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24 April 2016

So I got a pay raise...

I'm feeling a bit exhausted. I've had a lot of stuff happening lately, more than usual, and so I've been a little short on down time and time to work on personal projects-- both of which are things that I use to recharge. So the batteries are low.

Last last week, I had a training session scheduled during the time I'm normally scheduled to be working on software development at work. If you've been following along lately (or not), this is exactly the thing I've submitted a written ADA accommodations request for-- when I'm scheduled to be working on coding, don't assign me to do other things because I don't task switch well. If it's Tuesday and I'm supposed to be working on code, then leave me alone to work on code (and talk to me about my other job at work, help desk quality assurance, when I'm scheduled to be that). I was assigned to that training meeting time on the basis of already being scheduled during that time. In other words, convenience for them, not for me.

Anyway. Attended the meeting. Turns out it was essentially the same information that we'd already been given once already. After the meeting, instead of working on the software project I'm on, I finished watching a course on Pluralsight. The courses there are chopped into blocks, most of which are shorter than 45 minutes, and which I can focus on pretty well with breaks in between each. I worked on the user documentation for my project for a while after that, and that was essentially my night. Did I earn my pay? I think so, I did do meaningful work, but I didn't write or debug any code. So my project fell behind again.

This past Saturday I was at a hackathon that I helped organize, here. It was a small one-- around 75 people registered, maybe 2/3 of those actually showed, and an even smaller number stayed the entire 12 hours. I did a lot of the publicity for the event, and helped keep track of the judging for the prizes, and some other operational stuff that came up. I'm pretty much an introvert, with a good dose of social anxiety plus PTSD. Hackathons are, interestingly enough, one of the mechanisms that I use to overcome all of that. I'm one of the people standing in the front of the room talking at organizational meetings. I can give you an elevator pitch on demand about what I'm working on. And I can help organize a hackathon. My social anxiety therapist from a few years ago would be proud.

I'm proud that I can do these things, too, but they take a lot of energy. The energy drain is especially pronounced when all of this takes place during time when I'd normally be doing things to recharge. So between everything to do with the hackathon, and everything that's been going on at work with the ADA accommodations request, my batteries are lower than usual.

This Thursday I had a F2F meeting with my supervisor-- it wasn't about the ADA accommodations request, it was to talk about giving me a pay raise. I'm getting a raise. Wait. What?

Apparently the powers that be are quite happy not only with the software development work that I'm doing, but also how I interact with and mentor the other programmers on the team. The words leadership and professionalism and we know you could be interning at a company like Microsoft and we're glad you're here instead came up during the conversation. It was, to say the least, a very positive meeting.

The meeting, however, was also scheduled during the hours when I'm normally scheduled to be working on said software development, and it's exactly this kind of thing that led to me making a formal, written request for ADA accommodations-- to stop making me task switch when I'm scheduled to be writing code. There was a set of questions I had to answer for the form that's going to human resources to justify giving me more money, mostly about what are the good things about the work I'm doing and is there anything that the department can do to make things better. ADA, this is your cue. So I talked about my projects, and the very cool things about the software development team I'm on, and that it's very cool that I was one of the people that got to interview the programmers we recently hired. And, I talked about the ADA accommodations request and how the remainder of the evening, I probably wouldn't get much coding accomplished because I wouldn't be able to concentrate due to the meeting.

A side note, about the not being able to concentrate when my schedule is jacked around-- you've maybe heard programmers talk about being "in the zone", that zen mental space where you have the your head wrapped around the code you're working on and the rest of the world just disappears. Different people have different ways of getting there. For me it begins long before I get to the office where I work. It starts when I wake up, goes through the time when I'm clearing the cobwebs and getting coffee and taking a shower and getting dressed and walking to work. It's not so much a spiritual ritual as it is my brain getting itself ready to code. It takes a while. Throwing in a training session or a meeting or making me task switch between jobs totally disrupts that process. That's why I can't get focused on code. (It's the same situation when a professor deviates from the syllabus in one of my classes, like throwing out a pop quiz or changing what they'll lecture on today.)

The part of the meeting where we talked about accommodations was actually very positive as well. We also talked about noise, this being not only an open office but a call center as well. I wear foam earplugs when I'm coding, and over the ear Princess Leia style headphones, and it's still noisy enough here to be distracting. That came up during the meeting I had with human resources, and apparently it's come up in meetings between human resources and my chain of command. Noise cancelling headphones came up several times during recent discussions, and my employer is going to buy a set of them for me to use at work to help with the noise.

