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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Morgia

Flying under the radar with Complex PTSD

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so I am posting a series of articles about the mental health disorders that dominate my daily life: complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). First and foremost, I share my experiences to help others feel less alone. I also hope nonprofit leaders and other employers read these stories and take the steps necessary to create inclusive environments for those with serious mental health conditions.

What is Complex PTSD?

C-PTSD stands for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Most people are more familiar with PTSD, which is often associated with veterans or victims of violent attacks. So what’s the difference between the two?

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” While PTSD refers to a single traumatic event, those with C-PTSD have experienced multiple traumatic events. The traumatic events they have experienced are interpersonal, meaning that other people cause them. The events also occurred in environments that were nearly, if not entirely, impossible to leave. Those at risk for C-PTSD include:

  • Victims of child abuse and neglect

  • People who have experienced domestic violence

  • Those living in war zones

C-PTSD symptoms are the same as PTSD, like flashbacks and insomnia, but also include:

  • Emotional dysregulation, meaning that it is difficult to identify and manage emotions

  • Feelings of worthlessness and shame. To borrow from psychologist Pete Walker, people with C-PTSD tend to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.”

  • Trouble establishing and maintaining relationships with other people

I struggle with C-PTSD symptoms every single day due to the emotional abuse and neglect I experienced as a child. However, I’ve managed to fly under the radar in my professional life. I have two Master's degrees, over 15 years of experience as a data analyst for nonprofits, and run my own business. How? Because my symptoms and coping mechanisms fall under the “socially acceptable” end of the spectrum. But just because they are socially acceptable doesn’t mean that they haven’t caused harm to me and those around me, as the examples below will show.

#1: Self-sufficiency

I am a fiercely independent worker. If someone gives me a task or project, I will do it well, finish it on time, and make everyone happy. Even when I worked in teams, I tended to be the one person with data analysis experience, so I still worked independently despite being in a group.

On paper, this is a great trait to have. How many job openings have you seen looking for independent workers? Tons! Self-sufficient workers are the ones you don’t have to worry about. And for many people with C-PTSD, learning self-sufficiency was how we survived. Once you realize the adults around you cannot care for you, you need to figure out how to care for yourself.

The flip side is how hard it is to ask for help. Sometimes, asking someone for assistance never crosses my mind, even if I’ve completely hit the wall on a task or project. On my worst days, I become dysregulated, meaning that my frustrations, anxiety, and anger will take over me. Of course, I don’t let anyone see that this is happening – I usually keep the storm to myself. But that’s a recipe for resentment, which isn’t the best way to show up to work every day.

#2: Perfectionism

For those of us who grew up with emotional abuse and neglect, the experience can trick us into thinking that love must be earned. When abused kids grow up, some of us end up believing that the perfect GPA, job, work product, whatever, will finally make our caretakers treat us like human beings. And if we are not doing everything perfectly all the time, we’ll be subject to the same rejection we received growing up.

Employers love a hard worker who constantly gives 110%, and good work is often rewarded – to a point. However, perfectionism can easily lead to burnout, especially if that positive feedback doesn’t result in anything tangible besides more work. With therapy, I’ve gotten better at creating realistic expectations for myself and understanding that I’m allowed to make mistakes. However, if you’re a client of mine (hi!), I’m sure you’ve gotten deliverables from me that are more exhaustive than you needed or wanted (sorry). That’s the perfectionism at play – if I don’t give you everything I can think of, I’m worried you won’t work with me again.

#3: An extremely high bullshit tolerance

Nonprofits may be exempt from taxes, but they’re not exempt from creating dysfunctional work environments. I’ve heard plenty of stories of managers and leaders who place their egos over the mission, take advantage of employees, or have no idea what’s going on in their organization. For healthier people, being in a problematic work environment is too much to deal with, and they leave for something better. For me, it’s just a Tuesday.

When you grow up in environments with lots of toxic behavior, it’s hard to identify the same behavior as problematic once you’re out in the working world. For a long time, I just assumed I was very adaptable, another trait employers love. Once I started therapy, though, it was easier for me to recognize problematic work behavior, establish boundaries, and create a healthier environment for myself.

What has helped

The top actions I’ve taken to manage my C-PTSD are:

  1. Working with trauma-informed therapists

  2. Medications (shoutout to Cymbalta!)

  3. Dark humor

  4. Working for myself

  5. Being open and honest about my experiences

There are a ton of privileges wrapped up in being able to access therapy and medications, as well as being able to work for myself (the dark humor was free!). I also know that being open and honest about my C-PTSD is a risk for my business. But despite everything, I know I am good at what I do, and my work has been valuable to the organizations I’ve worked with. My life experiences have also made me highly empathetic, understanding, and curious, which is invaluable in my line of work. If my diagnosis makes potential clients uncomfortable, we probably aren’t a good match, anyway. 

If you’re reading this and see yourself in this story, I want you to know you’re not alone. Trying to hold a job, maintain relationships, and just be a person in the world with this kind of relational trauma is hard as hell. But it’s possible, and I see you, and hopefully, this piece will help others see you, too.


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