“You had a bad experience. You’ll get over it. Everyone does.”
“If you can’t fulfill all the duties of your position, you’ll be doing a disservice to the youth we serve.”
“It’s been 3 months, and at this point, these are just excuses for why you haven’t tried hard enough to get over this already.”
These are just a few of the unsupportive comments that were said to me by my bosses after having been through one of the most terrifying and traumatic experiences of my life.
I woke up one morning, my fifth day at my first post-grad job, with an uneasy feeling. I deeply regretted taking this job and starting when I did. It was Ramadan. I was tired, hungry, and felt something deeper than simply unenthused or unmotivated to go into work that day. I remember vividly thinking and feeling that it was not going to be a good day.
I had a site visit at a school in a neighborhood that I had never been to, so my supervisor decided to drive me and another new coworker to the location. My supervisor parked on a side street, opposite the school entrances. We got out of the car and walked towards the school when, suddenly, I heard a man’s voice behind me saying, “Come here, come here, come here.” I turned my head to see a hand reaching for my shoulder and, there stood a man with a gun in his hand – pointed no more than 12 inches from my waist.
I stood there, stunned, just staring at him. It felt like minutes, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before I heard my director behind me say, “Just give him what he wants.” That shook me out of the state I was in and I reached my arm over my shoulder, took off my cross-body handbag, and handed it to him. My coworker followed suit. He grabbed the purses from us and ran off.
We spent the next couple of hours inside that school, filling out a police report and answering questions. Afterwards we returned to our office. We then had a meeting to talk about what happened with the rest of the staff. One of the things they told us was that “safety” in Chicago is all relative and that anything could happen anywhere, anytime—basically that we were all doing this job at our own risk. I found the statement so trivializing and it destroyed my already non-existent desire to talk about what had happened any further. It was the worst I had ever felt.
As I was leaving work that same day, I followed the typical motion of gathering my things to take home with me and then realized there was nothing to take – everything I needed was in the purse that had been stolen. I almost cried right then, but I held it together because I didn’t want my coworkers to see me break down. I pulled my sunglasses down off my head, where they had been all day, covered my eyes, and left. I shed two tears in the car on the drive home, but stopped myself when I sensed that my brother was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say.
When I got home, I just wanted to hide under my bed covers and never come out. I wanted to pretend the entire day hadn’t happened. But my car was ready to be picked up from the place it was towed to get re-keyed, so I was forced to go on with reality.
I thought I knew a lot about trauma, but nothing can ever prepare you to see what it looks like on the inside — to know why everything that’s happening in your mind and body is happening, but not be able to do anything to stop or change it.
Those first few days were completely unbearable. I didn’t sleep a wink until my brother changed the locks on all our doors. I remember being wide awake the first two nights after it happened because I was scared to death that the man who had my belongings would come to my house and terrorize my family because he had my keys and my address. When I finally could fall asleep at night, I had horrible nightmares that would jolt me awake. The lack of sleep left me tired and on-edge at all times. Flashbacks of the incident were uncontrollable and came randomly. I knew I couldn’t let myself believe the irrational thoughts or let any of this debilitate me. I had to try to function as normally as possible if I wanted to get through the trauma. But it was unimaginably hard and painful.
I thought I knew a lot about trauma, but nothing can ever prepare you to see what it looks like on the inside…
I went to work the very next morning because I knew it was best not to isolate or stay home and dwell on the situation. A meeting was called with my director (who was involved in the incident) and the executive director of the organization. They sort of checked-in to see how I was doing, but the main reason they called the meeting was to tell me that the expectation would remain that I oversee that program site, which included periodic visits throughout the year. When I asked for time to think about it and decide if that was something I could do, they said that it would be best if I ripped off the bandage and just got it over with sooner – that I needed to take responsibility for “getting over this.”
Whenever I talked to coworkers, family, or friends, they insisted that those words might have just been what “they have to say,” but that they really wouldn’t make me do something I wasn’t able to do before I felt ready. I even reached out to one of my mentors for guidance on whether or not to resign and she said that it would be a good idea to stay because I worked with other social workers who could support me while I worked through what happened, so I stayed put.
But every day was more miserable than the last. I felt barely functional and trapped inside my own mind. No one else seemed to really understand what I was going through. I was anxious and paranoid about everything. While driving home from work one day, I saw a woman walking down the street with something in her hand. At first glance, I thought it was a weapon and almost freaked out. I literally had to close my eyes tight and open them up again to look at her and see clearly that it was not a weapon. The anxiety I felt was made significantly worse by the fact that our office was located inside a community building that was open to the public.
