The Itchy and Scratchy show

I don’t know if it’s even possible to convey the exquisitely intense agony that is a an allergic skin reaction out of control. If you have never had more than the odd mozzie bite, the idea of a half of your skin (the largest organ in your body) covered with itchy welts must make approximately as much sense as zapping off to the moon on your lunch break. Not something you can really understand, much less imagine.

Nonetheless, for the sake of trying to distract what remains of my mind from the fiendish screaming of the nerve endings all along my arms, I am going to try. This, you understand, is the easy end of the allergic reaction. It started almost a week ago and within 24 hours had covered my body, so that I looked as though I was in the early stages of elephantiasis. At that point my entire body was itchy, and much of my skin was swollen. Now it’s just my arms. Hallelujah.

But what does it feel like to get to the point where you are seriously considering removing your entire epidermis with a cheese grater, or possibly some coarse grade sand paper?

First there is the heat. Where the welts rise, the heat radiating off my skin could easily fry an egg, I’m sure. In the cold weather we’ve got now in my part of the world, this may be considered a bonus. I can always rely on my husband’s cold hands to provide some temporary relief.

It’s crucial to stay cold – actually getting warm, or being anywhere near a heat source, causes the itching to flare and my skin starts to glow a molten red. I try to rub rather than scratch, so as not to draw blood or leave scars, but despite that my skin is becoming increasingly tender from the constant friction. People tell me not to scratch, but half the time I don’t even know I am doing it. So I try to stay cold without actually courting pneumonia. It’s a fine line.

The itching itself is exquisite agony. It feels as though a thousand microscopic ants are crawling all over my skin. It feels as though each nerve ending is being continuously electrically stimulated. It feels as though I have clawed through my sanity. Rubbing provides an ecstatic counterpoint to the itching by temporarily overwhelming the nerve endings with a different sensation. Unfortunately it turns out that it’s impossible to rub every part of your skin simultaneously.

And then there is the look of the thing. I look like either a plague carrier or a victim of horrific burns. People have begun backing away from me in public places. I am an object lesson used to scare kiddies. “That’s what will happen if you keep scratching that mozzie bite!” or “That’s what you’ll look like if you don’t wash your hands!”

I don’t need to say “Boo!”, I just wave my hideous arms at them.

I can’t sleep, driven mad by the ceaseless stimulation, the feeling that something, or a million somethings, are constantly crawling all over me.

It is driving me out of my mind (never a long trip at the best of times). And yet it is just a rash. I’ve experienced chronic pain and I’d take the itching any day. It’s not life threatening, nor permanently disfiguring (I hope), and it is slowly getting better. So many people are coping with so much worse even as I type.

So now that I have given you some small idea of how I feel, it’s time to focus on the positives. On the people who get it. The students who ask if I’m ok. The colleagues who sympathise. My family who are putting up with my itchy, scratchy, twitchy temper. And to remember that even when we think we are alone in a hell of our own devising, there are people noticing and caring, if we will only let them.

Strength in Numbers

Allowing someone to help you is a curious experience. It is at once humbling, uplifting, and a surprisingly poignant bonding opportunity.

I am pretty sure I’m not alone in finding it very difficult to accept the help of others. For nearly two weeks I have been hobbling about on crutches, and reflexively saying “No thanks, I’m fine,” every time someone offers to help. Which is crazy, because there are some things that simply can’t be done on crutches – like carrying a cup of tea – and I work in a place where offers of help fall like snow in a blizzard. I love that I can’t lurch more than a few steps around my building without fending off half a dozen “is there something I can do?”s.

But there it is. I fend them off. I’ve written before about how accepting the help of others is good for everyone. It builds relationships and communities, and makes it easier for others to accept our help when they need it. It makes everyone feel better. There is no real downside. So I don’t understand why it can be so hard to say “thanks, if you could carry this bag for me it would be great!” or “I’d love a cup of tea.”

