Friday, February 17, 2023

No Longer Afraid Part 1: The Beginning

I can't believe I'm about to share this. I've only shared it with a little over a handful of people - and it happened over 7 years ago.

When I tell people I lived in Tennessee most of my adult life, taught special ed for 25 years, and came back to Birmingham because my parents are at the age they need someone around, I wasn't lying.

However, I was leaving out an important detail.

One of the main reasons I moved back here was because I left my job. You might ask why that was a big deal - pretty much everyone has lost a job at some point for one reason or another. Personally, I've been devastated some of those times I was fired/let go/was no longer needed.

This was different - waaaay different.

Technically, I resigned. Technically, I wasn't fired. Technically, it was my choice.

But it wasn't.

Back in the fall of 2015, I made a mistake. It was a big mistake and it's one that has changed the course of my life in tremendous ways - both good and bad. 

Before I go into that (maybe the fear isn't ALL gone), let me explain a little background.

I'm a very weird combination of rebel and rule follower. Maybe a better term is "one who questions everything" (and I do mean everything). Maybe the best word for it is stubborn. There's definitely a lot of pride and arrogance mixed in there.

When I graduated college at the top of my class and then graduated with my Master's at the top of my class, and then took additional classes beyond those required, I thought I knew it all. Now that I think about it, I guess that's actually age-appropriate, especially for an overachiever like me.

But I held onto that belief for way too long. As the years passed and I settled into my favorite and longest-lasting role - teaching preschoolers with special needs - I took advantage of every opportunity to increase my skills and knowledge and stay up to date with the latest theories and techniques for teaching these little ones.

I loved it - and I thought I was good at it. I know that my students made progress and at least most of their parents loved me.

But as the years passed and frankly, as my supervisors and then later, the government, tried to tell me how to teach, I bucked up. Yes, I honestly did know more than they did about teaching this very specific population of students, but looking back, I'm sure my attitude wasn't the best. 

I taught how I was told to teach by the higher-ups.. to an extent. Whenever I could, I did it the way I felt was best. I held on to my beliefs about teaching like a starving dog holds onto a big, juicy bone. Needless to say, I wasn't very teachable.

Time, perspective, and lots and lots of therapy and wise counsel change how you look at things. At the time, I really thought I was doing what was best for my students. Now I realize there were a lot of better ways I could have handled certain situations.

But there are other areas where I still believe I was right. Yes, even in those situations I could have probably made other choices without compromising what I believed, but I hold to my overall decisions in those situations.

I won't go into them all, for the sake of those involved, but I'll just sum it up - there was a time when I made several recommendations for my students' programs that didn't agree with what my administration wanted. Even with everything that happened after, I still wouldn't change anything about what I did in those situations, even though I could have probably gotten the same result in a better way.

But I did what I thought was right - and I did it the only way I thought I could at the time.

It's hard to know how to proceed with this. I'm spending too much time justifying what I did and not enough on the point of this post. So, I'll try to sum it up.

One more quick insight into all this... this is my perspective after years of thinking, praying, crying, wondering, and talking to the few that I told. It might not be the whole truth, as I couldn't read the administration's minds. But this is my best guess.

I feel I initially got on the administration's radar because I didn't teach the way the government told me I should. I stood up for myself and my assistants (and my students, as I mentioned earlier). For someone terrified to stand up for myself, there were times I was pretty vocal about how I felt.

Add to that... I was very burnt out. For several years before this, I wanted out of the field. As much as I loved teaching, I couldn't stand the government telling me how to teach - when they had no idea what I was up against.

I had tried to find something else. I looked at school systems near me but they didn't have any openings that I felt I could do. I literally wasn't trained for anything else. With one exception of a short time I did some clerical work, every job I ever had revolved around children. I had worked in nurseries, daycares, and schools. I've been a nanny for two different families. I didn't know anything else.

I was also a single parent with an ex-husband who was tens of thousands of dollars behind in child support. I wasn't making much as a teacher but I made ends meet. At my age, I couldn't take a pay cut to start a new career.

One more thing... (again, this is not an excuse, just an explanation of where I was). I had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, type 2. I was diagnosed with pretty extreme depression and anxiety but no psych medications worked (probably at least in part due to the misdiagnosis). I also had anger issues that I literally had no idea about until about 4-5 years after all this happened.

So, after 20+ years of teaching, it got to the point I had to turn in my lesson plans like I was a first-year teacher. I could be formally observed by an administrator at literally any moment in the day. I was watched like a hawk.

