I grew up watching movies like 9 to 5, Working Girl, and Baby Boom. Such stories taught young Valarie a great deal about her future. Yes, it would be difficult (and men would make it more so). But with enough grit, and enough determination, I would overcome! Even if I had to take an executive or two hostage for a time and run the company in their (his) stead, I could do it.
We’ll gloss over the fact that I was able to see my future in those nice white lady faces because of my privilege. Hollywood has never provided adequate role models for people of color, but especially women of color. That’s a post for another day. Also, I love Dolly Parton, y’all. Back to the point….
I got my first job at 14, teaching judo to wee kidlets. Over the years, I’ve held so many jobs it is almost comical. It wasn’t until I found software development at the age of 34- automation and deployments specifically- when I finally found a career I could love forever. And much to my surprise, it hasn’t been nearly the in-your-face ordeal I remember from the films of my formative years!
My engineering manager is a joy, being nothing like the horrible bosses of yesteryear. He is patient, kind, and the first to draw attention to his team for things they do well. He is the kind of person who makes you want to do and be just a little better than you are. This is why I struggled to tell him about… me.
I live with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or CPTSD, with which I wasn’t diagnosed until the summer of 2017. Before then I simply thought I was quirky, odd, depressed, paranoid, or just plain crazy. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t know. I earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology, for fuck’s sake. I may be the only person in the history of psych degrees to not diagnose themselves with a million disorders.
CPTSD is a fascinating condition. The result of multiple traumas over many years, particularly in childhood, we who live with it have some peculiar needs, habits, and behaviors. Many have written articles about things they wish others understood about the way our minds and bodies work. In particular, we wish our employers knew how hard we have to work just to exist in the office.
And how has CPTSD impacted me working in my dream job? Myriad ways.
First, there is the depression. My mind is a total douche bag sometimes, betraying the way I want to feel with the way it makes me feel. There are moments where I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I ought to be feeling joy… and yet, I feel nothing. Or worse, I feel hopelessness and a crushing sense that I shouldn’t enjoy the source of would-be joy because it will only be taken away from me when I least expect it.
Depression feels like a dementor; all hope has left the world, and only an emptiness remains. When I am at my worst, just taking a shower and heating up food feels like my own personal Everest. Even so, I have to make an appearance in the office each day; showered, dressed, and smiling if possible. I have to wear a happy mask for meetings. It is exhausting to put forth every last bit of emotional effort in my body while in the office. But I do it. I love my officemates; I don’t want them to be miserable just because I am.
Then there is the hypervigilance. My mind rarely allows me to forget that the world is inherently dangerous, and I am an inch away from attack at all times. I will do most anything to avoid having my back to people, even at work. For a time, I was given a cubicle in front of two of my coworkers’ cubicles. Rationally, I felt confident that neither of those gentlemen intended me harm. They’re swell dudes. But my brain wouldn’t accept that they were safe. After all, I thought most of the men who have attacked me over the years were swell… until they weren’t. My coworkers, when desks were reordered, were fine with me taking the far back corner unit. I wonder if they truly understand how much that meant to me.
Hypervigilance comes with a hefty physical price tag as well as a mental toll. Spending the entire day tense and on alert leaves me sore and spent by the end of the day. My commute makes it worse. Since my most recent car accident in 2017, I have issues driving for more than a short distance. Every car I pass, every car I see swerve a little, every car who hits their breaks makes my body go through what an accident involving that car would feel like in the moment. On a 20-minute commute in Atlanta, my body is likely to trick itself into thinking it has experienced a car accident, maybe two. My body hurts a lot of mornings when I get to the office. It is a fact of life.
And sleep! Oh, sleep, that elusive and cruel mistress. Like so many others with CPTSD, sleep and I have a rough relationship. Late at night, sober Valarie lies in bed with racing thoughts she can’t dismiss unless she turns to wine to shut them up. Then there is the early waking insomnia. Let’s say I get to sleep at a reasonable time. Come 4am, SURPRISE! Sometimes it is a nightmare that wakes me, or a memory. Either way, my partner has had to accept that he will sometimes wake up in pitch black and feel me shaking next to him. He doesn’t even ask why anymore; the answer, if I even know it, doesn’t really matter.