This week I’ve been making a conscious effort to accept more of those offers. Generally they are a minor effort on the part of the helper, and a great relief to me – like a student carrying printouts to class for me, or a colleague getting my lunch out of the microwave and bringing it over to the table. It has made life a lot easier, which is a fine thing when life is stressful both from crutches and wanting to claw my skin off as a result of a massive allergic reaction.

And praise will come to those whose kindness
leaves you without debt
and bends the shape of things to come
that haven’t happened yet
Neil Finn – Faster than Light

But why should it be such an effort? Why are we so determined to be independent and pretend to be invulnerable? Last night I offered help to a friend who will shortly need it, and she listed all the reasons why she wouldn’t really need help. She was prepared, she would be fine. And I have no doubt that she will be. But if I can push past the “I’m fines” and actually do something for her, it will help us both, build on our friendship, and make us feel a little more supported and a little more connected.

Recently a friend called and asked if we could take her kids to gym so that she could do kinder duty with her youngest, and I was thrilled. I frequently offer to do this kind of thing, as Andrew and I are lucky to be able to arrange our schedules so that there is always one of us available to do the school pick up and the drop off. But it’s rare that anyone takes us up on it. So it was delightful to feel that sense of connection and trust that comes with being able to do something for someone else. I have no doubt she would return the favour in an instant if we needed it and she was able to.

I think we place too much weight on being able to cope alone. We drive to and from work one person to a car, despite the environmental and social benefits of car pooling, because we don’t want to be a burden on anyone else, or to wait for anyone else. We become increasingly inflexible the more we do things alone. We build high fences and rarely speak to our neighbours. We don’t stop and chat to people in the street, because we are always hurtling down it in steel boxes with stereos blaring. On those rare instances we are out and about we have headphones in, discouraging interaction with the world and taking us out of the present moment.

We are a fundamentally social species. So many of our physiological responses are geared towards human interaction. We get oxytocin boosts from touch or even a shared smile that calm us and make us feel happier and more connected. And yet we constantly drive ourselves to stand apart, be independent, and cope alone, as though there will be prizes at our funerals for how little we leant on anyone else.

Which is sad, because I am pretty sure our funerals are delayed – just a little – every time we accept someone’s help.

Teaching – Why I won’t suck it up

Last night I posted this to facebook: “and for today’s $64,000,000 question: is it possible to teach in a satisfying, rewarding and effective way without feeling crippled by the workload?”

A touch on the self-indulgent, self-pitying side. Bit of a first world problem, you might say. The status attracted this comment: “So breathe, smile, suck it up and remember how lucky you are to be able to choose.” My friend also pointed out that I was almost certainly trying to do a full time job as a half time employee, and this was a life choice.

My first response to being told to suck it up is never pretty – particularly when I suspect it’s justified. But then I thought about the whole idea of  sucking it up. Essentially that means “sit down, shut up, stop complaining and appreciate where you are.” And it occurred to me that there are times when sucking it up is a bad idea. In the case of my toe, sure, it’s time I did suck it up and stop sooking about it. And certainly I am lucky – I love my job and am passionate about it. I have an awesome workplace and the students are astounding. I am incredibly lucky to be where I am, and that’s nothing to complain about.

But in the case of a typical teaching workload, I think it’s time we stopped sucking it up. It’s when we spit it out that we effect change. And if spitting it out only means that I talk, blog and tweet about how hard teachers work, that in itself may eventually change a few perceptions around what teachers do. There are still people out there who think teaching is a great family job – after all, you work 9-3:30, you only work during the school term, and the rest of the time is your own, right? (My apologies to all the teachers out there who are now turning purple and emitting steam from their ears.)

Last time I blogged about teaching it attracted a comment from a recent graduate about how unattractive the picture I painted of the teaching profession was to aspiring teachers. John complained that I made it look as though being obsessed with your work, having no work life balance and working yourself into an early grave was the only way to be a good teacher. “Are you not simply perpetuating the idea that to be a “good teacher” you need to work so hard it leads to burnout?”  

