The dissociative fog granted me sixty minutes of cosy confusion. I’m going to be off work, I thought dreamily, settling back into the sofa. Mr Blackwood, the Head, called me at home and said so. How lovely. I don’t have to get up at six tomorrow morning. Or the morning after. ‘Between five and ten days,’ Mr Blackwood said. Until I see the Occupational Health Doctor. And it’s fine because I’ve not done anything wrong. ‘Non-
‘Can’t do what?’ I said, suddenly worrying. What have they actually done to me? And then it came to me. What nobody was saying. ‘Oh my god, Iona, have I been suspended?’ My head was spinning. ‘Non-
Iona came through the doors of Starbucks beaming at 4.30pm the next day. She cut to the chase. Number one: I wasn’t about to lose my job. Number two: I definitely, absolutely and categorically had not been suspended. Had I been an emotionally healthy person I would have shed tears of relief. Instead I was confused. ‘What the hell’s going on? Why am I not at work? I don’t get it.’
She was soothing. Mr Blackwood likes me and he knows that I work hard and that I am a good teacher. Always at my desk. Zero absence record. ‘It’s all to do with HR. It’s back-
‘And the “concerns”? Did he tell you what the “concerns” are?’
She glanced down. ‘No. He just went a bit red in the face and started spluttering. I got the impression that it was something he wanted to discuss with you in private.’ The very thought sent a shudder down my spine, palpable enough to be felt by Iona. ‘Oh God, no, not like that!’ she reassured. He’s just concerned for you, that’s all. I don’t know why but I’ve got a feeling it’s something to do with Nettie or Emma, maybe.’
I seized upon his ‘concern’ for me. That would be about right. In my mind Mr Blackwood has always been a Good Man. He made an excellent first impression back in 2009 when he offered me the position of part-
Then one day in May 2010 at 7.30am, my 12-
So it made sense that Mr Blackwood was ‘concerned for me’ and I would have relaxed if it had not been for Iona’s comment about Nettie (my Head of Faculty) and Emma (Head of French). Had they gone to see the Head about me behind my back? Why? Was I in some kind of trouble I knew nothing about? The possibilities were limitless and I suddenly found myself with lots of time for speculation, because the next available slot with Occupational Health was four weeks away.
For the first time I began to think about what the staff at Luddenbridge was making of my absence. What had Nettie told my colleagues about my sudden disappearing act? What had the Senior Leadership Team heard? And the children? Four weeks was too long for flu but too short for cancer. To my fury, Nettie told everyone I was off with ‘stress’. I explained very carefully to her that I was not ill. On the day I was sent away from school, I had seen a GP who had declared me 100% fit to work. Nettie’s response was that there was ‘no shame in being off with stress’.
I felt totally powerless. I threw myself into creating meticulous work plans and resources for my classes which I e-
At first glance I almost wrote off ‘Tom the Ewok’. He seemed like yet another nice but ineffectual Mental Health Male. But then he spoke and it changed everything. He was hilariously mischievous. There was nothing earnest about him. He was camp and playful, witty and irreverent—but above all he was 100% grounded in the reality of living with mental health problems. Tom explained that what I was experiencing happens all the time to people like me at work. It’s called ‘gardening leave’. Employers panic in the face of mental health issues and find the only way to stay in control is to send the employee away, often—as in my case—with no explanation.
The mistake I was making, according to Tom, was thinking that I was powerless. He told me that I could call the shots from now on. For the past four years I had been living with a disability that my employers have known about and chosen to ignore. John Blackwood should have sent me to Occupational Health as soon as I shared my diagnosis with him four years ago, to find out how the school could best support me to carry on working safely. And all this could have and should have happened with my full consent and without me being banished needlessly from the workplace.
I was overwhelmed by the choices Tom began to throw at me. Did I want to go back to work straight after the Occupational Health Process, or did I want to take some additional time to recover? Did I want a phased return? What reasonable adjustments did I want? Should we hold my ‘Return to Work’ interview at Luddenbridge, at my house, or did I want the Head to come to my local Mental Health Unit instead?
I couldn’t believe it. There I was, sitting in an Ikea armchair in the very same small room where I’d endured those excruciating ‘assessments’ with Dr Ifan the Ponytail Man. But now the NHS had truly gone from Zero to Hero! My new pal Tom wouldn’t just come with me to my Occupational Health appointment, he would pick me up in his special pink two-
At long last the OH appointment came. The rotund and pompous-
‘No, I don’t tend to shrink like Mrs Pepperpot,’ I replied.
I was going to enjoy this. I battled my way through a forty minute-
‘So, I understand you’re not at work at the moment?’ he asked. I shook my head. ‘Because you’ve been suspended on Medical Grounds.’
‘No,’ I replied firmly. ‘I have definitely not been suspended. Mr Blackwood said so.’
Dr Foole turned to me and smiled. ‘And I can assure you that you have indeed been suspended on medical grounds. That’s why you’re here.’
The pantomime chorus of ‘Oh no, I haven’t!’ was cut short by the doctor standing up and opening the door. ‘I expect you’ll be wanting to see a copy of your report before I send it to HR?’
The three of us huddled in the car park. Iona reassured me that the Head wouldn’t lie. All I could think about was getting back to work as soon as possible, to put an end to all this craziness. John Blackwood had told Iona that the OH report could be faxed through to him and I’d be back in the classroom by the end of the week. Tom guffawed at his naivety, telling me to expect to be off for at least another three weeks. I was devastated.
