On 15 February 2010 a Catholic priest knocked on our front door at 9.30 pm in the evening and changed our lives forever. On 15 February 2011 I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) by a psychiatrist at a local Mental Health unit. What took place between these two dates is the stuff of nightmares and a whole different story, one that at times I am still not entirely convinced could really have happened to me, Cathy LeRoux.

This is the true story of a seemingly unremarkable establishment, Luddenbridge High School, situated in an ex-pit village in rural Britain. It explains how the staff at the school initially found out about my DID and how they have worked with me to develop a range of imaginative strategies that enable me to continue teaching French and Spanish in spite of my condition. It also shows how valuable the acceptance and support from both staff and students have been in helping me through some unspeakably difficult times.To begin with I will try to share with you how I came to be a teacher in the first place. Some people are born to teach. I used to think that I was one of those teachers who selflessly dedicate themselves to spreading their enthusiasm for their subject and to nurturing young minds and souls. Over the past year I have come to realise, however, that my motives for choosing a career in teaching were in fact far less noble and far more selfish!

Way back in September 1980, when I started at De La Salle High School, an all-girls Catholic comprehensive in Merseyside, I was placed in the Express Form. To my delight I soon discovered that unlike my rather brutal primary school, the teachers, many of whom were nuns, did not believe in the use of corporal punishment. Up until then, the only reason I had ever learned for following a particular rule was if the person enforcing it would hit me or terrorise me if I didn’t. So I set about taking full advantage of the situation at my new school and had a ball smoking cigarettes in the chapel at lunchtimes, putting cigarettes into the hands of the statue of Our Lady in the vestibule, and, when the cigarettes finally ran out, finding lots of other disruptive things to do to keep myself and my classmates entertained. Nothing much happened until one day, when things were getting really interesting at home, I walked out of my RE lesson, carried my desk and all its contents across the school playing fields, and chucked the lot into the brook which separated the boys’ school from the girls’.

That’s when Mrs Fielding the Deputy Head became involved. She called the psychologist, but far more effective was the chat she had with me in her office. She told me that I was very intelligent, and that I could do anything I wanted to in the future if I decided to work hard. After that day, little by little, I realised that there is another reason for doing what grown-ups say that has nothing to do with fear, threats or coercion. It occurred to me that some adults (60%) could be trusted to have your best interests at heart.

Mrs Fielding would ask me periodically if everything was alright at home. I wouldn’t talk, but I knew that she understood – the same way that I now understand the tense, watchful silence of traumatised children. So Mrs Fielding and the nuns found all sorts of other well-meaning if bizarre ways to help me. These included one-to-one lessons in Latin syntax at breaktimes and weekly weighing sessions, although I was far from skinny! I can’t recall the syntax, but I will always remember the feeling of safety.

School became my place of safety and I began to work compulsively hard. There were no male members of staff at De La Salle. The teachers were always there on time, always sober, always predictable in their ways. They taught me lots of facts with which I could fill my mind, and this meant that I was able to banish, far out of conscious awareness, the bad stuff from my other life. They also told me almost every day that God loved me and was constantly watching over me. I always was a canny child, and so decided that it was probably in my best interests to believe them. It was almost as if I became a different person at school, somebody who could relax and let doors slam behind me without fearing the consequences. In the end I massively over-achieved and ended up at Cambridge University, as startled and disorientated as a refugee.

It is hardly surprising that having left school I tried to get back to it as soon as I could. I taught at six other schools before I very reluctantly applied for the French and Spanish job at Luddenbridge. There were many more minuses than pluses on my list of reasons for wanting to apply, I must admit. Firstly, there was the fact that I couldn’t speak any Spanish. Secondly, my father-in-law, master of the understatement, told me that the area was ‘quite rough’. Thirdly, it was 17 miles from home. But I was new to the area and desperate for a permanent part-time position so I decided to give it a go, and I was called for interview.

