The Picture of @robfmac

“I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else.”

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

 

“Are you gone and onto someone new?

I needed somewhere to hang my head

Without your noose

You gave me something that I didn’t have

But had no use…”

Foo Fighters – Best of You.

 

My reason for writing is to seek catharsis through doing so. My reason for publishing is that it’s possible that one person who reads this will go on to seek help and support.

If you are that person, please see a GP or confide in someone you trust. If you receive a message from someone seeking that help – just being there for them will do so much to help.

This is my truth but I can only tell it since I have sought and received help. Failing to do so for so long meant that I had an almost complete mental and physical collapse. I was the proverbial frog in boiling water – doing nothing as the temperature rose. Indeed, apathy was one of the defining characteristics that became part of my identity.

This blogpost is not and never will be the whole truth. I’m showing you the picture in the attic – not that of my soul. I reveal some of my symptoms but few of my stressors.

This is as it should be – because the factors that brought about my depression are unique to me and are more complex than would fit here. I will say this though – one thing I have been plagued by is a constant strive for perfection – and a constant feeling of failing to achieve it.

Please excuse the inconsistent timelines – they’ve been used to fit the Star Wars narrative.

 

Episode I – The Phantom Menace

As last year developed and continued, what seemed like a cloud descended around me. It had descended before towards the end of 2009. At that time I was in denial that it was depression. My sick-note simply said: “debility”.

I took a few weeks off after a colleague who had watched me decline, confronted me in the corridor outside my classroom and bluntly told me: “You’re not well, you need to go home.” I didn’t. Not long after though I reached the same conclusion as I switched off my alarm a morning or two later and said to myself: “I can’t do this anymore.”

Upon my return the only real thing that had changed was that I was now able to access some counselling via my GP. This was useful and for it I was extremely grateful as it played a part in helping me get ‘better’.

Following my return to work I found an outlet in a dramatic increase in my trade union involvement. This gave me fog lights and despite the cloud not being too far away, I was at that time comfortable in ignoring it.

 

Episode II – Attack of the Clones

And why wouldn’t I? I was always predisposed to being moody and relatively content at being alone even in a crowd. I was never really part of the ‘in-crowd’ anyway nor first on any team sheet.

This routine moodiness enabled me to hide my condition from myself. It was simply put down to my natural process of being up or down at any given time. I didn’t notice that the dips would get deeper and deeper; it was just another dip, a clone of the last one and of the next. In my denial they were isolated incidents unconnected to one other.

 

Episode III – Revenge of the Symptoms

Despite being busy and remaining mostly optimistic. I noticed after the event that I was more prone to making  decisions that were irrational. This might mean doing something that was in hindsight flippant, stupid or worse.

I was spending less time in school as my trade union duties increased. Or rather, I was spending more and more time focussing on big pictures and small policy details but at times failing to then follow this through into my practice in school.

I was more-frequently withdrawn and short-tempered, though conversely I could be more outwardly confident and cool. Things were looking up. I had a wonderful family and was elected as SSTA Vice-President and Fife District Secretary – Go me!

 

Episode IV – A New Hope

I have been blessed by the arrival in my life of two beautiful daughters. Although these small people meant more demands on time they brought many a burst of positivity.

Often in the past I have been at my most creative in the dead of night. Having a wee person or two to cuddle in or soothe, or simply to be awake whilst my wife did could mean that disparate ideas would gel or a corner could be turned. All too often again, these would be reserved for things outwith the day to day. Attending to the problems of others meant escaping from my own. Contribute to a group on the GTCS Standards? Sure thing! Aid the understanding of my colleagues of these standards? Let me get back to you.

I was living many lives depending on their function and with few instances of overlap. I was a jack of all trades and increasingly a master of none. All the while I was giving my attention to the things that interested me to the detriment of others. As a trade unionist my admin was flawless, as a teacher and person it was less so. The prism I was seeing things through now was the tasks associated with the children. These nappies are awful but the laughter and smiles are worth it. Little did I realise that the stench from my incomplete or ignored tasks was growing.

 

Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

I withdrew from real life into social media and the withdrew my attention into my own head. Far, far easier to tweet, post and like than engage in real life. I can switch off my notifications, dim my screen or close the MacBook lid. I cannot shut you up but I can avoid you by taking a different route or hiding away behind a closed door or on a wander through the corridors. Why deal with a boring admin task that is about accountability not education when you can be hands-on helping a colleague with an issue? Why off-load your own troubles when you spend time being the shoulder to cry on for others? Why deal with what’s in front of me when I have email to check?

