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23 August 2015

What I Did This Summer

Agile.

There, I said it. Based on everything I've read about Agile (capital A) software development, it's sort of like the taste of coconut. You're either like "GIVE ME ALL THE COOKIES" or "OMGWTF GET THAT #$%^ AWAY FROM ME". This isn't a software development blog, and I'm just a lowly a CS undergraduate, so do relax-- I'm not going to try to convince you either way. I'm also not going to claim I'm an expert on this, try to sell you a book, or invite you to a seminar. (See, told you I've been reading about Agile. Anyway.)

I am going to talk about Agile, and software development, and PTSD. There's not much out there that I've been able to find that puts these things together. There's about to be a little more. I've been looking at Agile, and things agile, as a way to be more productive writing code at the same time as I'm learning to cope more effectively with PTSD.

This is, in a way, my end of summer report.

Back in spring, I made it a personal goal to put forth some effort to write some software this summer. Between work work and personal project work, I've tried to adhere to a roughly 40 hour workweek all summer (some weeks I did, and some weeks I didn't). I've had a nicely air conditioned lab to work in, flexible work hours, and a lot of free time. I also have several hackathon projects that I've continued to tinker with, including some code that's getting old(er). On both projects, I've broken and fixed them (and broken and fixed) them quite a few times, but they're not meant to ever appear in an app store. These are my projects that are never quite done, because I keep learning new things and applying them. JavaScript is, and always has been, a little bit like the first few pages of Alice in Wonderland.

I have some experience with the waterfall model, as that's what I learned in Software Engineering a few years ago when I took the class. We spent hours and hours and hours on documenting requirements and design and schedules, and even more hours updating the documentation whenever anything changed-- which happened quite often. Ultimately, we built then project for the class, and then another project for our real world customer that was actually useful.

The military was a lot like that, in that a great deal of time was spent planning and forecasting. However, when the shit actually hit the fan, you took what you'd learned in training and applied it to the situation at hand. Many, many things carried forward into reality, but when we deployed to the Desert for real the situation wasn't exactly what anyone expected. What my customers there needed from the equipment I had to work with wasn't always easy to make happen, and was sometimes impossible enough that we had to come up with very different answers. I was quite honestly frustrated to no end in my Software Engineering class for the same reason. You can plan only so much ahead of time. (There's a 600+ page report written in 1993 about Desert Shield and Desert Storm, talking about what went wrong and what went right. It took longer to produce than both operations put together.)

It should be noted that I'm a hacker. I believe in, and value highly, the creative aspect of building a thing using software-- a thing that you might not have a 100% clear idea of when you start, but that takes shape as you think about it and play with it. Software doesn't start out as a living, breathing thing, but that's what it becomes.

In the Dot Com days (before the bubble burst), I worked for a company that built what amounted to cookie cutter web sites. Our customers were real estate companies, who paid a certain amount for a complete package that included an interactive voice response system (the number you see on the signs outside of houses for sale) and a website that listed all of the homes they had for sale. It was a chaotic environment; the words factory and sweatshop were often used to describe the pace. Specifications? Hah. No such thing. The graphics department would draw a mockup, and we'd cut it apart and add the interactive features and connect it up to the database. Programmers didn't talk to customers, ever.

We weren't even allowed to talk to customers. Requests for changes came through an account manager, then went through the technical services manager, who assigned them to a programmer. Questions went back through the same chain of command. Ever play the game where you sit in a circle and tell the person next to you a secret, and by the time it gets around the whole circle the secret is changed? It was exactly like that.

Often, several different programmers worked on each web site, and since there was no quality control process (and no source code control!), Shit Got Fucked Up A Lot. Someone would make a change to fix one problem, which would cause another problem that someone else would have to fix. I'd always make waves by testing in Netscape Navigator in addition to Internet Explorer, which almost no one there did. That was the extent of the testing method there.  

Clearly, this didn't work either. You're probably not shocked to hear that the company no longer exists.

Fast forward now, to me being back in school and again learning about writing software. A couple of years ago I got into hackathons, where you build an entire project from scratch in 24 or 36 hours. Specs? What are specs? No such thing here either-- you start with an idea and refine it as you go. Maybe you don't even have an idea of what you're going to build when you get there. I usually don't know what I'm going to try to build until I talk to the sponsors and mentors that are there, and then I try to choose a new API or product that I've never seen before. If I'm on a team, I may have just met my teammates. If any situation ever required agility, a hackathon is that situation.

In CS classes, you're given a specific project to work on. The professor gives you the specs, and perhaps some of the code, and you write your program so that it passes the tests. Although you get some test data to work with, you don't get to see the tests that determine if your program works (and which determine your grade).  Part of the challenge of the assignment (and in programming in general) is that you have to account for edge cases and make sure that your code always does what the spec says it should-- no more, and no less. When you think it's done, or when the deadline is nigh, you turn it in.

The ACM Intercollegiate Programming Contest (which I've participated in) works much the same way. If you use the wrong algorithm, or incorrectly implement the right algorithm, your program doesn't pass the tests. No balloon for you, but you can fix it and submit it again, albeit with a time penalty.

If you're really lucky, you have a professor or two (or even a class) that teaches you something about debugging and maybe even how to test software. There seems to be the assumption that if you do all of the planning up front, your software will be bug free. Hint: it doesn't happen. Yet, no one spends any time on the art of debugging. You never hear about test driven development, or user stories, or setting up a task runner to run automated tests, or even why you should consider doing so. (I know, not everyone thinks Agile is a good idea, especially some CS professors.)

