The problem with trauma is that it’s really hard to put it in perspective, especially when you’re going through it. On one hand, it feels like life pulled the rug out from underneath you and you want the world to stop while you catch your breath. On the other hand, there are so many people who have gone through much worse. What’s the benchmark? Are you supposed to fight for your pre-trauma quality of life? Or are you lucky, because your trauma wasn’t as bad as it could have been? And it’s hard to get advice on this because it’s hard to explain the impact to anyone who hasn’t had a very similar experience. It’s not just the event that sucks, there’s this whole aftermath that keeps adding insult to injury, wearing you down. How long before people run out of sympathy and start rolling their eyes? The healing journey is a confusing one.
Let me give you an example. In 2015, I was assaulted by a disturbed person. I was out with some friends in New York City’s Meatpacking District. My assailant, a complete stranger, was oddly furious with us. She spit an agressive “fuck you” at one of my friends as she walked by. She kept pointing and shaking her head in our direction from across the room. We decided to leave. On our way out, she grabbed my hair and pulled hard. After what felt like a very long time, security made her let go. The police came, she was arrested for first degree assault, and I was a quarter bald.
As far as assaults go, this seemed fairly minor, and god knows there are far more tragic causes of hair loss. But being attacked is still traumatizing. I became jumpy at any sign of erratic behavior, so pretty much any time I left my apartment in New York. I felt victimized, but I was also ashamed because getting your hair pulled out at a club sounds trashy. Did this really even count as an assault? Most people associate that word with far worse experiences. But, time went on, my hair started to grow back, and I started to regain trust in my environment.
Then I got hit by a car.
I was in a crosswalk with the walk sign lit in broad daylight and BOOM!, some dude making a left ran into me. My shoulder hit the pavement first, immediately followed by my face. I was missing three teeth and badly bruised but, fueled by a fear of being hit by more cars, I picked myself up and scurried to the sidewalk. I was crying, gasping and in shock. Some nice pedestrians sat me down on a stoop and reminded me to breathe. Everything was blurry. People were touching me, asking me questions, reaching into my purse to find my ID and I didn't even care, I couldn't process what was going on. Two EMTs put me in an ambulance to the emergency room. I spent a few hours there getting X-rays and tests and then I was off to the dentist for some stitches and fake-teeth.
I spent the week after the accident at home. I was on heavy duty pain medication and it hurt to move. I had a vague notion that maybe I should take time off to process what I’d been through, but I wasn’t sure. What are you supposed to do if you get hit by a car but you’re still in one piece? I reached out to HR for advice and got bounced around an administrative chain that ended in an email telling me to "file a ticket.” I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t have the energy to figure it out. I wasn't incapacitated. I could walk, sit, and type. So seven days after I got hit by a car, I returned to my full time job.
The next few months were a little hectic with dentist appointments (getting implants was a year-long process), physical therapy, and behavioral therapy on top of work. Keeping up was made especially exhausting by the PTSD that had me running on high alert at all times. I often had to lock myself in phone rooms at the office because the lights and noise would set off my flight or fight response. I had panic attacks when I got startled or sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. Despite my best attempts at reason and logic, my mind was now quick to jump to worst case scenarios. Fire alarm goes off? I’m going to burn alive and should maybe jump out a window. Storm warning? The subway tunnel is definitely going to flood on my way home. Plus, I had insomnia now.
I knew I was depleting my resources faster than I could replenish them, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn't afford to quit my job; I was in student loan debt up to my eyeballs. Plus, I had goals goddamnit. I was supposed to be fighting for a promotion at work, not fighting off attackers and cars. I was furious at the injustice of losing on all fronts. I lost teeth and hair and I fall behind at work? No. I naively assumed I could get through the way I always had - with pig-headed determination. I just had to push harder.
Then things got worse. I started to get the grossest cystic acne you've ever seen covering my neck and chin. And then I got another infection on top of the acne (so acne plus giant crusty oozing spots). The hair and teeth could be covered, but there was no hiding this one. I holed up in my apartment until the antibiotics cleared it up but as soon as the meds stopped, another infection cropped up bigger and badder than the last. Thus began my yearlong battle with increasingly unsightly infections that spread along my jawline, chin, and up towards my nose, leaving scars as they went.
In my quest to save my face and resume a life where I was not embarrassed to be seen, I sought the help of 10+ dermatologists and no one could figure out what was going on. "Could this have anything to do with the fact that I got hit by a car and smashed my face into pavement?" I’d ask them. "No, that's not related," they'd say condescendingly. You must have touched your face." When I’d beg to stay on the antibiotics longer, they’d say “well you can’t be on antibiotics forever, you’ll build up a resistance.”
I’m a fairly timid, conflict-averse person, always taught to respect authority. But this was getting ridiculous. It felt like no one was taking seriously that not only was my face getting disfigured, but this would actually kill me if they couldn’t make it stop. “That's your answer?,” I finally spoke up. “I touch my face more than anyone else in the world?” "Well," doctor 5 or 6 said, "you might want to see an immunologist to get your immune system checked."
