Trauma, especially any kind of abusive relationship, can leave us feeling inadequate, incompetent, and with a giant dollop of imposter syndrome. Not a great position to be in when wanting to put your best foot forward! The good news is that awareness of trauma’s big little lies can remind us that they’re just that—lies.
Facing triggers at work can feel extra-challenging due to worries about maintaining a professional reputation, keeping your job, and looking competent. If you don’t have a coworker who knows that you’re dealing with PTSD and is supportive, being triggered at work can also feel lonely and isolating. You’re not the only one dealing with this, and here are some strategies that have helped others like you cope.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (often known as PTSD) is more common that you might think. Since approximately 8% of the U.S. population (24.4 million people) has this issue at any given time, chances are good that you work with someone who has or has had PTSD. People can develop PTSD from lots of different experiences, not just combat. They might have been in a car accident, a natural disaster, an abusive relationship, or any number of dangerous events. Regardless of the cause, here are some ways you can be a supportive coworker.
Onward Through the Fog
On the second Wednesday of every month, I leave the house earlier than I’d like to and nervously drive farther than I’m comfortable to spend twenty dollars and five hours not talking to anyone. It’s a monthly silent writing retreat. Both my time there and the soup someone always volunteers to make are delicious. I sit in a big house on the top of a hill, greeted by deer, and write at a round kitchen table in front of a window, much like my own round kitchen table in front of a window.
Today this window displays a world softened by cottony fog. On my way here, the fog was so dense that only a few hundred feet of the road were revealed to me at any given moment. Familiar landmarks vanished behind the curtain, while others, previously unnoticed, shone brighter.
Driving along, the words of one of my teachers came to mind. She speaks of how our unique path is revealed to us only moment by moment, small step by small step, illuminated by the lantern of our hearts. We only know what we know at that time and place. The future sits unseen, perhaps even unbuilt.
I struggle with this, as I struggle with fog. I like to see the horizon way off in the distance. My eyes, raised on the plains of North Texas, are calibrated for distance. Mountains and valleys invoke claustrophobia.
My mind wants options. It wants to plan ahead. My copies of the Choose Your Own Adventure books were worn and bent from my constant flipping back and forth, pudgy child fingers holding my place, weighing the possibilities to find the best one. I wouldn’t just look one step ahead—no, that wasn’t reassurance enough. I would examine the story two, three, four choicepoints at a time to find the longest story possible with the happiest outcome.
I have since outgrown those paperbacks, and my fingers are longer now, but that tendency to want to plan for all contingencies has not budged. My mind runs dress rehearsals and drills. Creates worst-case scenarios, then responses to those scenarios, and then responses to those responses.
Sometimes my mind’s predictions are true. Or something else happens that I didn’t anticipate. The phone call that makes my stomach drop and the room tilt 180 degrees. The moments when something is forever altered. The house was solid; now it sits open to the sky. The job was permanent; the meeting that just ended says it’s gone. The warm hand we hold grows cold.
Fog reminds me of those moments when I can no longer pretend that I have a grasp on anything. It’s like the time once a year when I follow a line of people into a darkened forest, nearly blind due to my poor night vision, unable to predict when the ground beneath my feet is rising or falling. Every year, I want to stop. Every year, I tell myself the only way out is through, that this is the practice, that this is what is always happening anyway.
It always is. I can pretend all I want that I know where my next step will land. I can pretend that what I write in my planner for next week will happen. I can schedule and outline everything. Lay out my clothes the night before. Say, “I’ll see you Wednesday.” It’s all as make-believe as my child self pretending the living-room furniture came to life at night.
So it’s onward through the fog. Working to embrace the stumbling, to loosen my grip on the idea that my mind’s feeble plans have any real power in the face of the immensity of nature, of the flow of life itself. Moving with faith towards something unseen? That’s the true adventure. And I choose that. (Now if I could just sneak a quick peek at the itinerary…?)