On death, FOIs, and coping at work: A very personal essay

Four weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, I received a text saying the government had dumped me. After three and a half of years of head-to-head battle with the department for education over some free school documents – including endless appeals and even a court appearance – they were now giving in. I could have the documents, a subsequent email said.
Four hours later I received a text from my mum. One of her best friends, a dear family friend, was now in the hospice. The likelihood was that she wouldn’t come home. After four and a half years in her own battle with cancer, she was going to lose.
Tears in eyes I was suddenly overcome with the thought I wanted to give it all back. The government could keep the stupid documents, I thought, if we could just keep Jenny. Who needs paper when people are dying? What use a legal win if the people you love don’t get to be winners in more important battles?
It’s a stupid thought, of course. That’s not how death works. I’m not daft enough to believe that any action by me could have made a difference to her disease. It’s also why some people will have bridled at my use of the term ‘battle’ with regards to cancer: as if there is somehow an agency in these things. I’ve tried to find another word for it, but I can’t. I watched from the sidelines as Jenny went through endless rounds of chemotherapy, removal of organ upon organ, and hearing of the doctors who said over and again what a miracle it was that she lived so long after diagnosis. For every person who told me I was courageous for ‘fighting’ the Department for Education, there was someone saying the same to her. Different battles, with a strange helplessness and randomness to them, but battling is how they both felt .
On Tuesday, I finally received the documents. The Friday prior I attended Jenny’s funeral.
At the latter a memory book had been put together of photographs from her life. It was a surreal thing to flip through and see someone so familiar growing up over a series of pages. At one point I glanced at a picture. I was confused. It appeared to be of me and yet I couldn’t remember where it was taken. I looked again. It was actually of my mum in her thirties. How fast time flies. How little we notice it disappearing.
At the end of last year I wrote about the four Christmases I spent preparing legal documents to help get that free school information. Since Jenny went into the hospice I’ve mused whether it was a smart thing to do. Whether I should have been spending time on other things.
My dislike of Christmas is well known. I talk about it each year on social media and it’s been that way for a long time. There are several contributing reasons, but a major one is that I have very little family and those that do exist are not always good at spending time together. Hence, as an only child, Christmas day was often very quiet – just me, mum and dad. But Boxing Day? Oh, that was the day to live for. Jenny and her husband had four children and lived just around the corner. I could see their house from my bedroom window. Their daughter, Emma, was my friend. For a period of time, around the age of 6, we were best friends: forever in one another’s houses. I grew up watching Jenny shepherd those four children – born within just 28 months of each other – with a combination of military precision and beautiful fun. In comparison to our quiet, tidy house, theirs was one of chaos. People and animals everywhere. Hamsters, snakes, a bird of prey. Tables that pulled out of cabinets to make sure everyone had a seat for dinner. A car with seats in the boot so we could all be loaded in and taken to national trust days, or church. (I was regularly swept into the car with the other kids come Sunday afternoon).
On Boxing Day their family would descend on ours, alongside my parents’ other friends and children, and it would be magical – there was chilli, and karaoke, and games, and fun. A melee of people giggling and chatting. Even now I think of Boxing Day as the most wonderful time of my childhood.
Growing older, Jenny became the person I saw at Good News Events. You know the ones: weddings, Christmas, birthday parties. I would always make sure to speak with her. Even as an adult I craved her sense of perspective, her ability to shake things off and be positive. She knew I was a worry wort and would wheedle problems out of me, forcing me to look at them differently. She would remind me of all the great things in life.
That she has gone: so young, so soon: has put a hole in our makeshift family. Good news events are now down a smile.
And back here in reality it feels like all I have left is a big pile of unconnected papers, which have absolutely nothing to do with her, and yet every time I look at them all I can think is that they are some unbearable consolation prize.
I’ve barely touched them since they arrived.
The problem of being a professional during stressful times
I need to get over this emotional blockage. The documents are vital and there a number of things, professionally, I want to do with them. There are articles to write, stats to compile, stories to tell. Having peeked the day I opened them, I can already see there are things the public should know about them and it’s my job to get on and tell the story.
This week has been tough, though. Processing the loss of someone, especially when that person isn’t an immediate family member and so there isn’t some expected and accepted level of upset, is a weird thing. On the one hand I keep thinking I shouldn’t be hard hit. On the other, I know that I am and that I can no more magic that feeling away than I could hand back those envelopes and get Jenny in return.
Every person with a job faces this problem. Some days, you just don’t have the same capacity as others. As a teacher there are days when you feel awful: you have flu, or an ill parent, or a bullied child, and yet you can’t take any time to deal with this – you have to go into the classroom at dot-on 9am and do your best caring face so that stressed-out bottom-set year 7 can learn their maths. School leaders face the same problem: it doesn’t matter if you’re worried about your husband’s ill health, you’ve just been told a supply teacher has hit a child and so you must pull together and go deal with it.
This goes for everyone, across all workplaces, pretty much ever. There is nothing particularly special about this circumstance. But this week I’ve wondered why we don’t talk about it? Is everyone else really just able to switch off their emotions and “be professional” at will? Or are there, like me this week, people in workplaces across the country steadying themselves for 5 minutes before putting on brave faces and wondering how everyone else is managing to keep things in?
