A bird’s-eye view: Taking a sabbatical to prioritize myself
content warning: sexual assault, child sexual assault
I’ve been prioritizing myself, something I’ve been unsuccessful at in the past. I am a survivor of sexual assault (SA) and child SA, among other complex traumas, and I live with the resulting PTSD. These experiences have caused me to value hyper-productivity and validation instead of taking care of myself.
I’ve always wanted to work in education. As a teen, I volunteered at an elementary school and worked as a camp counselor during summer vacation. I became a high school teacher to help teenagers during their challenging transition into adulthood, a time that was difficult for me to navigate as a kid.
Though our contracted hours were 7:45 am to 3:15 pm, during my first year of teaching, I often arrived at 6:00 am and left at 5:00 pm. I read books on pedagogy, classroom management, and standards-based lessons. I completed two-years of BTSA, a program that supported my induction into teaching. I cleared my credential.
I wanted to present myself as valuable. I founded and co-hosted the Fine Arts Showcase, an event presenting musical performances, poetry, and art from our students. I started the school’s first creative writing class. We published a yearly literary journal, and my students performed at a community poetry night. I took on extra duties, like teaching Saturday School, Credit Recovery, and summer school, instead of taking time off to rest.
I received only positive performance reviews. I won the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project Award for Excellence for teaching creative writing. My students also nominated me for a $500 teacher appreciation prize sponsored by a local radio station. When the film crew showed up at my school, they shared the letters of thanks the students had written.
But I never felt I’d done enough. I never stopped to celebrate my successes. I had to prove my worth.
I struggled with conflicts and would replay conversations in my head. I held people to unrealistic standards and judged them based on my abilities. Changes in expectations, routines, and objectives made me angry and nervous. I had difficulty balancing work commitments with doing other things that brought me joy.
Six years went by. Then the pandemic happened.
Like many teachers, I deprioritized myself. My home became my and my husband’s office, as he teaches at the same school. I made every unit I’d ever written digital, became a tech resource, as well as an emotional outlet and hub of connection for many students. I created a Friday night event called “Write Vibes,” where students could join a video call and write together, so they felt less alone. I didn’t take sick days.
My students knew I’d received a BFA in Creative Writing, and they sometimes asked me, “Why don’t you write anymore?”
I didn’t know.
Their question, or maybe my lack of an answer to it, had built over the years, and compelled me to continue my writing education. I enrolled in Antioch University’s Creative Writing MFA program in the Summer/Fall term of 2020.
At Antioch, I read over 100 books and wrote a dozen short stories, a memoir, a novel, a screenplay, and poems. I served in many leadership roles at Antioch’s Lunch Ticket and wrote blogs, interviews, and Midnight Snacks for the journal. I also wrote two articles for a different magazine.
When distance learning ended, and I went back to in-classroom instruction, I continued working late every night to support my students as best I could. I continued to meet my academic commitments and pursue my writing career.
No breaks. No excuses. “Yes” to everything.
I was still doing it. Hyper-productivity to prove my worth to the world.
I noticed similar topics and themes developing among my works. Both my memoir and my novel explore complex trauma, PTSD, and characters who want to change their future. Issues I’ve attempted to navigate my entire life.
As my time at Antioch neared its end, I realized I wanted to write and read, uninterrupted by work commitments. I wanted to devote time to myself. To explore what my writing was revealing.
I decided to take a sabbatical.
My students celebrated my decision. Many of them said things like, “Do it, Russ. Tell us when you publish your book, and we’ll promote it on Insta.”
When I turned in my request, I felt supported by the school, too. I heard that one of the board members said, “Is that the teacher who publishes the literary journal and does the poetry night? Give her whatever she wants.”
It was scary, leaving the familiar. There were practical concerns, and I wondered, Will I have enough money to do this?
I’d be giving up my medical and dental insurance. Sabbatical would freeze my position but not advance me on the pay scale. I would return lower in seniority. And my school would lose an experienced teacher going into a tough testing year.
