…and what you really need is just 5min to relax with a hot drink.
An article posted by Independent newspaper raising the issue of NHS banning their staff from drinking cups of tea whilst on duty, found me drawing comparisons with the rules I’ve faced in my career as a teacher.
In my teaching career of 18 years I have had periods of supply teaching, including part-time in the past 2 years. In this role I have seen the insides of many different staff rooms and classrooms. From the huge banquet sized staff rooms to small windowless cupboards with a tiny sink and 2 chairs, what they all have in common is cups. Cups ½ filled or barely touched cups of coffee, tea or bottles of drink.
As a member of the teaching staff in a challenging inner city school with a tight timetable, students in need of assistance, detention, extra help or just doing your safeguarding (break time) duties, timetabled breaks are just on paper only for many staff. Time to grab a hot drink before the next lesson is just that, time to grab the cup, not time to drink it too!
In one school I worked in, hot drinks were banned from the classroom. Nor were we allowed to stand holding a cup or flask of warm drink whilst on playground duty in freezing winter – for health and safety reasons. Kettles in staff rooms were also banned for the same reason. Yet no one had heard of an incident involving a student being hurt with a hot cup of tea (as tempting as it can be sometimes!).
I kept a kettle and tea bags secretly stashed away in my store cupboard. Even then, I still had half drunk cups lined up on the shelves. I was reduced to ‘going to fetch some more paper’ from the store cupboard so I could step in and grab a sip of a half cold cup of herbal tea.
Two years after leaving my permanent job, my brain is still wired to a timetabled control of my daily liquid intake – and output. Not having time to sit and relax with a drink is also a way of avoiding a toilet call in the middle of a double practical lesson. There isn’t always another member of staff you can call on to cover you while you pop to a toilet to relieve a call of nature. So your body gets conditioned. You train your body to ignore the call for hydration until the very end of the day. If you’re disciplined enough, you will reach for a bottle of water or cup of tea before the bottle of Merlot.
The result of this level of liquid control? Dehydration, which takes its toll on your body at some point. For me it was IBS. not all the symptoms, but enough for me to seek help from my GP then a specialised nutritionist. We went through my daily diet. it was all pretty balanced and healthy. Then the question of drinks. When I sat and thought about it, I could mention the amount of bottles I filled and how many cups of drinks I made and I then remembered how my house was looking like a staff-room. Half drunk drinks everywhere. I was still not drinking enough liquids for my height and body weight! My body was still ‘on timetable’. It was time to retrain my brain to hear and respond to its natural messages of thirst and full bladder.
Reflecting on this past behavior also brought up the sensation of constantly being on ‘high-alert’ through out each day. I rarely if ever felt calm and relaxed in my role as a teacher. One had to be ready for any incident, always mindful of all the needs of each child in your care for that lesson, for every lesson each day ( 4 to 6 lessons each day (around 20-30 children in each; five days a week, plus your tutor group), whilst also considering the challenges some of the pupils in your tutor group may be experiencing in their day, planning work, projects etc, for the next week ahead in your head whilst teaching the current lesson, remembering reports to write, follow-up on calls you have to make and a ticking time-bomb reminder of some sort of planning or data analysis that needs completing by a deadline. And that’s just work. I raised 3 children as a single parent during most of my teaching career, so add on the planning, thoughts, feelings etc, surrounding their needs. All of this was outwardly focused, on those in my care.
Very little if any focus was on me. I paid enough attention to myself to be sure I stayed alive, clean and presentable. Some days my emotions were eeked out over a few drinks with friends when I could bare my soul a bit, weep into my drink, get some empathy from other friends who also experienced this form of ‘high-alert’ living. Socially and mostly secretly, I binged on sex, food, alcohol – sometimes all three at once. Holidays, breaks? I had them but they were the kind where you needed a holiday afterwards to recover!
Only when my children were grown up was I able to experience a fully relaxing holiday. I would have the odd weekend away on a course, or with a friend/lover, but never a whole week where I could just shut down and fully relax. No visits to tourist locations, no hanging out with friends. Just relaxation. My current partner took me on a week in Sardinia to a secluded cottage last year. No internet, no neighbours for ½ mile and they were mostly sheep. No hotel, secluded beaches, our own private grounds including tennis court. The only human contact we had with others was at the supermarket. It was blissful. Oh my! I had no idea life could be like that! This is what I needed to start a slow journey of pulling myself away from ‘high-alert mode’ and towards hearing my own inner voice again.
My move to Amsterdam, time and space away from close friends and family is giving me time to reflect, to get to know myself, to listen to the voices that were screaming out inside of me all these years, that I kept suppressed in order to get the job of surviving an abusive childhood, parenting, teaching etc. done. And I have some beautiful memories of many parts of my life. Yet I remain very good at burying my needs and feelings. Something survivors of abuse do.
I have learned through my therapy that being in this form of ‘high alert’ is a form of stress and an instinctive survival mechanism. Imagine you are under threat of real danger – someone trying to break into your home, or you’re in a war zone – the last thing you would want to do is bring attention to yourself. You want to hide, protect yourself. Working with challenging young people (and many of them traumatised too) mean’t that anything could happen. I have experienced sudden violent outbursts amongst my students. From barrages of verbal abuse, fights using bits of furniture and equipment to a knife attack – all in my classroom. When in a situation of high alert where you have to be ready for ‘surprises’, expressing one’s own needs will bring attention to oneself, expose you, make you vulnerable. I found it was safe to stay still, freeze, instincts on high alert, until the threat has passed.….until you feel safe.
It became so common in my life, from a childhood living in a home full of anger, arguments and threat of fights or beatings, to a teaching career with unpredictable children and my own family too as I experienced abusive relationships and also raised a child with ADHD. There was a big part of my life – decades – where I shut down having an inner dialogue. Yes, something was sorely lacking – my inner voice, addressing my feelings, my needs. Even basic ones like quenching my thirst. I’m sitting here at 1pm in the afternoon. The last time I had a drink was at 8am this morning. I’m in my apartment, alone, nothing urgent to do. I went to put the kettle on to make myself a drink (yes the message got through, I am thirsty), yet what I do instead is sit down and write this article *sigh*
Some patterns are so very hard to break……