Combine that pressure with my know-it-all attitude, burn-out, and mental health issues and it was a powder keg ready to explode. And like I described earlier, I felt stuck. It wasn't a good place to be.

Then "the incident" happened. (That's all I could call it for years). 

Let me set the scene.

I had a behavior-disordered student who was very difficult to keep in line. I was constantly worrying about him hurting someone or him running away. I had asked and asked for help from the behavior specialist, but she hadn't gotten back to me. 

At the time, we brought our class to the front hallway of the school in order for their parents to pick them up. It was a big area and there were older students moving between classes in this area.

It was a chaotic time, as parents had to sign out their children every day - and often I needed to talk to the parents for a minute before they left. At that time of day, I had one assistant.

That afternoon there were a couple of students who needed to go to the bathroom. One was the student I mentioned earlier.

My assistant signaled to me that this child was spitting in the bathroom. Because of germs, etc in saliva, I knew it couldn't just be ignored.

I walked over and got the child and sat him down with the other students. I told him with a stern voice to stay there and went back to helping parents sign their children out, while I kept an eagle eye on him.

I didn't think anything of it. I think it was two days later, I got summoned to the principal's office (and yes, it struck that same fear as if I was the elementary school child). He told me that a parent had reported me for pushing a child down and yelling at him.

I was dumbfounded. That's not what happened. I literally didn't know what to say. Yes, I had sat him down. Yes, I had spoken loudly and sternly to him. But I hadn't done anything I hadn't seen other teachers do at times. I hadn't hurt him in any way. In fact, the next morning when he got to school, he literally ran to me for a hug first thing.

The shock continued when I was told I was being put on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted.

I had already been having gallbladder problems and was about to schedule surgery, so when I left abruptly, everyone assumed (or was told) it was because of my gallbladder.

Okay... even though I'm now not afraid to share it, reliving this time is extremely triggering for me and I've tried to block this from my memory for so long, I'm fuzzy on details. My stomach is killing me thinking about it. So I'm going to finish with a few random bullet points about what happened (not in chronological order - just as I think of them).

- During the investigation, fellow teachers and assistants were interviewed and they said some horrible stuff about me. I was absolutely shocked and, at the time, I was positive they were lying. I still don't feel it was true but I wonder if my perspective was skewed. Keep this in mind - I never hurt a child. But it's possible my anger, frustration, anxiety, etc spilled over when I was teaching much more than I realized. (After all, I literally thought I didn't have anger issues at that time.)

- The school system kept what was going on a secret because they didn't want it in the news. I was very thankful because one of my biggest concerns was my reputation. I didn't want to be judged by the public when I knew I would be reinstated. However, because I was so worried about the press and my reputation, I didn't hire a lawyer even though I had liability insurance. I was sure that it would work out without going that route.

- I became mostly a recluse. I was absolutely terrified that I would run into someone who would ask about what was going on. I would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to check online for the newspaper's daily topics so that I would have a warning before I got a bunch of phone calls asking what happened. 

- Along with barely leaving the house, I tried to handle it all by myself. I was too ashamed of telling anyone, so I had almost no support. 

- The school reported what happened to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and every day I also dreaded getting a phone call or visit from them. (Their investigation showed no problems and I never heard from them at all, by the way).

- Finally, after about two months of going back and forth with the school system, a meeting was scheduled to tell me the outcome. Of course, I was scared it would be bad news but I knew I had done nothing bad enough to fire me. I really thought it would turn out okay.

- It didn't. I was told that they were going to recommend to the school board that I be fired. This would then be public information. They gave me the choice to resign, which I did. 

- I knew that my teaching license was also suspended. I can't remember what I thought would happen, but I was again shocked when I got a notice that it was revoked. I really didn't think it would go that far. I had always been one to work so hard to make sure that I kept it updated - I went beyond what was needed so it would never accidentally lapse. This was the final blow.

Anyway... one day soon I plan to write about all of the post-incident stuff and one way God provided in the middle of it that is amazing.

You might be wondering, "Why now? Why share this on a random Thursday when you've held it in so long?"

Again, I'll try to explain more later, but all I can say is that earlier today I was thinking about the future and the thought came in (as it almost always does)... "What about "the incident"? What if it's found out and everyone thinks horrible things about me?

I've fought those questions now for years. I had finally gotten to the place where I accepted that it didn't matter because the people who loved me would know that it wasn't true.