I had to muster up every ounce of courage I had just to go to the bathroom in my building because I would encounter men who just stood there checking people out and cat-calling women. One day, I was walking out of the building after work and I saw a group of guys smoking and hanging out by the cars parked along the street. My body went numb because I knew I had to walk past them to get to my car. I stopped and thought about turning back around and waiting inside until they left. Every worst-case scenario flashed through my mind before I decided I just needed to overcome the fear and leave.
The nightmares and anxiety from my bad experience didn’t just naturally subside as was so simply described by my bosses. It was very real to me that any site visit I conducted from there on out could have damning and life-changing outcomes, but I still did it in an effort to “overcome” what I went through. So, over the course of three months, I consistently reached out to them in the hopes that they would understand what I was going through and that I was not ready to return to that particular program site. My manager’s response to me was that she “had to think about it.” I didn’t understand her insensitivity and refused to accept it, so I went to her director. I expressed my concerns and her response to me was also “let me think about this and get back to you.” I couldn’t fathom what there was to think about.
Over time, I would come to realize their motives had nothing to do with my healing or personal wellness. They were only concerned with what was best for business. That’s probably why they avoided the topic, never checked in on me to see how I was doing, and acted completely shocked or surprised when I brought up how awful I felt about going back to that program site. They had the nerve to point out that I “seemed” fine all the time. I laughed and joked with others and got my work done which made it seem impossible that I was hurting. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that I was carrying my pain, hurt, fear, paranoia, anxiety, etc., with me all the time, or even to say it existed, I had to wear my misery on my sleeve so others could see it, acknowledge it, and deem it valid. So, while I was doing everything I could to cope and make it through every single day without completely falling apart, they got the message that I was “fine.”
After months of pleading for them to understand what I was going through, how I was terrified at the thought of having to go back to that program site — not because I was afraid of it happening again (which is what they thought and responded to me with, “lightning doesn’t strike twice”), but because my body would tense up and overreact to the most non-threatening situations including the ones I mentioned, so I didn’t know what would happen when I went back and honestly, I didn’t want to know. I tried to appeal to them on a human level to explain that healing doesn’t have a timeline and I was trying every single day to feel better, but they didn’t budge, so I asked to speak with the executive director.
Before that meeting, though, I met with a former grad school professor and explained everything to her. I told her about what happened and how I had been treated since. I explained to her that since the incident, I upheld every other responsibility assigned to me, including overseeing nine other program sites, three interns, and three part-time staff (who I never even told or let in on what I went through), and was still told by my director that I wasn’t “fulfilling my duties” because I “refused” to visit that particular program site.
Aside from all of that, I explained to her what I was dealing with internally, and talked about what was constantly reiterated to me as “just a bad experience that I needed to get over,” when she finally stopped me and said, “Adwaa, it’s not ‘just a bad experience.’ It’s trauma. And how dare they treat it as anything less!” Hearing that statement was so impactful. I finally felt understood after months of people at work, and even in my personal life, telling me things like, “it’s mind over matter” or “at least you didn’t actually get hurt,” which only made me feel dismissed and unsupported. She also validated that I was doing so much better than I could be as I was choosing healthy ways of overcoming what I had been through and it showed. She said not to believe what I had been told.
She offered to attend my meeting with the executive director because she did not feel that basic human decency was being shown and wanted to be there to back me up, but I declined. I needed to do this on my own. I met with the executive director who did not provide support for what I had been feeling or going through since the incident. Instead, she found ways to use everything I expressed against me and then stated, point blank, that three months is a long time and I was making excuses for not putting in enough effort to “get over” what happened. She even suggested that I seek therapy so a professional can help me see that my unwillingness to get over it was the problem.
It was after that conversation that I finally realized this was no longer a place I could remain if I hoped to restore my sanity and well-being.
The reason I chose to share my experience is to emphasize that trauma is real. It’s not a made-up phenomenon and it’s not someone choosing to be dramatic. It’s not something that can simply be avoided or overcome by just not thinking about it or willing it away. It’s certainly not something untrained professionals should give themselves the authority to determine. Plenty of what was said to me should not be said to someone who is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Period. Other people don’t get to decide what someone should or shouldn’t feel afterward. Trauma is already a deeply isolating experience and to be alienated further by the people that claim to be helping does a disservice and can actually re-traumatize the individual. And undoubtedly, if someone is making every positive choice possible to get through it, those efforts should not be dismissed.
I felt that my spirit had been broken by every minute that I stayed at that job. As much as I believed in their mission and loved working with the children in our programs, staying there was making me bitter, not better. They endlessly denied my trauma and I couldn’t heal or grow on their conditions, so I made the difficult decision to leave a toxic environment and allow myself to heal on my terms. I would never have become the social worker I am today, working with victims of trauma and other mental illnesses, had I continued to allow others to dictate my own narrative for me. The path to healing my mind, body, and soul began five years ago when I walked out of that office for the last time.