Working With Trauma
by Valarie Regas on February 14, 2019 at 3:45 pm
I grew up watching movies like 9 to 5, Working Girl, and Baby Boom. Such stories taught young Valarie a great deal about her future. Yes, it would be difficult (and men would make it more so). But with enough grit, and enough determination, I would overcome! Even if I had to take an executive or two hostage for a time and run the company in their (his) stead, I could do it.Desperate times and all of that….We’ll gloss over the fact that I was able to see my future in those nice white lady faces because of my privilege. Hollywood has never provided adequate role models for people of color, but especially women of color. That’s a post for another day. Also, I love Dolly Parton, y’all. Back to the point….I got my first job at 14, teaching judo to wee kidlets. Over the years, I’ve held so many jobs it is almost comical. It wasn’t until I found software development at the age of 34- automation and deployments specifically- when I finally found a career I could love forever. And much to my surprise, it hasn’t been nearly the in-your-face ordeal I remember from the films of my formative years!My engineering manager is a joy, being nothing like the horrible bosses of yesteryear. He is patient, kind, and the first to draw attention to his team for things they do well. He is the kind of person who makes you want to do and be just a little better than you are. This is why I struggled to tell him about… me.I live with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or CPTSD, with which I wasn’t diagnosed until the summer of 2017. Before then I simply thought I was quirky, odd, depressed, paranoid, or just plain crazy. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t know. I earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology, for fuck’s sake. I may be the only person in the history of psych degrees to not diagnose themselves with a million disorders.Young Valarie didn’t see CPTSD coming.CPTSD is a fascinating condition. The result of multiple traumas over many years, particularly in childhood, we who live with it have some peculiar needs, habits, and behaviors. Many have written articles about things they wish others understood about the way our minds and bodies work. In particular, we wish our employers knew how hard we have to work just to exist in the office.And how has CPTSD impacted me working in my dream job? Myriad ways.First, there is the depression. My mind is a total douche bag sometimes, betraying the way I want to feel with the way it makes me feel. There are moments where I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I ought to be feeling joy… and yet, I feel nothing. Or worse, I feel hopelessness and a crushing sense that I shouldn’t enjoy the source of would-be joy because it will only be taken away from me when I least expect it.Depression feels like a dementor; all hope has left the world, and only an emptiness remains. When I am at my worst, just taking a shower and heating up food feels like my own personal Everest. Even so, I have to make an appearance in the office each day; showered, dressed, and smiling if possible. I have to wear a happy mask for meetings. It is exhausting to put forth every last bit of emotional effort in my body while in the office. But I do it. I love my officemates; I don’t want them to be miserable just because I am.Then there is the hypervigilance. My mind rarely allows me to forget that the world is inherently dangerous, and I am an inch away from attack at all times. I will do most anything to avoid having my back to people, even at work. For a time, I was given a cubicle in front of two of my coworkers’ cubicles. Rationally, I felt confident that neither of those gentlemen intended me harm. They’re swell dudes. But my brain wouldn’t accept that they were safe. After all, I thought most of the men who have attacked me over the years were swell… until they weren’t. My coworkers, when desks were reordered, were fine with me taking the far back corner unit. I wonder if they truly understand how much that meant to me.Hypervigilance comes with a hefty physical price tag as well as a mental toll. Spending the entire day tense and on alert leaves me sore and spent by the end of the day. My commute makes it worse. Since my most recent car accident in 2017, I have issues driving for more than a short distance. Every car I pass, every car I see swerve a little, every car who hits their breaks makes my body go through what an accident involving that car would feel like in the moment. On a 20-minute commute in Atlanta, my body is likely to trick itself into thinking it has experienced a car accident, maybe two. My body hurts a lot of mornings when I get to the office. It is a fact of life.And sleep! Oh, sleep, that elusive and cruel mistress. Like so many others with CPTSD, sleep and I have a rough relationship. Late at night, sober Valarie lies in bed with racing thoughts she can’t dismiss unless she turns to wine to shut them up. Then there is the early waking insomnia. Let’s say I get to sleep at a reasonable time. Come 4am, SURPRISE! Sometimes it is a nightmare that wakes me, or a memory. Either way, my partner has had to accept that he will sometimes wake up in pitch black and feel me shaking next to him. He doesn’t even ask why anymore; the answer, if I even know it, doesn’t really matter.There is a reason sleep deprivation features prominently in every how-to