It has also made me wonder how, in an economy where we increasingly put pressure on workers to do more – longer hours, be better, achieve higher, be efficient – do we make space for these very human dips. How do we find ways to deal with the down days? When teachers’ nerves are burned to a frazzle, what is the plan? If someone feels they can no longer cope with a full-timetable and the stress of exam classes – what’s the alternative? There have to be some levers for dialing down pressure as needed otherwise people are forced to walk away from their jobs when the going gets rough, even if it could become better again very soon, and that’s more of a loss than the education sector can take given the pressure of growing pupil numbers.
How we cope with bad times
Over the years I’ve developed two mechanisms for when things get bad.
The first is seeing experiences as learning opportunities. Shitty relationship break-up? At least you learned how not to end things. Terrible choice of career? At least you can work out what you don’t like, and move on. Taken to court for being vexatious under the freedom of information act? Well at least you had a chance to become an expert on tribunal law.
A second approach is making things into a funny story. “That will be a hell of a tale for the pub,” I would say to crying newbie teachers as they relayed disastrous interactions with a child.
But sometimes neither tactic works. Sometimes you can’t learn from a situation. Not if you’re too angry, or disappointed, or sad. So far, that’s how I have felt about the free school stuff. I’m aching over the lost time – the absolute waste of all those emails and documents just for someone after three and a half years to shrug and hand them over.
Also, some things just aren’t funny. And they don’t lend themselves to a story. This blog could be a story about Jenny, but I can’t find one. There isn’t a neat story of her life or how I feel about her. Hence this blog spiraled into being many things. There isn’t a neat story I can write and make myself feel better.
Thinking about this put me in mind of one of my all-time favourite books: George Vaillant’s Adaptation To Life. In it Vaillant describes his life work, tracking 268 super-smart university graduates over forty years, and discovering the ‘mechanisms’ they use to cope with life. Some are less ‘healthy’ than others – humour, for example, is considered more mature than hitting people – but even those we consider positive can be problematic when used to excess. As my favourite highlighted passage reads: “In adolescence, Tarrytown learned to use alcohol the way Goodhart used books – to escape.”
What Adaptation to Life shows is that finding ways to cope with change and discomfort is something every person must do if they are to continue feeling sane. Vaillant argues that mental health problems tend to derive from this process not going well, though they aren’t inevitably long-term. Think about physical health. People frequently get colds but overcome them quickly by keeping warm, drinking fluids, clearing noses. With mental health, we might be disordered in our thinking for a short period, but it’s possible that with simple actions – sharing time with people we love, or writing fears down – we can quickly get over them. In more serious circumstances our physical health becomes overwhelmed and getting back on track is more difficult. Maybe it involves chemotherapy, organ removal, intensive care. The same goes for minds. What we have to work out is how, over a lifetime, we manage changes in our thinking – in our adaptations to life – and figure out what paths are available to get back on track.
A problem of the book is that it doesn’t say exactly how we figure out what’s wrong or what we do to get back on track. There are a plethora of mechanisms we can use: intellectual pursuits, aggression, suppression. But no answer as to which one we should use. Why? Because there isn’t an answer. Vaillant’s last story is of a man named Allan Poe who, in his fifties, is living a life some would find objectionable but with which he is content. He calls Vaillant in and tells him that whatever his research finds, whether certain things match with mental health – a good income, spending time with family, doing exercise – it would nevertheless be possible to have those things and yet be miserable. It’s also possible not to have those things and be content.
Everyone wants simple answers for how we should feel better and get back on track. I’ve wanted one all month. What I actually need to do is figure out how to feel okay even without such an answer.
So, what does any of this mean?
I can’t make sense of Jenny’s death and that is not a surprise. Death isn’t easy to rationalize, or laugh at, or learn from. My usual techniques are all out. In weeks of trying to do so, I’ve mixed up the freedom of information stuff into how I feel about her because the time periods overlap and story-telling is one of my defence mechanisms. The unfortunate consequence is that they’ve now become so intertwined it has been a struggle to engage with the documents even though I need to.
I’d love to tell you at this point that I’ve figured out some solutions, but the sad truth is that even after writing 2,000 words – which you have now trogged through – I’m afraid we will both leave with limited wisdom. But, I also figured, if we only share thoughts once they are ‘clear’, then we will rarely share the things that can’t be written about in clear, sensible blocks like death, and loss, and change. And if we never speak of these complicated things then we risk giving the impression that the world is full of completely together individuals – when none us really are. And if we believe that everyone else is dealing with the world better, and we are somehow at fault for struggling, then that is also alienating and unhelpful. Far better to write, even without wisdom, if only because doing so might clear the blockage and maybe start a conversation about how we help, support, and build capacity for dealing with our down days.
Beyond that, after weeks of pondering and upset and trying to make sense of everything, the best I could get to was that sometimes you win a battle and get a box of documents in your hands, other times you lose and get a box in the ground.
I’d do anything to change the way round it went but death doesn’t operate on rules of justice. No legal document in the world can be written to get its decisions overturned.