It’s strange how in life one single throwaway sentence can dramatically alter your fate, how a few words spoken casually to the wrong person at the wrong time can lead you into worlds you never knew existed. This part of my story is about one such sentence.Should you ever find yourself swimming or indeed sinking in the world of NHS Mental Health Services it won’t be long before someone raises the sensitive issue of ‘Self- Medication.’ Personally I am a great believer in and lover of Medication of all types. When pregnant with my three children there was no mention of Aromatherapy Massage or Hypnotherapy on my ‘Birth Plans’. I wanted the drugs, all of them, as soon as possible, so it wouldn’t hurt—my theory being that life hurts enough without any additional unnecessary pain. As it happened my babies were all born by Caesarian section which allowed me to become acquainted with a plethora of wonderful new drugs which made me feel fantastic. I used to roll their names around my mouth as I sat slumped against the bed-board trying to coax my comatose baby to breastfeed—Voltarol, Diamorphine, Co-codamol—eagerly anticipating the next dose.Since entering my forties I have come to realise that at times almost all of us self-medicate to a greater or lesser extent. By the time you hit middle age, life will almost certainly have thrown some dreadful stuff in your direction, causing you to have to muddle through the best you can using whatever resources you can lay your hands on: food, alcohol, cannabis, whatever works. In addition to the dreadful life stuff, you may also be striving to hold down a stressful job. For instance, teachers are renowned for their tendency to drink several glasses of wine as they settle down to mark exercise books for the evening. Nobody really questions it: it’s just the way life is.

Towards the end of the Summer Term when I first saw my timetable for September 2013 my heart sank. I am by nature a grafter not a grumbler but this was ridiculous. I immediately told my Head of Faculty that the timetable wasn’t viable: there were too many difficult classes. As my brand-spanking new therapist loves to point out I am not as strong as my hard-cased exterior suggests. But most people, and especially most children, take me at face value. Because of this I have a reputation for being good at teaching ‘challenging classes’. I have very few discipline problems— but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find teaching such classes highly stressful and exhausting or that I don’t deserve opportunity to teach the across the full ability range. My complaints were met with frustrating reassurances that I would be ‘fine’ but I wasn’t nearly so sure.

September came and I launched my ‘Don’t –F***–About–with–Me’ campaign. This is arduous, depressing and downright boring. It is so much more complex than it sounds. Looking a bit on the scary side is just the beginning—there are tactical seating plans to devise to keep World War Three at bay; exciting, engaging lessons to plan to hold their attention; illegible books to mark every week to prove that you really do care. And then there are the homeworks that never get done, meaning that I have to spend every lunchtime holding detentions; the endless interruptions during lessons when students walk in 20 minutes late; and the constant entering of data on their behaviour.

By Week Four I had lost my sense of humour. I couldn’t join my colleagues in the Staffroom at lunchtime to let off steam. I deeply resented having to spend every moment of my waking life coping with the legacy of a bunch of tough classes. It was tactfully suggested to me that I might ‘lower my standards’ but the reality was that if I showed even one sign of weakness I would be eaten alive. ‘Going with the flow’, ‘relaxing’, ‘cutting corners’ weren’t an option. I was determined to battle on in the hope that eventually, in about two months time, the DFAWM campaign would pay off and I could relax and begin to enjoy my job once again. I went into survival mode, avoiding contact with anyone who might potentially waste my time, and withdrawing from communicating with my colleagues. It was just me in my classroom with the little f***ers, day in day out.

Stress affects people in many different ways. For me one of the first signs of stress is my old friend Insomnia. I really do have a phenomenal capacity to stay awake all night if necessary in order to torture myself horribly with thoughts of all the ways life could and therefore almost certainly would go wrong. Over the years I have become skilled at managing my sleeplessness with a range of strategies. I do the good stuff: plenty of exercise and fresh air etc., and the not–so–good stuff. The dry mouth side effect of my Amitryptyline makes alcohol very unattractive so winding down with a glass of wine before bed doesn’t appeal. Soooooo—I’m going to say this really fast so it’s over and done with and I won’t have to hear you all tutting—I buy sleeping tablets online and take them when things get really bad.