What became easier over time was to cloak my hyper-criticism of myself by deflecting criticism onto others. How dare you criticise me for being the thing that you are to me! I have criticised others with sarcasm that would cut them into pieces – though not to their faces of course. Yet if you add up every snide thought, remark or gossip and multiply them – they would come nowhere near the self-criticism I gave myself. The grey fog on my horizon was in fact a black dog on my shoulder all along. Its bite made wounds that were far, far deeper and more harmful than my sarcasm could ever be.

A long-standing curse I have is being able to pigeon-hole emotions or simply fail to register an emotional response. Emotions would not float around my consciousness for long anyway. More often than I can remember on hearing news, or witnessing something my reaction was…nothing. Things that were once hilarious or alarming left me cold. This also had the effect on me of not being consciously ‘stressed’.

At times I had little consideration for my impact on others. Why would you even think about doing THAT? No idea.

To those people whom I hurt; to those that I criticised; to those at whom I radiated indifference or worse, I am genuinely and deeply sorry. Whilst off work I found a note made during my last absence. It described my then symptoms and stressors and fitted almost exactly what I would have written in 2016. If I had known or admitted in 2010 that it was depression and had I sought the help I now have, I may have been far, far less likely to abuse either your trust, respect, position or friendship.

As the autumn of last year wore on, things got worse. My most common state was apathy. I would consider all the things that I had to do, all the deadlines that I had to meet and would then, do nothing. I would think about the potential consequences of this – and still, do nothing. Deadlines came and went. Regrets came and stayed. I went from someone who under-promised and over-delivered to doing the exact opposite.

It got more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Several alarms were set and one at a time were switched off. Delayed rising meant no breakfast. Panicked task completion at a break or a lunchtime meant little food during the day and the stress of this often meant little to eat at night  too. I made up for this with confectionary but my weight was falling as was my mood.

A now-flawed perfectionism enveloped me. Unless it was perfect it was not good enough to proceed. Many projects and ideas stayed on metaphorical shelves because to do X, required Y – but to do Y required Z and so on it would loop in my mind. Worse still, I could now see flaws in everything and anything. Each interaction, each comment, each task, each everything could (and should) have been done better. For this same reason I felt helpless to change. Such apathy would lead to powerful feelings of guilt but would only result in more inaction and so on…

More and more I escaped into social media and one tweet at a time managed on the whole to stay camouflaged as a normal person. It seemed to be a safe world for me.

I completed an online self-test in November for depression and obtained a score that suggested I go and see a GP. Of course, I did nothing other than capture a screenshot of the result.

Fast forward to February…More apathy but worse still, an increasing feeling that I was unable to trust anyone around me. This added to the challenge of not being able to offload meant more and more pressure. I lost 4 kg in 10 days. Another depression self-test and finally the penny dropped.

I went to see my GP, was medicated and signed off – but only after agonising for a weekend on wether or not I should. Once I had done so I was now determined that I would be frank and honest and admitted publicly and freely for the first time that I was suffering from depression.

One of the questions I have been asked concerns any potential for self-harm or suicide. My response was that my apathy and general state of ‘meh’ meant that if I was at risk, I was unlikely to do anything as I couldn’t be bothered.

In this I am fortunate. Many of the people whose story I am now familiar with have not been so lucky. The depth of their depression has either meant an addiction has blossomed or a harm has been induced.

 

Episode VI – Return of the Jedi 

“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.

Well, now they know.

Let it go.”

Queen Elsa, Frozen

 

Out in the open I have now accessed support. People have confided in me that they too suffered from depression or have done in the past. They gave advice and I was able to form a camaraderie of pain with them.

I opened up with ease to counsellors, friends and online connections. A bridge had been crossed into a different world in which I was able to be honest with myself.

For the first time in my life I am medicated.

Yet, there are still ups and downs. Progress is inconsistent. I have taken more time off of my work than I would have imagined would be the case. I am better and improving. I have specific goals to achieve and specific steps of support in taking them.

I have always been self-critical but am less inclined to punish myself for mistakes (having redrafted this blog to reflect it) and more inclined to credit myself for things that have gone well…maybe.

I can now acknowledge the roles that each of my stressors have played in my illness as well as the relative impact of them.

From my introspection, I sense that all I have achieved in the last decade and more I have done so without 100% attention or effort. I have lacked focus and commitment especially in looking after myself and those closest to me. I admit though that self-criticism can still stifle self-awareness.

Yet the support I have access to has been invaluable in making me whole again. This journey is still in its infancy and may never be finished yet I feel stronger.

