If I’d slowed down to ask for help before my crisis point, I could have avoided my nervous breakdown.

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Illustration by Bailey Mariner

I was hired for a teaching job on August 9. School started on August 10.

I’d experienced the stress of a new school year before, but always with more time to prepare. There was a curriculum to line up, new school policies to adapt to, and a bare-bones classroom to decorate in time for the arrival of my students.

It felt normal for me to feel anxious about the new job.

I was working with a younger population than I was used to — I’d taught at a university, but was going to be working with middle schoolers. I was going back to teaching in person, complete with COVID-19 protocols and sanitation practices, after a year of teaching remotely. And of course I was going to have to spend some time catching up before I would find my footing in the new environment.

But what wasn’t normal to me was the way the stress compounded after school started. Every day, I sunk a little deeper.

It felt like I was an old Warner Brothers cartoon character, desperately placing tracks in front of a train that couldn’t stop. I was spending every hour I could (from waking up at 5:30 a.m. to the time I’d try to crawl into bed at 9:30 p.m.) trying to build up a reservoir of lesson plans, grade an influx of assignments, or design posters for my classroom walls.

After 3 weeks of skipping meals and losing sleep worrying about the job, I was completely overwhelmed. I began to feel faint on my feet at work, I had a hard time putting coherent thoughts together, and, by the end of each day, all I could do was drive home and crawl into bed.

My anxiety, which had always hung around in the back of my brain, edged into every waking moment, and my thoughts turned to ways to escape the fever pitch.

It was 3 a.m. I hadn’t been able to stomach much more than an apple in days, and I’d been up for 3 nights in a row quietly panicking. Deep breaths, which I practiced with my students during testing, weren’t working to slow down thoughts of doubt and dread.

As my mood worsened, I turned over in bed and thumbed into my phone the information needed to book an appointment on a virtual therapy app (even as the app warned me that therapy was a long-term solution, not the short-term fix I was looking for).

I matched with a therapist, set an appointment for the following week, and tried again to fall asleep.

I survived the lead-up to my appointment. Thanks in no small part to the kindness of my colleagues, I was beginning to get a grip on the school’s population, and the extra effort I’d put in to prepare my classroom felt like it was panning out.

The only problem: I still felt ill.

Despite starting to eat again and even catching sleep, I was physically exhausted and had to sit through several of my classes, directing activities from my desk. Every day, with my mood improving, my body was beginning to slow down.

At the time, I thought I just still wasn’t getting enough sleep. I took a day off, drank plenty of water, and slept on and off for 14 hours. Naively, I returned to school the next day, feeling refreshed and even optimistic about my job for the first time.

But then, on the same day as my therapy appointment, I reached a breaking point. Running on fumes but filled with what felt like mania, I ended the school day faint and collapsed on the hot Florida parking lot pavement.

Hallucinating, overwhelmed by stimulus, and unwilling to talk to emergency services when they arrived, I was Baker Acted (involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health concerns). I never made it to my therapy appointment.

In 6 days of psychological evaluation in a COVID-19 isolation ward, I had a lot of time to think about how I could have gotten the help I needed earlier.

For one, I could have reached out to friends and colleagues earlier for help. In the college teaching environment, thinking of myself as competent and capable, I’d falsely internalized that every instructor is an island.

But in the stress of my new job, I didn’t need to work through all my problems alone. I had coaches, teaching leads, and administrators I should have spoken with about the difficulties I was having. Their experiences and guidance could have helped me get a handle on things.

But perhaps, more importantly, I could have gotten professional mental health help as soon as I knew that my stress and anxious thoughts weren’t typical.

Everyone has a baseline level of stress or worries in their day-to-day experiences. But it was clear to me within the first week or two of the job that I wasn’t managing my stress well.

Like a lot of men, my default mode was to isolate, in search of a quick fix for my problems. But something I came to realize in the subsequent months of therapy is that mental health — handling stress in productive ways, combating my automatic negative thoughts, and being able to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed — is often a process.

Therapy’s not an instant fix. Nothing is. But if you’re having a hard time, you don’t have to do it alone.


Alexander Cendrowski is a teacher and writer based in Tampa, Florida. You can find his fictions in Smokelong Quarterly, Passages North, Hobart, and elsewhere, if you believe hard enough, or visit him online at his website.