Really good noise cancelling headphones that other programmers have recommended to me are in the $300 price range. Supervisor said "tell us what you need and we'll order it." I should also note here that not only have I heard this in person from my supervisor, but from my supervisor's supervisor. This is at a campus where money's really, really tight right now, so I want to emphasize how important it is that they've said "tell us what you need and we'll order it."

I'd be totally lying if I said I hadn't wondered if I'll get to keep them. Probably not.
morning
We also discussed seating arrangements, and I asked for a particular desk that's in the corner farthest away from the nearest place where people sit to answer phone calls. It's in a corner with no doors and no windows, under an overhang from the floor above-- it's the place where someone with PTSD would sit. I requested that desk, which might actually be granted (it's currently configured with a standing desk so some furniture moving has to happen).

And we actually discussed the initial request I made, that when I'm scheduled to work software development I'm not scheduled to work help desk duties, or help desk training, or meetings, or whatever else comes up. Everyone that matters sees my request as reasonable and pretty easy to accommodate.

Which is nice, but thinking and worrying about all of this has been exhausting as well. The thinking about it and worrying about it don't stop when I leave work. PTSD is often about stuck points, and this whole ADA accommodations trip is a serious trigger and a serious stuck point.

As far as the paperwork goes: I have the letter I need to give to someone at the VA Hospital to fill out and fax back to human resources at work. I haven't received a response back from the secure message I sent, so if I haven't heard anything by Monday I'm probably going to go to the VA Hospital in person and bug people until I can get someone with a degree and a license to fill it out and sign it for me. The tricky part about this is, right now I'm not "in therapy". I have an assigned mental health provider, and an assigned primary care provider, but who that person is changes with some frequency (and often without notice). Since I stopped going to the prolonged exposure therapy group last fall I haven't heard from anyone at the VA Hospital, which means that I've fallen through the cracks of teh VA yet again. So finding someone to fill out my paperwork will be a not fun adventure.

Is it worth it? 

Programming (or software development or software engineering or whatever title) is hard. It's frustrating. It's banging your head against a brick wall for hours before you realize that you should have used a do...while instead of a for...next, or that a variable you thought you'd declared as an integer is actually being a boolean. It's trying to reverse engineer the code your employer has so you can write code that makes it do something entirely new. It's work. It's also immensely rewarding when things do finally work right, when you see other people using what you made to do their job better, when they rely on the machine that you made do things that it didn't do before.

Life, too, is hard. There are often no easy answers anyway, and PTSD and anxiety and depression make finding the answers damn near impossible. It's hard enough as it is to be successful (whatever that means), to find a good job that you like and can do well at and get paid enough for doing without PTSD. As wonderful a thing as the ADA is it's entirely on you-- the disabled person-- to navigate it, especially at first. Chances are that your managers/supervisors haven't been trained on how to deal with accommodations requests, many of which are just tweaks to workflow or environment.

It is not simply not easy. I know, I know, that doesn't answer the question.

It is worth it.

I'm a hacker.

I've been a hacker since before I had my own computer, since the days when I'd buy and read computer magazines and write snippets of code on bits of paper to take along the next time the family went shopping. The K-Mart, or the Target, or the Sears, would have a Vic-20 or a TI 99/4A or an Atari 400 or 800, or the mall would have a Radio Shack, and while the family was shopping and doing their thing I'd stand there typing in my code on the demo computers. There was "Hello, World" of course, and probably at least one "RADIOSHACKSUCKS...RADIOSHACKSUCKS...RADIOSHACKSUCKS" loop written (look, I was 14, k?) but there was also seeing that the different computers were both different and the same. They all had BASIC, but the BASIC on one was different than the BASIC on another. Now, many years later, I'm writing stuff that's a lot more meaningful and complicated than loops that infinitely print "RADIOSHACKSUCKS", but the same fascination and the same passion are still here.

I love programming.

This is what I do, what makes me get up in the morning afternoon (I work nights), what has given me a reason to keep going and keep striving. I've taken some detours. I've been married, divorced, bankrupt, and homeless, but I've never stopped loving programming. This, and a lot of Diet Mountain Dew and coffee, is what pushes me forward.

I'm not willing to give this up. Programming makes me happy. Therefore, whatever it takes, even dealing with the ADA, is worth it.

