Our society largely defines us by our professions. Children are often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” High school students take interest inventories and aptitude tests to help channel their ambitions toward strengths and passions. People want to know which college they have selected, which major course of study. Adults ask one another, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” upon introduction.
We are what we do. How, then, do we deal with losing that identity when our lives take a sudden turn?
My aspirations as a child included: nurse, cowgirl, clown, waitress, and teacher. After high school, I pursued my BS in Elementary Education and Special Education. I was a young mother with an infant and a toddler at home, attending school during the day and studying into the wee hours of the night once the babies were in bed. I worked hard for that degree and completing it filled me with pride.
I spent several years working in an aide position and supplementing my hours and income by also substitute teaching, tutoring, and waiting tables as I worked my way into a full-time salaried teaching position in the district.
Eventually, I landed in a first-grade classroom—which is where I had wanted to be from the start. I loved working with those little ones and watching their light bulbs come on throughout the school year. I enjoyed decorating my classroom, studying the curriculum, and writing lesson plans. I thrived in a creative environment where there was always something new to learn, and where I could share my enthusiasm for learning with 25 little brains ready to soak it all up. Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic…helping them become readers and writers.
Indeed, I have always been a learner. I was the child ready for school to start again before late July. I loved my Big Chief tablets and No. 2 pencils. There is a special kind of excitement when you open a brand new box of crayons. While I participated in the obligatory back-to-school protests throughout August, I was secretly excited about having a new desk, freshly laminated nametags, lockers, schedules…and mandatory library visits!
So, when I resigned my position in 2010 to stay home and care for Sean, it was devastating.
We were sitting the emergency room in the dark waiting for the pain medications to calm Sean’s migraine. I had called and asked my principal to arrange a substitute for the afternoon after discovering Sean in bed, confused and in pain, during my lunch break. ER trips were becoming part of our routine, as was calling at the last minute and requesting a sub to cover my room so I could handle an emergency with Sean. As I sat listening to the ticking of the clock on the wall I was hit with my new reality: I could not continue down both these paths, something had to give.
I felt my life was falling down around me and I was helpless to stop it. We were all struggling to keep moving forward. Sean was calling me multiple times a day while I was teaching, or coming into the school with me when he needed more supervision. I could no longer keep my head above water by pretending I could manage it all.
Leaving was devastating. I tried to put on my happy teacher face and pretend it was all for the best (which it was, although I didn’t feel that way). Stepping down from something I had worked so hard to achieve and thoroughly enjoyed doing was a stab to my heart.
Sean was a valuable volunteer in the kindergarten classrooms and wanted to continue when he was feeling well enough. I supported that decision, but it felt like he was getting my job, my friends and coworkers, my space. When I would express my feelings about giving up my job, he would feel guilty and I would end up comforting him because I resigned instead of having my own loss validated and soothed.
This fall, back to school has left me grieving. I even cried in the school supply aisle the other day, right in front of the boxes of 24 crayons. I feel a deep and pervasive loss, a longing I cannot stop. I know that sounds silly. People have suggested all types of fill-ins from volunteering, to subbing, to tutoring…but those don’t “feel” right for me right now. I walked into my old building the other morning and heard the familiar morning greetings and saw the friendly faces. My heart fell to my feet. I can’t fill this void with half-hearted substitutes, and I’m not even sure any more that this is what I’m meant to do.
I don’t regret leaving my job. It was a necessary step to aid in Sean’s recovery and I am proud to be a vital part of that process.
I realize now that this loss I’m struggling with is Sean’s loss, too. He gave up his civilian and military careers after his injury. He wrestles with his identity and what his future might hold.
And I do realize that my life is more than my profession or my (self-imposed) definition. My identity is multifaceted and perhaps now I will be open to learning more about who I am and my true purpose in this life as I face the unknown path ahead.
Sidebar: I wrote about back to school success for Family Of a Vet: 7 Tips for Back to School Success
Family Of a Vet has an incredible *free* packet for teachers and parents about PTSD and Parent and Teacher Packet
About the Author
Melissa Johnson and her husband, Sean, were married in 1995 and raised their three children in Aberdeen, SD. Melissa taught for 15 years in Special Education and First Grade. Sean served in the US Army and was deployed three times in his 24-year career in the military. Sean was injured by a mortar blast on March 25, 2006, in Balad, Iraq. The blast resulted in a traumatic brain injury. Sean is also legally blind and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Sean returned home in 2007, the family struggled to adjust to this “new” man in their house. Melissa eventually left her teaching job to become a full-time caregiver to her husband. She is now a certified caregiver through the VA’s Caregiver Program.
Both Melissa and Sean have been active with the Blinded Veterans Association since 2009. Sean serves as Commander of his local VFW chapter and is also the Junior Vice of the local Disabled American Veterans chapter. Melissa currently works with the Military and Veteran Caregiver Network as the Education and Training Coordinator. She serves with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation as a Caregiver Fellow. She is honored to work alongside other caregivers from across the nation to raise awareness of the issues facing our nation’s caregivers and families.
Read more from Melissa on her blog: Bringing the Battle Home