I'm a hacker (I know, I already said that). I also work at a university help desk; we have 40,000+ users just counting the students here, so I'm going to go ahead and call it an enterprise. When something is wrong with software, it's my job to either find a way to get it fixed or find a way to make things work. Some software, frankly, sucks. Working at a help desk, I get to hear about the various ways in which software (and sometimes hardware) sucks. There are hackers, and a lot of CS students, that look at working at a help desk with a certain amount of derision-- like, ew, I'm a rockstar hacker. I'm not one of them. You don't really have a good idea of what people think is important about software until you're on the phone with them an hour before their final assignment of the semester is due and the damn software doesn't work.

If you add up all the time I've spent in the military, CS classes, the ACM Programming Contest, programming for money, help desk for money, hackathons, and hacking in general, it's probably a good sized amount.  It's been in pieces though, and I want to make writing good software that people use into a profession. PTSD wants to mess that up, and the PTSD isn't going away-- it's not like a cold, where you just get over it and you feel better. It's a thing that interferes, and must be dealt with.

I promised I wouldn't try to sell you a book or a seminar-- and I'm going to keep that promise. There are, however, some aspects of Agile development (and/or extreme programming, etc.) that I've found to match up really well with both my experience (which you just read about), and my disability (which is PTSD). I don't claim to "know Agile", and I'm not trying to teach (or preach). What follows are the things from agile that I've been learning about, experimenting with, and finding useful over the course of this summer, in relation to overcoming PTSD and getting shit done.

The Job Accommodation Network has a list of ideas for accommodating employees with PTSD. I've been using this list over the summer as a guide, since it's what employers use as a guide. I've also been loosely following the principles behind the Agile Manifesto; I've honestly found that the things that make Agile what it is are directly applicable to making software development work better in the context of dealing with PTSD symptoms, for me, over the course of this summer.

Memory

Some things are easy to remember; some things are easy to forget. It's said in your very first CS class: comment, comment, comment. I leave notes and bread crumbs all over the place in the form of comments in code, because at some point in the future I'm going to look at this code and ask "what the hell was this joker thinking?", except that the joker was me.

I use the heck out of jsdoc to auto-generate documentation for my code; every time I run 'grunt test', I have a task that regenerates the docs for the the entire code base I'm working on. Especially as my projects have grown bigger, I often need to reference functions that I've already written to see what parameters they need, or what type gets returned.

If I find something wrong with how my app works, I open a GitHub issue and describe it in as much detail as I possibly can. This is something I've learned from working help desk, and from the military-- there's no such thing as too much information about what went wrong.  Email helps with this when it's something I'm writing for someone else, because I can look up a past email if I need to remember what was said. Slack is also good for this because it's searchable, but more on Slack later.

I record lots of things, especially things I read online, using Evernote. Class notes go into a separate notebook for each class. I have a specific notebook for things that are work related. I also use tags religiously. I may not remember everything, but if it's important I probably have a copy of it.

When I have ideas-- whatever they are, whenever they are-- I have to write them down or they are lost. I keep a pocket sized Moleskine notebook and a pen assigned to it in a particular pocket in my backpack.

Lack of Concentration

I need to work on exactly one feature or one exactly problem at a time, and equally important I need to be responsible for only one task at a time. Often, when I'm having trouble concentrating it's very helpful to be able to switch tasks to something smaller in scope. Having scores assigned to tasks rather than a set number of hours, as well as being able to pick from a board of tasks, are both very helpful here.

I need a quiet place to work. This doesn't mean absolute quiet all the time; I can manage in an open plan setting, provided that the people around me are people who like quiet too. Ambient noise is ok. Sudden, unexpected noises (phones ringing, doors slamming, laughter, and especially PA systems), are not. Nervous tapping of pencils or whatever drives me up the wall, so please don't make me sit next to someone that does that.

Sometimes I do need absolute quiet, to the point that I can appear antisocial. It's not personal, I just need quiet.

During classes, and now during meetings, I use a Livescribe smartpen. Yes, you are being recorded, and yes, I am taking notes. I'm not taking notes so I can one up you later on, I'm recording and taking notes because at some point in the meeting I'm going to lose concentration and miss something. It's going to happen. Later on, after the meeting, I'll review the recording and my notes and fill in the blanks.

If I have earbuds in, or headphones on, don't bug me. Chat me on Slack, email me, wait till later. I know programmers have bitched about interruptions since there have been programmers, but with PTSD it's even harder to come back to a task after being interrupted.

Automated testing tools are a godsend. I use Grunt to set up tasks that check code for syntax errors, check json for validity, enforce coding standards, create docs, move the right files into the right places, and a ton of other things.

Time Management

If you ask me how long something is going to take, the answer is "I don't know". I can give you a bullshit answer, but it will be wrong. I don't have a very good sense of time. Two weeks ago, twenty five years ago, and yesterday are all the same to me. It's like being color blind, but with time. This is what happens with re-experiencing, you slip in and out of past events and the present. Assigning scores to tasks that show complexity, rather than how long something is supposed to take, is again a lot easier to work with.

If it's not on my calendar, it doesn't happen. Period. If you want to talk to me tomorrow, tell me today and make sure I whip out my iPhone, put you on my calendar, and set reminders for ahead of the event. I also set travel time reminders to make sure I leave early enough.

And, I still might be late. It happens. I don't like it, and you probably don't either, but some days I'm completely off sync and can't get where I need to go on time to save my life. Usually it's because I didn't sleep much (or well) the night(s) before, and overslept. It's not meant to be disrespectful. If I'm late getting in, I have no problem staying later so you're getting your money's worth.