As I pulled up opposite the school building, I noticed a grotty looking café with a ‘Vote BNP’ poster and Union Jacks in the window. I saw a woman shuffling past a terrace of decaying cottages in her dressing gown and slippers. Once inside the school, a soon-to-retire member of staff did his absolute best to discourage me from applying, but I had prepared my 30 minute trial lesson and thought I might as well go ahead with the interview.

I am now certain that the De La Salle nuns were right that day, for who else but God could possibly foresee that only six months later a Monsignor would knock on my front door and send everything in my life spiralling out of control?

Luddenbridge High specialises in Science and Engineering. There are a disproportionate number of male PE teachers in senior positions. On a bleak day it looks and sounds like the school in Kes by Barrie Hines. It is the last place on earth that you would describe as touchy-feely, and yet it has gone to extraordinary lengths to understand and accept my diagnosis of DID.

In June 2010 I turned up, smashed up, at my local Women’s Counselling and Therapy service for an assessment. I had been referred by the NHS Psychiatry Service. They did several hours of testing after which a psychologist told me that they thought I might have a dissociative disorder. I had never heard of dissociation. I had always liked to think of myself as almost supernaturally resilient. However, I read the MIND leaflet in which it says that many people with dissociative disorders manage to hold down responsible jobs and keep their condition secret. Good, I thought. By this stage I was well on the way to losing all contact with my birth family and was bloody determined not to lose my job as well.

After battling my way through the Summer holidays from hell, I turned up to work in early September anticipating a nice undemanding INSET day to start the new term. I was shocked to discover that we were to spend the morning learning about ‘safeguarding’. While my colleagues all groaned good-naturedly, I felt my emotional temperature rising. I was trapped in the middle of a row in the centre of the school hall, unable to escape discreetly. Before I had enough time to do what I do when I feel trapped, Mr Notting said the magic trigger word – ‘confidentiality’. I knew it was about to happen, and then it did. I started to have a seizure just like the ones that I’d been having all Summer. It went on for ages, then stopped and started, again and again. Thankfully those sat around me ignored it completely in a very British way, but I sensed that the questions would start later.

“You never told us you were epileptic, Cathy,” said my Head of Faculty as I was frantically putting posters up in my classroom later on. I mumbled something about non-epileptic seizures and insisted that they were harmless, that the best thing to do was to ignore them. Janet told me that I needed to tell our Deputy Headteacher, Gill Grant, so that she could pass on the relevant details to the First Aid staff – “in case it happens again”.

My heart sank. Gill Grant is the Deputy Headteacher whom you approach if you need to take time off for medical appointments. She knew that I had been involved with safeguarding interviews and Social Services strategy meetings about two members of my family who were being investigated for child abuse. It was a DID person’s worst nightmare – the potential overlapping of two very separate identities: Competent Teacher Cathy and Traumatised Cathy.

I decided to play it cool and opted for the “This is no big deal” strategy. This minimisation worked beautifully. The relevant First Aid staff were informed and I basked contentedly once again in the reassuring rhythm of school life. All was going wonderfully well until …

… disaster struck at the Police’s Guns and Knives talk.

Once a year the local Police visit Luddenbridge High to talk to our 13 and 14-year-olds about the dangers of gun and knife crime. This eagerly-anticipated event lasts for two hours, and takes place during lessons 4 and 5 of the afternoon. If you happen to have a Year 9 class timetabled for either of these two lessons, you have to go and supervise the talk in the main hall. This is what we in the teaching profession call ‘a bargain’. I was so chuffed at the prospect of missing lesson 5, the last dreary lesson of the day with my bottom set class, that I hadn’t registered the subject of the talk at all. I casually strolled into the hall and was instantly unnerved by the atmosphere. The children were absolutely riveted as the police demonstrated their prowess with all manner of scary implements including Taser guns. They shot at a mango to show what would happen to the human brain if pierced by a bullet. They played video clips of police dogs chasing and mauling criminals, and told stories of the dire consequences of messing around with BB guns. The whole performance was incredibly loud and macho. How could I help but be triggered by all of it? There was only one thing for it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I slowly sank into a lovely, warm, euphoric “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” trance.