Now let me assure you that this is not as risky as it sounds. I have taken various prescribed sleeping drugs over the past twenty-five years. I know my psych meds. I am not about to get myself addicted to Benzos, delicious though they may be. They are not readily available in any case. But taking Zopiclone once in a while never did anyone any harm in my opinion. For example taking a Zop once a week the night before the day when I have five relentless hours of the trickiest of classes isn’t going to kill me and may even stop me from killing them. And if you’re wondering why I don’t get them prescribed by my GP, you probably haven’t had the experience of asking a doctor for sleeping tablets recently: they say, ‘No’. They have to.

I am very open with my NHS pals about my sleep-aids. My new therapist, Psychodynamic Suzie, raised an eyebrow when I told her; my Care Co-ordinator Meera didn’t look too impressed; but my psychiatrist didn’t seem remotely concerned so I decided that it would be convenient to go with her judgement. Well, psychiatrists do the meds don’t they? And so Wednesday night became Zop Night, guaranteeing me six to seven hours of blissful sleep before facing the horrors of the following day. (Of course Psychodynamic Suzie thinks I take it because I find her Wednesday therapy sessions so challenging but that’s the Ego of a psychoanalyst for you.) It was the perfect arrangement: a lovely hot bath, a pop of a Zop and off to metallic-flavoured sleep I’d go until the alarm went eight hours later, ready for the working day.

This kind of carried me over until Week Six by which stage I had begun to arrive at work at 8.30am exactly and leave bang on 3.30pm, thus avoiding having to have my feet inside the school building for even one second longer than absolutely necessary. I would hide myself in a toilet cubicle at break time in case anyone tried to find me in my classroom. I was, as Psychodynamic Suzie puts it in her strong Glaswegian accent, ‘ragin, ab–so–loo–tlay ragin’. I was paranoid that the Senior Leadership Team were out to get me, that they could somehow sense what was going on inside my head and were waiting for an opportunity to pounce, so I literally hid when I saw one of them approaching. I would dive into the toilets, hide behind industrial bins or walk an absurdly long way around my building to minimise the risk of meeting a manager head on. Not good.

Then one Thursday morning I came to my senses. I realised that I could no longer sustain the energy necessary to repress the terror that was hitting me instantly each time I crossed over into enemy territory. Although functioning in the classroom pretty much normally, I could feel myself teetering on the edge of Insanity, and so, knowing that I was still just about on the right side of ‘Proper Crazy’ I did something so eminently sensible, so entirely responsible, and so very, very sane that I can barely believe it ever happened at all. I decided to tell someone how I was feeling!!!!

Really, it’s true. Sheila (my shell–suited ex–therapist) would be so proud. I knew that on Thursdays my Head of Faculty and her line manager, the newly appointed ‘Assistant Headteacher’ Mr Woodhouse have a meeting first thing, so I asked her if I could join them and talk to them about how stressed I was feeling at work. She offered to ‘pick me up’ on her way past my classroom and walk to the meeting with me. They normally meet in the MFL Staffroom but today we were to go to Mr Woodhouse’s office. When I went in it felt like we were walking onto a stage—there were two chairs set out ready facing Mr W, and I was guided towards the one furthest from the door. We sat down in silence. It was like the beginning of a therapy session but with two therapists: four eyes on me and that familiar pressure to start talking soon…So I blurted it out: ‘I want to talk to you because I’m feeling very stressed and I’m concerned that I may need to take some time off and I don’t want to do that, so can we talk about how I can manage it please?’

They smiled at me simultaneously. Nettie said that I’d seemed increasingly unhappy and that they were worried about me. I relaxed. These were nice people. They wanted to take care of me. How could I resist?…Mr Woodhouse added that I didn’t seem to be feeling ‘one of the Team’ at the moment. I went on to tell him how overworked I was, how I was tied to my classroom and how Thursdays destroy my will to teach. And then I said it.

‘Yes, things are getting so bad that sometimes on a Wednesday evening I have to take a sleeping tablet.’