I'm not big on meetings, but a scheduled weekly meeting (scrum, if you will) is a good thing because I know when it's going to happen and I can prepare for it ahead of time. Send me an agenda, even if it's just a simple outline.

Disorganization/Task Management

I rely daily on my military experience to keep things straight, but PTSD can throw things off track very easily. If I get triggered, there goes concentration and time management and memory out the window. There are some times that I'll seem really disorganized, and it might take me a little bit to answer when you have a question about something I'm working on.

I mentioned this already, but I use GitHub to create descriptive issues when I find something is wrong, or I'm adding a new feature. Might go without saying, but I use git-- command line git, not the candy ass GUI version. :) When I'm working on projects alone, I create a new branch for every issue so I know exactly what I'm working on.

Post-it notes suck, to be honest. So do index cards thumbtacked to a wall. I'm much better with tools that a) are available on my iPhone, because it's always attached and b) I can have up on one of my monitors where I can always see it and interact with it without having to go look at a wall board somewhere.

I'm in love with Waffle.io, which integrates with GitHub function to make a really nice agile-y interface for tracking tasks in four columns: Backlog, Ready, In progress, and Done. Create a new GitHub issue, a card gets created for the issue in the Backlog column. Close an issue via a commit, the card gets moved into Done. I can't say enough about Waffle. It's been a lifesaver.

Trello has a similar interface, boards with columns, but it's not natively integrated with GitHub the way Waffle is-- Trello has been a lifesaver too, especially at work where I use Bitbucket for git for projects. Even without integration between Trello and Bitbucket, I have a Trello board set up for the project I'm working on with the same columns, a card for each issue.

I also use Evernote to keep a work log, which is set up as a notebook with a monthly log of what I've been doing at work every day I work. In the Trello card for a task, I include links to commits I make to the git repo. In Evernote, I include links to the Trello card (and if appropriate, the git commit).

The point being, if I lose track-- for whatever reason-- of what I'm supposed to be doing at any given time, I have bread crumbs to follow. If something's wrong, I have a place to look to see where things went wrong. I can roll back changes if necessary. If I'm distracted, I know where I left off.

Sleep (or a lack thereof)

I take medication that helps with nightmares. Sometimes it works a little too well, and I end up sleeping through all of my alarms and I wake up ten minutes after I was supposed to be somewhere. 

Some nights, I don't sleep at all. This is a combination of things; one is that if I'm not feeling well I'll often work harder, in an effort to try to work through things. Sometimes, especially if nightmares have been an issue the past couple (or few) nights, I won't want to sleep because I don't want to dream. 

Being up late at night when the world is quieter means that my body's clock is at odds with everyone else's. Therefore, I have the 1300 rule-- if you want to see me, talk to me, or otherwise get a response from me, do so after 1:00pm. Right now this works with my work schedule, but I don't know about the future. I'll deal with that when I get there.

Flex time is so helpful here. 

Coping With Stress

Sometimes, I need to step away. I need to go outside and go for a walk, or I need to leave a meeting, or on a particularly bad day I might even snap at you or someone else. Usually, I can't explain it because I haven't yet come to grips with exactly why I'm stressed-- so no, I don't want to talk about it. Don't tie me to my desk. Being able to get up, go for a walk, stand outside for a little bit, go get a fresh cup of coffee, etc. without being hassled about doing so is really important.

Flexible hours are like manna from heaven. If I can't give you all of hours you want from me today, I will make them up. That being said, I often like working at night (sometimes very late at night) because the world is quieter and it's easier for me to concentrate on what I'm doing without so many people around.

I'm trying to exercise more, because it helps. It's just over a mile from my apartment to work, and I walk both ways unless it's dangerously cold outside-- my Misfit says I take about 10,000 steps a day.

I'm actively in therapy at the VA Hospital. I take medication. I practice mindfulness.

Interacting with Supervisors and Other Employees

This is a tough one-- technically, I don't have to tell you that I have a disability. Well, too late now. :) It's hard to admit that I have a disability because I don't want you to think less of me. I don't want you to think that I'm not a good programmer as a result of having a disability, or that you can't trust me or rely on me. Sad to say, there is a stigma often attached to PTSD, especially with veterans.

I am still learning how to deal with PTSD and work. In the past, I didn't know a lot about the complexities involved. I'm beginning to understand them, a little. The point is, much like developing software, I don't always know that I need an accommodation until I need it. Every workplace, and often every project, can be different.

Communication is really very important. I like being left alone to work, but keep me informed and in the loop. I want to be a valued member of the team. I want to contribute. As much as I might try to avoid interactions sometimes, it's usually because I'm stressing about things-- my PTSD flavored world view is that there's danger around every corner, and software development is no exception. Face to face meetings really help alleviate that.

I've been through a lot, and I can adapt to damn near anything, but it's better if you give me a chance to adapt after you've tossed procedural change at me. I like routines. If you upset the apple cart, it's going to take me a little bit to set things straight for myself. If you have to tell me something that you think I won't like, be direct. If you have an order to give me, give me an order.  If it's a software issue-- you need something changed, something is borked and I need to fix it, you need an update on my project, a new project has come up-- that's cool. Change is constant. I know that software requirements change, and I like that, because it gives me useful work to do.

I already mentioned punctuality in time management, but I'll mention it again because companies like to use time clocks. I'm chronologically challenged. I will do my best to be on time, but sometimes my sense of time slips to the point that I'm not. Flex time isn't just a fringe benefit, it's often the difference between me being productive and me not being productive.