16 April 2016

ADA accommodations at work

It's been (weeks, gack) a while since I first posted on the intersection I've had with my job as a software developer and PTSD. If you've landed here you might want to read those for some posts for some background on what's going on.

Previously first: Software development, the ADA, and PTSD
Previously second: Disclosing PTSD

Since I first made the request via email, I met with a human resources person who is the disability coordinator where I work. We had a face to face discussion about the request I made-- that during the time I'm at work, I'm not asked to task switch from one role to another because it completely blows up my ability to concentrate on what I'm doing. I explained the situations that brought me to make a formal request in writing, that I was being asked to flip flop from programming to help desk and back, and we discussed the environment I work in-- noise, distractions, etc. We also discussed the process for first having my request evaluated and then ultimately approved/disapproved. It was actually a very cordial and productive meeting.

There was a (standard) form that I had to fill out explaining all of this, because paperwork. Next step is that the human resources person I'm working with will draft a letter that I can take to the VA Hospital to get the medical (well, mental health) documentation that my employer needs.

A word about the VA Hospital (mine, anyway) and requests for disability accommodations-- in my experience they don't have a clue what to actually provide, and you need to be able to tell them. My providers were very willing to help when I've needed academic accommodations (extra time on assignments, testing in private rooms, etc) but they didn't know exactly what to write in a letter for the disability resource center. Ultimately I had to ask the disability resource center just what they wanted, and my VA providers filled in the blanks and faxed the form in.

Fortunately the human resources person at work has previously interacted with a VA Hospital and understood perfectly; they're going to draft up a letter for me to take to the VA Hospital that's (again) fill in the blanks and fax it to us.

This means that I need to talk to the mental health clinic and let them know I need this letter filled out. I'm going to secure message them first, and explain the situation and ask them if I need to come in, if I need an appointment, or if they can just help with the paperwork without seeing me. If I have to go in, I'll probably have to make an appointment (ugh) but I'm going to try the easy route first.

One of the things I've learned from dealing with the VA: use secure messaging. Phone calls aren't recorded and added to your medical records, but secure messages are. Ever hear the phrase money talks, bullshit walks? That's how it works. Using secure messaging makes sure your requests and the responses (or non-responses) are accurately recorded.

Anyway, once the medical documentation is filled out and sent back and recorded, the disability person from human resources evaluates it and ultimately reaches a decision either granting the request, denying the request, or modifying the request. Note the emphasis on modifying-- they can subtract from the request, but they can also add to the request. One of the things we discussed during the meeting was looking at additional options such as noise canceling headphones to help with the noise level (right now I wear foam ear plugs and over the ear headphones, sometimes with music, and it's still hard to concentrate).

This is definitely progress, although since it involves paperwork it's not moving at internet speed.

It is very important to note that if I hadn't sent an email and specifically stated that I was making a formal written request for ADA accommodations, nothing would be happening right now. If you don't make the request, no one's going to help you, and if accommodations would help you do your job better, it's up to you to find that out and ask for them. That being said, people really don't know about this stuff until they encounter it. The person who first received my accommodations request didn't know what to do, so they went to human resources (which was exactly correct). Management people are supposed to be trained but especially if you're in an environment where this kind of request is unusual they probably won't understand right away.

Since making that formal, written request I've been hit with task switching while scheduled for software development twice-- once for a training meeting for my help desk role this week, and now again for a meeting next week. There's also been discussion that during software development hours over the summer that we'd be subject to being pulled off to do general help desk work.

I've actually received feedback lately that I'm doing well on my software development work, but at the same time I'm being asked more and more to do the exact thing that I've requested accommodations not to do. Pleading ignorance the first time, I'm willing to allow.

After that it becomes a matter of respect-- it's perfectly reasonable to ask for medical documentation of a disability before granting accommodations to prevent the ADA being abused. It's technically reasonable to say that since the accommodations request hasn't been officially approved yet, that the accommodations are not in place-- but if someone you value as an employee tells you they're a combat veteran and explains that PTSD is messing with the work they do, and they tell you they're 100% willing to provide proof-- it's kind of a slap in the face to keep doing exactly what's causing your disabled and/or disabled veteran employee to need accommodations while you wait for the official word.

-----

I sort of anticipated all of this when I first applied for and was hired for this software development gig. It's not an internship that I'm getting credit for, but it is a student position. One of the questions I had a year ago was how PTSD was going to affect me-- it's one thing to stay up late at night and hack on personal projects, but it's another thing entirely to have to keep a strict schedule and write code for other people in exchange for money. (Looking back on previous coding gigs, PTSD had a really major, really negative effect-- but I didn't know about PTSD then.)

