Working through trauma in the open

Where to begin? My reasons for writing this here are numerous. One, writing helps me process. Two, I’ve wanted to get back into blogging for awhile. Three, if what I’ve learned can help someone else in their process, great. Four, I feel a specific pull to share vulnerabilities in the open to help demystify and destigmatize mental health and the human experience.

My relationship to trauma has been long-lasting and full throated. The first trauma I remember experiencing was physical and it happened when I was around age five or six. I recently discovered my first experience with trauma happened prior to some of the important developments (abstract thinking, organization, etc.,) in my frontal lobe (pre-first grade age), so my emotional brain (the reptilian brain and limbic system) had been permanently re-arranged to subsist in a constant state of high alert and hyperstimulation. 

Since I was young, and our family moved, my still developing age six brain was able to bundle up that trauma and bury it deep. In fact, I lost all memory of it happening until watching a television program later around age seventeen. I believe this initial trauma and re-wiring of my emotional brain (the area that determines threats and manages hormone disbursement) accounts for how deeply isolated and depressed I felt as a young person. 

This story gets better. 

Living as an adult with depression, hyperstimulation (anxiety), and deep seated insecurities came to a head at age 31, when I first began going to therapy. Between taking anti-depressants that treat both my anxiety and depression and pursing cognitive behavioral therapy, I was finally able to make significant break throughs in my mental health. I felt as though the true essence of me was hidden deep within a nesting doll. Getting through the layers of insecurity, guilt, shame, sexual issues, negative thought patterns, and self worth issues took a lot of time and a lot of effort and a willingness to look at myself, both past and present without judgment. Well, with a lot of judgement at first, but eventually leading to acceptance and non-judgment. 

However, one aspect of this journey I had not considered, despite hard work, establishing proven, new productive thought patterns, and thoroughly prodding myself looking for footholds for shame, was my ability to be traumatized in completely new and different ways.

So that is what this post is really about. 

At the height of my invincibility period, I was a successful freelancer, thriving single mother, and resident of my dream life in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. I had clients from the EU, the Bay area, British Columbia, and even managed to snag a gig working on a political campaign with a former employer. 

I now recognize that taking this last gig led to trauma I will describe here. I often think, how different would my life be if I had passed on the opportunity? Were there red flags I failed to recognize? I didn’t need the money, the draw of writing campaign speeches and copy was what drew me in. If I had to describe a red flag about this gig, I would chalk it up to “Be wary of part time jobs that sound too good to be true.”

The gig was for an employer where I had previously been a c-level marketing and communications professional, until an untimely round of layoffs cleaved most remote and overhead positions entirely. 

I will say, I don’t know specifically the root of the money issues there, but I suspect it had to do with the over-the-top conference we’d held, which I objected to (as the head marketing person) but was told it was an appropriate amount to spend on par with any other startup’s annual marketing budget. In retrospect, this incident was a red flag. “Beware of leaders who ignore your professional expertise, and make you pay the cost for their ignorance.”

But this was 2 years later, and I cared less about startup events and marketing, and more about what type of writer I wanted to be. Politics have always appealed to the idealist in me, however the reality has typically left me feeling uninspired and discouraged. Hmm, in writing that out, I have discovered another red flag. “Be realistic about what energizes and interests you.”

I took the gig, and began to collaborate with my past colleague, the startup founder who had axed me in the layoffs. At this point I guess I have to clarify that while the scrappy JavaScript consulting firm who had been my previous employer used phrases like “bootstrapped” to describe their organization, make no mistake—it was a startup. Ill conceived by a pastor turned internet thought leader with an advertising degree? Check. 10x programmer whose true value ended up being a honey pot for larger tech firms? Check. Bright color logo and quirky empty slogans like “People first” and “We don’t know what we’re doing either!” Check. True, no venture capitalists funded our work, but money came from sometimes mysterious places, sold blank invoices, or sadly, second and third mortgages. I feel confident in declaring them a startup, because their culture mirrored everything I have read, experienced, and learned about startups since my time there. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and well, you know the rest.

My turn as a political consultant and speechwriter was short lived. As in, months long. The founder began having some personal issues (divorce) that would put being in the spot light right at the top of their worst nightmares for that particular year checklist. I thought for sure the gig would end, but instead, the founder and the lead strategist offered me a different position.