book for would-be torturers: neither the mind nor body is of much use without sleep. And yet, I get up every day and go into the office, exhausted. I try to smile. I try my best to pretend I wouldn’t lay down and nap on a moment’s notice if only I could. I try to do my work as best I can, living with this level of never-ending fatigue. I celebrate everything I accomplish no matter how seemingly insignificant, because I know how much effort went into each task.This is the mask we wear. You wouldn’t believe what I had been doing that day, or the anguish I was feeling. I was expected to attend a lunch with my partner’s family, so I smiled through it.CPTSD has me forever waiting for the proverbial rug to be pulled out from under me in some way. Life has taught me that all good things will be ripped away from me when I least expect it. In my personal life, this looks like involuntarily crying if a relative from whom I rarely hear calls me; my mind assumes they are calling to tell me someone has died. At work, this causes constant anxiety that I am going to be let go.I began my first role in technology as a 10-week internship. Just a few weeks into my tenure as an intern, our recruiter asked to speak to me privately. The tears came immediately. As I followed her to a room, my mind raced trying to figure out what I had done wrong, and why I was being fired. I couldn’t think of anything, but still, I internally berated myself for whatever it was. When she told me she’d asked to speak to me alone because she was extending the offer of a permanent position at the company, the water works really kicked in. The wave of relief was palpable!But even knowing I am fine, that I am working, and that I am learning: I live with daily dread. I finally had to ask my manager to give me both positive and constructive feedback as often as he remembers to do so. I explained that I am wired to believe good things get taken away. He seemed to understand. He chuckled a little, but took the time to go through the process it would take to fire me. His willingness to lay out all the steps that would have to happen, so my stressed mind could look for evidence rather than rely on fear to guide it, has made a world of difference in my ability to do my job.There are myriad symptoms of CPTSD, and we each have a different selection from that shit show of a buffet. But for me, in the context of working in an office, the worst one is wondering if anyone around me knows.Do they know that when I go home I crumple into a shell of myself as soon as my kids are asleep, because whatever mental and/or physical energy I had is depleted? Do they know the number of times I have sat in meetings, nodding at appropriate intervals, but in my mind I am fighting intrusive thoughts and trying not to cry… again? Do they know that as much as I like them, I wonder which of them might eventually cause me harm?I guess the simple answer to the question of them knowing is: they do now.You might be wondering, given my discomfort at the idea of everyone knowing, why I would share my story. Hell. I am sort of wondering the same thing right now.In a basic way, I refuse to be ashamed of my past, my trauma history, or of who I am as a person because of those things. In a recent recording session for my podcast, the CodePrep Podcast, I came out about my CPTSD during an episode concerning mental health and the workplace. It was scary to speak fairly openly, knowing some folks I know would hear it eventually. But at the same time, I know that someone who needs to hear it will also hear it- someone else who is struggling with CPTSD.The thing that makes this bearable is the knowledge that my hurts have made me uniquely capable of helping others who have been hurt. I feel kindred with Wade Wilson (Deadpool) in so many ways; he’s scarred and damaged, so he hides behind a facade. But the thing that led to him being mangled is also what made him a superhero. I feel you, Wade.The times I have been able to help others because I know what trauma looks like and can reach out. The times I realized I am more than capable of handling a rough situation, because I have lived through horrific events and am still here thriving. The times someone felt comfortable discussing their trauma because I casually mentioned mine. Those are the times that almost make my past worth it. Those are the times I feel more like a hero than a victim. Those are the times I feel confident that, when the end comes, it will be me, Cher, and cockroaches who survive the fallout… because I always find a way to survive, and then thrive, if only out of spite.So… here I am, in all my vulnerable glory. Sitting in my cube, taking a break from the frustrations of selecting a site monitoring solution, reflecting on how CPTSD impacts me in the workplace. I am thankful to work where I do. Thankful for a manager who is nothing like childhood films told me he would be… other than, you know, still being a white man. Thankful for coworkers who accept my quirks even when they don’t understand them. Thankful for a generous work from home policy for days when I just can’t endure driving, or being around other humans. Thankful for the health insurance which provides me with the drugs that keep me on the living edge of the abyss.Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hide in a back room and go through an ugly cry brought on by the anxiety which accompanies knowing you have just read this. Good day.