Over the summer, hopefully, I'm going to be interviewing for a new coding gig (or several) where the question of how I'm going to cope with an open office and a tech culture that's not very familiar with hackers with disabilities is going to be a huge concern. I want to do a good job. I want my employer and my co-workers to be happy with my work. For me to do a good job, I need certain accommodations. I know that now.

During interviews too, I'm going to probably need accommodations. This is where things get really interesting. In case you're not familiar with the current format for interviewing programmers-- it's usually programming tests, often with questions from computer science that are designed to find "the best of the best".

If you want a job writing software, you need to be able to handle coding interview questions that are written for people who don't have cognitive disabilities. They're written for smart people who have things like algorithms and data structures memorized. You can't look things up. No cheat sheets. Usually, not even the same editor that you're used to. It's meant to be difficult even for normal people.

I'm not saying that tech is unfriendly to people with disabilities-- to say that would be a very unfair generalization. I am saying that the current process can appear outwardly unfriendly to someone with a disability that affects their concentration. As with anything, every company is different and as I said earlier, many times it's a matter of ignorance more than anything else. I didn't know anything about the ADA for most of my life. I forgive you, future interviewers, if you don't either.

The following is from a document posted by the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (direct link). It has a ton of other information about interviews, including resources for employers who are conducting interviews for disabled applicants, but this really stands out for me:

Do not try to imagine how you would perform a specific job if you had the applicant's disability. He or she has mastered alternate ways of living and working.

It's exactly true. That's a huge part of what I've been doing on my own for the past few (actually several) years-- exploring and learning different ways to cope with PTSD both at work and on my own time. I use vim for editing code instead of an IDE because it's visually quiet (if you're not a programmer this won't make much sense, and that's ok). It's just text on a black background, where in an IDE there's popups and tool tips and syntax helpers and all kinds of other stuff that's constantly being updated, sometimes with every keystroke. That's just one thing, but it's a very important one-- and there are tons more that I probably don't even realize I do every day.

The same document also says:

Treat the individual with the same respect you would treat any candidate whose skills you are seeking. Likewise, hold individuals with disabilities to the same standards as all applicants (emphasis mine). 

And that's also exactly right. If I need an accommodation, like written vs verbal instructions for an interview question, it's up to me to ask for it.  It's also up to me to study Cracking the Coding Interview, and my data structures and algorithms textbooks, so that if you ask me a question I know my shit and can answer it.

Feeling like we're in a gray area here? Yeah, me too. That's why I'm bringing up interviewing in the context of asking for and hopefully being granted accommodations in my current position. Veterans in general don't like talking about our disabilities-- we're supposed to be leaders, highly trained, and all of that, and disability often gets equated unfairly to weakness. Hackers don't usually like talking about weaknesses either, especially cognitive ones-- we're supposed to be the smart ones, the solvers of problems and the gods of hardware and/or software.

The issue with that is we need to talk about our disabilities and how we've overcome them if we want people to understand when we ask for accommodations. People tend to distrust things they don't know or understand. PTSD is one of those things. It's taken me years to learn how to deal with it, and I'm still learning how to deal with it-- but the more I talk about it, the more I explain how it affects me, the more I explain how it affects what I do, the more it makes sense and the more people around me are better able to cope with it as well.

More to follow.

05 April 2016

Plan? What plan?

This is becoming an exhausting week-- and it's only Monday (well, zero dark early Tuesday morning). Sunday and Monday are usually my weekend, with Sunday often being a day of rest sleep and Monday being a day of doing stuff I wanted to do, but didn't get to do over the past week. My week this week started with meetings both Sunday and Monday nights. Both nights, the meeting were followed by study time at work-- the software development team I'm on has access to the tutorials on Pluralsight.com, and I'm totally taking advantage of that. So I've not only been busy, but I've not had the normal downtime and quiet time that I'm used to most weeks.

One of my goals since last year when I started my current software development job was to push myself a bit and get back to working a full week every week. I easily clock 40+ hour weeks now, between two jobs, my own programming projects, hackathon organizing, and other things that come up. I won't say things are perfect, because they're not. My kitchen's usually in need of cleaning, my laundry pile never seems to disappear, and there's always something I need to do every week that gets pushed back to the next week. I try to remind myself that this is true of a lot of people, and further try to not beat myself over the head about it.

