The Hardest Choice
I recently made the decision to step away from my job as a band director at a public school in Western Pennsylvania. I remember being hired - Specifically, I remember the moment I found out I would be taking over a well-respected band program from a music educator with whom I had student taught, and to whom I looked at (and continue to look at) as a second father figure in my life. I remember choking back tears as my soon-to-be principal called and shared the news with me. "I made it," I thought. "This is the job - everything I've ever wanted. This is the last time I'll move, and the last time I'll have to get used to a new school, and the last time I'll have to say goodbye to students until I retire."
Walking away from that job was the hardest choice. But it was the right choice.
This isn't a cautionary tale, or a cry for pity, or anything like that. This is my experience - And if it can help just one person if they are facing a similar set of circumstances as I have faced recently, then writing this all down will be worth it.
What does it take to walk away from the one thing you are best at? The one thing that has always felt like you were put on this planet to do? For me, it took a change of perspective to realize just how much doing what I truly did love to do was taking me away from what actually matters the most.
A lot changed for everyone in March of 2020 - nearly one full year ago. Our world was pretty much flipped upside down as the coronavirus pandemic made it's way into the United States. I began attempting to teach from home, while also watching my two small children - Jonathan and Brooklyn - who were, at the time, two-years-old and five-months old, respectively. My wife Megan is an essential worker, and the stay-at-home order at the beginning of the pandemic did not apply to her. So for the first time, I was on my own as a dad. I was able to experience the highs and lows, the stresses and the rewards of parenting.
Over those several months, I watched my daughter go from rolling over, to crawling, to pulling herself up, to taking her first steps. I got to experience her growth and development. "I can't believe I missed this with Jonathan," I remember thinking to myself. I didn't miss his milestones because I was neglectful - I missed it because my work consumed me. I was a workaholic because I loved my job. It took the pandemic and working from home for me to realize all that I was missing.
That was the beginning of my change of perspective.
Right around that same time, an old high school friend of mine tragically passed away - he took his own life. His name was Ben.
Ben's death came as a shock to me, and hit me hard. Ben was a really important person in my life because he was my first friend in high school band. We were absolutely nothing alike, but somehow we became friends after being bus buddies our freshman year of marching band. If it wasn't for him, I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed that first year of marching band and continued on. I probably wouldn't have continued studying music, developed a knack for music theory and composition, or - most importantly - met the young woman who would later end up becoming my wife.
When I heard of Ben's passing, I did the only thing I knew how to do in that situation - I began writing music. I started putting together a piece which would later become A Song for Ben. However, before I could finish the piece, I became sick.
I remember when I first started developing symptoms towards the end of March. The fever, the chills, the shortness of breath, the racing heart rate and palpitations. All seemingly out of nowhere. I was immediately tested for COVID-19. Being a type-1 diabetic, I wanted to make sure I was proactive, got a result early, and made sure to get the proper treatment.
My result came back negative.
"Ok, must just be a normal bug," I thought to myself. To be safe, I isolated myself in our basement away from Megan and the kids, just in case.
Three weeks later - I was still sick and getting worse every day. I was still living a floor below the rest of my family, Facetiming my kids before bed every night - all while I was in the same house as them.
Eventually, my symptoms became too much, and I was hospitalized at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh. I don't need to get into specifics about my experience there, but I will say it was the worst five days of my life. There were two specific moments when I thought my time was up.
After that, I wrote letters to my wife and children on my phone, just in case the last time I saw them was when they had to drop me off at the ER entrance.
Thankfully, I became well enough to be discharged, and continue recovering at home. But that experience stuck with me - in a bad way.
I never felt right following that mystery illness... not through the end of the school year, or over the summer, or by the time the following school year began. I kept experiencing the same physical symptoms from when I was sick - especially shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and chest pain.
One morning about a month into the 2020-21 school year, I felt a chest pain like I had never felt before. I took myself to the ER, explained what was going on, and was immediately taken in for testing. After hours of testing, a particularly blunt ER doctor came into my room and asked/stated, "You must suffer from anxiety. Your heart and lungs are perfectly healthy."
I was dumbfounded.
Yes, I had struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life, but never had either impacted me to the point that they caused physical symptoms to occur like what I had been experiencing since my illness earlier in the spring.