Making Chicken Salad
by Valarie Regas on June 25, 2018 at 3:46 pm
My father was 56 when I was born. “The Fall Crop” was his affectionate name for me, his youngest of four. He often used colloquial phrases from his youth. Phrases my peers at school didn’t know, hadn’t heard, and didn’t understand. I loved to quote him. One of my favorites was, “That’s like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken s***.” Clearly, the mere use of a cuss word endeared it to me as a lass. But more than that, I liked the sentiment.George Regas — master of Dad-isms.How often in our lives do we attempt to make the best of a situation, when clearly, it isn’t salvageable? How often do we attempt briccoleurmanship when the materials at hand would be found lacking even in the eyes of MacGyver? An astute adult in my life once observed that I had no reservations about refusing to make chicken salad, unless I could actually acquire a chicken. The luxury of youth is to see clearly what ought to be, how one ought to act, in blissful ignorance of the limitations placed on adults by the world around them. Sometimes, despite knowing it isn’t an ideal situation, adults are forced to find a way to make chicken salad.I completed the coding boot camp at Georgia Tech in February of this year. After a moment of “well… now what?!” panic, I set out to find a job. I began along the traditional lines; I submitted resumes, I went to job fairs. It was hopeless, to be honest. My resume doesn’t reflect the best parts of me, and no one was interested. To be blunt: my resume reflected chicken s***. I quickly adapted to non-traditional job hunting techniques, which I have shared before.Perhaps the best idea I had during that time was to examine the ingredients of me. Honestly, critically, without emotion; I evaluated myself. I had anticipated there would be difficulty in directly acknowledging my own flaws. I was wrong. As I picked apart my virtues, skills, attributes, and capabilities, I found it easy to see the areas in which I lacked. After all, how do we know what is going into our chicken salad, if we don’t identify every component?Not to imply I beat myself up over my shortcomings. I did no such thing! I believe everyone should give themselves the same leeway as we give our best friends and favorite family members. But still, I had to be brutal in how to deal with the less desirable ingredients. I recalled one of my favorite passages from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. It inspired me to embrace my flaws entirely.Let me give you some advice bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.~Tyrion LannisterI was a stay at home mom for a time before attending my bootcamp. It is no secret that there is a stigma around motherhood in most industries. Employers assume we’ll be out of the office constantly, our attention always divided between work and home. I knew that, to many, that time in my life would be seen as a detriment. I had to figure out a way to wear motherhood like armor. I started by speaking about it at a few technology events.DevOpsDays AtlantaI worked to make it a positive aspect of hiring me by shouting from the rooftops the myriad reasons former stay-at-homes are uniquely qualified to add value to technology as an industry. “Coming out” as a mother while in the midst of job hunting was terrifying. I knew potential employers would see my videos, see the title of my talk. Fear not withstanding, I was determined to wear my motherhood like armor, and with pride. I transformed motherhood into chicken.I earned a BA in Crippling Student Loan Debt, er, I mean…. Psychology, years ago. Not the most useful degree for an aspiring DevOps Engineer, as it turns out. It doesn’t reflect well on my resume. However, during that time I learned much about interpersonal relationships. My ability to speak to strangers, find points of commonality, and make others feel heard comes, in part, from my useless degree. I turned my BS BA into a useful ingredient by turning my job hunt efforts towards relationship building.I went to meetups, and attended anything that could pass as a networking event. I took business cards to parties at which I thought there might be an abundance of developers in attendance. The network of intelligent, driven, entertaining, and giving people I have woven together in just a few short months astounds me. Relationships with others being, by my estimation, the main purpose of life on this planet, I feel rich beyond measure. Each person I’ve met has added to my knowledge, and some of them are directly responsible for my modest successes.Fortunately, the less desirable ingredients of me aren’t all I have with which to work. I put a great deal of energy into transforming my deficits while simultaneously putting the best parts of me front and center. Speaking at technology events has given me the ability to showcase things that aren’t easily conveyed by a resume. For example, there isn’t a clearly defined resume section to place skills such as sarcasm, banter, and inappropriate humor. Which is a shame! Those are the things that make me a fun coworker!I currently have the most wonderful first job for which I could have asked. My company is welcoming, accommodating, encouraging, and I am thankful to be there every day. This role didn’t happen easily, and it certainly did not come as a result of submitting an online resume. I met the women of Airbus Aerial at my first speaking engagement: the Women Who Code of Atlanta International Women’s Day Celebration. They saw the best parts of me, the things not on my resume, and decided they wanted me on their team.Those wonderful women went to bat for me, and their efforts led to me being able to speak to leaders on the development team. I was nervous when I met with the team to figure out if there was a place for me among them. I used that interview as an opportunity to highlight all the things that outshine my abysmal resume. My ability to learn quickly, my work ethic, and my wit were what I hoped they would see. Apparently, they did.I now spend my work days learning and growing, while doing all I can to contribute to my team. I acknowledge my shortcomings and embrace my strengths daily. I ask for help when I need it. I celebrate each success. When I take a step back and examine where I am at this point in my life I am pleased. Despite having a kitchen full of inadequate ingredients, I found a way to make career chicken salad… and it is delicious.