So I added an immunologist to my healthcare team roster. My extensive blood work revealed that my immune system was fine but my thyroid and liver levels were off, so I'd have to get a sonogram and then see an endocrinologist. The endocrinologist couldn’t figure it out so he referred me to a hepatologist, who concluded "your blood work doesn't look great, but it's not that bad. You're probably fine." Thanks.
So there I was, PTSDing my way all over the city, playing whack a mole with my growing list of maladies. I was trying not to let my work slip but it felt really hard to care about spreadsheets and meetings in the midst of all of this. In fact, everything felt hard. Getting out of bed was hard, listening to doctors dismiss my sudden onslaught of mysterious health issues was hard, looking in the mirror was hard, trusting that there was an end in sight was hard. I felt like I was losing my mind and my personality. My once sunny disposition had been replaced by irritability and anger that I couldn’t control. And it didn’t seem like I could willpower my way out of this - the harder I pushed, the more problems I had.
“Can people break?” I asked my therapist. She assured me this was just a tough time and I’d get through it. This felt like a woefully insufficient answer and created a new line of internal questioning about whether I was being dramatic or vain or lazy; whether I should be able to handle this better? Sometimes, I found myself wishing the car accident had been worse; that I had a physical injury so everyone could see I wasn’t okay. I was working so hard just to be an ugly, unsuccessful jerk. If this was adulthood, I was ready to unsubscribe. I started reading a book on how to painlessly kill myself.
Thankfully, I have some amazing friends (the founder of this company included) who knew that I was struggling and convinced me to take a leave from work. It took me weeks to build up the courage to ask my therapist to approve this, and I actually cried tears of shame when I told my boss that I’d be out for two months. I felt like taking a leave from work was somewhere between failing and cheating. What would people think of me? No one wants to go to work, who was I to take time off?
But, I couldn’t deny that something needed to change and as scared as I was about taking a step back from the rat race, I cannot express the sense of relief that I felt when I got that paper signed. When I walked out of the building on my last day in the office, I felt like I could breathe. I didn’t realize how miserable I was until I remembered what ok feels like.
Still worried I had some sort of diagnosable weakness, I sought the help of a psychiatrist. He turned out to be a damn savior. When I mentioned I was going back to work after two months, he was appalled. “I never would have signed off on less than 3 months, and it should probably be more like 6,” he told me. I felt like there was an actual lifting of weight off my shoulders when he said this, but I still had that nagging fear that life was supposed to be hard; that worry that I was being dramatic. Is six months off what people are supposed to take after being hit by a car? What about getting hit by a car after an assault? I really wanted a rubric that I could carry around with me so I could tell everyone that I was doing what I was supposed to do. “Do you think I’m in the business of fraud?” he asked. “I’m your doctor, and my medical advice is that you should not return to the office.” With that, he gave me validation, permission, and the time I needed to heal.
In those four months, I got myself back. The anxiety started to calm, I was finally getting sleep, the irritability was dissipating, the face infections were less frequent. There was hope.There was also, for the first time in my life, time to exist without the constant tug of work - no performance reviews to pander to or overflowing inbox to manage or sales targets to hit. It was weird and amazing. I was used to the constant feedback you get as a student and professional - there are always grades and and scores and commentary to tell you how well you’re doing, where you stand, what you need to improve. This was six months of just existing without anyone’s judgement but my own. No one was telling me to do better, but not one was telling me I was doing well either. I had to develop my own gauge, something I should have done a long time ago.
Until this point, I never realized the extent to which I valued the opinions of others over my own. I was so wrapped up in being what others wanted that I completely failed to develop any sense of my own wants. I started to question my priorities, and they felt all wrong. Some of that was because I had changed. Peace, and quiet, and control of my environment were now critical to me. But some of it was because I was now my own proof that you could stray from the standard, straight line path and the world would still turn. In fact, the world might be better. Why were so many of us enduring miserable commutes when so many jobs could be done from home? Why did we expect all people to be “on” from 9-5 (let’s be real, it’s more like 9-7), when we know that’s not really how people work? Was climbing the corporate ladder actually something to be proud of? Why did we ever normalize prioritizing work over health?
I wish I could tell you that with this newfound perspective, I discovered and chased my dreams and lived happily ever after. Not even close. I think about an escape route all the time, about taking a chance and pursuing a passion and trying to live a life where I have more freedom or control; but I also think about paychecks and healthcare and I’m still struggling to let go of that “what would people think?” fear. I did change jobs and am now at a smaller company that no one’s ever heard of, but where I manage a team and can make a bigger impact. I leave work at 5 pretty much all the time - I’m perfectly willing to sacrifice “face time” for some time to recharge and get a proper night’s sleep. And I’m confident that’s a good decision because I know that’s how I operate best, even if there was a time when I would have balked at someone with the audacity to walk out early.
When I think back to the low point of this journey, I can’t believe how far I’ve come - how I now take for granted that I can step outside without gobs of makeup and not worry about scaring children with my monster face; how I can cross the street without having a panic attack; how my schedule is not built around doctors appointments and blood tests. I’m so grateful that my traumas weren’t worse, and that my wounds healed. It turns out it’s okay to take care of yourself, even if others have it worse. It’s okay to want things, even if they are different from what others want. And striving for your pre-trauma life is a lost cause; post-trauma you is older and wiser and may want something different.