I Quit Teaching – Oh Captain! My Captain!

“Oh Captain! My Captain!”

It’s the title and repeated line of Walt Whitman’s poem. It’s also a pivotal scene in many English teachers’ favorite film collection about teaching with passion and gusto.

I always imagined myself as a female Mr. Keating, albeit a bi-racial small Asian version with tattoos and a gold butterfly nose ring. As an imperfect teacher and human, I’ve crafted stories and weaved history together on-demand for classrooms of 30+, stayed nights until 10 P.M. to run concessions stands with butter stained paper popcorn bags, and sat in hallways with students to cry with them over their frustration with school, their confrontation with death in the midst of COVID and guns going off in classrooms, and their deep grief of loved ones, sometimes their own children, passing into eternity.

At the end of the film, Mr. Keating, played by the immortal Robin Williams, leaves the school. He makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the students, that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they are loved and brilliant, but rather it is the system that saw students and teachers as numbers – necessary martyrs for society.

The best example we can set for our students, loved ones, and society is our lives. I have a deep urgency to SHOW the students how to take care of their mental health – something in this COVID-era that everyone is screaming and the government is throwing money toward but no one is SHOWING them. Words without action is complaining. I cannot continue to have several panic attacks when I park in the school lot, on the way to unnecessary meetings, and after the last student has gone home – vomitting in the school trash cans and trying to calm myself so I can drive home to my family – a shell of the vibrancy I used to exude.

Mere weeks after I finished intensive chemotherapy for stage IV ovarian cancer five years ago, I went back into the classroom bald and still sick – popping my wrists back into place during lessons on British literature because my body was not yet healed. I was forced to go back because of an absent paycheck due to illness and the bureaucracy that prevented me from using any of my over 100 hours of sick leave, but I was incredibly moved by my students, their genuine empathy, and our laughs in the classroom which helped me heal more than any medication cocktail. In all of the infinite futures which could’ve come from the moment I stepped into the classroom 9 1/2 years ago, the students have always been the effervescent source of purpose. They still are!

It’s with immense grief that I resigned from teaching effective this month. I have five more days in my classroom: two even days and three odd days. I’ve dry heaved with students about my departure and made sure to let them know, through our tears staining our masks, that I love them all dearly and with whatever influence I have left – I MUST show them with my life how to take care of themselves. I’m still here – I will be transitioning from a teacher to a community member who has a deep passion for teenagers. I hope that after mental health treatment – including more intensive therapy and healing – that one day I can step back into the classroom.

People will speak to you in the manner in which you allow them to – and this includes their silence. School systems – your silence speaks tremendous volumes – and you may no longer speak to me like this.

For every teacher stepping out of our heart work, I leave you with this:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

– Walt Whitman

Taking my own Advice: Psychiatrists and Stepping Back

Scooting across the road in a time machine, every minute floated in infinite space. We borrowed the 2003 Acura from Kevin’s mom while our car was in the shop. Something about the thin carpet and the nostalgic musk reminded me of a carefree time in my life. I drove down the road on my way back from lunch with friends on a day off from work, from the chaos of being a pandemic teacher. We’re always told to write and say people-first – so technically people would want to say a teacher instructing during COVID-19, but reality is much different from what we all used to do.

As a cancer patient and survivor, I thought I already knew how to deal with trauma. I was convinced that a potential death sentence which wrecked my body, my family, and my finances was the most stressful thing I could endure and everything else was easy. I thought I had all the necessary skills and coping mechanisms to handle every future problem in strides.

Then yesterday, I found myself on the other side of a screen, in our dining room, completing the one hour intake processing for a psychiatrist. In many ways, I felt ashamed to be seeking help. Everyone has an opinion about getting help, but they are also not the ones going through your day or willing to bear every anxiety attack with you. They began with increased heartrate when I rode into the school parking lot, only stress vomiting on the weekends when people would ask me about work, then I hit my breaking point.

Last week, I sat in my classroom trailer during my planning period and the silence and reality of teaching during this time wound its spindly fingers around my neck and clenched. The bile began to roil up, pooling in my back of my throat, and all sounds became static in my ears like when the tv antennae are dislodged and no longer receiving signal. I went home and balled up in my bed unable to sleep.

I’m NOT okay.

The only things grounding me in teaching are my students. That’s it. Period. The laughs we share daily: watching my journalism class celebrate publishing their paper with a horrible out of tune Taylor Swift karaoke session, sharing mismatched mugs of cheap coffee with my creative writing class, and the hilarity of my English 11 classes.