The next thing I knew I was on the floor in the dark surrounded by police officers. My terror of the police kicked in and I started to jerk uncontrollably. I was carried away into the First Aid room and switched in and out of consciousness for some time before I was able to realise what had happened. The police had staged a raid. The lights had suddenly gone off and police officers had charged in with guns shouting loudly from the back of the hall behind me. Not good at all for my exaggerated startle response! When I finally came round properly I felt unable to move, as though my body wasn’t connected to me. I listened as my colleagues joked about how the children had seen it all and what should we tell them by way of explanation. Low blood pressure? Menière’s Disease? In the end I opted to tell them that it was all part of the act – that the police had in fact paid me to pretend to pass out to add to the drama of the occasion. They believed me.

Unfortunately the Senior Management team weren’t to be fobbed off quite so easily. They saw my robotic movements as I struggled to walk and insisted on calling my husband to drive me home. They saw my helplessness, confusion and bewilderment. None of us knew it at that time, but they saw Cathy aged four. When I turned up for work the following day, my stomach lurched as I was called into Gill Grant’s office. To my amazement she told me that the police were very concerned that they had caused my ‘episode’ and that I might want to pursue a case against them! She suggested that I might want to talk to a police officer about it. Not bloody likely, I thought. I felt that she was waiting for some kind of explanation, so I told her that I have an ‘illness’ which involves an exaggerated startle response. We agreed that in future we may need to consider more carefully my participation in extra-curricular activities. And that was that. Phew.

But the real pièce de résistance was yet to come. It happened the day after I had taken part in a church investigation into my brother, who is a Catholic priest. I had managed the interview predictably well, as I find it very easy to rattle off the story of my past. The trouble is that I don’t really believe that it happened to me. So I went into work early the next morning and was sat at my desk planning my lessons when in strolled Gill Grant, who shares my room with me.

“Hello, Cathy, how are you?” she said. I remember feeling dizzy, as if a dense fog had descended. “Who?” I replied. “How are you?” she continued. My 12-year-old part aggressively responded, “Why don’t you just f*** off and leave me alone?”

And she very sensibly did.

I hid away in my classroom. It helps a lot that my 12-year-old part does not perceive children as threatening, so I managed to keep her at bay for the remainder of the day, but we had a departmental meeting after school, and out she popped again. So I sat in the meeting, glowering and hostile, bored senseless by all the conversation, refusing to take part and desperate to leave.

That’s when things got serious. The game was up. Unbeknown to me, there had been a senior teacher stationed outside my room for the entire school day. Gill told me later that it had been frightening, that she had seen somebody else in my body, someone totally different from the good-natured, cheerful, dependable Cathy, someone who was possibly not capable of being responsible for 30 children. As I sat in her office I remembered what I was already learning in therapy – if you want to get better, you have to start taking control. My super-competent 18-year-old ‘part’ did just that.

I revealed that I had been recently diagnosed with a Dissociative Disorder. I explained that it was a mental illness, that I was now classed as a vulnerable adult and that Mr Notting (safeguarding) needed to be informed. I explained about my fragmented ‘parts’. I told her that I wanted to prepare an information sheet to be given to all the senior teachers and all members of my department, so that they could understand my condition and help me to stay safe at work. She listened carefully and said that I should come back when it was ready.

I was extremely honest about my needs when writing my document. Thankfully I managed to dissociate all my shame and embarrassment because of the urgency of the situation. I used the MIND definition of dissociation. I explained how dissociative disorders develop. I listed my symptoms and the daily challenges I face with memory, disorientation, numbness, disconnectedness, triggers and dysregulation. I identified all of my ‘parts’. I then asked the staff to help me to continue working by watching out for the warning signs (avoidance of adults and the staffroom, reluctance to engage in conversation, robotic movements, childlike gestures); by speaking to me quietly and avoiding startling me whenever possible; by helping me to find my ‘rock of reality’ which I like to hold when I’m trancing out; by understanding that I’m not actually being rude when I experience identity alteration; and above all else by reminding me constantly of all deadlines and important dates over and over again.