It cannot be left unsaid that my greatest debt is owed to my wife and daughters. They have suffered from my depression as much as if not more than I have. But for them I would not be here to write these lines. Thanks to them, I am. However my greatest regret is that even when I have been with them, I may not have been really there.

 

Episode VII – The Force Awakens

“If you can remember why you started, then you will know why you must continue.”

Chris Burkmenn

 

Through my depression I even lost interest in the news – despite it being a huge part of me and a huge reason why I am a teacher.  Yet this has returned. I only wish it wasn’t prompted by the mess all around us.

The best of me is yet to come and what’s more, I get to make it. Quite how I will get there I don’t yet know but the tools are all in place. My need now is to see how they all fit together and then be in a position to achieve something approaching my potential.

Perhaps I can play a role in sorting out that mess, or rather in facilitating a new generation of young people to take the power that belongs to them to make their world a better place.

That’s why I tweet.

That’s why I blog.

That’s why I lead.

That’s why I manage.

That’s why I teach.

 

 

“I’ve got another confession my friend

I’m no fool

I’m getting tired of starting again

Somewhere new

Were you born to resist or be abused?

I swear I’ll never give in

I refuse

Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?”

Foo Fighters – Best of You

 

If you need help, please seek it. Online information, support and advice can be found at:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/depression/Pages/Introduction.aspx

http://www.moodcafe.co.uk

http://www.depressionalliance.org

https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome

https://www.samh.org.uk

If you are a young person and either you or a friend may be suffering from any mental health issue, go to: http://young.scot/aye-mind/

 

I am no longer tired of myself tonight. I wouldn’t like to be anyone else. My desire for perfection will remain, my determination to achieve it will return. The innovation will be taking the steps to do so. What will guide me now is this:

http://goodfuckingdesignadvice.com/pages/pledge

 

“The only power worth snot is the power to get up after you fall down.”

Wolverine in Ms Marvel Vol 3 #7

 

 

A Tale of Two Weeks

Part 1: An Inspector Calls – or rather just texts.

Our school was inspected in the week beginning 28 September. We expected it and it had been preceded by a whole range of activities designed to tighten up our processes and practices, as well as the decor.

It struck me though; just how much of what we do is re-engineered to fit in with the apparent desires of the Inspectors? What happened to making things fit local needs and resources?

I wonder about the improvements that we made in the lead up to the inspection. Did they not serve to say to the pupils that they mattered less than our visitors?

I accept that the prospect of an inspection gets those things done that you had been planning but had not quite gotten around to doing. I wonder if it highlights that there are too many demands upon teachers and schools to get things done that are not directly beneficial to what we do?

My own experience of the inspection was minimal. I enjoyed only a brief conversation in the corridor with the team leader.  I had an observation of an S1 class and was in a focus group on our school’s excellent work on Employability and, that was it.

This was a huge contrast with the last inspection. Indeed, maybe it was my experience of the previous inspection that protected me from excessive advanced fear of this one…

It felt less an inspection and more a fleeting visit. The previous inspection seemed like an operation without anaesthetic and this was a visit to the GP. I respect fully of course that the exercise was significantly different for those in our senior management team!

I was due to take part in a further focus group of Principal Teachers but I had to pull out as we had gotten word that my wife’s maternal grandfather was gravely ill.

Part 2: Death and Life, Failure and Hope

The final week of term was a mix of great highs and great lows.

On the Thursday there was the Dearest Scotland book launch. I had submitted my letter and backed the Kickstarter and this was when all the efforts put in by so many people came to fruition. It also meant that like a TeachMeet I got to meet some folks from my Twitter feed!

Despite being on or in a variety of media, there seems something very special about having your words appear in a book.

I wrote my letter on a Mac. I then emailed it before it was placed on the website  and on my blog. At no point was it anything other than a set of 1s and 0s. But to hold a book and be able to point to a couple of pages that were written by me seemed to have a huge resonance.

Maybe this is why for years countless folks rushed out to get a copy of the local paper when their wee niece or grandson appeared in it. Is it better to have a clipping than to point at a webpage?

Who knows, maybe it is down to the possibility, decades from now of undertaking a re-run of the JR Hartley Yellow Pages ad?

The bounce I gained from that evening was huge but my fun was cut short just before 11 o’clock by a tweet from Frances Coppola:

“So sad. Greek mother and son find dead baby washed up on beach, say they will bury him as if he was a member of their own family.”

My Dearest Scotland letter focussed on meeting the needs of children today and future generations.

