CW: Indirect descriptions of PTSD symptoms, the aftermath of trauma, and workplace bullying.
Have you ever wondered what a zombie with an office job would look like? If you’ve heard Jonathan Coulton’s excellent “RE: Your Brains,” you don’t have to ask. If you haven’t, I do suggest you listen to it eventually, but there’s no rush.
After all, you’re talking to one right now. That last trip to the 9th Circle of Hell – and the circumstances that sent me there – have liquified my last functioning synapse. Depression, anxiety and the more visible (and thus problematic in an open office) symptoms on the PTSD laundry list have finally cracked my normally fairly impenetrable walls of gallows humor, coffee, goth opera rock music, comfort food, fluffy urban fantasy escapism, and even my devotion to appearing fine as a survival instinct. My last subconscious defense against collapsing into a puddle at work? Zombification, aka dissociation.
Zombies who code for a living and work from home a couple of days a week – especially ones with a library of their own code to crib from and years of graduate work to drill into them an automatized ability to run analyses under all sorts of impairments from lack of sleep to, well, the last time I was this severely impaired by PTSD – can usually pass among the living. Well, they can’t when freshly raised. When first returned to unlife, they have all sorts of visible impairments such as scrambled memories of important events, staring into space for much longer than their already ADHD-wonky sense of time thinks has passed, and being so unaware of bodily sensations that they fail to notice they are walking on a subluxed ankle until they fall over and burn themselves on hot soup they would never have dared to carry around if they’d had their normal body sense. My initial zombification occured at the scene of the crime itself – aka the 9th Circle of Hell – and, as that place is already filled with legions of the voluntarily brain-dead, I could pass there even at my worst. I thoght I had the “acting human” thing back under more control by the time I left there.
While I absolutely would rather have been anywhere else in the whole wide world than in the 9th Circle of Hell last week, I am apparently the only one in my company who would have voluntarily chosen to be at my place of employment instead last week. I was in Hell. My office mates weren’t, but they were still stuck in a work environment that wasn’t exactly safe for humans, either. Read fellow mental health blogger Ashley’s excellent article on workplace bullying. Some of her descriptions are eerily similar to the recap I received from coworkers whom I trust.
By the time I returned from Hell to the land of the living, I had regained enough mimicy skills that I could get away with limited corporate interactions without giving my zombified status away, so long as those interactions mostly occured via email and Slack. Technology, our company policy of limited flex time and remote work are all wonderous camoflage for the undead, especially when the undead return to an office environment that had so seriously deteriorated in her absence. Unfortunately, while I could theoretically do my entire job remotely, in reality our remote work policy is time-limited. I did eventually have to face doing my work at work, and, worse, I also had to eventually meet with my boss.
I barely made it out of that meeting with my zombification intact. He’s casually cruel in the things he says normally, and neither my work situation nor my personal situation have been “normal” lately. I didn’t truly make it all the way out, in fact. I just made it out of his office. One of my own office mates happened to notice the tears that I was holding back when I returned. It didn’t take much brain power to figure out what was wrong – a girl who had recently been through a traumatic experience had just faced the harsh words of someone who has recently reduced most of the office to those same types of tears.
My kind office mate quickly pulled me away for coffee. Thanks to her save, by the time I had my first full-blown PTSD flashback/panic spiral in years, I was safely away from the office. She stayed with me, assured me I was absolutely not the only person this was happening to at work, that it was perfectly natural to fall apart with everything that had been happening in both my professional and personal life. She was wonderful.
I’d normally try to return the favor she did me – especially when she said she had also recently been in tears at work herself – but, unfortunately, true PTSD episodes don’t leave a person with much awareness of where they are or what is happening around them. They certainly don’t leave a person with the sophisticated social graces to reciprocate kindness.
There is a reason I fight so hard to always be in control of my emotions. There is a reason I’d infinitely prefer to be a zombie than to have a panic attack. When someone who has experienced visible signs of poor mental health being wielded as a tool of abuse is pushed hard enough that she loses her emotional control anyway, it is terrifying. I don’t trust systems. I’ve seen what they do to the vulnerable, and I will do anything I can to never let a system see me vulnerable. As I said, I haven’t had a true PTSD collapse since the last time something horrible happened and I had to testify to the atrocities. (I hate that I have to say “the last time” not “the first time.” Fuck everyone who condones the abuse of the disabled, the poor, the sick or just those who don’t fit in. Fuck them all.)
I don’t know how much experience my coworker might or might not have had previously with panic attacks or other mental health situations, but she was incredibly helpful. I was able to make it through the day. She encouraged me to continue to use every bit of remote time available to me when we spoke, so when she wasn’t in the office the next day, I just assumed she was taking her own advice.
She wasn’t. The next time I talked to my boss, he let me know that additional employees had been terminated. She was one of them. The way he said it – that this was anticipated to be the final round of terminations – suggested that even though I’d barely kept my mask on in our last meeting – he was telling me that I had survived the purge. It also gave me enough information to work out that my coworker had found out she’d been terminated very shortly before she was so kind to me during my meltdown. She was comforting me while the news that she no longer had a job was still raw.
I truly was worse than zombified when she comforted me. I know I legitimately wasn’t in a state of what anyone would call “control of” my emotions or responses when I last saw her. I’m sure she understood that I genuinely wasn’t able to offer the same level of reciprocity of comfort in my traumatized state. However, it still doesn’t lessen the guilt I feel for not asking about her more during the episode.
Zombie Lavender can at least go through the motions of mutual commiseration, even if the whole world feels like it is separated from her by layers of melted glass as she does so. PTSD freak-out Lavender can’t. PTSD freak-out Lavender is why I have willingly chosen zombification for the immediate future, for however long it takes to start repair the mental damage done by this past month. What should I do to show retroactive support? Apparently my co-worker had enough stored vacation time that her typical final “lame duck” notice time is being taken as vacation. I’m not sure whether I’m going to see her again. I feel like I need to say something, but a) I’m still a zombie on the edge of collapse and b) I’m not great at social interactions even when I’m not. Any advice for how to approach what she’s been through and thank her for helping me even when things were also clearly pretty bad for her?
P.S. – The playlist itself is only tangentially related to the rest of my blog post, but if I don’t at least go through the motions of my gallows humor and other coping mechanisms than I will be really mentally screwed. In the process of finding the link for “Re: Your Brains,” I also found the Pinterest meme for the Zombie Apocalypse playlist above. If anyone wants to know what Pandora offered for the soundtrack of my personal zombie apocalypse, these are the first ten songs that played on a shuffle of my stations as I wrote this post:
- Overall Theme for the Apocalypse: Galaxy Song (Monty Python)
- Theme while Heroes Kill the First Zombie: Skin to Bone (Linkin Park)
- Theme while Heroes Chased by a Horde: For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
- Theme while Heroes Put Down an Infected Loved One: Angels (Within Temptation)
- Theme when the Heroes Find More Surivivors: Say Amen/Saturday Night (Panic at the Disco)
- Theme for a New Love Interest: My Demons (Starset)
- Theme for the Heroes’ Final Stand: Into the Nothing (Breaking Benjamin)
- Theme when the Heroes Think They have Won: On Top of the World (Imagine Dragons)
- Theme when a Hero is Infected Anyway: The Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel)
- End Credits Theme: Norwegian Wood/This Bird Has Flown – The Beatles
Infer as you will what those songs say about my overall personality, but I didn’t cheat at all in the game. If anyone else plays, tag me on what songs you get. Gallows humor is still a survival skill, even for the undead…