Hilariously I put in bold type at the end of the document:


Little did I know …

I took my information sheet to Gill and she distributed it amongst those colleagues that we agreed needed to know. She then showed me some small laminated cards that she had prepared for me to give to a pupil in my lessons if I felt unsafe. The cards would be taken to the school reception and a cover teacher would instantly be sent to my classroom so that I could leave quickly. It is now standard practice in most schools that children with anger management issues have a card permitting them to leave lessons if they feel they need to cool down. I like to think that I am the only teacher in the UK with their very own ‘Time Out’ card!

Sue told me that one of the issues of greatest concern to the Senior Management team was me driving. So we decided that she could call either my husband, Jack, or my in-laws if she felt that I was unsafe to drive home. She also suggested that she should contact Jack if they noticed any disturbing behaviour, so that we could work together to help keep me safe. I struggled hugely with this idea, but we came to a compromise whereby she could go ahead and do that, but not without informing me first.

In December I was sectioned and taken to a place of safety (a room on a psychiatric ward) following a dissociative episode in a public place. I was quickly allowed to go home, but was shaken and unsafe to drive for quite a while afterwards. I was determined not to have any time off work, so I obtained a fit note from my GP to request that my working hours could be amended. Jack drove me to school and we met with Gill Grant to discuss what this might actually mean in practice. The first thing she said was, “We just want Cathy to feel as safe as possible when she is at work. We will do whatever we can to make her feel safe.” This moved me to tears – which is quite an achievement for someone as dissociated as I was at the time! She said that I could arrive late to school if that meant that I could be driven. As I was unsure how I would feel in the classroom, she arranged (at considerable expense) for all my lessons to be covered by another teacher for the subsequent two weeks if necessary. As it happened, just knowing that that safety net was there meant that I never actually had to use it.

As a result of my admission to hospital I was given an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist who assessed me as having DID. She very honestly said that she didn’t have a clue what to do with me. Since I had written so emphatically on my information sheet that I did not have DID, I felt it was only right to tell the Headteacher of Luddenbridge High that I now did. He went very pale, but when I reassured him by saying, “Nothing has changed – I am still the same person … or, well, maybe people … that I was yesterday”, he couldn’t help smiling.

There are times when the shame monster rears his ugly head and I really struggle with walking around school feeling that I am constantly under surveillance. I recently received a phone call at work from my Care Co-ordinator telling me that the NHS would not fund any more therapy. That’s when my colleague Bill found my four-year-old part hiding under a table in the staffroom. I remember him coming to sit under the table too. I also remember the intense shame of returning to work the next day, but we’d come this far now and giving up was out of the question. As my wise therapist says, “You don’t have to like it.”

I love my job with a passion and continue to thrive on working at Luddenbridge High, where my contract has just been extended and made permanent. There is of course a very humorous side to all of our coping strategies. It’s not an office job where you can retreat quietly if things are looking shaky. It is essential that I am rushed out of the way immediately if I switch – or it would soon be noticed by the most unforgiving of audiences. There isn’t much space for tact and sensitivity! So at the first hint of a warning sign, it’s action stations. I have a very organic relationship with my department – we develop new ideas as I progress in therapy. The next thing my therapist would like me to do is to train my colleagues in grounding techniques so that they can use them if I seem to be trancing out in meetings or in the staffroom.

And the pupils? Well, they make me laugh. They force me to feel. And there can be no greater grounding experience than being confronted by 30 ‘too cool for school’ teenagers. Your only choice is the here and now. And sometimes, just sometimes, a cheerful “Wassup Miss?” is exactly what I need to hear when I’m feeling half a world away.