My return from leave

A woman seated below a wall mural that says, Peace Love Tybee. ." T

I started this post the first week of June when I returned to work after my two month leave. I am only now completing it because I’ve spent the last three weeks in a household with multiple illnesses. It’s taken some time to feel physically and mentally resourced enough to get back to writing.

Content warning: I’ll be sharing some insights about my experiences living with PTSD. I don’t share any specifics about its origins or events that are triggers for me. I am sharing these insights with people following me in hopes that it reaches someone who needs the solidarity, resources, affirmation, or vocabulary to characterize their own experiences. 

What most people see and know about my leave of absence is on the surface about what my physical form did. I was gone for two months and did what I wanted every day – painting, hiking, napping, reading, watching movies. I tried to be attuned and responsive to my interests, needs, and intuition. I don’t think most people would understand that I spent that leave with my spirit in the “dark woods” part of the Hero’s Journey. At the same time that I was learning to enjoy my own company and discovering my mid-life interests, I was also going through challenging emotional and psychological things. My sense of self was changing. But everything around me – people, culture, systems – are exactly as I left it. Martha Crawford’s What a Shrink Thinks blog post, On the Surface, explores this journey through the dark woods really well.

Speaking truthfully with myself

I live with anxiety, depression, and complex PTSD related to adverse childhood experiences. I experience an unsolvable triangle of feelings among guilt, anxiety, and anger. Self-sufficiency was a key framework of my upbringing, so I feel guilty for having needs and wants, for asking for help, and for asking for another person’s companionship or guidance. I live in constant fear of another person’s disappointment, anger, and punishment if I express those needs or wants. And I have completely suppressed righteous anger and resentment about injustices and infringement of my boundaries. This triangle of feelings leaves me stress intolerant and distrusting of my safety in relationships with a dominant other. This triangle feels like a swarm of angry, noisy, stinging, buzzing bees; it’s distracting, distressing, and inescapable. When I try to swat it away, the noise and sting escalate.

I’ve been doing active re-processing since 2019, re-interpreting, re-framing, and re-integrating scary and sad memories, the meanings I’ve associated with them, and the mal-adaptive behaviors I’ve adopted. For much of the pandemic, my psychological work has become more about day-to-day coping strategies to manage both the foreground and backdrop of compounding human crises. 

I took a leave of absence because I was burned out and exhausted from working and parenting during the pandemic. When I’m being honest with myself, however, a misguided, naive goal I had for my mental health leave was to “cure” and “get rid of” my mental health challenges. I had a fantasy that if I could cure my PTSD, then I wouldn’t feel the hurt and sting of life’s inevitable downs so intensely and perpetually. And in my magical thinking, I would cure PTSD while on leave so I could really focus on the psychological work and not be a burden to co-workers. And if I could cure PTSD, then I could be normal, hard-working, productive, creative, secure, and content. I scrambled with the thought that there was, somewhere out there, the right “unlock” of my thinking, the right medication, the right kind of therapy, the right anything to make my experience of life manageable.

The right “unlock” happened when a friend who studies disability helped me reframe PTSD as something I learn to befriend, manage, and live alongside with. This friend encouraged me to look up PTSD under the Job Accommodation Network. It is a protected status as a disability under ADA. The limitations I currently experience are all right there: concentration, fatigue, prioritization, stress intolerance. The suggested accommodations to noise and stress feel amazing and easy when they are a natural part of my environment: flexible schedule, uninterrupted time, remote work. My experience and needs were validated on that page. I’m now trying to work with our ADA office to get official work accommodations. I’m developing awareness about how these accommodations relate to my other contexts and environments. 

Creating a life that works for me

Me, a woman, reclining with a white cat on my chest. We're "booping" noses. I have a blue tank top on and glasses.
Me and Lennie

I am a person who lives with PTSD. My PTSD won’t ever go away. It will always be part of me. I oscillate between stanzas III and IV in Portia Nelson’s poem, Autobiography in Five Paragraphs. I can stop trying to conform to what I think people expect. I can build a life that works for me, a person with PTSD. I can adapt my life in a way that makes trigger episodes less likely to happen and more manageable when they do. The adaptations and accommodations I need now may not be what I need later. I don’t have to live an isolating, confusing, self-stigmatizing life. I have the agency to surround myself with people who want to be supportive of my growth. When I am open and truthful with people I trust about my needs, I build a community of support.

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