We Need to Learn When to Panic
I remember standing in the hall outside my classroom, having a very strong premonition that I would get some life-threatening illness and possibly not survive if I kept working in this place. It was the start of my decision to quit my job, despite not being able to find a job to replace it with. It was May of the school year and one of the students set fire to a bathroom on the same floor as my classroom. (It just happened to coincide with the start of a national test.)
The next day I was back in my classroom and feeling a headache and a general feeling of unease, but also feeling this teacherly obligation to go about my workday and teach the students that were assigned to me. I pushed down the feeling that my health might be at risk and I tried to go about my day teaching music as normal. I noticed some students coming into the classroom and having stomach aches or other vague symptoms that caused them to go home early or leave to go to the nurse.
My own headache kept increasing, along with dizziness and chest pain/cough. By lunchtime, my body hit a breaking point. I was required to supervise a table of my students while we were eating. But, the lunchroom was located at the end of the same hallway as my classroom, so it wasn’t any better air quality than I was experiencing all morning. I got my food to eat and sat down with the kids. But, the feeling of dread kept getting stronger. I was desperate for fresh air and to get out of that particular part of the building. But, I was obligated by my job to sit there until everyone was done. The disconnect I felt, continued to mount. Every bone in my body, wanted to burst out the door and out into the fresh air. But, I couldn’t. The panic welled up and spilled over into tears dripping down my cheeks. My students suddenly went from wondering why I wasn’t talking, to actively asking if I was OK? I choked back the tears and tried to explain that I simply felt horrible being in the building because of the fire. This was my panic moment.
I moved to Sweden to be with my Swedish partner, Mattias who is now my husband. I took a general music job at a bilingual school in Stockholm, not because it was my dream job, but because it would get me a visa quickly and it was the only job offer I had. (Applying to come as Mattias’ partner would take a year and a half -a process which we undertook after my first 1-year work visa expired). I was in my 40’s and had lived enough life to know which things I loved doing and which things I didn’t. I knew that teaching kids- that didn’t want to be in my music class- was for me a soul-crushing exercise. And the good vibes you get from the students that are excited about your class weren’t enough to overcome that. (For most of my career in the US- I taught orchestra classes that were electives and I worked in my own business teaching private music lessons.)
The first year at the school, I was getting my feet wet creating a program and materials to teach. There was excitement, and challenge to learning something new and meeting new people. And the first supervisor was quite happy with what I was doing in the classroom. During that first year in the job, I also got pregnant and a little over a year after arriving in the country we became a family of 3 when I was 43. The high I felt for finally becoming a mother after so many previous years of fertility issues and waiting, overshadowed the issues I was dealing with at school. So, the next school year, I was home on parental leave with my son, Emanuel. When I came back for my second teaching year at the school, my husband was on 50% parental leave. So, on the days Mattias was working, I had to pick up our son from daycare and get home and cook dinner. And my son had food sensitivities we hadn’t yet completely figured out, so that year he pretty much always had a runny nose and started to bite and bang his head into us if he had a melt-down.
In the fall, I got observed by a new supervisor that wrote up one of the worst evaluations of my career after watching one lesson on the — everything went wrong — day. As an experienced teacher, I tried to just ignore the bad review — especially when on the same week I got a ton of praise from a colleague over my violin playing and rapport with the kids. When I got depressed about everything, I reminded myself of all the immigrants who worked in jobs they didn’t like because they weren’t fluent in the language, or didn’t have the right certification in their new country. I tried to count my blessings and hoped that I could simply hunker down and keep working while also starting my company on the side.
I was super excited when I got my permanent residence permit in January. And this allowed me to take the first step in getting my company launched. I enrolled in a course to become a fertility coach. And hoped I could both help other women who were struggling, and help myself out of my crazy job. Next Emanuel and I were both sick off and on for 6 weeks straight in January and February. We went to the doctor multiple times and kept getting a little better and a little worse, but couldn’t seem to figure out why. Finally while trying to deep clean one day, I discovered mold in our apartment right behind the head of our bed. The bed got thrown out and we escaped to stay at my in-law’s summer house until we could find a new apartment. We could carpool with Mattias into the city, but keeping a toddler occupied on a bus and train for an hour and a half coming home was crazy. The extra commute was difficult for us both. I had no buffer of extra patience or energy. I was stretched from all sides.
I registered for my coaching business with the government in February, but it took the whole spring just to get my tax registration. What should have taken a month, took 4 months and extra phone calls on the part of my accountant. I asked to work 50% in my job for the following school year so I could have the rest of the time to work on my business and they said “No”. When I built a music lesson studio previously in the US, I did it in my spare time and then quit half of my school job and eventually gave up the other half as my business was able to support me. Since that idea wasn’t going to work here and I wasn’t finding any other jobs, I planned to work in the evenings and weekends to get my business off the ground. That WAS the plan. The secure, do the right thing for your family, sort of plan.
I spent that spring trying to get better. By about April, things were looking somewhat better for my health when the second challenge hit — the school fire.
