularly what she says about how we live in a culture that perpetuates the idea of scarcity. (I am not enough, I do not do enough, I’ll never be enough, I’ll never have enough… those tapes we play in our heads.) She says the antidote to the kind of misery and the shame that comes from that kind of thinking (the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to ruin any moment because we’re already thinking about how it can go wrong) is gratitude. Duh. But I mean, she’s right, and it didn’t hurt me to read it. (Brown’s TED talk is pretty good if you’re not the readin’ type.)

Anyhoo. I’m feeling thankful today, and I have so many reasons to be.