Long story short, I've managed to set up something of a routine that moves me through each week. The algorithm behind it isn't optimal, but it works well enough and generally doesn't crash. 

I'm constantly looking at the calendar, and seeing August 15th getting closer and closer. That's the day my apartment lease ends, and it's also the day I'm leaving where I am and heading west. It used to be that I'd ask myself every day if this was a good idea, if my reasons were still sound for wanting to leave. Now I think about how this is actually going to work, because I don't have a job or a place to live in California yet. It's very possible that I still won't have either when August 15th arrives and I have to be out of my apartment.

I'm not quite comfortable with that-- but then again, I'm not quite comfortable with the idea of having everything specifically planned out either. Nothing in my life has ever really gone according to plan. Things that were supposed to be lasting and permanent never have been. People I was supposed to be able to trust have turned out to not be trustworthy. In all of the things that have happened in my life, being able to react and survive is what's gotten me through. Stability is great if that's what you're used to, but if it's not then it's as foreign as chaos is to someone who's used to everything being stable.

Being a veteran and spending half of my active duty time in other countries has a lot to do with that. One of the things I learned from that was "don't make plans" because as soon as you do, everything changes-- you'll get new orders, you'll be deployed, you'll be extended, you'll have to pull weekend or holiday duty. Being a homeless veteran taught me that you can't ever stand or sit in one place for too long, because it will rain or snow or a cop will come by and see you or someone will think you have something worth robbing you for.

I'm looking at the possibility of putting 99.9% of my stuff in storage, packing what I need into my backpack, getting on a plane, and landing at SFO with exactly that and nothing more. As someone noted at the meeting I was at tonight, a) my backpack screams "tactical" and b) if you need something chances are I have one of them in my backpack. When I travel to hackathons, I don't pack because I don't have to-- I have enough of everything I need to survive for a few days already packed.


"But what about this? What about that? Have you considered...?" No, I have not, and that's largely on purpose. If I allow myself to start thinking about every possibility, trying to figure out every problem, tie up every loose end, I'll get so spun up about them all that in the end I'll never leave. Look, I'm heading towards Silicon Valley, not the Australian outback. There are resources, and I'm spending a good deal of time finding and cataloging them in advance. The internet is a powerful thing in the hands of someone who knows their way around, and I'm a hacker-- I know how to find what I need. 

It can also be less than fun still being here, because many of the things that I used to just put up with have become more and more annoying as leaving gets closer. Winter-- cold weather, snow, ice, sleet, what the hell ever-- seems like it will never fucking end. The drunks in my neighborhood that somehow think it's cool to stand outside at 0400 and yell at each other (actually, drinking culture here in general). People on bikes that I swear are trying to hit me while I'm walking to work, because they can't be bothered to slow down their "pace" by a fraction of a second.

And then there are disruptions, things that blow up my routine. Since I'm not renewing my apartment lease, my landlord wants to show my apartment to potential new tenants. He called at around 2100 last night to let me know he's showing my apartment this Wednesday through this Friday anytime from 1630 to 1900. Doing so is, of course, his right as a landlord. For me it's an intrusion-- I don't trust any landlord since I was in transitional housing at Porchlight, because of all of the crazy things they tried to pull, and I don't trust my current landlord especially because he's acted so unprofessionally in the past.

And, in general, PTSD and not trusting much of anybody.

I have, in the past, had a really nice apartment-- a single guy's apartment, but still somewhat decorated and even a little bit cozy. My apartment right now isn't really any of those things. I'll need to do some spring cleaning, which I don't have time to do. This week I'm running without downtime, and without quiet by myself time, so I'm going to be a little edgy. Having to disrupt my schedule, alter my routine, will make it worse. I'll gladly admit that straightening things up at home is for the best, but there are a lot of negative memories associated with the concepts of 'home' and 'apartment'. I don't know, yet, how to resolve those. So my apartment right now is just a place I go to sleep and shower and change clothes, rather than being a "a man's home is his castle" kind of place.

That's the part of homelessness that no one ever seems to talk about-- what happens to people who used to be homeless? There are no support groups or treatment plans. How do you get that sense of "home" back, if you ever had it in the first place, once it's been completely destroyed?

Still, I'll deal. I have today and tonight to clean up a bit and make things look reasonably presentable, and if landlord doesn't like it, tough noogies, I'm moving out in August. One of the technological solutions to problems like this is that I keep my phone in Do Not Disturb mode, so if he decides to call I don't have to worry about answering-- this is the same landlord that likes to talk until my voicemail cuts him off and then call back and leave three more messages.