Every day I willed the document to arrive, watching out for the postman through the window. The beige CONFIDENTIAL envelope would be the passport back to my job and my self-
Before reading more, I called the Department for Workplace Health and Wellbeing and explained that I hadn’t been suspended and I did not want that word on my record. The secretary sighed, checked my referral and agreed that there was no mention of suspension on it. She said I could request that Dr Foole amend the report but, given that he only works every other Friday, this could take some time. Meera rang Tom who said I should definitely insist on an amendment, so I did. Then something changed in my mind.
From that moment, my absence became my fault. I was trapped again. It had been seven weeks now. And I was letting everyone down. Everyone would be very angry with me: my classes, their parents, Nettie, Emma, Carl Jenkins, and, most of all, Mr Blackwood. Iona fully supported my request for amendment. The ridiculousness of the phrases ‘emotional lapses’, ‘tendencies to daydream’ and ‘hysteria’ were tolerable as they were just the language of a sexist bigot but ‘suspension’ was a lie that would be there on my record forever.
Another three weeks later the amendment arrived. The only change that he had made was that the first sentence now read: ‘On 8th November 2013 I examined Mrs Le Roux who had been (word deleted at patient’s request) on Medical Grounds for four weeks.’
I didn’t know where to turn. Therapy sessions with Psychodynamic Suzie felt like boxing matches. If I tried to talk about what was happening to me it made me doubt my sanity still further. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that they’re doing this for your own good, because they genuinely care for you?’ she’d ask, followed by, ‘You seem to be suspicious of anyone who tries to help you.’ Then she would sigh dramatically, and declare: ‘I think you’re obsessing about the work situation because you are incapable of thinking about what’s happening between us, in here.’ Ugh.
John Blackwood began to leave phone messages and e-
‘Perhaps we should begin by establishing why it is that I’m not at work at the moment.’
The Head blushed. ‘Well, several members of staff came to see me and we were all concerned about you, Cathy, and one said that she was frightened, and then there was the sleeping tablet issue, so we called HR and they said…’
Geoff from the union interjected. ‘Can I just clarify something? Is this a Disciplinary Hearing?’
‘No, no it isn’t,’ smiled the Head.
‘And I haven’t been suspended?’ I pushed.
‘No, no of course not. We’ve been really careful to avoid using that vocabulary and to make sure none of it’s on your file.’
‘So could you please tell me what the specific concerns were that prompted this action? Who was frightened and why?’
The Head shifted uncomfortably. ‘I don’t think now is the time to go into that…’
By this time Carl Jenkins, the Deputy Head, was extremely red and visibly perspiring. ‘You see, they were only raised the day before Cathy told us about the sleeping tablet. We didn’t have time to discuss them with her.’
‘So you still haven’t told Mrs Le Roux about these concerns?’ prodded Geoff, leaning forwards.
‘No,’ said the Head, ‘not as yet.’
Geoff was remarkably restrained in his response. ‘Well, there’s clearly a real communication problem here. I mean, surely Mrs Le Roux deserves to know the reason why she’s been…well…away from work?’
More uncomfortable shuffling from the Head and then, ‘Look, I’m not sure it’s useful to dwell too much on the past…It’s been over two months. Things are getting chaotic in Languages. We need to get Cathy back into the classroom ASAP…oh and for her sake too. It’s not good for anyone to be absent so long. Let’s talk about this amended Occupational Health report…’
Oh don’t start me on the report. ‘Well, I feel that the “amended” first line still clearly implies that I’ve been suspended,’ I barked.
‘Well of course “Medical Suspension” is the technical term,’ clarified the Head. Ah yes, the technical term. That makes it all alright then doesn’t it…except…except…
‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘Do you mean to say that I have in fact been suspended?’
The Head nodded apologetically with perhaps a hint of embarrassment. ‘Yes, I’m afraid you have but we didn’t want to upset you. I can see now I’ve rather complicated matters…’
‘And delayed things considerably!’ said Geoff, almost triumphantly. ‘Mr Blackwood’—he spoke to him, ironically, like a teacher to a naughty child—‘you can’t suspend someone and not tell them about it. There needs to be formal written notification, the right to appeal …’
The Head seemed a little caught in the headlights and appealed directly to me: ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll agree, Cathy, that you don’t want those words on your record.’
‘I just want to know what I did wrong,’ I said. I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was the naughty one here.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Mr Blackwood responded, presumably trying to reassure me. ‘Look, this absence won’t appear on your file at all. It’ll be as if it never happened.’
‘You mean,’ I said slowly, ‘we’re going to dissociate this? Collectively.’
The Head smiled. What a good word. ‘Well, yes, I suppose so. We were just worried about you.’
‘Then why did nobody come and talk to me? I was just really struggling with my classes. If someone had asked me…’
‘Yes,’ said Meera, coming to life for the first time. ‘Why didn’t anyone simply ask Cathy if she was okay? If she needed any help? Surely suspension has to be a last resort, not the first one?’
Mr Blackwood’s outline began to wobble and a wave of nausea hit me. I needed to get away from everyone, to be safe. I disappeared inside myself, folding up smaller and smaller, sinking down deeper and deeper. I could still hear the voices talking but they were no more connected to me than the ticking of the clock on the wall. Tom suggested we get a report from my psychiatrist to override the OH report. Carl Jenkins said that he was sorry things had worked out this way.
And so on 18th January 2014 I went back to work and the following statement was read out to the Modern Languages Faculty, the Pastoral Heads and the Senior Leadership Team at Luddenbridge Comprehensive School:
‘On 16th October 2013, John Blackwood suspended Cathy le Roux on medical grounds. The sole reason for this suspension was a generalised feeling of helplessness on the part of two well-
It was all in their head.