I’ve been working on my doctorate for the last year researching psychosocial distress and how to cope with anxiety. It’s time to take my own advice. I’ll be on a leave of absence from Hopkins to just try to be okay again, to try to do things I enjoy and get my joy back. I hate it because I don’t want to feel like I’m not accomplished or not working hard or slacking. I’m not that person.

In my head, I know this stage of my life doesn’t define my entire life. I know I need additional support, and there is no shame in seeking help. Then why do I feel ashamed?

Emerging from Hibernation

When I heard it, I kept thinking that it wasn’t true and also: “THIS is the reason why I have trust issues!”

Here it goes — bears do not sleep the entire time for hibernation. They don’t. According to the Alaska Dept for Fish and Game, which was the result of my immediate Google search after having my childhood shattered, “Hibernation for bears simply means they don’t need to eat or drink, and rarely urinate or defecate (or not at all).” Not only was I shocked at the information, but I was also stunned by how apt the information was to how I’d been using it.

My last post was in September on this blog. I know I’ve gone through seasons where I’ve been busy or paralyzed by emotions – especially when cancer events are at their peak – but I’m not sure I’ve gone quite that long without posting. I don’t know that I can blame COVID more than the need emotionally and physically hibernate.

Starting my doctorate and reading research on mortality was hard, but so was teaching online while dually full-time parenting at home. I know myself. When I feel like I’m going to mentally or emotionally crash, I curl up to weather it then reemerge. My closest friend will tell you this and love me in spite of these odd survival habits. That’s why I was stunned and almost vindicated by how hibernation for bears doesn’t mean they’re entirely inactive but rather are conserving energy for survival.

In November right before my final projects were due for my doctorate, right before the end of the first semester of teaching high school online, and the week of Thanksgiving, I was hit by a drunk driver while sitting at a red light. As a hibernating bear, yes I’m sticking with this metaphor, it was like my den was flooded during hibernation. I was disoriented, had to push things back academically, and was in the position AGAIN where someone had to take care of me as I healed my way back to physical independence.

The chemo memories came back where concerned eyes glued themselves onto my limbs – shifting at my every movement.

I’ve healed and am finally, now in March, pulling myself out of the setbacks of the accident. Like most of us, I’ve gained the COVID 19-pounds and feel more sluggish than I’d like – but at the end of a long day, the out of sync snores from husband and the toddler we haven’t been able to kick out of our bed is more enticing than an elliptical. I go back into the high school classroom, masked and all, on Tuesday.

I’m not very profound, so I don’t have any crumbs of wisdom for how to get through to tomorrow, out of this hibernation — the dull droning of Covid life – other than the hope and faith that tomorrow will be better.

Reading about Myself

It was 2 AM, and I hit a mental wall. I’m normally a night owl, piecing together everything I need with the moths and sleeping dogs at my feet – but it wasn’t exhaustion which made my hands freeze and my eyes fixate on anything but the computer screen – it was the reflection I kept seeing of myself.

You ever have that moment when you get out of the shower and you almost do advanced acrobatic to avoid a glimpse of yourself in the foggy mirror? This was me. The further I get into researching why women who are receiving treatment or post-treatment for gynecologic cancers – the more I encounter some of my own pain which I haven’t yet resolved.

Some of the article titles contained the following:

  • Depression and Anxiety for survivors
  • Suicide attempt predictors among gynecologic survivors
  • Loss of sexual identity due to hysterectomy related to gynecologic cancer treatment
  • Loss of self confidence

The list goes on and becomes more grim.

The hardest part about pursing my doctorate at Hopkins isn’t the academic rigor – I can do that – it’s continuing to look at the pieces of our stories as women who were diagnosed with below the belt cancers and not wanting to smash all the pieces to the floor and give up.

Everyday I ponder whether or not I should continue. No one would blame me if I quit – I have a lot on my plate. My classmates are doing research on faculty of color turnover rates at universities and research on students with special needs.

I’m doing research on my mortality.

No one would blame me if I quit – if I quit trying to find the answers and concrete stepping stones for why gyn onc patients need writing therapy.

I felt incredibly alone – until at almost 3AM – I came across an article that I needed for the paper and one of the contributing authors was my first oncologist – Dr. Stephanie Wethington.

