Teaching With Depression

We were at a dingy diner in a western border town of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when I failed to save my camper.

It felt like I was trapped, or frozen. For all my training, I couldn’t seem to respond to the panicked shouts of “She’s choking! She’s choking!” that flew from the mouth of her friend.

I was just beginning to stand up when Sean reached her. “I got this, I got this,” he said calmly, and performed a textbook Heimlich. A piece of meatloaf flew out and she sputtered, regaining her breath. The whole table started breathing normally again.

Sean and I left the kids alone long enough to walk out into the parking lot and call our boss. Amanda Parker has a calm expertise about her; she deals with emergencies in the same matter-of-fact way that she does when displaying the camp’s Lost and Found. I heard no alarm in her voice as she assessed our handling of the situation, only caution. Our camper was alive and safe. We had dealt with an unpredictable situation and done well.

Or so I thought, until Amanda asked how the rest of the day had gone. Sean hesitated. “It’s been a long day,” he said. “These kids really try our patience.” He paused. “Well, they try Laura’s patience.”
I looked away, struggling to not say something cutting in return. Whose patience wouldn’t they try? Well, Sean’s. Somehow, he won the award for the chillest guy on the planet, and the innumerable pranks, bickering, singing, health problems, misbehavior, and general high-need nature of spending 10 hours in a van with this group of preteens hadn’t bugged him. It made him great at this job, and I should have loved that. But instead it made me despise him and resent my own inability to stay perfectly relaxed.

Sean passed the phone to me.

“Laura, is that true?” Amanda asked.

I swallowed. “Yeah.” I wished I didn’t have to admit it. “I’m kinda stressed.” I should have left the qualifier out, but I had to keep my pride somehow.

Amanda saw through it anyway. “Those kids are really difficult. But they’re your responsibility.” I winced at the implied accusation. “Short of taking them back to camp, you’ve got no other options.”
Sean spoke up. “Tomorrow, we’re taking these kids into the backcountry. I need to know that we’re both in this together. I can’t lead this trip by myself. I need to know that when you get stressed, or when they push your patience, you won’t shut down.”

It felt like a slap in the face. I wanted to protest, to say that I didn’t shut down, but I couldn’t deny that I had cried earlier, or that I was crying now. My tears were a sign of my frustration, but the rest of the world saw them as a weakness.

“You need to work as a team,” Amanda said. “Otherwise, this trip ends.” The shame inherent in her ultimatum was inconceivable.

“Can you promise me you won’t shut down?” Sean pressed.

I wiped away some of the tears, staring down the remote road. “I can try.”

“That’s not good enough.” Amanda’s voice was no longer reassuring, but forbidding. “You need to do it. We need to know that you’ll do it.”

I felt anger rise up in me. My efforts weren’t good enough? All the growth I’d made, all the progress I’d achieved, all the gains I’d had over the years as a leader—it was all for nothing now? As long as I wasn’t as chill as Sean, I was doing it wrong. And of course, there was no way I could guarantee that I wouldn’t fall apart again.

But I couldn’t say any of that. There was only one option if I wanted to keep the job that I loved, at my favorite place in the world, and not live a life of shame.

“I’ll do it,” I said. It was a lie, but maybe if I said it loud enough, I would believe it. “I won’t shut down.”

***

Long before I ever stepped into a classroom, I loved being with kids in their wildest moments. Those moments were called summer camp, and they were some of the best of my life.

They were also some of the hardest. I had always been a sensitive and quiet child, and struggled to make friends in large groups. Over the years, camp helped me come out of my shell—but I was still myself. I loved large groups for their energy, but preferred quieter settings where I could really bond and get to know people.

So much of my teenage and college years were shaped by the place, the people, and the challenges I encountered at camp. Yet I felt like I was being told to conform to a certain personality type—loud, overly confident and very chill—and I resented it. No matter how much I grew or changed, I would never become that person.

That phone call from the Upper Peninsula was not the first time I was told, “Just don’t get so stressed,” nor would it be the last. Not a single time was it helpful. From a clinical standpoint, telling someone who is stressed or anxious to chill out is like telling someone who’s just been shot to stop bleeding. It’s laughable. It conveys the impression that the person wants to be anxious, or depressed, or bleeding. It suggests there’s a choice in the matter and as soon as you tell them to snap out of it, they’ll immediately become calm, return to happiness, or stop bleeding to death.

The tragic thing is that those good intentions really do pave the road to hell. At least, they did for me.

The real hell would come a year after that call.

*********

Catch the rest of Laura Koroski’s piece in Sheriff Nottingham X: The Green Issue, coming out June 5th!

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