Yet, as I write the children of others are being washed up on shores within my continent.  Their parents are demonised for wanting to escape from war or poverty.

What is it that allows us to put up with this continuing tragedy, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than humanity?

It’s us. We allow it. It’s our failure.

It’s the same failure that meant that not long after that tweet and the sadness it brought I was back up to normal.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

I suffer from moodiness that can mean moving all-too-quickly from peaks to troughs and back again.

Indeed the regained positivity itself was cut short on the last morning of term by the sound of the phone ringing.

The news was that after being at death’s door the week before, and despite a recovery, a great man was now gone. This gave rise to many emotions: sadness that a life was at an end but gladness that his suffering and pain were now over.

The self-centred part of me also wondered just how to explain death to a 3-year-old. How to explain no more Great Granda cuddles and laughs. Maybe in this regard those that have faith have it a bit easier; death is not death, it’s not an end, it is simply a step to another and eternal life.

Even that pondering was forgotten with the ‘distraction’ of the working day. It was also helped by a man from Germany turning up to work at Anfield.

Like most Liverpool fans I have been swept up by the positivity, the hope generated by the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager. Time will tell if this turns out to be what is hoped – the start of something big, or if it is just a false dawn after so many others.

In this regard, football is like life. We celebrate the wins, despair at the losses and somehow manage to move on to the next game. Every season we start with renewed hope.

In school, it’s no different. Regardless of the exam results we start off with classes with hope. We hope we’ll do better, that pupils will learn more and enjoy greater success. Yet, there are set backs on the way. The class or student that doesn’t quite gel with you, the deadlines you can’t meet through workload and *horror* family ‘getting in the way’ or the myriad incidents, lessons or whatever that make up life as a teacher. We try to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again the next lesson.

We face the challenges of our own personal and our working lives. In doing so, we experience and are part of the lives of so many others: the pupil who has suffered bereavement in the same class as the pupil who has a new baby sister; the colleague under pressure and the one who has at long last got that promotion.

What is it that allows us to work through these things? One thing for sure is that it is getting harder for many teachers to do so.

I wonder, are we serious about teacher agency and autonomy? Will it be the reflection that teachers themselves undertake as well as those with colleagues and pupils that determine next steps?  Or will we be continuing to wait for an external agency to come and visit? Worse still, will the government press ahead with the utter stupidity of a new form of standardised testing?

What is it that allows us to put up with these things, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than pedagogy?

Will it be us? Will we allow it? If so, will it will be our failure, when we face so many challenges just to get by?

Maybe if the work of inspectors was re-engineered to fit the desires of schools and teachers and the pupils they served.

Maybe if workload and our contr(actual) obligations matched what we were paid to do.

Maybe if the focus was on meeting the needs of pupils rather than them or us jumping through hoops or ticking boxes our schools would be places where hope blossomed.

Ending at the Beginning.

In what will probably be the final [directly] SSTA-related speech/blog post, I’m ending with the first speech I made at an SSTA Congress. It was the last motion discussed in 2002 and I had the graveyard slot at the end of the day when everyone was wanting away and home.

My motion called for the ending of PFI, and here is as close to the text of my remarks as I can provide. As the Conservative government sells off more of the state’s assets and continues with austerity, it seems timely to recall it.

Congress, the case against PFI rests upon three simple grounds:

First, it was corrupt in its inception, second, it is uneconomic in its operation, and third it is damaging in its effects on our public services.

Put simply, It means jobs for the boys, profits for the city and privatisation for our schools – and all at the expense of our pupils.

The Private Finance Initiative is one of a whole host of schemes which under the guise of benefiting the public sector plunder it.

As reported by Paul Foot on channel 4:

PFI in the UK was the brainchild of a committee set up under the Tories in the early 1990s. A key member of which was the deputy managing director of General Electric – a man called Malcolm Bates.

Despite being vehemently against PFI before the 1997 election, after it Labour brought in a top businessman to advise them on PFI and came ‘round to his views, he was …Malcolm Bates.

A whole series of further PFI schemes were launched one of the largest of which was the Edinburgh Royal infirmary. It was built by a consortium including BICC, who’s Board was joined by… Malcolm Bates. Indeed, so happy with him were the government, that Malcolm soon became Sir Malcolm.

It’s just one example amongst many of people advising or promoting PFI to the government who after the deal’s been done, end up working for the beneficiaries.

PFI allows the few to get their snouts in the trough – it’s only the start of the scandalous waste of public money that is the Private Finance Initiative.