After the students finally finished eating and I could leave the lunchroom, I walked as fast as I could down the hallway and out the front doors into the fresh air with tears still soaking my cheeks. I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish my workday, but I went into the building caretaker and he asked what could help. I needed a different classroom. I taught my next two music classes in the upstairs conference room with no instruments or sound equipment that I normally have. The students were hard to settle and so was I. In ignoring my instincts that day, I got more sick. I ended up off work for more than 2 weeks because my lungs felt like they were on fire. And to make matters worse, when I went in to be evaluated by the doctor right away (because I needed a note to be off school), the lack of communication in English made things worse so the doctor didn’t understand that there was a fire at school and just looked at my watery eyes and coughing. She gave me some allergy medicine, eye drops, and a referral to the psychologist.
I thought it might be nice to have someone talk through all the physical challenges I had gone through that year, so I was excited about getting support from a psychologist. But when I went to the appointment she only allowed me to talk enough to answer her prepared list of questions. She ended the session asking if I wanted to come back to talk more about how to deal with my panic attacks. I said,
“I can help you learn to control your reaction to the situation so that you don’t have more panic attacks at school.”
I was so confused. I told her that my panic attack was completely valid and necessary to tell my body to get out of a place that was not healthy to be in. In her unemotional voice, she looked up from her computer where she had been typing out my responses to things and said,
“I’m sorry but if this was really a serious event, the fire department would have shut the school down. I’m sure you are just exaggerating things.”
I was so surprised by her response I wasn’t even sure what to say. I knew my body and how I felt. I knew that I had other health issues that make me more sensitive to different toxic environments. Obviously there are varying degrees of people’s sensitivity, but just because I was the most affected by this doesn’t mean it was all in my head.
After my shock wore off, then I was simply mad.
“No. I don’t need another appointment. Thank you very much.”
As I walked out the door, the tears rolled down my cheeks. I recorded a video that day, feeling that I could help more people to learn to respond in a different way to situations that we are all confronted with. I turned my tears into action.
The panic response is sometimes a good thing. It can help us to take action. We should not always be suppressing it. We need to learn when to panic.
Sometimes we as human beings ignore our body's small indicators of ill health and we try to work or get through obligations anyway. One thing I learned years ago when dealing with 4+ years of infertility, was to trust my gut instincts. My feeling of dread when I walked into a particular fertility clinic for the first time was actually a sign that I shouldn’t have worked with them. And that place ended up being a source of frustration and heartbreak for me. I was laughed at by the doctor for many ideas about what was going on with my health. I learned through all that to come back to my own power and check around before putting my trust in one place or one doctor.
I learned that if something does not feel right. It’s probably not the place to go. My instincts are good when I listen. No fixing needed.
To help finish out the school year, after the fire — I started to research what plants would help filter the air in my classroom. I looked up different ways to cope with other things that made my environment difficult for me, but the few weeks that were left were a struggle. I tried not to work very long in the classroom when I wasn’t teaching and take more breaks to go outside. But, I was now faced with the string of illnesses and having to admit to myself that I was really miserable for many different reasons in this teaching job.
I kept looking to see which direction I should go in next because the walls around me felt like they were closing in. Everyone told me to ignore my instincts about the fire, keep working in the classroom, and suppress the panic. I realized I was suppressing a lot more than that panic attack. I was suppressing my need to balance my role as a mother/wife/creative woman, with my life at work.
I felt that there was something that was going to threaten my health in a much greater way if I didn’t start taking care of myself. I kept asking myself if I could just postpone this by working and building my business on the side. But, my instincts were that the only way for me to get healthy was to quit my job. And, I felt that if I didn’t quit my job, that I might be dead or come very close to that. (I couldn’t have imagined the world situation with Corona Virus at the time but I thought it might be something like me getting cancer if I kept working. When I recognized we were in a worldwide health crisis, I felt this is what my vision was pointing me to.) I didn’t know what would lie ahead for my business journey, but I couldn’t see any path of health for me if I stayed in that job. When I discussed quitting my job with my husband, he was super stressed about the finances since I didn’t have any income to replace this job yet. We had quite a few heated debates about what to do, although we finally came around to the compromise that I would take a year's leave of absence. (I didn’t learn until I asked my colleagues about this, that you can ask for a leave of absence without pay to start a company.)
I would love to tell you that my story ends with my income suddenly taking off through my business and my little family living healthily ever after. But, that’s not the case. Two years later, I’ve made money but still haven't taken out a salary from my business. My health IS much better. I have honed my intuition in the past two years and feel much more in sync with myself. I have been able to help my son communicate better now so he’s not dealing with a constant runny nose and upset tummy. And this means we get to see a better side of his personality. He still has occasions where he bites or hits, but we have mostly replaced it with language skills to tell us what he needs.
I have written a lot of music for healing and empowerment, seen women get pregnant after working with me and welcome a new baby, seen women gain new confidence and wisdom through coaching, written songs to help welcome babies into this world, written a children’s book, and been featured on multiple podcasts. I’m learning how to market myself in a digital world. And, now I am also helping other businesses with principles I’ve learned from teaching. If I had to do it over again, I would absolutely choose to let go when I needed to let go of that job.
I don’t know what the future will hold for many who are reading this and have not had a choice but were instead forced out of their jobs. I don’t know when my company will be able to pay me a salary. But, I do know that:
- My health and your health should be a priority.
- Lack of money and an abundance of time can cause both depression and personal growth.
- Panic can be a good thing if we use it for change.