Unfortunately, under our current conditions, this is what it takes to be a teacher, as far as I can see. An experienced teacher for whom I have great respect replied to my facebook status with ” Nope the crippling workload comes with the job.”

But does it have to?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.

At my school a full time teacher teaches 14 periods per week. Our periods are 75 minutes long, which leaves just 5 periods per week to do all planning, marking, meetings, and extra student help. Most of the teachers I know are running extra activities most, if not all lunchtimes, and after school. They run extra-curricular activities, workshops for struggling students, and extension activities for advanced students. They stay late for exhibition nights, sports competitions, meetings, parent information nights, parent teacher interviews, musical performances and productions of various types. They stay late and arrive early to give students extra help. And in and around all of that they fit in all of the marking and preparation that never gets done during the school day, on laptops they have paid for themselves.

During the last round of negotiations the union “fought off” an attempt by the government to increase our workloads, but it has finally dawned on me that we need to do more than fight off higher workloads. We need to talk about what we do. We need to show the doubters how hard we work, and we need to fight for a lower workload, just to give us time to do justice to each and every student.

I teach a year 11 IT class of 26 kids, and every student is at a different stage in his or her learning. If I teach one middle of the road course then at least half of my students will fall by the wayside. So I put everything I have into providing options for every student – and I don’t always get it right. But the more time I have, the better the resources I can provide, the more I can differentiate the curriculum to meet everyone’s needs. Every week it comes back to the same problem – I just don’t have time to do it properly.

Before I was a teacher I had great respect for them, but no real clue about how hard they work. Nobody wants to be labelled a whinger, and we don’t have time or energy to go on about the workload anyway. And sure, every profession has its dead weights. Everyone is ready to tell a story about a teacher who didn’t bother. But maybe it’s time to start spreading the stories about the teachers who work themselves to the edge of burnout and beyond. Maybe we can change the world to the point where teachers are given precious time to do their jobs without burning the candle – and themselves – at both ends.

Martin Luther King once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

I think this matters. So I am not going to suck it up. It’s time to spit it out!

Time for nothing

Gluten free bread, for those of you who have not experienced it, tends to be dry and crumbly. It can be lovely fresh from the oven, but the loveliness rarely lasts for even 24 hours. After that it is only good for toast. Fortunately a bakery near us does wonderful gluten free bread that is almost as good as real bread, but for some reason they always slice it very thinly, so that when toasted it becomes excessively crunchy and dry. Periodically I order a few loaves unsliced and stash them in our freezer, so that I can slice it myself and make it thick enough for a really tasty wodge of toast. (Thank you, computer, but “wodge” is too a word, so nyer.)

Yesterday as I was slicing off my morning toast it occurred to me that pre-sliced bread is something of a mixed blessing. A really thick wodge of toast is a very lovely thing that most of us never see any more, as we sacrifice this small luxury for the convenience of being able to shove a thin spongy thing into the toaster as we fly through the morning routine, getting ready to rush out the door. Slicing my own bread takes, maybe, 30 seconds, yet before I went gluten free I almost never bothered to buy unsliced bread. Which is a shame, because a thick wodge of toast is the best thing since sliced bread.

There are a lot of devices in our lives designed to save us time. Our houses overflow with the things. Dish washers, washing machines, dryers, power mowers, microwaves, food processors, computers, and even cars – each new model guaranteed to be faster, more powerful and, importantly, shinier than the last.

Yet so many of the devices come with a cost. We speed down the road in our cars so that we can squeeze in a trip to the gym to regain the fitness we have lost by driving everywhere. Our power mowers wreck our ears, our lungs and the environment, and ultimately save us very little time, since hand mowers these days are remarkably fast and effective. Ours must be at least 15 years old now, and it still does our lawn fast, quietly, and above all safely. (Although I did fall backwards onto our old one once, obtaining the worst bruising of my life on my lower back and buttocks in an act of clumsiness that will not surprise regular readers. On the bright side nothing was severed, as it undoubtedly would have been had I fallen onto some kind of power mower.)