Even though the projects involving schools are relatively new on the scene, the lessons from these and from other parts of the public sector are clear for all to see.

The first waste of money is the fact that for a private consortium to borrow money it costs more than it would for the government to do so. Then come the set-up costs for the private sector including millions being spent on financial and legal advisors; prominent amongst which are our job-sizing friends at PriceWaterhouse Coopers.

PFI supporters insist that it presents a cheaper alternative to the public sector due to the risks involved in building and running facilities being transferred to the private sector.

However, the reality is of the manipulation of comparisons between public and private in order to create a false impression of value for money. In the case of the Glasgow schools contract, Unison has pointed out that the risk factor of building by the public sector was calculated at £70 million to cover up the fact that the council would be paying nearly £35 million more by going down the PFI route.

In the case of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – the full business case presented by the NHS trust did not even bother to compare project costs on a like for like basis. The effect of this according to independent analysts will see the project costing an extra £6 million per year over the next 15 years.

The recent controversy involving the PPP scheme to privately build and operate 3 prisons in Scotland show clearly the attempts of the Executive to pretend that there are substantial savings to be made in pressing ahead with PPP.

The clams of a £700m gap between public and private provision were rubished by independent analysts who cut through the biased assumptions of the PPP scheme.

In any case, the estimated private costs soon change after the deals have been done. In the Glasgow schools project the year one accommodation costs grew from an initial estimate of £24 million to over £36 million.

Fundamentally, risk is not transferred to the private sector as if a project fails the public sector will have to bail it out. Witness the additional funds needed to complete the new air traffic control system. Witness as well the additional funds needed to properly install computer systems for the immigration service, the passport agency and now, the Child Support Agency. Witness PFI and witness a total waste of money.

Incredibly though, when a council believes that a contract should be terminated due to the private sector  not keeping to its side of the bargain – it has to compensate the PFI contractors for contract termination – even if the PFI consortium are to blame!

When you add in the fact that private companies are out to maximise profit – the costs of PPP rise even further above public sector provision – and all for the sake of transferring public assets to the private sector.

PFI is backdoor privatisation which puts profits before prisoners, profits before patients and profits before pupils.

PFI supporters insist that PFI is the only deal in town  but Congress, under PFI rules if a council goes to the Executive saying that it wants PFI because it doesn’t have any alternative – they would be barred from obtaining PFI in the first place!

PFI supporters also say that its the only option, as the money would not otherwise be there to pay for these projects. But Congress, the current account surpluses of recent years are much greater than the value of the PFI deals which have been struck. The money is already there its just not getting used to provide better public services.

There simply is no economic case for PFI – but it’s the damage to public services that is the final part of the overwhelming case against PFI.

In order to make their costs less than the public sector, corners are cut.

Any cost savings can only be made from reducing the quality of the resource, the service provided or the conditions for the workers,

In our prisons it will mean less rehabilitation schemes – and an increase in crime. In our hospitals it means less beds and higher waiting lists. In our schools it means less facilities and more stress for teachers.

In hospital PFI projects an average cut of 33% in bed numbers has been made, in school projects facilities are cut back. In the Fife PFI scheme already, the consortium are putting old equipment in the new schools.

PFI brings the promise of the new but delivers the reality of the old.

The increase in the accommodation costs in Glasgow alone has resulted in the loss of seven swimming pools, many classrooms and many staff common rooms.

We are seeing more buildings with less facilities – and are paying for the privilege. Indeed this is further compounded by stories coming from those working in the new facilities that the basic fabric of the new buildings is not up to much in the first place.

The contracts last anything up to 30 years but the needs of communities in relation to school buildings has changed greatly over the last 30 years, who can say with confidence that they wont change radically over the next 30? But PFI forces us into inflexible deals over the long term.

Rather than investing in public services, PFI seeks to privatise them. Rather than investing in the future, PFI mortgages it. Rather than investing in value for money, PFI wastes money.

PFI puts public money which should be spent providing better education into the hands of profiteers. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between PFI and leaky windows between PFI and crumbling buildings, between PFI and poor resources.

There are alternatives to privatisation which are economic, viable and indeed desirable – they simply involve the government moving away from its dogmatic desire to line the pockets of the private sector at the expense of the public.

Putting money into the troughs for the snouts of the private profiteers cannot be, never has been and never will be in the interests of public services.

Congress, the pupils in our schools must come before the profits of big business.

The executive must put education before profit.

The chancellor must think again and get rid of these PFI schemes before they do any more damage that they’ve already done.

I move.