But the problem with that is... what if it was true? What if it was worse than I thought? What if my perspective was so messed up due to my mental health issues that they were right? Then the argument about truth was no longer valid.

For the first time in the many, many, many times I've had that thought and then those questions and all of the incredible anxiety and fear that accompanied them, I recognized what I actually needed to know. 

It really felt like this concept dropped straight into my spirit: It doesn't matter. Not because the people who know and love me also don't believe it's true, but because I'm not that person anymore. I don't think I was the person they thought I was then, but even if I was, I'm not that person anymore.

All this is the past. Just like I wouldn't hold judgment against a friend who has made mistakes, even really major ones, I can't hold it against myself.

I'm finally free.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

My Introduction at a Pathfinders Meeting

This new group of women that I got to meet today are all P.O.N.F - Paralyzed, Overwhelmed, Fearful, and Needy. In fact, that's why we were all there, including the leader. 

I suggest that we call ourselves the PONF Pathfinder People. (Try to say that 3 times fast!)

When I saw the question in our workbook that we addressed as we introduced ourselves, "Do you feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, or needy?" (we added 'fearful' during the session), my answer was, "Yes!" There was no "or" about it.

My life defines PONF... and during introductions was one of those times it showed its ugly head.

The leader of the group, a friend of mine, knew how much I was struggling. When it was my turn to introduce myself, she offered to do so for me. However, I knew she would tell the highlight reel of where I am and I wanted to share where I really am.

I tried.

Really, I did. 

But I had been shaking more and more from nerves as my turn got closer and closer... when I started to share, tears started to flow instead of words. 

I ended up taking the leader up on her kind offer... but I had been correct. She said some of the great things I have accomplished. She did mention a little of why I was having a hard time, but of course, it's rare to share someone else's struggles for them - it's just not done.

Anyway, when I asked her to share for me, I also asked if I could write out what I really am feeling today. 

I had planned to email this directly to the group members but it's been a while since I have included a synopsis of who and where I am here... so why not post it for those few who read this blog?

Let's see... where to start?

Easy facts first.

I'm married - for four months now. It's my second marriage and my husband's first. His family was absolutely positive that he was never going to marry - and after five years of dating, I was sure they were right. 

They were wrong.

Side note... I'll try not to make this too long (...and everyone reading this says in unison, "Too late!") so for some aspects of my life, I'll provide links to those who may have the time and desire to find out more.

First link: a cute story I wrote about when we first started dating -

Back to the facts (these aren't quite as "easy")...

My husband has multiple mental and physical issues (but not as many as the rest of us in the family do). Not long after we first started dating, he was in and out of hospitals for several months. I took care of him throughout that time (when I wasn't working my part-time job. that is... my freelance work was moved aside for the time). 

He was eventually diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease called Stills Disease. He does okay most of the time, when he's not having a flare-up, that is. (By the way, he's having a flare-up now).

I have one daughter who is now 23 and living with her fiance'. She has multiple mental and physical issues and had to drop out of college and is still unemployed two years later due to them. (This will be a recurring theme.)

They aren't planning to have kids but I have a plethora of grand-dogs, grand-cats, and grand-rats.

Second link: a plea I wrote to the teaching profession about kids like her -

My husband and I live with my parents, who have multiple mental and physical issues. In fact, my mom is in the ER, even as I write this, because of falling in the garage and hitting her head. I talked to her earlier and she told me to wait at home instead of with her. As there's nothing I can do there and I have a webinar I have to cover soon, for once I took her up on it - but I'm keeping in contact with her in case that changes and she needs me there.

Third link: some information about simply a few of my mom's issues -

About me - I have multiple mental and physical issues. My social anxiety disorder, combined with the low cycle (depressive cycle) I'm in currently due to my bipolar, type 2 is the main reason I couldn't introduce myself in person today.

I also deal with multiple other physical and mental issues and am currently also experiencing a flare-up with one of them - fibromyalgia.

Fourth link: a somewhat in-depth essay about these issues, at least those diagnosed before July 2019 (several have been added since) -

On top of that, in the past three years, I've had cataract surgery in both eyes (with complications), a major ankle injury that kept me in bed for about 8 weeks, carpal tunnel surgery in both wrists, and rotator cuff surgery on my right shoulder (my dominant side). This fall I need to have rotator cuff surgery on my other shoulder (of which, by the way, each shoulder surgery has about a 6-9 month recovery period).