It is a mystery to me where all this saved time has gone. For all our houses full of time saving devices, we are busier than ever before. Too busy for friends, too busy for family, too busy to stop and chat, too busy for mindful contemplation of our lives. Too busy, it seems, even to breathe deeply and admire the sunset. We ruefully acknowledge the downsides of our busy-ness – “I’m a bad friend. I just haven’t had time to call her.” “I worry I’m not spending enough time with the kids.” “I never get to spend time with my husband.” “Life’s just too busy.”

And you’re rushing headlong
you’ve got a new goal
and you’re rushing headlong
out of control
and you think you’re so strong
but there ain’t no stopping and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Queen, Headlong.

Over the last week I have been on crutches – physically prevented from rushing anywhere. I have been forced to slow down, and in chafing against it I have discovered how much of a habit hurtling has become. I think maybe it is a kind of drug. We seem to feel that time spent doing nothing is time wasted.  And in the process we have forgotten how to breathe.

Maybe it’s time to to spend some of that time we’re saving.

Things that go bump in the daytime

I have it on good authority from an 18 month old friend of mine that crutches are evil and terrifying devices that are not to be trusted. After the last 4 days of self-torture I am inclined to agree, although I have to say that doorways scare me more.

Having broken or severely bruised my second metatarsal some months ago by attempting to rush through a doorway and missing, I have finally given in to the inevitable and spent this week lurching about on crutches to let my poor abused foot heal. It turns out that crutches are trickier than they look (no mean feat, because they look pretty darned tricky to me), and in swinging about my home, my workplace, and everywhere else I rush to in the course of a hectic working week, I seem to have pulled one of my pectoral muscles.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the delightful mechanics of elbow crutches, let me just say that there is one group of muscles particularly crucial to the use of these devices.  This muscle group does not otherwise see a lot in the way of exercise. This group of muscles gets particularly vocal when you start asking them to take your whole body weight as you lurch about. In fact they get so vocal they scream abuse at you and threaten to call their union. If you pull one of them, getting about on elbow crutches becomes all but impossible. Pectoral muscles, meet evil weapons of torture otherwise known as crutches. Crutches, meet pecs. Lin, meet pain.

Today I went to visit a friend for coffee, and managed to wrestle my pecs into submission long enough to lurch from the car into the house, where my friends’ 18 month old twins reacted with utter horror. “What,” they wanted to know, “do you think you are bringing in to the sanctuary of our home? And for God’s sake WHY???”  One of the twins merely regarded me with deep suspicion, but the other was intent on alerting the entire neighbourhood to the appalling evil of these creaky, clanking metal demons, and she howled vociferously until I laid the crutches aside and promised to keep them firmly under control.

She spent the rest of my visit as far away from me as she could get while still keeping a very wary eye on the demons – no longer howling, but quite prepared to sound the alarm if the crutches so much as wobbled. Sadly wobbling is what they do best, and when I picked them up to leave her worst fears were confirmed, and she cowered in the corner, screaming her poor little heart out. I could still hear her as I drove off. What a monster! How could I introduce such nightmarish devices into her home???

I have heard many alarming stories of crutch related drama since I began recklessly wielding them in public, but what amazes me even more than the prevalence of such tales is the number of people who relate horrifying encounters with far more dangerous foes. In admitting to the sadly foolish and graceless way I broke my toe, I have discovered that many people have similar sagas to share, and I have finally recognised the dangers we face in the home: Ferocious Furniture and Aggressive Architecture.

