It's hard to remember the reasons I once loved my primary teaching job (that's elementary school, for you folks in the Americas).
Teaching is a noble profession, people said carefully when I told them I was in training at university. I'd tell other teachers of my plans to join their ranks, and they would look hopeless for a moment. Good on ya, they'd say, and swig their drinks sadly, But make sure it's what you really want.
For a few years, it was fine (well, if you call daily panic-cries in the toilets fine). I kept my head just above water.
But then my hair started falling out.
In the shower I watched fistfuls of it block the drain. Long orange ropes hung between my fingers after a shampoo. I'd run a hand through my hair while talking, and dozens of strings of it would come loose, dangling from my fingers as I stared.
My partner started noticing.
You are leaving a lot of hair lying around at the moment, he said, the day I pulled the vacuum cleaner apart to unblock it.
I was defensive. Aw, you leave hairs, your hair is... you... you also do leave some hairs around, I said (I am elegantly spoken). It wasn't true, though. He does have thick shoulder-length hair, and we lived with two other long-locked women, but the machine was unmistakably full of orange. .
I Googled how much hair loss is normal. I also Google image searched it (idiot!) and immediately regretted that. Up to 100 hairs a day is common, I read, and tried to reassure myself, but I didn't seem to have enough hair left for that level of fallout to be sustainable. My brush was clogging up daily.
Bitch was going bald.
Stress, said my mother quietly, when I told her what was happening (through REAL-LIFE GIANT GLEAMING SNOT BUBBLES).
Stress, said my doctor, touching the sparse patches around my skull.
She told me I certainly had enough going on in my job to warrant it; that she'd seen plenty of teachers lose their hair from stress before, though they were usually older. She said it was the job that did it.
But it wasn't just the job. It wasn't just the early morning starts. It wasn't the playground duties 4 times a week that meant I often didn't get a lunch break or even a toilet break. It wasn't even the 5-8 meetings we had outside of class time each week. It wasn't the endless administration, data analysis, marking, planning, reporting, and the awful details of many of my students' lives. It wasn't getting home at 7pm, throwing a miserable dinner down my neck, then spreading out my work to slog away at until midnight. It wasn't spending every Sunday on paperwork. It wasn't the headlice, scabies, worms and school sores we contracted from our students. It wasn't even the stress of teaching "difficult" kids in "hard" schools or getting assaulted in the playground while helping to break up giant brawls.
OK, all of that no doubt contributed. But it was a bully on the school's management team that really kick-started my hair loss. I had been alerted that there might be problems on my first day at the school – two different teachers warned me privately that he was a nasty piece of work, and to watch that I didn't "get on his radar." He was vicious and self-righteous. He thought whatever didn't kill us made us stronger.
It didn't make me stronger. When I got on his radar, and he started undermining and sabotaging me, it gave me post-traumatic stress. It gave me chronic nightmares, it gave me fierce panic attacks, and ultimately, it made me lose my hair.
The day I quit my horrible job was a rainy Monday morning three quarters of the way through the year. Actually, a large number of the school's staff had already quit over the last few months – I was just the latest in a long line of distressed, destroyed runaways. I was so relieved I was shaking all over. I sat in my car, crying so much I could barely breathe. I rang my friend. I hadn't seen her in a while (who has time for friends and family when you are a teacher?) and we hugged hard when she arrived at my house.
Your hair is looking so thin, she said, pulling back with concern.
I tearfully parted it and pulled my hair back to show her. It really is. You can see a lot of my scalp now, I said. She held me and stroked my head while I wept about losing my job, my career, my passion, my sanity, and my hair. Later, I found all the hairs she'd smoothed off my head absolutely coating the back of the cardigan I'd been wearing.
Each morning I'd look in the mirror and see shiny grey scalp through. My stressface could be concealed with makeup, but the lack of hair was more difficult to cover up (though it was winter, so beanies. Love you, nine beanies).
You guys, I was so afraid it would keep falling out until I was completely bald. I was anxiously aware of my hair loss every moment I was awake. Even while I slept it was haunting me. Among the being-hunted and being-chased and being-eaten and being-stabbed nightmares, I had bad dreams where I'd look in the mirror and see just orange wisps on a stranger's overly round white head, then realise it was me. I certainly felt a sort of shame. It felt very unfeminine. I felt like I was turning into a crone at 32.
My doctor ordered three months off from any sort of work, in the hope that I would de-stress. I'd sit on the deck in the sunshine and physically push and pummel all my muscles until they relaxed. And I never went back to teaching.
Slowly, I have begun to enjoy life after bloody big burnout. And fuck yeah, my hair has started to grow back.
It's early days – I still have a very thin ponytail, and a 4-inch mane of fluff around my face that I have to hairspray the hell out of or else I look like a macaque.
The fluff is pretty annoying, but since it is growing out of previously bald patches, I find myself treating it with great affection. What's up, fluff, I say in the mornings as I get my head ready for work.
I am still pretty careful how I style my hair – two braids isn't an option, as they are vee vee skinny and I am way too self-conscious to flaunt the thinness of my hair (it's fine, not thin, I bark at my flatmate while she arranges my sparse hair to cover a bun booster).
I used to have a cute pixie cut.
And a shoulder-length bob cut that I liked. I could do that again.
But yeah, nah. I have been growing my hair long for the last few years, and it feels like being a real grown up lady. I like the sensation of it bouncing over my shoulders. I like being able to do all sorts of things with it, even if most days it just goes in a bun.
It looks like I have more hair than I do, if I'm very careful. I back-comb it and blow-dry it and deep-condition it and massage it and counsel it and just about bloody well sing it to sleep.
Occasionally, I do consider chopping it short and waiting until my head has fully filled out before keeping a long hairstyle again. But my silly four-inch mane of fluff gives me enough hope to keep the scissors away.
These days, eff teaching. I only do work I genuinely like. My stress reservoir fills up pretty quickly, so although I work bloody hard in my awesome day jobs, I treasure my own time. I sport and I art and I music and I literature and I friends and family. I enjoy myself. And I don't mind wasting my qualifications and experience one bit. It's well worth it for a decent life and a decent head of hair.