If you're looking for a main thesis to this post, I'm not sure there is one. I'm venting, a little, as usual. Writing this stuff out does do a lot to help me get it all organized in my head. So thanks for reading.

03 April 2016

Finding a new college

I haven't written a great deal lately about college-- the word is part of the title of the blog, and the whole reason for the blog is supposed to be my journey through college as a veteran with PTSD. So perhaps I should, just to keep myself honest. The reality is that at the end of this semester, I'm not just done with the semester, I'm looking for a new college to transfer to-- and while it is easy to find colleges I might want to transfer to, it's not such a simple question to actually choose one. I have my choices narrowed down to one state, but since the state is California there are still a lot of possibilities.

There are so many possibilities that it's hard to know where to begin, and it's quite frankly overwhelming. I've attended six different colleges now (yikes!) so, the paperwork that makes up actual process isn't that scary any more. You apply, you send all of your transcripts, and hopefully they say yes. What is scary is that my GPA is either borked or really borked, depending on how you evaluate my transcripts, so I have some explaining to do to convince someone who doesn't know me that I still have a snowball's chance in hell of graduating.

When I walk into the front door of college x I'm automatically "someone who must be dealt with separately". I have a disability (PTSD). I'm a student veteran. I have circumstances. All of these are factors in actually being accepted, and there are often special processes and offices and people to talk to about them. There's a disability resource office. There's a veteran coordinator. In the case of California, I'll be a non-resident student until I've actually lived in California for one year, so that's a factor to deal with. I wasn't born in, wasn't stationed in, and didn't go to high school in California, so that means there are some programs I'm not eligible for. The more of these things I can get sorted out now, the easier things are when I walk in the door.  Or, at the very least, the more I know what questions to ask.

It's also very difficult to account for environment when you're sitting in an office several states away from California. It really matters how big class sizes are, and now much noise there is in classrooms and lecture halls. The total number of students on the campus matters. The amount of general activity on a campus matters. There are things I haven't even thought about that will matter, that I won't know about until I've decided where I'm going to enroll. Which is frustrating, because unknowns are dangerous. Unknowns can derail the entire train. (This is what happened my first semester at Wisconsin. I'd learned to manage at tiny Madison Area Technical College quite well, but being at a large university was quite overwhelming.)

So I'm trying to come up with a set of initial requirements. These are not cast in stone. They're based on anecdotal evidence (my experience) and in some cases a little arbitrary rather than hard research. Consider this a first draft.

  • Small class sizes; average students:instructor ratio less than 50:1
  • Small to medium overall size: less than 20,000 students
  • A disability resource office or center that doesn't mind being peppered with questions 
  • A veterans coordinator or office that doesn't mind being peppered with questions, preferably staffed by one or more actual veterans
  • A student-run veterans organization
  • Carpeted classrooms (you have no idea how much this helps)
  • Lots of quiet places to study, not just the/a library
  • Chill space; quiet space. A park, or a path, or something like that on campus or nearby
  • A source of decent coffee, preferably open late
  • Ability to get to nearest VA hospital without too much distance/trouble 
  • Easy access to public transport and/or parking
It's a start, right?

27 March 2016

Medication, or the lack thereof.

I've been off of psych meds-- completely-- for a while now. I made the decision for a lot of reasons, but one of the major reasons was that even though I was taking a handful of pills twice a day I still ended up homeless. The PTSD didn't go away. The romantic and social sides of my life didn't get any better. The meds didn't make college any easier or less frustrating. Were they a complete waste? I don't know if I'd say that. It's impossible to tell if I'd never started on the meds again in 2010, what life would be like now. I'm not even very interested in guessing.

"Self-medication" is a term you hear a lot when people talk about PTSD-- alcohol, drugs, driving fast, whatever. Way back in the day, when I was still married, alcohol was my thing. I arranged my life around drinking, so that out of seven nights a week five of them I was either out for darts, softball, or bowling. Dinner almost always involved a couple of beers, or a couple of pitchers of beer. Some days, lunch did too-- there was a bar in Milwaukee that had happy hour all day with $.25 tap beer. Even with all of that we bought beer by the case at home, not by the six pack, and a case lasted only a few days. (My ex-wife drank a lot, even more than I did.)