Maybe I can do this – and maybe I can’t. I don’t have answers today and that’s alright.

No Evidence of Disease…Financially

There are few things in life that give me as much joy as either a fresh cup of coffee burning down my throat or calculating how much money I saved on a sale or by doing it myself. We just moved into our first home – more on that in next post – and I am sitting at the kitchen island admiring the imperfect perfection of the subway tiles I just installed on the walls. I can hear the imaginary clink of gold coins racking up by how much we saved by doing it instead of hiring someone – though my hands are still splotched with white paint and grout.

Though I love a good deal and can’t help but brag about it, most people are squeamish about money – especially losing it. Some people have a strict policy of not talking numbers about salaries or purchases and most sensitively about medical bills.

Cancer treatment and post treatment life is physically, emotionally, and financially draining. Bills rack up and no matter how poorly or well you feel – the bank account reflects the cancer journey sometimes more than your body.

Can I be really transparent? This is something I haven’t shared with most people and just last week shared with my mom. After chemotherapy and our crisis mode was deactivated, our little family of three struggled financially. During treatment, I went unpaid for six months and the impact rippled through our finances until August 13th of this year – over three years after my last chemotherapy infusion. To feel some type of normal, we took out a personal loan – and though it helped lesson of the wallet gouging during and post treatment bills, the payments stared at me every month – pointing its bony finger at me with shame.

I am no financial guru. I have no get-out-of-debt five step plan. I only know how to work hard, so I did. I pursued more education and in addition to working full-time as a high school teacher, I began teaching as an adjunct English professor at the local community college at nights. We sacrificed a lot – family weddings overseas to night cuddles with Shiloh. One semester I extended myself too far and took naps in the college parking lot between teaching classes with an eye mask.

I know it was no one’s fault I had cancer. No one gave it to me, and I didn’t do anything that could cause it like smoke – but I felt a deep guilt about the impact it had on our money. My body healed and parts of my heart too, but the monthly bill to pay down the loan was another physical reminder that cancer happened. To be honest, some days I want to pretend it never did.

Just like my last infusion, I remember every detail of when I paid the final balance off the loan at the Wells Fargo bank counter two weeks ago. It was anticlimactic, and I kept saying to the tellers working through my covid mask that it was such a big deal.

In a way, I paid off the guilt that wasn’t really mine. A loan for money is borrowing what isn’t yours for a time then returning it with interest. I didn’t borrow only money, but I also feel like I borrowed shame and guilt over what my body put us through – then I gave it back with interest.

Out of Hiatus

In the last few days, my phone has been peppered with texts and missed calls of people checking up on me. I will admit – I am really bad at texting people back. Sometimes it takes me 3-5 business days to respond or remember. Sometimes I respond in my head, and it doesn’t make it to the person.

I’ve also been on a writing hiatus, which I need now-and-then to recharge and just do LIFE. Admittedly, I do this with my social energy as well when I’m overwhelmed – I shut down, recharge, and reemerge. To say the last few months have been stressful may be the biggest hyperbole of the decade. We’ve all had to adjust, contemplate our mortality, and learn to live differently.

People have been throwing around the phrase “new normal” which is what I associated with chemotherapy, which really is a romantic way of saying “reality”. It’s our today, but it’s not our forever. That’s what I looked forward to when going through treatment and during this pandemic.

There are numbers, interviews, and statistics about almost everything. Mortality has been politicized and weaponized – tapping into fear for our present and future.

In the weeks leading up to the initial shut down, I stood in the hallway with a colleague who I deeply respect from a different academic department. We talked about connecting a piece of literature, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I’ve always enjoyed volleying an idea to someone of a different angle to see what they may get out of it and what I may not be seeing from my vantage point. Looking back, I didn’t know how much we would all need the connections of the text and the needs we all require that the both of us pulled apart in an empty hallway fiber by fiber.

Regardless of science and psychology, there’s something which was not measured in the Maslow’s Hierarchy, could not be quantified in any cancer patient going through treatment, and also has not been measured in all of the statistics and reports in the media right now regarding COVID: HOPE.

The HOPE of a healthy and better future is what is making people strive toward a vaccine and others to elect to stay inside to save others.

That’s what we can do even if it seems all we can do is stay home to save other lives and the numbers are climbing. Hope is not a number and also not a passive practice. Hope is an ACTIVE expectation of a better future. We have to actively build others up in hope instead of tearing each other down with numbers. Hope is what pushes people past what they thought they could do! Hope is what is going to help us pull our heavy bodies from bed when all the arrows point towards the world falling apart.