Don't sneak up behind me. Don't stand behind me. It's okay to look over my shoulder, but say something so I know you're there. If you have a question, and you need an answer right now, ask. I might not like being interrupted, but I'll like being surprised when I realize you're standing behind me a lot less.

I'm a combat veteran with PTSD who also happens to be a hacker. I'm passionate about writing software that people use and find valuable. What I am not is an expert on any of this. I'm learning as I go along, with the help of the people I work with, the people I hack with, the people around the net that write about things, the people that write the tools that I rely on, and the people at the VA Hospital.

When I first started this blog, there wasn't much real information available about being in college and PTSD (there's a little bit more now). There's less about being a veteran and software developer, and damn near nothing about being a combat veteran software developer with PTSD (again, there's a little bit more now).











16 August 2015

Yesteryear and Tomorrow

"This time, this day, a year ago, I was sleeping on the street. That's where I slept that one night, or that other night. That's where I'd hunker down when it rained. That's the building that I knew stayed open late, and that's the one that I knew closed early on Sundays."

Geez, when do these thoughts stop? I'm not sure if they ever do, at least as long as it's still exactly a year since so many things happened, and at least as long as I still walk past these places every day. This is something you never hear the people who say "find a home for all of the homeless veterans" talk about-- what comes next. Lately I've decided that it's similar to what people say about stray dogs and cats. Find them a good home. Once you find them a good home, everything is fine. Happily ever after. Right?

It's not that simple. People (veterans) (me) aren't that simple. A person isn't just homeless, then not homeless, then homeless, then not homeless, then everything evens out and returns to normal. It's not like a pool of water, that eventually returns to being smooth and calm after you've dropped a pebble (or a huge rock) into the middle of the pool.

A year has gone by, a year in which I've done a lot to move forward. On a basic level, I've survived. I'm still here. I get up, get dressed, go to work, go to the lab, make sure I eat, occasionally sleep (and occasionally don't). Now that I'm back on meds I'm actually taking them regularly, and I think they help. I've taken on new responsibility at work, adding a new position as a student software developer.

I've written, rewritten, borked, fixed, reborked, and refixed more lines of JavaScript than I can realistically count. I've been learning about new tricks, like using linters and code style checkers, what unit tests are and how (and why) to write them. That's all on my own. Then there are the hackathons I've attended, at places like Cal and USC and U of Waterloo. I even helped organize a hackathon, my way of giving back to a culture that has given me so much (and has helped get me through a couple of seriously hard years).

This year, I'm going to more hackathons. Last year, it was cool just to be there, just to participate. I freely admit that I didn't do enough to network-- I worked on projects mostly alone, and while I talked to almost all of the sponsors at each event, I didn't really push myself to make connections. In a way, I regret that, but I'm trying to give myself some credit. Being there was an accomplishment in itself, actually building stuff was another accomplishment, and while I didn't win any prizes I did get some positive feedback. The projects I built usually weren't finished, but the sponsors sometimes liked what they saw anyway. I'm not that concerned about prizes-- I'd be thrilled beyond belief to win one, but it's not the end of the world if I don't.

It is an awesome thing for me to have an idea at a hackathon, try to build it, and then see a couple of months later that some startup in San Francisco just got $20 million to do something similar. On one hand, you could say that my idea wasn't that original or unique, because someone else had the same idea. I'll give you that. On the other hand, though, my project idea was good (practical) enough that someone was willing to put up more money than I've ever seen to start a company to build something similar. I'm pretty down to earth. I expect to be rich and famous about as much as I expect to put on the makeup and platform shoes and get on stage with Kiss. Even so, when engineers from Silicon Valley companies tell me they like something that I built from scratch in 36 straight hours, I've decided it's okay to feel good about that.

PTSD is the negative voice in my head, the voice saying I should just avoid all of this-- that the world is too dangerous, that I can't do this, that people will never understand once they know that I have a disability and that I can never be good enough to overcome it. I'm actually not sure exactly what it means to say I've overcome it. At what point do I (or can I) declare victory? If you're a hockey player and you break your leg, rehab, and come back to play hockey at some useful level, you can say that you beat your injury. You "overcame adversity". I've sometimes tried to look at PTSD (and the associated anxiety and depression) using that broken leg metaphor-- you're hurt, and you have to heal. Time and effort and patience. At some point though, when you break your leg you can maybe walk normally again and from then on you're all right. It's hard to see things that way when things seem to have been getting worse for far too long.

It's easy to see the steps I've missed, the times, I've fallen down. It's easy to look at the places I've slept and the places I've hidden from the thunder and rain. They're always there. They don't go away, they don't change, they're often unavoidable-- walk a different way, and there's another place with an attachment. Even my apartment, which is home, has attached to it how I felt and the way things were last year when I first moved in. Prolonged Exposure therapy, which is what I'm doing at the VA these days, says that in order to lessen the effect that trauma has on you, you have to face it again and again. Eventually, like water smoothing a stone, the rough edges go away.

I'm still carrying around a lot of anger-- at the people from Porchlight who didn't respect me, cared only about what they thought was best, didn't support me and in the end left me on the street to fend for myself. The people from the VA, who passed it off as either someone else's problem or as my fault. I know that I need to work on this part. I don't forgive easily. There's no excuse that anyone involved can make for what happened that I can accept, not right now anyway. (I don't consider myself obsessed with winning, but I don't like to lose either.)