Fifth, sixth, and seventh links: an essay on post-cataract surgery and gratitude, a little about how I felt shooting The World Games after my first carpal tunnel surgery, and how it was going a couple of weeks after my rotator cuff surgery and and

I grew up in Birmingham and moved to Tennessee after my first marriage. I moved back here in 2016 due to a combination of professional junk and my parents getting to the age where they needed help.

In past lives I've been a radio DJ (at Jeff State - not professionally); an audio engineer for church, bands, and TV (professionally); a songwriter, musician, and part of many worship teams (amateur); a worship leader (for a tiny church), came very close to being ordained; and was a special ed teacher for 25 years. 

I'm learning ASL (sign language) after wanting to become fluent since I was a young child with a friend who had deaf parents. I gave up on that dream in my 30s and at age 54 it's finally happening. (It helps to go to a deaf church!) I'm still dreaming of becoming a licensed interpreter at some point.

Currently, I'm a professional freelance writer and photographer, and yes, I've won some awards for both. Our fearless (fearful?) leader already mentioned that. It's a very long story that I don't want to get into today, but I'll just sum it up by saying that God took something very, very bad and made it very. very good. 

Last link: how God got me where I am professionally -

(Aren't you glad I didn't feel up to introducing myself today? We'd probably still be there now and at the time I'm finishing this post, it's dark outside. 😊)

My "Your Voice" Editorial

I was asked to write this for a sidebar about an article featuring the book "Triumph from Tragedy." Little did I know that they would publish it in the "Your Voice" section of the paper...

Originally published in The Alabama Baptist newspaper's "Your Voice" on Feb 17, 2022:

"TAB Photographer, Writer Shares How God Opened Doors of Opportunity"

By Tracy Riggs

Freelance photographer and writer

Growing up, I had two far-fetched dreams: to be a professional photographer and a published author. However, I wasn’t a risk-taker and pursued a teaching career instead.

While in college, I shot some weddings. I was paid, so technically I was a “professional,” but I felt like a fraud. I had no formal training and didn’t have “professional” equipment.

Later, as a single parent with a full-time job, I gave up photography work. I took photos of my family and penned long-winded journal entries, but I had no faith that my dreams would ever materialize.

Unbelievably, years later I found myself in a place in life where I could try to pursue full-time photography.

At first paid jobs were rare, so I got a part-time job as a receptionist at a salon. The owner suggested taking photos of prom girls getting makeup and hair done and making them available to their parents.

I advertised through a display of my work. Though I never sold any of those images, God had another plan in mind.

One afternoon TAB Media President and Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Davis Rash came to the shop. While scheduling her next appointment, she noticed the display and said she needed a local photographer. Though extremely excited, I kept my composure and replied that I’d love to be considered.

Five months went by before I heard back from her. Was I still interested? Was I available? I quickly said yes to both.

That first shoot for TAB was nerve-racking. After detailed editing, I submitted the images and held my breath. That first assignment led to photographing the Alabama Baptist Pastors Conference and Alabama Baptist State Convention that year.

Four months later I asked if we could cover the “Not Alone Conference.” Focused on breaking down the stigma of mental health concerns in the church, I was passionate about this topic as I personally dealt with these issues.

The answer was yes, but there wasn’t a reporter available. I was asked to take notes, so someone else could write an article. But again, God had other plans.

Attending the conference ignited my passion for the topic. I summoned every bit of courage I had and asked about writing the articles myself. To my surprise, I got a green light.

I applaud TAB Media’s content editor, Carrie McWhorter, for her extreme patience. I fumbled around while learning the journalistic style of writing. But with each new assignment, I gained experience and saw improvement in my skills.

Since then, I’ve interviewed nationally known Christian performers, done some event reporting and written research-based articles.

But even after having my byline on numerous articles, part of me felt I still wasn’t an “author” because I hadn’t published a book.

I discovered Christian Writers for Life through a workshop called “The Writing Minister,” sponsored by TAB Media and taught by the group’s founder, Denise George.

When the group held a contest to be included in a published essay collection, I gathered my courage and entered.

In my heart, I still thought being published at all would be a fluke. I was completely amazed when my story was chosen.

"Triumph from Tragedy” doesn’t have my name on the cover, but it’s still a dream come true. God carved out a path I couldn’t have ever imagined to fulfill 35-year-long desires, even though I had no faith.

I’m so humbled now to see what He has done.