How my English teacher saved my life

One year ago I met my Saving Grace. And as miraculously as she entered my life I understand that soon she must exit, as her work with me is done. For this I now steel myself, as it is I who must cut the ties. I must be the first to say 'goodbye'.

Ours is a strange story. To this day I cannot fathom why she bothered. But bother she did, in correspondence totalling some 6000 emails from across the world and across time zones. She was my guide and my companion. I think I owe her my life, and more.

Time differences didn't matter to me throughout this time, as day was night and night was day.

It started quite pathetically really. Lost in my own muddled world I had, by instinct for survival, turned all my energy and focus to one of my great loves: writing. Novel writing soon subsumed all other things, offering, as it did, a flash of hope for a future: a purpose to live; a new role?

My first attempt at a novel was titled Eat worms geranium. Intensely I had penned the first few chapters; but what to do with it? It was mostly set in my childhood, a place where at that time I commonly dwelt.

And then it occurred to me (exceedingly logical at the time) to approach my school English teacher for her thoughts. This would perhaps be normal enough, if not for the fact that she had been my teacher some three decades prior, in 1978. But this time gap did not faze me from making an overture. Nor the fact that she had subsequently become a successful novelist, nor the fact that she now lived overseas, nor — most significantly — that she probably wouldn't remember me from Adam.

And so it was in late February 2009 I emailed my secondary school English teacher, complete with an attachment of the first few chapters of my novel.

At some level I must have understood I was not acting normally, as I plainly stated to my teacher that I was not good with boundaries and I would fully understand if she did not reply, 'no message being the most complete message of all', I wrote.

To my surprise and elation, she did reply. And over ensuing months she replied and replied and replied. In the blackness she was there. In the blackness she guided me. She was to soon become everything in a world of nothingness. Up to 20 emails a day came her way. Emails which were at times confronting, often awkward and frequently challenging. Yet she did not shy away.

For four months of major depression she was my saving grace. An accident on our farm then seemingly tipped me that bit further over and she was still there ... advising me to get to hospital in the middle of the night here: day time where she was. I recall the hospital ED staff at 4am asking if anyone knew I was there. I said, 'Yes, she knows', omitting the fact that she was no relation at all and thousands of miles away. But to me, with phone in hand, she had never left my side.

She was soon joined by Psych Services staff and a few close friends and my lovely husband. And so it was that after an eight month battle with depression, I was to succumb (as I saw it at the time) to medication.

It's hard now to say what went on: what transpired between her and me in all those correspondences. I know I pushed the boundaries, but push as I might I could not get her to give up on me. She would take it in her stride and offer her wisdom, her calmness, her guidance. And when I was really off the mark and might later, in a rare flash of normality, realise this and lament, she would quietly reply that she appreciates how people occupy different head-spaces at such times and I should not worry myself.

'Worse things happen at sea' and 'There is nothing new under the sun' are two such replies I recall. So she would assure me that I should not feel my stated embarrassment or shame.

Psych Services spent the first few weeks finding the right drugs for me, with daily one to two-hour home visits and twice daily phone calls. At one stage, when one lot of unsuccessful meds was crossing over with replacement meds, I found myself trying to emerge from the fog and my greatest fear was in motion. I somehow found my phone and emailed her from my bed. An extract from 7 July 2009 reads:

'I am fading.'

'But this is a typical 3 am feeling. Snooze time again. Think of Gran; recite your poems if you can (even a few words will do) and drift off. xx'


'Good girl. Teacher's pet. xx'

This exchange and many others meant the world to me ... literally my whole world. Gentle, caring and 'there'.

Many people would have run a mile when my first unstable email blundered through. In fact she had every reason to duck: her sister, just one year younger than herself, had suffered mental illness most of her life which culminated in her suicide at age 50 in 1996. But she didn't duck, and I am so grateful.

But now, one year on, the time has come for Teacher's Pet to let go and stand strong. A strength emanating in a large part from a precious relationship that happen-chanced my way 31 years after the classroom door closed. A relationship captured forever in 6000 emails in an Outlook Express Inbox.

Fiona DouglasFollowing a two decade career in rural journalism and editing, Fiona Douglas now breeds mini dachshunds and paint horses on her farm at Gippsland, Victoria where she lives with her husband and their teenage daughters.

Topic tags: Fiona Douglas, Depression, medication, greece, english teacher, teacher's pet



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Existing comments

What a beautiful piece!

Cassandra | 30 June 2010  

If it weren't for Eureka Street, where would we find writing like this?

Thank you, writer. Thank you publisher.

