“Mrs. Leonard,” Jacob said. I was holding one edge of the paper down for Emma as she cut out the maple leaf she had traced. “Hang on, Jacob.”
“Mrs. Leonard,” he said, more urgently this time. “Mrs. Leonard!” He poked me on the elbow. I jerked and Emma’s construction paper jerked with me. Her scissors bit into the leaf and she stared at her now-ruined creation, undecided between acceptance, blame and bitter disappointment. Who would she blame: Me? Jacob?
“Mrs. Leonard!” he demanded, poking me again. “Yellow is a bad color for a leaf. I want green, like Ethan’s!”I turned just as his finger aimed to poke me in the elbow a third time. I took a deep breath and straightened up. Handle this, I told myself sternly. I began one of the counting games — rituals, really — that I learned from my psychiatrist. Twenty-two kindergarteners, the first of the alphabet being Caleb, then Emma and Ethan, then Gavin…
I started to take another deep breath, but it felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. The red, yellow and green of the kids’ art work swirled at the corners of my eyes and my jaws ached as if I was going to throw up. I stared straight ahead, trying to concentrate on the sunshine outside, focusing on what was real as I’d been taught. Green trees. Cars in the parking lot. A dog on the street.
“Mrs. Leonard?” Jacob asked, his imperiousness turned to confusion. “Mrs. Leonard?” Emma added. The scene beyond the windows faded and the kids’ voices took over, each one accusing, needing, desperate for something I had to give them right now.
My chest constricted and my sweating hands balled up as I turned toward my desk. There were M&Ms in there, my go-to between my three-times-a-day Xanax (let alone the Neurotonin and Luvox at night) that usually softened my anxiety and left me feeling like I was swimming just below the surface of some gentle tropical sea. Could I tuck them in a book and rush off to the lavatory?
But this would fail my kindergartners, who’d worked hard to carefully pick the dogwood, maple, boxelder and buckeye leaves on the playground, who were ready to copy the veins into their cut-outs and then tape them to the windows.
“I’ll be right back,” I gasped, and motioned to my teaching assistant to take over. I moved as quickly as someone having a heart attack could to the nurse’s office, my mind separating further from my body with each step, my chest like a demented bee, the world getting darker by the moment.
Chris picked up a pizza on the way home from the emergency room late that afternoon and added extra mozzarella, just the way I loved it. He served it to me on the couch and then sat down. “What’re you gonna do?” he asked. “You said if this happened again you were gonna take a leave of absence.”
My hands tensed. It was early September. I was just getting to know my class, there were piles of forms to turn in to my principal, and my family needed me to keep things together. But Dr. Apstein, my psychiatrist, had informed me in the emergency room he couldn’t prescribe more medication, and I was tired of being tired all the time — tired and feeling like I was being poked through a pencil sharpener.
This was it. I was at the end of the road. I couldn’t teach if I kept being carted off to the E.R. What good was I doing Chris, my son, my extended family?
I chewed my last piece of pizza thoughtfully, then got up off the couch. I was going to the kitchen for a box of Little Debbie Swiss rolls and then I and my three college degrees were going to do some online research for someplace that would treat the diagnoses of the disorders I carried around like another hundred pounds of weight. I’d lost myself to my family’s needs, the deadlines of school, the poking of kindergarteners. All that was left of Sandie was psychiatric disorders — generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsiveness — and a raging sweet tooth in a body so heavy and neglected I couldn’t use it for much any more.
But to tell the truth, the decision was a relief. I was reassured that I wasn’t headed for a gray nuthouse with bars on the windows. The facility would even get me to church on Sunday, and that made going 3,000 miles across the country feel a little like visiting old friends.
Maybe, I thought as I hung up the phone, I really would be visiting an “old friend,” one with resources I’d never gotten around to discovering. I’d make friends with me: A nice person in a nice place with nice hosts to introduce us. And hopefully deal with the extra physical weight, too.
Little did I know how much I’d learn and what I was to gain and lose on my path to recovery.
Sandie Crowe Leonard, 45, is a wife and the mother of a 20-year-old son. She teaches kindergarten and attends Wheeler United Methodist Church. A devoted lover of animals, Leonard has two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.