This next part of my story is the most important part. The part that changed my perspective permanently. And it is the part of my story that I hope everyone who has read this far can take something away from.
After that ER trip, I decided to take a medical leave from work to get everything checked out. Yep, the ER doc was right. My heart, lungs, kidneys - everything except my pancreas and hair line (because, you know... diabetic and bald) - was fine.
The days following that were the worst for me - literally the darkest days of my life. Just in the span of March to September I had: lost an old friend to suicide, become so sick that I had to be hospitalized, continue to feel sick throughout the summer, and then be told there was nothing physically wrong with me - all of my problems were "in my head."
I felt nothing. I felt useless. I was a zombie. I couldn't work, couldn't function like a normal person, couldn't contribute to my family. Why was I alive? On the worst days, I did want to die. I admit now that I was suicidal.
So where I turned next is what changed my life for the better. I got help.
I began seeing a therapist weekly (like, 10 years later than I should have started!). I also was evaluated by a psychiatrist, and in addition to my already known struggles with anxiety and depression, I was diagnosed with PTSD.
I spent the next few months recovering and developing the skills necessary to cope with my new diagnosis. I also ended up completing the piece for Ben once my mind was in a better place (if you have a few minutes, please read and take a listen here). Finishing his piece in itself was an enormously beneficial form of therapy for me.
I cannot express just how meaningful the choice to get help was for me - it probably saved my life.
"But Jeff, why are you telling us this? That's your personal business."
Quite frankly, if you are bothered by me sharing my experience from the past year, you are part of the problem that has developed the stigma which surrounds mental health in our society.
I'm tired of the taboo subjects of anxiety, depression, mental illness, suicide, etc. If everyone in our society knew what I know now after this experience, I bet my friend Ben would still be alive.
If you are reading this and are struggling with your mental health, it is OK to talk about it. It's OK to reach out for help. You are not in the minority. There are plenty of us who want to listen and want to help you.
If this post inspires just one person to speak up or speak out in order to improve their personal health, then I consider that a success.
Also - a beautiful "side effect" of counseling and taking care of my mental health is that I'm the happiest I have ever been in my life, and wouldn't have known that I was "unhappy" before. I'm a better father than I've ever been. I'm a better husband than I've ever been. I'm a better human being than I have ever been.
So why did I walk away from the thing I loved the most? The thing that I thought I was placed on this Earth to do?
Just because you are great at something, doesn't mean that it is your sole purpose in life.
Please don't take my words as me saying that teaching is a bad profession, and that people should quit teaching for their mental health. I loved every moment of teaching. I personally lacked the ability to separate my work from my personal life, AND a heck of a lot of health-related things and negative personal events snowballed on top of that. There are millions of teachers - including the incredible ones who inspired me to go into education in the first place - who can balance those things.
I simply just became a slave to my profession. And you know what? I was pretty damn good at it. But you know what I wasn't good at? The stuff that really matters.
I didn't just watch my little girl take her first steps. I helped her learn how to do that. I missed that with my son... and I regret that.
Life is too precious, too fragile, and too unpredictable to spend every waking hour of it worrying about work.
I'm blessed to still work in music education through my work as a composer, and, for now, that is plenty for me as I enjoy being a father and husband.
Right when I had just about made my decision to step away from teaching, I sat down and watched Pixar's Soul with my family. And the ending really spoke to me in that moment as I was hours away from submitting my resignation to the job I originally had thought I would end up retiring from thirty years from now.
I know a lot of music teachers took offense to the way that their job was portrayed in that movie, and I understand that. But here is what I took away from the film that was meaningful to me in that moment: *SPOILER ALERT*
One of the main characters, Joe, spends his whole life chasing a dream he's passionate about, only to find out that achieving that dream doesn't provide him with the sort of self-actualization he had expected. Instead he realizes that he missed actually "living" along the way.
I recognized a little of myself in Joe. I've spent a lot of time and put in a lot of effort to be good at what I did as a band director, but at what cost? I don't want to miss out on living while I'm still alive.
Teaching is what I'm naturally good at. I loved it. I still do. And I'm sure one day I'll return to the classroom in some way, shape, or form. But in the meantime, my perspective on life has changed for the better.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading my story. I hope that it inspires you to live a healthier more meaningful life.
All the best,