When my marriage ended-- when we actually split up-- I stopped drinking. Not completely, but almost. The bowling league ended not long after, so that stopped. When that season's darts league ended, I was done with that. The next spring I didn't play an inning of softball. My "social life" ended, because all of the "friends" I'd thrown darts with, played softball with, and bowled with turned out to not be friends at all. They were just people who liked to go out and drink with other people, and it didn't matter who the other people really were.

I still have a beer or two now and then, but it's pretty rare. I like and appreciate beer-- I certainly have my favorite brands, and I know enough about beer to know the difference between a lager and an IPA. I also have a taste for Irish whiskey, and there's a small bottle of Jameson's in my kitchen cupboard. Every once in a great while, usually if I'm down with a cold, I'll have a shot. The bottle is 2+ years old now and still half full. It's even rarer that I'm ever close to drunk-- the last time was getting close to ten years ago.

When the VA asks, and they always do ask, how much I drink I respond that I really don't. They have to have a number; how many drinks a week? A month? It honestly averages out to less than one a month, so I say none, and they look at me like I'm lying, or sometimes they'll come right out and say it. "None? Really? I'll enter one." No, you won't. The answer is zero.  I'm not kidding.

It's in that light that I've been thinking about psych meds, especially since I stopped taking mine. At one time I was on venlafaxine, trazodone, bupropion, prazosin, and one other thing I can't remember that made me sleep for 16 hours at a time. I'd also previously been on sertraline and citalopram. I was essentially on downers to counteract the PTSD and anxiety, and uppers to counteract the depression. It reminds me of the times in grade school when they tried to warn us about the dangers of drug abuse (this was before D.A.R.E) by talking about people who used one drug to get high and then another to come back down.

It should be noted here, I'm neither a psychiatrist nor a pharmacist. Your mileage will most certainly vary, so don't mess with your meds just because I write or something. Talk to your psychiatrist or pharmacist or *somebody*.  If you'd like to find out more about medication for PTSD, this is a good place to start.

I fight PTSD on my own now.

I work nights, and I stay up late, so morning for me is actually late afternoon for most of the world. Work starts at 1700, so I'm usually up around 1400.  Let' say that my day starts when I wake up, in that transition period from being asleep to being awake, when one moment I'm in some dream/nightmare and the next I'm lying in my bed wondering why the room is wobbly. It's really hard to describe-- the way movies and TV depict "waking up" isn't really accurate. I'm not in a cold sweat, I'm not screaming. It's not usually sudden. I'm probably more confused than anything until I look around the room for a minute.

First thing, I look at my phone-- this tells me what day it is, what day of the week it is, and what time it is. Did I oversleep? Did I undersleep? Do I have an alarm set for any time in the next few minutes that will go off and scare the bejeezus out of me?  Usually I'll tell Siri to turn off all of my alarms once I'm actually awake. If I woke up too early I'll make sure my alarms are set. If I woke up late I'll try to decide if I need to call work, and fortunately that doesn't happen very often (coincidentally, it hasn't happened since I stopped taking the meds). Then I'll check the weather, see if there's anything I need to worry about-- rain, snow, cold, heat, swarms of locusts, whatever.  By the time all of that is done, I have to pee and so I get out of bed.

It takes me a while to wake up. The amount of time it takes depends on a few things, one of the most important being how disturbing my dreams were. Sometimes I remember them very well, other times not so much. Sometimes it takes me a little while to fully realize that the dream has ended and that I'm awake. I'll peek through the blinds on my windows to see what it's like outside, see that outside is actually still there, that the houses and cars and trees are where they're supposed to be. Somewhere in all of this I'll look at my phone's list of notifications, see if anyone's been trying to reach me or if anything's happening in one of the Slack channels I'm in, since this will likely have an impact on what happens in the next few hours.

I do the normal stuff like showering and getting dressed. As I'm doing this I'm talking to myself, going over whatever's going on-- some days it's a pep talk, some days it's a sitrep, most days it's both. I complain, I wonder, I suggest, I rant. I think and talk about whatever I need to get accomplished at work or on my own projects. Sometimes I go in circles for a little while until I can arrange it all into something that makes sense. It takes some time, sometimes.

Once I'm dressed I check the stove, to make sure all the burners are off. I make sure the George Foreman Grill is unplugged. I make sure the window is closed and locked. I make sure the bathroom light is on, because I keep it on when I leave so there's a light on when I get home. I check the weather again to make sure I'm wearing the right number of layers. Maybe I'll look outside again for someone walking by, to see what they're wearing. 