Actively HOPE!

Chemo & Covid

Can I just say it? Chemo prepped me for Covid-19 and social distancing. 

I’m scared to go outside without a mask.

I’m not allowed outdoors.

I’ve been ordering random things in the mail and groceries because I cannot go to the store.

I don’t even know if I have “real” clothes anymore because I’m only wearing sweats and a t-shirt every day.

I changed my hair.

I’m getting tired of t.v. shows.

I’m not permitted to go to work.

I just want to be productive.

My family is obsessed with hand sanitizer and masks again.

Everyone is looking at me as if I’m sick or dying.

I’m constantly reminded that I have a pre-existing condition.

I’m feeling trapped and scared.

It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Some days – hope that it’ll be better is all I have.

I keep praying.

Consequences

It’s taken me weeks to pump out this post – mostly because I wanted to avoid the swirl of emotions it would evoke in me – but here it is.

Last semester, I barely survived the workload I gave myself. I did too much. Wow, that last phrase was harder to write than I thought it would be. Mostly, it’s because it’s admitting I have limitations. I worked full-time as a high school teacher, ran a school club, taught three nights a week at the community college (11.5 credits), and finished out my last content class for my 2nd masters in creative writing. Crazy right?

The biggest thing I could’ve done without was teaching so much at the college at night. Kevin had to pick up my slack and take care of Shiloh when he got off at work since I would come home sometimes at 10PM. There were two reasons for this crazy schedule. The first is the most obvious – the money. Teaching at the local college provided extra income, but it wasn’t for everyday expenses – I worked myself to the bone to put every cent of the extra paycheck toward paying off more of what I call “chemo-bills”. The red numbers didn’t accumulate from the medical treatments of doing almost 6-months of chemo – but instead piled up from not being able to work during that time. Every cent of that extra pay when to debt reduction. I know it wasn’t my fault I got cancer and had to go through treatment; however, I want to feel like I’m capable of moving that financial mountain that came in the disease’s wake.

The other reason for working so much was to purposefully push to my limit. I know this sounds crazy, but I wanted to feel like I COULD do it – that I was capable.  The last few years have been infected with a series of limits that I wanted to push it, almost to prove I’m actually done with cancer, so I didn’t calculate the cost and consequences.

the consequences:

  • neglecting to blog
  • not giving enough attention to my students with grades and instruction
  • shoving in too many five-layer burritos into my stomach since I ate to keep going
  • doing C work in my grad class when I could’ve easily done A work and disappointing myself
  • becoming a ghost of a friend (I’m already so bad at texting back) and not seeing our small group
  • sleeping through Saturday mornings when we used to have big breakfasts
  • leaving Shiloh with his grandparents too long and not having any meals at home on the weekday because I worked late
  • my child migrating to sleep in our bed – asleep when I got home – crying “Mommy!” in his sleep

Last Sunday, the pastor preaching said something which drove it all in deep – “Just because you’re competent, don’t mean you should do it”. Working too much took its toll on my family – I felt successful on some level but a failure as a parent and friend.

Kevin and I sat down during the two weeks I was at home from teaching at the high school and decided we are going to take a full semester (since my life still operates on semesters) and not strive for anything. This is an active battle I’m fighting every hour. I want to feel limitless and accomplished. I have to actively choose differently.

We won’t pursue anything new and plan to just enjoy our time while we reset and rest as a family:

We aren’t going to look for a house – yet.

We aren’t going to start foster care training – yet.

I’m not teaching more than 3 credits at night.

 

We are going to go to the pool once a week as a family at the gym.

We are going to have family breakfasts on Sunday mornings before church with bacon and pancakes.

We are going to see family and friends regularly.

We are going to have dinner as a family 6 of 7 days a week.

I am going to enjoy my hobbies (writing, knitting, and baking).

I am going to remind myself every day that just because I can now – just because the effects of cancer aren’t weighing down my body or mind – doesn’t mean I have to do it. No one is looking to me to prove I’m no longer sick – even my surgery scars are fading into my flesh like a bad memory blending into the past.

Our Best

My sides were cramping, not from the routine but from watching Shiloh’s skinny arms swing furiously with the pale yellow 1lb weights.