There is a reason sleep deprivation features prominently in every how-to book for would-be torturers: neither the mind nor body is of much use without sleep. And yet, I get up every day and go into the office, exhausted. I try to smile. I try my best to pretend I wouldn’t lay down and nap on a moment’s notice if only I could. I try to do my work as best I can, living with this level of never-ending fatigue. I celebrate everything I accomplish no matter how seemingly insignificant, because I know how much effort went into each task.
CPTSD has me forever waiting for the proverbial rug to be pulled out from under me in some way. Life has taught me that all good things will be ripped away from me when I least expect it. In my personal life, this looks like involuntarily crying if a relative from whom I rarely hear calls me; my mind assumes they are calling to tell me someone has died. At work, this causes constant anxiety that I am going to be let go.
I began my first role in technology as a 10-week internship. Just a few weeks into my tenure as an intern, our recruiter asked to speak to me privately. The tears came immediately. As I followed her to a room, my mind raced trying to figure out what I had done wrong, and why I was being fired. I couldn’t think of anything, but still, I internally berated myself for whatever it was. When she told me she’d asked to speak to me alone because she was extending the offer of a permanent position at the company, the water works really kicked in. The wave of relief was palpable!
But even knowing I am fine, that I am working, and that I am learning: I live with daily dread. I finally had to ask my manager to give me both positive and constructive feedback as often as he remembers to do so. I explained that I am wired to believe good things get taken away. He seemed to understand. He chuckled a little, but took the time to go through the process it would take to fire me. His willingness to lay out all the steps that would have to happen, so my stressed mind could look for evidence rather than rely on fear to guide it, has made a world of difference in my ability to do my job.
There are myriad symptoms of CPTSD, and we each have a different selection from that shit show of a buffet. But for me, in the context of working in an office, the worst one is wondering if anyone around me knows.
Do they know that when I go home I crumple into a shell of myself as soon as my kids are asleep, because whatever mental and/or physical energy I had is depleted? Do they know the number of times I have sat in meetings, nodding at appropriate intervals, but in my mind I am fighting intrusive thoughts and trying not to cry… again? Do they know that as much as I like them, I wonder which of them might eventually cause me harm?
I guess the simple answer to the question of them knowing is: they do now.
You might be wondering, given my discomfort at the idea of everyone knowing, why I would share my story. Hell. I am sort of wondering the same thing right now.
In a basic way, I refuse to be ashamed of my past, my trauma history, or of who I am as a person because of those things. In a recent recording session for my podcast, the CodePrep Podcast, I came out about my CPTSD during an episode concerning mental health and the workplace. It was scary to speak fairly openly, knowing some folks I know would hear it eventually. But at the same time, I know that someone who needs to hear it will also hear it- someone else who is struggling with CPTSD.
The thing that makes this bearable is the knowledge that my hurts have made me uniquely capable of helping others who have been hurt. I feel kindred with Wade Wilson (Deadpool) in so many ways; he’s scarred and damaged, so he hides behind a facade. But the thing that led to him being mangled is also what made him a superhero. I feel you, Wade.
The times I have been able to help others because I know what trauma looks like and can reach out. The times I realized I am more than capable of handling a rough situation, because I have lived through horrific events and am still here thriving. The times someone felt comfortable discussing their trauma because I casually mentioned mine. Those are the times that almost make my past worth it. Those are the times I feel more like a hero than a victim. Those are the times I feel confident that, when the end comes, it will be me, Cher, and cockroaches who survive the fallout… because I always find a way to survive, and then thrive, if only out of spite.
So… here I am, in all my vulnerable glory. Sitting in my cube, taking a break from the frustrations of selecting a site monitoring solution, reflecting on how CPTSD impacts me in the workplace. I am thankful to work where I do. Thankful for a manager who is nothing like childhood films told me he would be… other than, you know, still being a white man. Thankful for coworkers who accept my quirks even when they don’t understand them. Thankful for a generous work from home policy for days when I just can’t endure driving, or being around other humans. Thankful for the health insurance which provides me with the drugs that keep me on the living edge of the abyss.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hide in a back room and go through an ugly cry brought on by the anxiety which accompanies knowing you have just read this. Good day.