Then it's shoes/boots/sandals on, coat/jacket/whatever on (or not), and checking pockets. Left front pocket: pocket knife and Desert Storm challenge coin. Right front pocket: foam earplugs, pair, one each and LED flashlight. Back right pocket: wallet. Back left pocket: empty. Left shirt pocket: phone and earbuds (unless wearing a coat, in which case phone in right coat pocket). Keyring attached to clip attached to belt. U. S. Air Force ring on right hand. Pebble Smartwatch on left wrist. If I'm going to be coding at work that night I'll make sure my headphones are in my backpack. Chances are almost certain that whatever I need to do homework/projects/work is already in my backpack from the night before.

This is all known as the pocket dance, and it's quite hilarious to watch.

Somewhere in all of this my iPhone beeps to tell me when I need to leave in order to get where I'm going on time by foot. That's what keeps the pocket dance from being self-perpetuating.

Then it's earbuds in, something to listen to selected, cord arranged under field jacket snaps to keep it out of the way (or not depending on weather and wearing of said field jacket), into the hallway, door locked, door lock checked, and out into the world.

I have to cross streets six times to get to work. On average, I almost get hit by a car or bike at least once every time I walk to work/campus. Therefore I try to minimize the number of streets I have to cross, especially at intersections that don't have stoplights. It's a little out of the way, but I take a bike path that cuts my number of street crossings in half. On the bike path, people on bikes come closer to hitting me than the cars on the street do, so I have to be extra careful there.

Coding happens, or help desk happens, or studying happens.

When work is done: it's the middle of the night, so there's a lot less traffic and it's much safer to take the street (the bike path seems to attract some really strange and dangerous people late at night). I'm usually walking home at or shortly after bar time, so I often have to avoid drunk people. By this time I'm tired, generally a little cranky, and triggered all to hell because of the number of nights I spent sleeping on or near the exact streets I take on my walk home. I see the spots where I hid, where I slept, where I took shelter from the rain, and even one or two spots where I had to pee in desperation while I was homeless. Walking home feels like running a gauntlet, or an obstacle course, although instead of a physical challenge it's a mental one. I'll cross the street to avoid other people. My heart is usually beating pretty fast. I'm really, really hyper aware.

And then I'm home. Something to eat, maybe watch a movie or read a while, and then back to bed to do battle with the dreams.

While all of this goes on, the normal (and admittedly boring) things that happen every day, I'm trying to map the future out. It's the end of March now, and I'm leaving Madison for good when the middle of August arrives. I'm haunted by the memories of being on the streets here, and I want to put that behind me both in terms of time and in physical distance. I'm trying to figure out just what the hell is going to happen when I leave-- buying a plane ticket is easy, getting on the plane is easy, but what the fuck happens when I actually land at SFO or LAX? Still workin' on that. Stay tuned.

I know correlation doesn't equal causation; but I believe it took being off the meds for a little while, then completely, for me to realize that I need to be somewhere else. The past few months I've done a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking, about what's happened the past few years. Maybe the meds didn't cause a lot of things, but the meds didn't prevent them either. How many different meds does a person have to be on? Which ones work? Which ones don't? I don't know. The VA doesn't know. Self-medication, when it's in terms of drinking too much, is looked at as a bad thing-- by self-medicating you're avoiding the problem (or you're making things worse because the alcohol impairs you). At a certain point, when it comes down to taking a handful-- literally, a handful-- of pills twice a day and still not getting anywhere, what's the difference between drinking too much beer and taking too many pills?

All of which is completely unscientific. I know. I get it-- but once you find the right cocktail of pills and find balance, that doesn't keep the world around you from changing. The pills do the same thing that any other medication does-- they dull the pain, lessen the effect, make things "tolerable". There's a point where you need to feel some of the pain. You need to look around you and realize that the things you're fighting to stay close to don't really give a shit about you in return.

I've found an equilibrium that works for now. It's not happiness. It gets me up and dressed, it gets me fed, it keeps me busy enough to keep most of the PTSD in check. It's a battle, every day. As it gets closer to the time when I'll move away from here, the number of thing I need to figure out and get done increases, and so does the associated stress. I'm going to have to start over somewhere else-- not completely, as I'll still be able to use a lot of the things I've been learning over the past few years-- but social life and work and friends and places to get good burritos late at night. That's the kind of change that needs to happen, but it's not the kind of change that will happen if your brain is all clouded up with chemicals that don't belong there.