“Three, two, ONE!” he shouted as we finished the set on the TV, then he set the weights down and announced, “no weights!” He was now the instructor. Kevin and I couldn’t stop laughing. I ended up only working out one side of my body because I couldn’t keep a straight face and continue, resulting in going to work feeling lopsided.

Last Friday I had blood work done to check my CA-125 and had my regular 3-month check-up with my doctor. I was nervous about my numbers because I know I’m not as fit or healthy as I was last year. My appetite has gone up, and my schedule (self-inflicted), has not allowed me to work out as much as I’d like. When the numbers came back, it turns out I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been – not by the weight scale numbers from my bathroom scale but by the official lab work numbers which prove I’m doing well.

I don’t have time during the day to exercise and there are no gyms which have workout classes after 9PM for all the working parents who want to spend their awake hours with their children. I will always choose to spend time with my child over sweating miserably in a gym – always. So to try to promote a healthy lifestyle, I bought the 21-Fix which Shiloh and I like to do in the basement together. Since he couldn’t lift the 2lb weights comfortably, I ordered him some small yellow ones.

As we got started, Shiloh used the weights and followed along as best he would. I couldn’t help myself but call Kevin down to document the hilarity. With each weight clenched in his 3-year-old hands, Shiloh thrust his arms up and moved his uncoordinated torso and limbs without worrying about being embarrassed or the fear of failing. He was trying his best.

Our best may not look like someone else’s best. We prioritize different things and organize our lives in different shaped sized boxes, so the warehouses of our lives are all unique. We know our limitations – something which I’ve pushed to the edge this semester. Since I’m feeling healthier, I keep pushing myself to the limit to prove I no longer have physical limitations, to prove I’m no longer sick, to prove no one needs to take care of me like they had to when I had cancer.

But I don’t need to prove anything. No one is asking me to prove anything – it’s more me. Sometimes, though I know it doesn’t make any sense, I blame myself for the impact cancer had on my family.

I had to get additional scans because of pain I’ve been having around the scar tissue – hoping it’s not remnants or new growth or ovarian cancer. On Friday, I cried – not because I’m afraid I’ll die from cancer – but because I’m more annoyed at more tests poking their heads back into my life to remind me cancer even happened.

I am constantly reminding myself and others are constantly reminding me to stop pushing myself – just do my best – and maybe today, my best is just living.

Shredding

For the last two nights, I’ve found myself in the basement sitting crisscross in the middle of the night. There were two piles in front of me: one with papers ready to whir in the shredder and a small mountain of junk mail envelopes. I couldn’t make them pass through the machine fast enough, ripping and destroying things I still don’t want to remember.

This time of year is always hard for me. I think it’s hard for anyone when they get close to their diagnosis date – however, mine is entangled with my son’s birth – which is another level of complex emotions.

I was able to suppress my sadness around Shiloh’s 3rd birthday by planning his party and keeping busy with work. All the nervous energy floating around October 18th was channeled into crafting a solar system cake and making a buttercream frosting for the first time. – which, by the way, was delicious. Facebook, this time to my annoyance, pulls posts from several years ago and transplants them at the top of your feed. At the top was my first picture with Shiloh in the NICU – the memory is still hazy. I still don’t know how to navigate the feelings of being simultaneously grateful and sad – it’s like being punched in the gut then warmly embraced afterward.

Sometimes sadness is the annoying friend who continues to try to get my attention – and I kept ignoring her calls until I began sorting through our junk mail.

There were crumpled envelopes with things I didn’t want to remember: the letter from my GYN oncologist allowing me to return to work, a pale blue script for hydromorphone 2mg I never filled, health insurance statements for chemo, and copies of checks to pay for health insurance though I wasn’t being paid. It was hard looking at these reminders, and my fingers frantically fumbled to shove them into the shredder.

The weight of the past threatened to pluck tears from my eyes, coupled with the searing pain of a dear friend’s passing due to breast cancer was made harder by her work account being deleted recently.

There were things, however, I couldn’t shred. Among them were mostly prayer and get-well-soon cards. I don’t know that I can read them this time of year, so I plan to put them in a storage box for mementos in the laundry room.

The other memory I want to remember – and only shred the sad parts – was when I held Shiloh and when we finally brought him home. In a way, I need to find a way to leave the sadness behind, acknowledge it happened, but then let it settle in the dust. I’m not there yet, but I hope as I get stronger that I’ll get better at this – this post-cancer life.