This is where I recognize that if this particular gig was a roller coaster ride, the clicking of the chain pulling you to the ride summit suddenly stops and you hold your breath while that silent pause lingers as you make your way to a free fall plummet. In plain, huge red flags. 

Remember how I said I’m an idealist? And therapy had taught me that everyone had their own mini battles going on? Also, I failed to mention that the founder/internet thought leader had been my mentor, someone I had believed was truly invested in my personal growth and success. That’s important context for why I took the new gig: personal assistant to both founder and lead strategist.

Which meant monitoring their social media accounts, and emails while the two of them were deep in thought on a new project. And also acting as community manager for a new class/social networking experience they were concocting. I could not see between the lines, and in retrospect, I feel like a prize idiot. So yeah, “Beware of disrespectful or disconnected lines of communication. Ask for clarity on the measurables and goals of your gig.”

They were obviously having an affair, and I had no idea for a full year. 

For a full year, I lived in a fairytale land where we were building a course for internet creatives which culminated in an exclusive and highly desirable social community/network, which is what I was pitched. The reality ended up being not a lot of communication from my assistees, and me blindly leading the community with corny weekly posts like “It’s raining in Kansas City, which makes me want to take a nap! What are you all doing this Monday?” etc,.

The community sucked, the course was a lot of work, and some of it outright traumatic to students, none of it taken credit for by anyone; the passive voice ruled supreme.

Okay so where does the trauma come in? This is getting long. 

After a year, it was time for the startup’s annual team week. So that March, I cut my bangs, packed a bag and flew to Washington State where the startup was located. I still had my other clients, since it was a part time gig, but I was excited to see my old colleagues IRL and get face time with the founder and the lead strategist, folks I believed I was in close relationship with, who truly valued me for my unique qualities, quirks, and talents.

What I found was a collective of trauma. From the marketing manager caught between their work and the founder and the lead strategist’s love triangle, to the founder’s solution for our dismal diversity numbers being the founding of a themed (our startup’s of course) pseudo university experience meant for the nearby Hispanic community which would solve our diversity hiring in exactly, I don’t know 8,000 years?

The experience of sitting in a room with the full org, waiting for someone to take charge just to kick off the day’s festivities was painfully uncomfortable. I was shocked by how fragmented the culture felt in real life, despite an active, vibrant presence on Slack and social media. Haters will say it’s social awkwardness but I had been at team weeks prior. They were fun. I looked forward to them. This was a like a family reunion of Cold War nemeses who were begrudgingly friends on Facebook. 

It couldn’t have been that awkward, you say. It was. Between one half of the startup being sold off to a more successful startup located in the Bay area, the founder bringing a candidate to run his pseudo university program to team week—the first time most of us had heard this was even going to be a thing—to the very noticeable tension surrounding the unexplained but plain as day affair between the founder and the lead strategist, for a team of deeply sensitive individuals, it was a lot. 

I found myself saying “This is weird,” through a gritted smile and laughing nervously. What the fuck was going on?

The trauma really ramped up at the event. On the first day, most of us had gathered a local coffee shop, including the lead strategist. After initial celebratory hugs, catch up convos, and most of us had finished our drinks, a tension slowly crept it. I hate situations like that, so I got out of my seat and said, “I’ll meet you all at the coworking space!” The lead strategist (number two of our company) breathed a sigh of relief and suggested everyone else head that way. This caught my attention because I knew her. 

We had worked together in the past, I had had a hand in suggesting we contract her before she was on the team. Her whole website was centered around her leading a crew and wearing a captain’s hat. I thought she was well-read and intelligent, and a leader. But her actions now were nervous, meek, and unrecognizable.

The rest of the week was painfully awkward at best, and outright uncomfortable, all my anxiety sensors screaming code red, as I did breath exercises to keep myself from having panic attacks in front of my colleagues. The founder and lead strategist mirrored each other’s actions, words, and energies. They would abruptly leave sessions, or skip meetings all together with no notice and no explanation. Our week culminated in a mini-conference where I tried to give a talk about organizations not being like families (hello, families are famously dysfunctional). The lead strategist couldn’t even muster up enough energy to give a talk at all. 