Anger sucks when it's a part of PTSD. There's the anger that comes from knowing that for all I (and everyone else) did in the Desert in 1990 and 1991, things ultimately still got worse. Politically, it's up to you to decide if invading Iraq again was a good idea. My opinion, if Saddam Hussein had been left in power, he'd have waited out the sanctions and his government (and its actions) would still be a problem. It's hard knowing that we did what we needed to do, and still a lot of people died before it was all settled. It's also up to you to decide if things are settled. Now we're fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Russia has annexed Crimea and is threatening Ukraine-- hopefully you see the picture even if you don't agree.

Anger is also a tool of the avoidance that is a part of PTSD. People don't generally like being around angry people. Being angry is a way to keep other people away. Angry vet? Better keep your distance. People don't fuck with you when you look angry. They move aside, they make room. They don't make eye contact. They don't ask questions. No one asks questions, no one needs answers. Anger is like an armored cloak that you can wrap around yourself to ward off everything. Anger is a self fulfilling prophecy-- enough anger, and all the bad things that PTSD thrives on will happen, sooner or later.

It's also exhausting being angry. Anger isn't wielded like a sword, or at least I don't wield it like a weapon. I use it as a shield. It's not an aluminium garbage can lid, easily bent and easily swung around. It's wooden timbers reinforced with lead plate held on by heavy bolts forged by a blacksmith. Mostly it swings through the air, but if it connected with anything, anything would be at the very least dented. It's heavy to carry and heavy to swing around, and it's not as easy to put down as I wish it was. Carrying anger around isn't fun.

That's what the continued PE therapy is about; the goals I'm working on in PE therapy are the same goals as I've been talking about. Talking to more people, especially the people from the sponsor companies. Making connections. Getting to hackathons, finding ways to get there which is sometimes easy and sometimes not. Applying for them in the first place. Coding. Testing. Learning new things. Testing the limits-- those things that trigger the PTSD, that awaken the voices-- pushing at them, prodding them, eventually going past them.

Ultimately, constantly fighting the battle is exhausting just by itself. Some days, I fight bold and brave. Some days I'm tired, and being bold and brave doesn't happen. Some days I win, and some days the PTSD wins. This is the really hard part. The rest of the world wants bold and brave every day, even though most people will tell you that all people have good days and bad days, if you have too many bad days it's a bad thing. PTSD often means more bad days. The question then becomes, what do you I on the bad days? Will people, like my coworkers and my employer(s), be willing to ride out the days when I'm not 100%?

That's the hard part. Figuring that out.















14 August 2015

Now What? / The Manual? Pfft

I'm still in something of a "now what?" mode; I signed new lease for my apartment. This will be year two of living here, which for me lately is pretty stable. I wonder if I should be celebrating or something-- maybe a shot from that small bottle of Jameson's in my cupboard. I haven't touched it in several months. Perhaps signing an apartment lease does qualify as a special occasion, one worthy of a toast. During my visits to the Vet Center last year, I established the goal of being stable (continuing to get to work, keeping my apartment, continuing to survive, etc) for a full year. That was a year ago, and now with signing a lease for another year, I've accomplished that goal. So, sláinte.

At several points in my life I have had a plan, that for the next n years I would do x. After x was accomplished (or finished), I would then do y. This was useful when someone would ask where I wanted to be in n years, because I already had an answer. I'd worked it all out, mapped out the route, figured out the roadblocks and how to get around them. Whenever I start telling myself this, I'm reminded of the unit I was in when I went to the Desert-- there was A Deployment Plan, which the unit had meticulously crafted and practiced over the years. It specified every detail of THE deployment, the one that all of the training was for. The "real world" deployment, where all of the paperwork wouldn't have "EXERCISE" in bold letters at the top. There was a Mobility office, and a Mobility (note the upper case "M") NCO that was in charge of the Plan (note the upper case "P"). 

During the first few hours of the implementation of the Plan, which actually happened twenty-five years ago this week, it became readily apparent that if my unit were to follow the Plan to the letter we'd never actually make it to the Desert. We'd probably never even make it to the planes that would carry us and our tons of stuff. So the Plan became a lot simpler, very quickly. Pack anything and everything you might possibly need to get set up, pack so that it won't move even a millimeter between here and the Desert, and let's go. We'll figure out the rest when we get there.

It should be noted that I'd just arrived a couple of weeks ago at my new unit-- I'd just PCS'ed in from Turkey, hadn't even really unpacked, and had barely begun in processing. I hadn't done any of the "wartime" ancillary training that the Air Force required. But, then again, I'd just spent 15 months in Turkey (which until Desert Shield was almost as forward deployed as one could get) dealing with exercises and MOPP suits and NATO. I'd also worked on the same components that my new shop was responsible for, although used in a different system/mission. In that sense I was probably as prepared as I could possibly be to deploy to the Desert. (Except for desert camo uniforms, which I had to go to Supply and get. The only sizes they had in stock were Large-Long, and I'm Large-Short, but whatever.)

The situation was also strange for me because I didn't really know anyone in my unit that well. I'd met all of the people in my shop, and had the tour, but I didn't know any of the operations people who made up the bulk of the other passengers on my flight. These were the people who used my equipment, my customers, but I hadn't met most of them. All of the people in my shop were on other flights. When I finally did land in country, I sort of had to wing it for a couple of days until all of the necessary stuff got matched up with its right people. That's one of the things I ultimately love about the military though-- sometimes, shit just needs to get done and it doesn't matter if you're trained on doing that particular task or not. You're here, you're going to learn how to do it, and then you're doing it. I found myself putting together equipment I'd never seen before, with people I didn't know, in a country where I didn't speak the language that was about to be at war. (The tasks an airman finds himself or herself doing in such situations are sometimes fun and interesting, and sometimes they are not.)

