Untangling the body from the work – Stephanie Wescott

Image: Jason Schjerven on Unsplash

I think I spent huge chunks of the last 5 years in some kind of state of stress. It’s one of those revelations that wash over you the moment you step out of something; relief enters your body and you relax the parts you didn’t even realise you were clenching (go on, check your jaw as you read this), the upcoming few weeks suddenly seem manageable, exciting even, and you open yourself to waves of creativity you had previously been immune to receiving.


The pace of teaching, the rhythm of the terms and the testing of physical, emotional and intellectual endurance made my body react in particular ways. Anxiety beat through my chest constantly; my jaw earnt a new click from night-long clenching; I learnt that time was only ever available to me in 72-minute chunks, so all tasks were completed in an urgent frenzy. There was no time to think; decisions had to be made instantly with little consideration. That’ll do had to do.


In a speech I made recently to a group of secondary English teachers, I said that teaching can feel like being in water when your foot slips off a rock and you desperately wade to the next one to rest. We focus on making it from milestone to milestone… first lot of marking, first reports, first summer break.


For me, the feeling of slipping from one rock to the next, wading desperately, splashing around, gasping for air, never really let-up. There would be short and fleeting moments of quiet, and you would wonder if you had forgotten something important, before the next round of busy and looming urgent things would be upon you.


It felt like a test of endurance—the job was heaping buckets of sand on top of me to see how long it would take me to suffocate. The holidays eventually came and I folded myself into them; bunkering down too depleted to leave the house for a few days. To work was unthinkable. To even consider it triggered a palpable recoil. To write? Maybe, after a few days. To read fiction was the only thing to do.


During the term I would dream of silence. Of being left the fuck alone. I would fantasise about a country cabin on some acreage just outside Daylesford. A few books packed in a bag and a notebook to scribble into. Drinking tea and day-napping. Maybe making some soup to live off for a few days.


Teaching did something to my nervous system. Some kind of imprinted damage that I am working to undo. Walking into hostility, conflict, hearing awful things spoken around you and needing to deal with them calmly and objectively can give you a deeply bottled fury. I recently read an academic paper that listed the symptoms of burnout; something I thought I understood but mustn’t have, and I immediately analysed my past self more forgivingly. Sometimes your body does things as a way of protecting itself against ongoing stress; it learns to tap out, it becomes apathetic and listless. There really is only so much one can endure, and sometimes in the earnest commitment to care and dedication to others we put ourselves through much more than what our gentle and vulnerable bodies can absorb. We suppress the intuitive calls to rest and space because we just need to get through the next three weeks, four weeks.


Nearly twelve months since moving on and I am still unlearning this way of being. A friend said it would take time to adjust to the PhD and I remember thinking, how could it? This is a dream. Sometimes I sit at my desk hoping to be absorbed under the cover of deep thinking only to find that my brain begins to seek distraction. It has learnt to distrust time. If there is a long stretch of it, something has been forgotten. It says, ‘Prepare for an incoming distraction! A demand! Someone needs something! There is some inane task you need to do for the sake of nothing!’


I am still strict on myself too. Up by 6:30, working by 8 or 9. I am an obedient servant to a modern working routine that is imprinted in my body like a deep scar. Sometimes I rebel and do Pilates at 12, like today, because why the fuck not? But then, I wonder what I did to deserve this way of working. I await the unravelling of it all because my mind doesn’t quite believe that this is it: it is still waiting for the return to the frantic, the spiralling loss of control.


Yes, I am still undoing, unlearning, unravelling. I am training myself to be kinder (not weaker, not lazier, I convince myself). I am learning to protect my body by will and choice before it begins to do it on its own.