Despite having had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for most of my adult life, I really didn’t know that much about it until a few months ago, when I started my healing journey in honest.
By far one of the most helpful resources for me has been “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel A. van der Kolk. As I returned to work following a two-month leave to seek treatment for PTSD, I realized that though there were several co-workers who cared for me, none of them knew what I was facing, or what they could do to help. So, using Dr. van der Kolk’s comprehensive study of trauma and healing, I wrote this piece. Quotes from his book are interspersed with my personal truths.
People need to be educated. Survivors first, and loved ones. But co-workers, too, because we spend so much time with them. June is PTSD Awareness Month. It’s also Employee Wellness Month. What better time to talk to your co-workers about such an important issue? So here is to your education and healing, and the education and healing of the world in which we all live and work.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.” (p 79)
1.) I do not feel safe at work
Having to work with my attacker for more than a year after the fact was nearly unbearable. But even with him gone, it’s not easy. There are memories here. Of him, naturally, but also of others. Talking with him. Joking with him. And there are memories of me, too, cowering in the bathroom crying. Or standing, paralyzed, at my desk.
The only thing that has changed about this place for me is his absence. And while that’s a big piece of my fear, it isn’t all of it. Instead of being the newsroom where I had my first job out of college, this will forever be for me the place I met my rapist. That is not going to change without tremendous effort.
“ … traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them.” (p 17)
2.) I need help, but I can’t ask for it
When I am at work on a bad PTSD day, everyone is the enemy. I feel like the victim of a massive crime and cover-up, and everyone is guilty until proven innocent. It’s not fair. It’s not accurate. But, on a bad PTSD day, I can’t see that. I can’t see — or think, or feel — anything. I am trapped in my trauma.
There are three stages of response to threat. The first is social engagement, when you are threatened and you call for help. If no aid comes, your body initiates the fight or flight response. If you are unable to get away — like if you are drunk and slipping in and out of consciousness — your body will then proceed to the last stage: shut down. All non-essential systems go offline, until it’s pretty much your reptilian brain running the show. That means your higher functions — language, speech, rational thought — aren’t available to you.
Trauma becomes PTSD when these processes are interrupted. PTSD is, essentially, a reliving of the trauma, over and over. It is like being locked inside your own head, your own body. It takes effort to realize that you are safe in an office, that you are not actually under attack. And the quickest way to end the spiral is to connect with another person.
“ … knowing that we are seen and heard by … people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe, and … being ignored or dismissed can precipitate … mental collapse.” (p. 78)
3.) You are the difference between a good day and a bad one.
PTSD thrives in isolation. When someone engages with me, even to say hi or ask about a news story, it changes my mood. Not slowly, not slightly, but dramatically and all at once.
My biggest fear is that this trauma has changed me somehow, made me unworthy and incapable of friendship or connection. When I am greeted each day with silence from my peers, that confirms everything I have heard, read or imagined about the rejection and dismissal of survivors.
“Functioning effectively in a complex work environment … requires the ability to quickly assess how people are feeling and continuously adjusting your behavior.” (p 62)
4.) My social skills have been severely compromised
I know workplace gossip is as ubiquitous as the office candy bowl. I know it, because I’ve done it. I’m trying to stop, since I know how it feels to be talked about and not to. Some days, I want to break my self-imposed ban on gossip, just so I have something to say and someone to talk to.
Even harder than not talking is not knowing what people are saying. I am not exaggerating when I say I NEED to know what people think about me, where they stand. Do they sympathize with my attacker? Or are they just uncomfortable and unsure of what to say? My sanity, the foundation of my recovery, depends on that answer.
5.) I can’t do the whole fake-happy thing anymore
I won’t. And I shouldn’t have to. What happened to me (Correction: What is happening to me) is absolutely terrible. But you know what’s more awful than being raped? Not being able to talk about it.
Feeling safe and valued makes me a better employee, a better co-worker. And to feel safe, I need to know that the workplace is somewhere that I can be honest, even when it’s hard to hear. (Correction: Especially when it’s hard to hear.)
And, no, I don’t want to rehash the violent details of the event with you, or cry on your shoulder. I just want to be able to say what I’m feeling and have that be OK. I want (Correction: I need) to be able to be seen and heard and known. By you. Because I spend more time at work, with you, than I do with my boyfriend, my friends, or my dogs. And if I have to spend the majority of my waking hours in a week pretending, I will not get better.