All the while the founder gaslighted us step-by-step, moment-by-moment. Her brilliance! Her book! Her staggering leadership! She almost went to Harvard! I mean, I almost went to Northwestern but who tells people that? You can almost go to anywhere you apply, that’s kinda the point. It was bizarre, and uncomfortable. 

It came to a head on a day trip to the nearby wine valley. One of the fun activities included introducing yourself to the group with a list of generic facts. And if someone from the group felt like you left something out, you could have two colleagues add facts about you. I emceed this activity, which was fun and energizing and interesting. People were having a good time. The founder and lead strategist drove separately, were in and out of activities, but for this one, the founder pressured the lead strategist to participate. Again, number two leader of the company.

What followed was so incredibly uncomfortable to recount. Instead of standing in the middle of the group (like, some–not all–of us had done) she sat, cowering in the middle of the group. She wrapped her arms around her knees and resting her chin on her kneecaps she cried and quivered about how she had suffered reverse racism in school, and how it meant she almost failed out of school and this was the reason why she was bad at introductions.

I was stunned. As emcee, I suggested we break at that point since it was time for us to head to our lunch reservation. Mostly I just wanted to provide the room some relief, since the tension was dense and uncomfortable. However, the founder interrupted me and asked everyone to pacify the lead strategist with facts we liked about her. Red flags, like in front of my face, like it 1955 in Le Mans. I shared concerned looks with others from the team, while newcomers and the soft-hearted pacified the shaking lead strategist with stilted remarks. 

I couldn’t believe I was watching someone I considered a mentor, abuse his position of power to make his employees emotionally prop up his girlfriend. Internet genius, community leader, mentor who valued me for my unique qualities, quirks, and talents.
What kind of trauma do you call this? Mentor turns out to be mediocre white guy in tech. Mentor turns out to be adulterous, manipulative, exploitative. Mentor who only valued you if you agreed with and supported him, no questions asked.

Later that day he came to me, wild eyed, looking anxious and desperate and tried to gaslight me into thinking what I had witnessed was in fact a successful moment of personal growth for the lead strategist. Red flags again. Have you ever talked to someone whose words completely contradicted their body language and facial expression? I felt uncomfortable in my skin, standing there talking to him. This was a person I had spent late, late nights at events talking to, and working beside. We’d had a thousand one-on-one meetings, phone calls, texts, and now there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to get as far away from him as possible. 

Mentor who makes you feel afraid and slightly queasy.

After team week, I went to my parents home and cried. I felt like something had ended, or I’d lost someone. My parents worried, what had happened? I couldn’t explain. These people I trusted, worked alongside, they just weren’t who I thought they were.  That doesn’t sound like trauma so much as the plot of a John Hughes movie. But it affected me deeply. I began to approach the gig with a veil of suspicion. 

Rightfully so. After team week, my communication with the founder and the lead strategist became strained. I noticed I was no longer capable of having a singular relationship with either one of them. What I shared with the strategist got back to the founder. Things I confided in the founder, again, my mentor, were also shared with the lead strategist. This particular bit was extremely harmful because she appeared to become increasingly possessive of the founder, as their romantic relationship involved. 

Perhaps that’s why team week felt so strained–other women on the team were already feeling that dynamic take hold. The marketing manager, rightfully fed up with the whole thing, resigned on the last day of team week. Losing that confidant should have made me feel sad, but instead I felt jealous. 

I didn’t even need this gig. I thought these people needed me. They had, prior to team week, asked me to end my other part-time gigs and offered me a full-time role. Leading up to team week, I had been excited about this new chapter with the company. After team week, I felt like I’d signed my own death warrant. 

Well, except secretly I kept doing some of the side gigs I really enjoyed, so I wasn’t broke. 

Things came to a final confrontation about a month and a half after team week. In trying to define my new full-time role, I found myself in constant back and forth with the founder and the lead strategist. I was supposed to work on content, and she would determine our strategy, because thinking and planning often took so much out of her. I was fine with being a content manager, ironically, we had swapped roles from when I had initially managed her. 

Communication with the founder and myself had broken down. I often relied on the non-violent communication framework to speak with him, because he was volatile, and in retrospect, he always had been. If he disliked a Slack message, he’d call you to argue you into his point of view, often badgering you for hours under the guise of trying to understand you, when what he was really doing was wearing you down into submission. I dreaded him on an emotional tear. 