In our home we have largely subdued the ferocious furniture by dint of carefully padding all of the bits that might otherwise leap out and attack me, day or night. Unfortunately the aggressive architecture is much more difficult to control.  Many years ago a wall attacked me so viciously that it nearly broke my nose. We subdued that particular bit of architecture thereafter by ripping it out and putting a staircase there – to serve as a perpetual reminder to other walls. Clearly, though, the walls have joined forces with the door frames to counter attack just when I think I am safe.

These fiendish allies, be they beds and door frames, or couches and walls, rely on our shame and embarrassment to avoid exposure. They destroy our self-esteem and consume our dignity, to ensure that we don’t tell each other about the attacks and so begin to piece together their dastardly plot to take over the world, one metatarsal at a time.

The only thing we can do to foil their plot is to make sure the world knows how very ferocious and aggressive our furniture and architecture really are. It’s time to fess up to our fractures and confess our contusions. So if you have ever survived such an attack, spread the word and say it with me, loud and proud: “I’m such a doofus.”

Speed limited

Over two months ago I was rushing into the study and missed. I kicked the door frame so hard I was pretty sure I had broken my toe. Fortunately it was not nearly as sore as I expected the next morning, so I ignored it and continued hurtling about. Around the same time I was suffering from a heat rash caused by the intense summer heat and a lack of air conditioning in my workplace, so I reluctantly put both the running and the cycling on hold for a while.

During the Easter holidays I attempted to start running again and discovered that my toe was distinctly unimpressed with the idea. Once term 2 began I resumed riding to work and taking the kids to school in our beloved Christiania bike, which together with all the standing and rushing about I do at work, began to take its toll. My foot began to get increasingly sore, and a little poking and prodding indicated that it wasn’t so much the toe as the second metatarsal – the bone in the foot that connects directly to the toe. And it hurt.

Nonetheless, I kept telling myself that there wasn’t much to be done about a foot – that it would simply take its time to heal, and I didn’t have time to see a physiotherapist anyway. During the holidays a friend gave me a hard time about not getting it checked out, and as the pain grew to the point where it was beginning to impact on both my temper and my day, I decided it was time to seek professional advice.

Today I finally saw a physio, who poked and prodded the foot until it was howling in protest (I managed to contain my howls, but I have been appallingly sooky ever since), and said if it didn’t respond to her prodding by Saturday I would need an x-ray. Her opinion was that it is probably a hairline fracture, and I may need crutches for a while, in order to keep the pressure off the toe.

Slow down, you crazy child
you’re so ambitious for a juvenile
but then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?
Where’s the fire? What’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out.
You’ve got so much to do and only so many hours in the day, hey hey.
Vienna, Billy Joel

Suddenly my hurtling is under threat. Even this afternoon, pre x-ray and sans crutches, my foot has been sore enough that I have been choosing to sit still more and dash about less. I am trying to picture my working day – typically characterised by a fair bit of rushing around classrooms, a lot of leaping up and down stairs, and a whole heap of zooming about – curtailed by crutches. For starters, I don’t see how I’m going to manage getting my essential cup of tea into my classrooms. I think I’ll have to get my students to design some kind of anti-gravity tea carrying device. Perhaps I can use the same device to attach my crutches to the side of my bike while I ride to work.

If I am lucky I won’t actually need the crutches, and the foot will sort itself out given time. But perhaps there is something to be learned from my visions of life in foot-protection mode. I’ve spent a lot of this year moving at such high speed that I have failed to notice the world around me. On the bright side that doesn’t give me time to fret about things outside my control, but it also leaves me rather breathless and permanently stressed, with a worse memory even than the string bag I pretended was a mind when I was pregnant.

Ironically, one of the ways I have tried to combat this is using the mindfulness technique of “feeling your feet”, whereby you concentrate on feeling the sensations of your feet and toes as they press against your shoes. How Fate must be laughing. But despite the pain in my foot, feeling my feet is still a good idea. Living in the moment, and such skills as breathing and sitting still, have never been my strengths, but perhaps my foot can remind me that it’s worth slowing down a little to smell the roses from time to time. Or at least to miss the doorway.