Is trying a new thing when you’re struggling with PTSD a crime?

Dear Gentle Butch,

After being unable to work anywhere except for our farm for many years because of debilitating PTSD, my health is improving.

I am going back to school and have been accepted to do a full-time summer internship. People who are close to me say my health is good enough to at least give this a try, but I am terrified of letting people down and not being able to complete the internship.

Even though I am much better than before, I still have a lot of symptoms from my PTSD. What should I tell myself when I feel ashamed to try doing this? I feel guilty as though I were planning a horrible crime instead of an educational opportunity.

— Afraid of letting people down


Oh, my darling, my sister,

I mean, I’ve been there. I’m there. Hello hi.

I am so, so so incredibly proud of you for having gotten to this point. You went back to SCHOOL. You acted as if there was something else to life beyond survival: some future, some hope.

YOU ARE AMAZING. You have already won one battle.

But when your self esteem and zest for life and just plain humanness has been ground down to a nub by trauma, it sometimes does seem like a crime to live your life instead of merely survive it, doesn’t it?

I mean, who do you think you are? A human being trying to make it in this world? A soul worthy of a chance? A smart, capable person with a future ahead of her?


I mean, that’s trauma talking, right? PTSD wants us to stay in that panicked cycle of fight-flight-freeze. PTSD tells us: no no no you don’t understand; you are still in terrible danger. Keep looking over your shoulder. Keep to yourself. Keep your sights low. Keep running.

Who the hell stops to work an internship when she is fleeing for her life?

The thing about PTSD and trauma reactions in general is this: our damage thinks its protecting us. It DID protect us, at one point. I try to think of my PTSD as a very anxious big sister who protected me from danger when we were children, but who has still inexplicably remained nine years old, unable to realize that time has passed and she doesn’t have to endlessly protect me.

Please tell that anxious big/baby sister that this internship does not result in thousands of people (or even one person) dying if you wind up having to bow out, cut back, or adjust. Please thank her so much for protecting you when you needed it but explain that you are qualified for it since you were accepted for it, and she can stop worrying.

I think there is a very good chance that, if you can be self compassionate and trust yourself, that you WILL complete it, and learn from it, and feel damn good about yourself when it’s over.

You are feeling better. People who know you agree that this is a good thing to try.

And this is an internship, not life or death. 

Your emotions do not fit the facts. you need to use that wonderful DBT skill Opposite Action. (Why yes I am taking notes during my partial hospitalization.)

You do it. You fucking take a deep breath and then do it. Fuck the fear of letting people down. Don’t let YOURSELF down by running away before you give yourself a chance.

NOW. This next part is really, really important:

“Do it” does not mean take a deep breath and fling yourself, with no preparation, into the deep end.

Remember that you can pace yourself. You can ask for accommodations for your disability. (In case folks don’t click through, I’ll excerpt here):

Accommodations for individuals with PTSD can take many forms, depending on the needs of the individual. Accommodation ideas from the Job Accommodations Network include:

1. For those with concentration issues, reduce distractions with white noise or environmental sound devices, noise cancelling headsets, modifications in lighting, allow for a flexible work environment or schedule.

2. For those with memory issues, provide written as well as verbal instructions, checklists, wall calendars, electronic organizers or apps, additional training time or refreshers.

3. For those with organization issues, provide daily, weekly and monthly tasks lists, assign a mentor or coach, use of electronic organizers or apps.

4. For those with time management issues, daily To Do lists and check items completed, electronic assists previously noted, regular meetings with supervisors or mentors to determine if goals are being met.

5. For those with stress or emotional issues, emphasize stress management techniques, allow a support animal, use of a mentor to alert the employee if behavior is becoming unprofessional, EAP assistance and or allow a flexible work environment.

5. For those with coworker interaction issues, encourage the employee to walk away from frustrating situations and confrontations, allow part time work from home, allow for greater privacy while at work, and provide disability awareness training to supervisors and coworkers.

I’m mentioning these specific accommodations because I think a lot of us, especially if we’re feeling better, imagine work as it was before we had to quit/go on leave. We think we have to function just as we did before with no supports in place, no fallbacks. Just . . . barefaced to the world.

But we don’t. We don’t legally have to do that, but probably most importantly we don’t ethically and emotionally and practically have to do that.

You, just as you are, have a lot to offer the world and school and that internship. You have seen things. You have been through some shit.

You have life experience and empathy and understanding that many people don’t have, and that’s going to help you in any career worth having.

You are going to be able to do this. You might need to practice some self compassion and some self advocacy and need some flexibility — from yourself and from others — but you can do this.

And if thinking that leaving early, cutting back on the hours, or deciding it’s not for you counts to you as a ‘failure’ or ‘letting people down’ enough to stop you from even trying, I hope you will reframe your thinking.

Is realizing that full time work is not for you ‘letting people down,’ or is it getting to know yourself and your needs and abilities better? Is asking for and receiving accommodations for your disability ‘letting people down’ or ensuring that your best possible self comes to work with you, and being an excellent example to others with disabilities or who need to understand disabled people?*

I believe in you. More importantly, people who know you and what you are capable of believe in you.

You are allowed to move from surviving your life into living it. 


*that’s a CBT skill called ‘reframing,’ gentlebeings, for those taking notes along with me.

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