There were a lot of things I didn't like about being in the Desert. I'd just come back to the States, for one, and I had sort of planned on my life being a little bit more stable for a while. It's hard when you're a long way away from everything (and everyone) you know and love for over a year, and there's all of the things you can't do until you get back, so you make up this huge list of all of the things you're going to do when you do get back. All of those cool plans had to be put back on hold, and worse yet, indefinitely. My orders to the Desert said six months, but after being there for a couple of months we heard the news that XII Corps was being moved to the Desert from Germany. With that news, "six months" changed to "indefinite". 

There were times when I felt angry. Why me? Why all of this shit? I'd gone back to the States and gotten married in the middle of my tour in Turkey, and I was quite honestly quite tired of being alone. I later found out that nearly everyone, at some point, felt the same way about being in the Desert, even the most dedicated career airmen. There were a lot of people who filled out their retirement papers in the Desert and became civilians soon after they got home.

And, there were a lot of times in the Desert where I was scared and frightened. Yes, the Persian Gulf War was a relatively short war compared to others. It turned out that way, but while it was happening we expected and were prepared for a much longer war. We expected more casualties, lots more. We expected that we'd be hit with chemical weapons. We expected, and we trained for, a disaster to happen. That's how it works-- you train hard, you train for the absolute worst that can happen, and then when something does happen you're ready for it. That doesn't mean you're not scared, it just means that your brain and your nervous system and your muscles know what to do. 

I'm going to skip ahead a bit now, from August 1990 to March 1991. In doing so I'm skipping what is essentially the meat of the story, and certainly all of the events that are involved in my PTSD, but there is a method to my madness.

When I came home-- after the parade through Sumter SC, and after all of our equipment came back, and after we'd cleaned sand out of every crevice and crack and place that sand could be-- when I came home life returned to something that most people would call "normal". It was all new to me, since I'd spent such a short time at my actual duty station before shipping out for the Desert. A lot had changed during the time I was gone, changes that I didn't know had happened and changes that I recognized but didn't understand. 

Once the excitement died down, which it gradually and eventually did, I was able to settle into a routine. A chapter in my life-- Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War-- had closed. Whatever else happened after that-- when things broke, or someone needed an airman to do something, or whatever-- things had become a new level of boring. Once you've done the thing you've trained to do, once you've seen the worst of it, the daily ticky tack stuff isn't as exciting any more. It's still important. The business of the military is that as one action winds down, you start preparing for the next action because it will surely come. But it's not the same.

The military, in 1991, drew down. A lot of the people that had made the Persian Gulf War happen became civilians in the years after we came home. I was one of them. There was a new thing, a "transition assistance program", that tried to make it easier for all of us that were getting out to become civilians again. How to look for jobs, interviewing skills, networking skills, resumes, transferring military skills to civilian work. Some of it helped, some of it didn't, more on that another time. 

I won't make the claim that being homeless is as bad as war-- maybe it is, maybe it isn't, there are so many variables-- but I will say that being homeless is in some ways equally as profound. In a war you have the people you work with, the people who support your mission, you have (hopefully) the country behind you. People always say "Support the Troops" and some of them even do, or at least they try. People don't generally support the homeless. People consider the homeless with different emotions, sometimes pity but mostly scorn. If a homeless person is a veteran, sometimes that matters but mostly it doesn't. Either way it often doesn't change anything.

I'm angry a lot lately; I have a short fuse, and I've found myself walking with a chip on my shoulder. It's not me. I'm not like that, and I don't like having such a short fuse. I know it's the PTSD. I know I'm still angry about everything that happened that made me homeless in the first place, and I'm still especially angry about how Porchlight treated me while I was in VA transitional housing. As much as you could say that being homeless means that your life is (at least temporarily) ruined, being evicted from a homeless program and then being forgotten about is even worse. It turns out that there's no one to complain to-- people say they're heartbroken to hear my story, but no one can (or will) do anything about it (including people at the VA). 

Sorry doesn't cut it, especially in terms of everything that Porchlight evicting me has actually cost me. No one's ever going to pay me back for that, though. I know that. It's hard to accept, hence the anger lately. While I'm willing to accept that people are generally good, I've seen evil-- stared it in the face, eye to eye. I know evil when I see it. There are people who are truly evil. People who would put a veteran on the street and forget about them are in that category.

Which (indirectly, I admit) brings me back to the question: now what? There's no manual for making the transition from being homeless, being screwed over, being homeless again, and then not being homeless. Much of my life-- an abusive childhood, a broken home, the Persian Gulf War, a broken marriage and divorce, being homeless-- has been about relying on myself and what I know, and what I can figure out on my own. Since being in the service, I've used the things the military taught me to survive every day. I'm not sure that I know what a "normal, stable life" looks like, or feels like.  

-----

It's been a couple (or a few) days since I wrote the first part of this post. I left it as a draft for a while, because I didn't want to just post it as it was. I haven't edited it since, but I'm adding to it now.

One of my therapy tracks at the VA Hospital is ending-- the intern I've been working with is done with her residency at my local VA Hospital, and she's headed to another VA Hospital in a different part of the country. We're meeting one more time after my Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy group next week, although there won't be a lot to say. I've had a lot of people come and go in my life, and at this point once someone is identified as not going to be around for much longer my trust in them gets cut off. It was nice knowing you, and nice working with you, but I from here on I'm just another veteran that you saw (briefly) when you were an intern back in the day.