Frank | 30 June 2010  

God provides angels for us on a daily basis.
The hard thing is to recognise them.
A harder (or madder?) thing is to seek them out.

Fiona, your story is proof enough for me that there is a provident God, at times inspiring us to trust him; at others to trust our core instincts and reach out for help.

Thank you for sharing your experience with me and ES readers. I hope your story reaches an even wider audience.

Uncle Pat | 30 June 2010  

Thanks for sharing! I love the power of your honesty!

DC Green | 30 June 2010  

Such a lovely story. It demonstrates faith hope and love. Bless you Fiona and your wonderful caring teacher. Also thank you Eureka Street.

Stan | 30 June 2010  

Dear Fiona
Please do not 'steel yourself".Think instead of the possibility of transforming the tie.

In my case my son's RE teacher saved my life.Then he became my friend.And then-since there was dependence in that tie too-he became my fellow pilgrim.
Let it be...
Blessings to you...

Margaret | 30 June 2010  

Dear Fiona, Good on you for expressing so well the hell that is depression. Like you I am a sufferer, and like you I have a teacher from my past who has become my lifeline. I am so grateful for his love and encouragement. It was wonderful to read your peice. As my mentor would say, "Bravo, Keep Writing." God Bless you.

Barry Garner | 30 June 2010  

As an old English teacher, I can only hope that I too may have been so blessed as to help a student in their time of need. God bless us all.

DENISE MIEL | 30 June 2010  

Thank you, Fiona, for your wonderful story. I was once told that when I tell someone what I am feeling or what I was feeling, I am giving them a gift. Only I can tell you what I feel. Your story is a true gift not only to me, but to many others.

Rob | 30 June 2010  

As a former teacher, your story really touched me. I too hope I can help any of my former students too. What a lovely story.God bless you.

Gavin | 30 June 2010  

Fiona, in writing and sharing, you have become the teacher, to all of us, who have had the privilege of reading your story. God Bless you and your wonderful will always be a part of each other, but you know you now have the strength, not only to help yourself, but to reach out to others as you have done.


Crissouli | 30 June 2010  

I am so glad I checked back through my emails to find your piece. As a teacher I am inspired by your mentor. I am also given heart by your story. Thank you.

And, as you enter a period of not needing to push so hard, maybe further richness will be revealed in the months and years ahead as you begin to relate to your friend on a new and possibly more rewarding level.

Vic O'Callaghan | 02 July 2010  

What a powerful story of what Joan Chittister calls 'The ministry of influence'. We never know the influence for good we can have on another. Congratulations to Fiona's teacher for her courage to respond and continue to respond to Fiona's cry for help. A pwerful story fo the grace of God working in and through us. Thank you, Eureka Street, for sharing the story. An avid reader!

Bernie Sontrop | 02 July 2010  

Fiona, Thank you for sharing your heart and your talent. No wonder people do not give up on you!

Mary T | 03 July 2010  

Oh Fi, my brave and beautiful friend! You've always had my admiration but did you know that you are my inspiration! You know when you write, I see pictures. A gift I witnessed you struggle with hoping that one day through your fog you would again see the clarity of your visions and written words, and once again experience the warmth and energy writing gives you. Re-shape your friendship - re-think ending it. Teacher may have needed you as much as you needed teacher! Thank you Teacher for saving my friend. Thank you Fi for the courage to be so raw and honest, and just for being you!

Sandy | 03 July 2010  

a beautifully told true modern day cyber love story, love to see this on the big screen one day fi

lynton | 08 July 2010  

What a great piece of insightful writing Fi. You have a real talent for bringing out the reality of the problem and the beauty of the solution and all the pain and confusion in between. What a wonderful person your English teacher is. Thank you for sharing your experience, and do keep on writing - we'll all benefit!

Rena Douglas | 09 July 2010  

this is a beautiful story and i thoughrally sympathise with your experiances as i was in a similar mental state when i started seconday school (am now in collage) and was at 1 stage suicidal. It was my then tutor who became my maths teacher for my whole time at school ( in my school you have 1 tutor for the 1st year and a different tutor for the other 4)and he was the only one in the world who got me and seemed to genuinly care. anyway thanx to him i got better and am now fine. I still visit him (i am a mentor at my old school) and talk to him a lot on facebook and he's still there for me and really is my rock,but next year i'll be off to university and i won't be able to see him much and know that i should cut that tie sooner rather than later but can't bring myself to do it as i miss him everyday and find it really hard not to think about him.

KC21051976 | 05 November 2010  

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