There was also a little voice: Is this frivolous?
Even with all that, I knew that if I dedicated time to my craft, I would learn how to express what I wanted to say. I felt my books were circling an idea, a realization about myself, and I would find out what that was if I gave myself the chance to excavate the dark memories of my life.
And I knew that if I wanted to do the hard work of self-excavation and self-actualization, I had to create spaces where I could receive support on my journey. I took my sabbatical and started therapy around the same time. I wanted to give myself the space to reflect and heal without the pressure of work obligations.
In therapy, I learned brainspotting. The goal is to identify an “appropriate eye position (“brainspot”) to ‘activate’ the psychophysiological response to a traumatic memory.” This could help me retrain my emotional reactions by reprocessing the traumatic memories my body carries.
During my first brainspotting session, I listened to music at a low volume and watched the tip of a wand that my therapist moved from side to side. She studied my eye movements and, at different points, asked me what my level of discomfort was. Eventually, I found a position that was comfortable for me.
I began to visualize a traumatic event from my childhood but altered my recollection of the event mid-memory. In my new visualization, I imagined myself wearing a Karate uniform, and I kicked my abuser out of a second-story window.
I felt embarrassed when I told my therapist, like I was spacing out instead of taking the activity seriously. However, she insisted that what I’d done was important and healing. I’d rewritten my emotional response to a moment in my life when I felt silenced and powerless.
I’d given myself agency.
Most days during my sabbatical, I wrote and read. I balanced that with drinking coffee on the porch, seeing my horses, and visiting friends. I took a painting class for fun, and some days, I just watched TV. It was a privileged opportunity many won’t experience, and I don’t reminisce about it without acknowledging that.
After a year of writing, reading, and therapy, things shifted. I realized the shame my silence carried. Now I react with kindness when my body speaks to me. Valuing myself has changed the way I value my time. I learned to prioritize my needs, my desires, and my voice.
Sometimes my old behaviors, like overthinking and being too hard on myself, interrupt my life. I am still learning how to step back to gain perspective, to learn how to change the story I have about myself.
I’m still getting used to the new me. It will take time.
Maybe others have experienced something similar. Perhaps post-pandemic, post-everything, we’re all different now.
I returned from my sabbatical in the fall of 2023. Not long after school began, a teacher friend passed away.
We gathered to toast his life, and, unsurprisingly, the talk turned to pursuing your passions while you can. A colleague referenced me taking time off to write, and then she asked me the question everyone else had.
“Are you happy to be back?”
“Of course,” I said. “I love teaching.” A true answer, but not the complete one.
I wanted to tell her and anyone else who asked: I feel like I’ve only begun to understand who I am, and I’m afraid of losing whatever that is.
I don’t have huge amounts of time to devote to myself anymore. Teaching is more demanding than ever, and this is an important time in education, in history. We must do our jobs well.
I still advise a campus club. I am still tutoring after school and at lunch when needed. The poetry night and literary journal are still happening.
I am protecting as many weekends as possible to write and produce art. I’ve turned down additional teaching assignments and lead positions. I stop working no later than six. I remind myself that I can’t do everything, and I must save time for doing what brings me joy.
I must be present for myself before I can be present for anyone else.
I returned from sabbatical ten weeks ago. The end of the first quarter at work coincides with a three-day weekend. I will use it to write.
Today, I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of my living room. Strips of paper, post-its, and index cards lie in rows. I’m deciding which way the story should go.
I write questions I’ve forgotten to answer. Parts I still need to work out. When things are reflected on and reorganized like this, it’s clear what the underlying issues are, a bird’s-eye view of things.
So—I keep moving these pieces, one and then another.
Ashley Russ received her BFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and her MFA from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in UC Riverside’s Mosaic Art and Literary Journal, Sweet Jane Magazine, Lunch Ticket, and in Endurance News. She resides in California where she teaches, rides endurance horses, and is working on her first novel and memoir. Twitter: TheWritingRuss / Website: https://ashleydruss.com/