The interns that run the PE group I've been going to for the past few weeks are finishing up their stays here as well; one is going to another VA Hospital in the same state, and I haven't heard where the other is headed. I'm not sure what will happen to the PE group. It's a "drop-in" group, meaning that you don't need an appointment, you just show up. The highest number of people that have attended since I started is three, which was this week. It's at 1500, which I know makes it difficult for veterans with day jobs to attend (especially when a lot of them live outside the city, with a substantial distance to drive to get there).

The PE group is a good thing-- talking to other veterans about how I'm feeling, how I'm coping (or not), and comparing situations and responses really helps. PTSD can be very isolating-- one of the symptoms is avoidance, which is part of it, but it's not something that I can discuss with many people outside of the VA and one or two very close friends (who are veterans themselves). It's one of those things that you really can't understand unless you're dealing with it personally.

Prolonged exposure therapy uses the subjective units of distress scale (SUDS) to measure one's response to a particular situation. A '10' is something you can do without much problem or distress. A '100' is something where you freak the fuck out just thinking about it. Each of us participating in the group keeps a list of places, or actions, or situations rated from 0-100 that we're applying what we learned in the actual PE therapy sessions to overcome. Prolonged exposure therapy itself involves verbally describing a traumatic event in detail in guided sessions, recording yourself doing so, and listening to yourself describing the traumatic event daily. The more you face it, the less it affects you. It's hard as fuck, but it's worth it. It helps.

PE the drop-in group is meant to keep the momentum going, talking about what's going wrong and trying to apply the same strategy to those things. I don't know that saying I enjoy it is really the right thing, but I look forward to it every week. If nothing else, it's validation that the stuff bouncing around in my head isn't just me, that there are other people that have the same kind of stuff ping-ponging around. I'm hoping, and I'm going to express this feeling next week, that an intern leaving shouldn't mean that the group ends. If the PE group ends, I don't have another support structure in place right now to replace it.

Which means, yet another new provider. Which means that I'll get to tell my story, again, to someone who doesn't know me and probably doesn't give a shit once the session is over and I leave the office. It doesn't really matter how deep the discussion gets, it's 1600 or whatever time and hey, gotta go. I know I must sound cynical (this is a literary device to indicate to you, dear reader, that I am cynical about the VA). It's just that telling my story again and again to different people doesn't help much and in fact makes things worse. The staff at the front desk at the mental health clinic and I know each other by first name. I barely know the first names of the interns who are my providers, and it doesn't pay to learn them because they'll be gone soon.

What's wrong with this picture?

-----

Oh, and that college thing: classes start again soon. I'm still working out financial aid, so even though I'm a senior and a veteran I'm registering insanely late. There's not much to report other that that right now. It's still summer, at least for a little while yet.

I'm going to at least a few hackathons this semester. Hopefully getting back into a schedule that involves some travel will help-- I love going places in general, and to hack makes it even better. Last year, I was just there to hack, and learn. I didn't really put a lot of effort towards getting hired at one of the sponsoring companies, because I was trying to be stable for a year. Now that year is over, and I have a future to think about, so I'm actively trying to secure an internship. Not looking to get rich quick, not looking to get famous, just looking for a place where I fit in and can be productive even with a disability.

There's still no manual for any of this, so I'm writing it as I go along.

Not bad for someone who a year ago was sleeping on the street outside the building I'm sitting in.








  










02 August 2015

22

For a while-- a long time, actually-- I had a lot of faith in the VA, that they were really doing the best they could (often with limited resources), and that things were in general improving.That faith was broken, probably permanently, by everything that happened in the grant per diem/transitional housing program. For the VA to proudly proclaim that they were going to end veteran homelessness while at the same time allowing the people actually operating the program (I'm looking at you, Porchlight) to put veterans back on the street and forget about them (which is what happened to me) is hypocritical at the very least. Once that happened, any faith I had in the VA really wanting to solve problems for veterans was gone.

The VA is still my health care provider, though, mainly because I don't have a lot of any other affordable choices that also have experience dealing only with veterans. I've dealth with civilian (non-VA) providers, all of whom completely missed diagnosing my PTSD. There's also something to be said for helping other vets, and bringing problems with the VA to light helps get them fixed. Which ultimately helps other vets (besides me just letting off steam). Right?

The social worker/therapist I had until last fall was a permanent staff member, but she's since been promoted to another position. My psychiatrist had a kid, came back, and then left for good this spring to go into private practice. My primary care doctor isn't a doctor, she's a different nurse practitioner at every primary care appointment. My current psychiatrist isn't actually a psychiatrist, she's a pharmacist that knows a lot about psych meds. My current mental health providers-- the social worker/therapist I'm seeing for prolonged exposure therapy, and the social workers/therapists that are facilitating my weekly prolonged exposure therapy group-- are all residents (aka interns).


This means that almost every time I am at the VA Hospital for an appointment, I have to give my story. The PTSD, the being homeless, the learning to manage the PTSD, the recovering from being homeless. The getting my own place again last year only to be hit with being diagnosed with diabetes soon after. I'm quite seriously thinking about writing a personal FAQ to hand to every provider I see that I haven't met before. Every appointment the provider types stuff into a computer, which the next provider reads. None of them know about what's happened before the last couple of appointments. They see the current diagnoses, and that's as far as they dig.

A couple of weeks ago, the intern that I'm working with on prolonged exposure therapy called in sick. I didn't get a call, and so I showed up at the VA Hospital for that appointment to find out that she wasn't there. Because she "manages her own appointments" I needed to talk to her to reschedule an appointment-- she called the next morning to set up a new appointment. I haven't (yet) called back. Things have in general been somewhat difficult lately, I don't like talking on the phone very much, and chances are that when I call her she won't be there. Since the staff at the front desk can't make an appointment for me, what good is telephone tag?