Diving Into Docker: Where Are My Floaties?!
by Valarie Regas on April 27, 2018 at 10:07 am
In March of this year, 2018, I attended Docker’s 5th Birthday. The event was hosted worldwide, in myriad locations. I ventured out to my local event, hosted by Docker Atlanta, with IgnitionOne providing a fantastic venue. I went primarily for the Docker playground which would be offered. I’d spent the previous several weeks reading about Docker, watching online videos, and trying to teach myself some things. I felt prepared to go in and have a ball actually working with this nifty technology.As I opened the playground and began, it became apparent that I had no idea what I was doing. It was incredibly frustrating. One of the volunteer mentors happened by, and was kind enough to offer assistance. He patiently listened as I asked question after question, and he offered answers which actually made sense. It was revelatory! I learned more in those few moments than I had in weeks of online study.I was less than thrilled with my level of knowledge acquisition at this point in my journey.Before heading home, my head hung low with defeat, I sought out the organizers to thank them for a lovely evening. As is my habit, the introduction quickly transitioned into me cracking jokes, cutting up, and enjoying being the cause of a hearty guffaw. They suggested I ought to speak at the next meetup. I agreed, enthusiastically! But there was one small problem:I DON’T KNOW DOCKER. I had given my word, and I always do everything possible to keep my promises; at the end of the day, my integrity is all I truly have. That not withstanding, the task seemed impossible: give a presentation to subject matter experts, on a technology about which I had just discovered I knew nothing, in such a manner as to keep everyone engaged and entertained. What could go wrong?!It was time to dig deep. After a week of brainstorming, an idea emerged. I sat with it, toyed with it, and rapidly, the idea evolved into a plan.My presentation ended up being different than any tech talk I have yet given. I began by admitting to the crowd my embarrassing experience at the 5th birthday gathering. Seeing as what I had been trying clearly lacked efficacy, I had set out to determine which Docker learning resources were most effective. I then introduced my volunteers.Weeks before, I had reached out to various people associated with the Georgia Tech Coding Boot Camp requesting the assistance of folks who did not know Docker, but were willing to study. Two coworkers and one of my students accepted the challenge. I tasked each of them with studying Docker utilizing a specific learning resource. Meguel watched LinkedIn learning videos and did the corresponding exercises. Andrew was only allowed to watch YouTube videos about Docker. Sarah, my fearless boot camp student, drew only documentation released by Docker as her resource.I should mention here that I was raised on game shows. From Match Game 76, to Jeopardy, Press Your Luck, to Hollywood Squares, I adored them all. Wee child Valarie thought Richard Dawson was the coolest person alive. Naturally the only way I could see to adequately test the efficacy of the various learning paths was to host a game show!I had queried Google with phrases such as “common misconceptions about Docker,” and “Docker quiz” in order to build a deck of questions for my game. The twist came in the source of the answers. I asked the assembled Docker Atlanta crowd to determine if a contestant responded correctly, and to then elaborate on the nuances of said response.The first question or two required a modicum of work on my part to engage the audience and get them interacting with the contestants, the material, and one another. But they did! By question three, the room was animated with responses and debate. Each contribution from an experienced Docker user begot another, and fueled discussion. We laughed, we learned, and we all benefited.Meguel, Sarah, me, and Andrew. Sarah was the proud winner of the Golden Floatie!After the game concluded, I admitted to the Docker Atlanta community my ulterior motives for the evening. I wanted them to teach me, and the others, in a way the internet simply does not. There is no substitute for a mentor in this industry; no comparable resource to an experienced practitioner who is willing to teach. Docker users of the world, I implore you! Seek out mentorship opportunities. The contestants and I all agreed: we learned as much or more during a 30 minute game show as we did in hours of online study.~Thank you, Docker Atlanta, for the opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, thanks to the incredible people I met. See you next month!
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