I spotted Nettie looking him straight in the eye a fraction before his forehead creased. He leaned towards me and said, ‘Well, Cathy, I have to say that I find that really very worrying.’

I smiled, touched by his concern, but puzzled by it at the same time.

‘And did you drive to school this morning?’ he asked.

I nodded. Of course I’d driven. It was 17 miles from home. I tried to look at Nettie but she turned her head away.

‘I’m just not sure you should be driving to work if you’ve taken this sleeping tablet. Did a doctor prescribe it?’

I shook my head saying, ‘No, but I’ve told the NHS about it. I’ve taken it loads of times and driven. I’ve driven through Spain while taking it. Really, it’s fine.’

Again they exchanged glances. Nettie blushed. I was thinking about all the teachers in the country who had swallowed sleeping pills last night. I just couldn’t take it seriously.

Mr Woodhouse on the other hand looked very serious indeed. Like a man on a mission.

‘Look, Cathy, I’m concerned about this change in medication. I think we need to get this checked out. I’m aware that last Thursday you mentioned to a senior teacher that you couldn’t think straight. Had you taken a sleeping tablet the night before?’

Last Thursday…Oh yes, Lesson Five. Jane Headley had come in to collect a child for detention. I’d been a bit short with her: it must have been the fifth interruption that lesson. I’d e-mailed her later to apologise, saying that by Lesson Five on a Thursday I’m so tired I can’t think straight.

I glared at him. Who could think straight in those circumstances? ‘Yes, but this was three o’clock in the afternoon. There’s no way that was because of the sleeping tablet.’

I could see that his mind was made up but nothing could have prepared me for what was about to take place. ‘I want you to go and see your GP and talk to him about exactly how this sleeping tablet affects you.’

‘OK. I’ll make an appointment.’

‘No, Cathy. I want you to go home now.’

It was nine thirty in the morning. All my lessons for the day were laid out meticulously on the desk in my classroom. All that work…


He nodded. I stood up, but he told me to sit down again. ‘Cathy, I can’t let you drive home. If anything ever happened to you I’d never forgive myself. Now, can I have your car key please?’

I was so shocked that I just handed it over. Everything started to blur around me. I turned to Nettie to ask her what she made of all this and then it all became horribly clear. Of course, it was a two-pronged attack. A Trap.

Mr Woodhouse tried to phone my father-in-law and when that failed said that he was going to contact my husband Mark. I told him that Mark was Head of Teaching and Learning at our local university, that he had a day to be getting on with and might not be instantly available. I also told him that Mark did not have a car. He cycled to work.

And so it came to pass that Mark had to leave his meeting and cycle the seventeen miles to school suited and booted. He arrived sweating and panic-stricken: they had not told him the reason why he had to come to collect me. As soon as he entered Mr Woodhouse’s office I switched off. Through the fog I remember Mark’s fury when he found out why they were sending me home; being escorted to collect my things from my classroom and led to my car; seeing a random GP in the NHS Walk-in who laughed and declared me 100% fit for work.

My landline started ringing at five o’clock that evening.

‘Hello, Cathy. This is John Blackwood here. We’ve had a meeting about you and we’ve decided that you need to stay away from work now until we get the Occupational Health report published.’

I gulped. The Headteacher. ‘Is is about the sleeping tablet?’ I asked

‘Yes. Yes it is’. He coughed.

‘Well, that’s all been sorted now. I saw my GP today and he says I’m 100% fit to work.’

‘Yes, but there are other concerns.’

‘Not at nine-thirty this morning there weren’t. I was told to go home to see a doctor and that’s what I did. Nobody has ever told me anything about any “other concerns”.’

‘Well there is, I mean, there are. Anyway there’s no need to go into all that now. You just stay at home until the Occupational Health appointment comes through. Should be between five and ten days. We just want to have things in place for you, especially now with your psychoanalysis and all that. We want you back in the classroom as soon as possible as you’re a very good teacher. Of course, it’s on full-pay and it’s not disciplinary.’

Very good teacher. Full-pay. Not disciplinary. The words didn’t make any sense to me, so I stepped further into my dissociative fog. I had a strange but familiar feeling that this wasn’t really happening…