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My Story: PTSD and Reasonable Accommodations

Road with potholes

When I reflect on my past and the impact that it has on me today, I remember how she used to sing. The way her happy voice warmed the halls of our home and promised a welcoming smile. He came in the middle of the night to hurt her…badly…and silence her voice while I slept in my favorite Snoopy pajamas. I was told we were lucky. He was given three life sentences for the violence he inflicted on other women. They did not realize he stole her songs anyway. Silence came as her lips pressed against a bottle to forget and rage often came tumbling after. The screams from that night are locked away in the catacombs of my brain, but they still echo loudly enough to keep me awake at night. Trauma has a way of always walking behind you, diverting you from the promised roads of joyful hope to a decaying path full of potholes labeled "depression," "anxiety," and "substance abuse."

When I share that I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people often assume "how it happened." Sometimes they ask if I was ever in combat, or they roll their eyes at my crisis-driven life, silently passing judgment as my family and I fall repeatedly into potholes they can’t see or understand. I tell them one of the worst characteristics of my PTSD is the inability to dream of a bright future; it is impossible to relax and be fully present in your life when you stay ever vigilant for the next attack around the corner.

PTSD is a psychological and emotional stress disorder that is triggered by those who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as war, natural disaster, a severe accident, a terrorist act, sexual assault, physical abuse or other acts of personal assault. People with PTSD have strong, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experiences that occur long after the traumatic event has ended, often reliving that moment.

As I grew older, I hit a point when I had to choose between backtracking to the person I was supposed to become or watching my children stumble along the only path I could show them. At work, I sat across from my boss and told her I would need to modify my work environment to tackle a heavy project successfully. She responded by working with me to put “reasonable accommodations” into place. Some people see these accommodations as a hall pass in life as if I somehow found a way to cut ahead in line at work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the accommodations helped me build a protective construction tunnel to use while repairs occur to a dangerously cracked foundation.

Reasonable accommodations provided the safe space and flexibility I needed to smooth the jagged road under my feet. More importantly, it created an opportunity to significantly improve my work performance and solidified my commitment to serve an Institute that was willing to practice what it preached. I am honored to represent the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency that extends such compassion to their community while it strives to help others fully recover.

Now, what is a reasonable accommodation? A reasonable accommodation is any change or modification in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done, including an exception to a particular office policy and/or procedures, which would enable a qualified individual with a disability to apply for a position, perform the essential functions of a position, and/or enjoy equal employment opportunities. Following Equal Employment Opportunity and non-discrimination law, the NIH has a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodation(s) concerning the known physical or mental limitations of qualified employees, applicants, and visitors with disabilities unless it can be shown that such accommodation(s) would impose an undue hardship.

Today, I continue to work on smoothing over that jagged road. I still have trouble sleeping through the night, but thanks to the extensive therapy facilitated by reasonable accommodations, I have finally learned to dream.

The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) has established a model Reasonable Accommodation Program, staffed with skilled Accessibility Consultants who work in collaboration with NIH managers and employees to provide well-informed guidance and assistance with processing accommodation requests. For additional information on reasonable accommodation at the NIH visit EDI’s website.

If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health visit the National Institute of Mental Health to find resources for help or the Employee Assistance Program to speak with a consultant.

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