In our last confrontation, I confided that we could not push forward on a leadership project we had been trying to create—as far back as my original employment—because our own organization was suffering from lack of trust and the uncomfortable work environment he and his affair with a colleague had created. The next time I heard from him, it was randomly the next afternoon, while I pushed my daughter on the swings at the playground. 

Essentially, while they respected me, valued me, blah blah blah, they (him and the lead strategist) had decided to eliminate my role. At the end of the call he asked me if there was anything I wanted to say. “Fuck you,” crossed my mind, but again, this was a person I had invested so much in. “Thank you?” I queried and laughed nervously. And hung up. 

So what kind of trauma is that? 

Your former colleague sleeps with the boss, uses you as a public decoy, and gaslights you at every turn professionally, on the team you used to work with, and lead. Is there a word for that?

Your former mentor emotionally abuses you, manipulates you, gaslights you and your teammates, and spreads the story that you’re a difficult woman. Is there a phrase for that?

I have been angry about this for a while. It took place from 2017-2018. Initially if people asked me about it, I gave them every single petty detail, because I wanted everyone to know what the behind the scenes environment of a proudly “people first” organization looked like.

I have a hard time being angry with my coworkers who have been there the whole time. In truth, I pity them, and imagine that while some of them will probably never be targeted the way I was due to their value to the bottom line, I would certainly guess that there is a still a lot of trauma bonding happening. It’s hard to move on, when you never get an apology for the trauma you suffered, in fact, all you get is a reputation for being difficult. 

I tried to be truthful. I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. I tried to see the best in people I had loved, for as long as I could until they forced me to see them for who they are. 

The problem is, I have found, that I can’t think my way out of this trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy only helps to a certain extent, I am sad to say. This is a trauma that stays in my mind, in my neck, in my shoulders, in my back. This is a trauma that flares up when I see the face of the lead strategist, teaching yet another online course, on Instagram of all places, and have a flashback of her, pale and cowering in front of the whole company.

Always the victim, never the perpetrator, that one. 

My thought process goes like this, those people are wrong for what they did to me and my teammates. Those people don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, because they always have a reason for their actions. In their story, I’m probably the bad guy who was the only one who thought there was a leadership problem and they have a motto of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” so getting rid of me and continuing on with business as usual makes the most sense. Me talking publicly about my experience probably furthers their argument that I am difficult to work with. So if I will never get an apology, I need to figure out how to move on.

But, as I’m learning, the body remembers. In meeting with a leadership coach recently, (during a pandemic, I know but I’m always trying to level up, and when is a better time to identify your weaknesses and improve than when in social isolation?) I was venting about a similar workplace situation, and my coach mentioned that my whole everything changed when I talked about. In short, they identified I was having a trauma response. 

Well, what the heck. It’s been two years and I’m still not healed. So now, that’s what I’m trying to do. My spiritual background leads me to believe that one course of action I could take, would be to figure out how to forgive my former colleagues, and also identify the areas in me where I should forgive myself. 

So now, I’m faced with a choice. Continuing to work in the tech industry is a choice to commit to being exposed to certain elements of this type of trauma. But, truthfully, being a woman or non-binary person in any type of industry exposes you as well. I constantly read others’ stories about the poor behaviors of their peers and leaders, so I know I’m not the only one hurting from work experiences, but what those stories lack is a path forward. 

I want to get to a place where I can hear about the organization, or even the founder and the now CEO, and not even have it register on my nervous system. Maybe hypnosis? Probably not. One method I’ve been investigating is heavily drinking, just kidding, that’s not it. Somatic experiencing is something that’s been recommended to me, and I’m curious about it. Exercising has been a fantastic outlet for me so far this year, but meditation and mindfulness has oddly not been helpful. I get lost in thought, or think too much, or too deeply, or over analyze, and I don’t come out of the experience feeling renewed or relaxed; more often than not I end up with a to-do list or feeling newly enraged. 

All this is to say that even if you have done a lot of work to heal from trauma in the past, trauma is a fact of life you can’t avoid. I think learning about this is important, because it not only teaches us ways to heal and cope, but I think it adds a bit of mindfulness to your palette as you observe how you work with and treat other people.