Yesterday I had an appointment with my not a psychiatrist but a pharmacist at 1430. She called in sick, I didn't get a message (again) and so there I was standing at the desk really needing to talk to someone about getting my PTSD medication adjusted because my PTSD symptoms have been getting steadily worse lately, and getting back on meds regularly has been an adventure in and of itself, and I have to talk to someone who is qualified and able to write a new prescription for a higher twice daily dose of venlafaxine and school starts again in a month and it takes time for a higher dose to take effect and I really need to get this shit ironed out so I can have something resembling a normal life, k?

*sigh*

The staff person at the desk apologized ("someone was supposed to call"). Someone is always someone else. Whatever. I explained that the reason I had scheduled an appointment several months ago was that I knew I'd need to have my meds doses adjusted and for that I needed to talk to someone who could actually write a new prescription.

"Oh."

Staff person made a couple of calls; my appointment was in a building separate from the main hospital, not at the main mental health clinic. She tracked down someone who actually had made it to work, but that person was busy for the next hour. Me: "Fine, I'll wait." I've long ago learned that once you're at the VA Hospital because you need something, the best thing to do is stay there until you actually get it. It's a hospital. Someone has to be able to write a damn prescription. Also, don't leave without making a followup appointment at a specific date/time if you need one.

Anyway. Waited a while in the not-in-the-main-hospital waiting room, and staff member says I need to go wait in the in-the-main-hospital waiting room but I don't have to worry about checking in, the person who I'm going to see knows what I'm wearing and she'll come find me. I'm curious what description the admin staff person gave-- I'm imagining "hey, there's a pissed off scruffy looking guy in a Harley hat coming upstairs to see you because we fucked up his PTSD medication review appointment".

Anyway, in the regular waiting room for a few minutes until person-who-can-write-scripts comes out to find me. Introductions. She asks how I'm doing. To myself I think "I'm doing just fine, I have PTSD from having missiles lobbed at me from an insane dictator's army. How are you today?" I didn't pay attention to what her name was, because I don't intend to try to remember it. Chances are good that after getting what I need, I'll never see her again.

She skims the notes from the last time I saw not-really-a-psychiatrist. I have to go through the PTSD/homelesness/feeling like hell/symptoms presentation as usual. She types a few things. I say I want to increase my venlafaxine dose by the minumum amount possible and come back in three months; the normal increase would be to double the dose, but since I've had trouble stomaching meds I'm taking increases slowly. She agrees, types a few more words into the computer, and I'm on my way to the pharmacy to pick up new pills.

22.

It's been said that 22, or possibly more, veterans commit suicide every day. Whenever a brother or sister takes their own life, there's always talk of how they fell through the cracks. In many cases (I don't have a reliable reference for how many) the veteran had already been to the VA or was trying to get into the VA. Or maybe they'd never been to the VA in the first place because they've heard how fucked up things are. People in suits discuss how they're going to stem the tide. Something must be done, they say.

I'm pretty stubborn. I'm pretty resilient. I've managed to avoid alcoholism, managed to avoid drugs, managed to keep myself out of jail and out of trouble. Maybe I'm a little lucky, too. Maybe I'm a lot lucky. I don't know. I keep going, some days I think it's because of a warrior spirit and some days I wonder what it is that makes me want to see another day because I really don't know. I'm not better than any other veteran, I'm just still here.

When they ask at the VA if I've had any thoughts of harming myself or others, I honestly say no. Wanted to end my life? No. Gotten angry at someone for some stupid imagined slight? Sure. Seriously wanted to beat the crap out of someone? Not enough to actually do it, so no. They always ask this question. I'm sure that there are times when someone does say yes-- I know some of those veterans who have said yes-- and the VA takes those situations very seriously.

I plan to live to be an old, cantakerous headbanging hacker. Someday when I'm in the old folks home I'll phreak the internal phone system so whenever someone calls the place they'll get redirected to an extension that only plays fart noises. Or I'll fix it so that whenever I enter a room, the soothing and relaxing music being piped in will be replaced by Metallica. Point being, I'm not going anywhere.

I'm not every veteran, and not every veteran is me. We're all human. We can only each take so much, especially from an agency that's supposed to take care of us.

"Oh, so-and-so called in sick today so we cancelled your appointment."

I understand, people get sick and call in sick, or something happens and they need to get a day off, or even they need a mental health day. If I worked in a VA mental health clinic I'm sure I would need a day off now and then-- but for fuck's sake, is it that damn hard for the staff that are there to find someone to cover for a provider that's out for a day?

"I can fit you in tomorrow at 1500 if you can call me back right away in the morning."

You mean that you can fit me in when it's convenient for you, provided I can call back when it's convenient for (guess who?) you. In the mean time, whatever energy I spent getting mentally ready to come in and work on prolonged exposure therapy was wasted. And now I'm pissed off, and feeling like you don't give a fuck. It'll take some time for me to resolve that, after which I'll have to play telephone tag with you to get a new appointment set up which won't happen for a couple of weeks because your schedule is full.

You also know I work nights, and that by calling me in the morning you will either a) not get an answer (most likely) or b) get an answer from a veteran who is asleep and probably in the middle of a nightmare about something you can't even imagine. While you're trying to sound helpful you're pointing out how little you actually care.

"Oh, well, yeah, there was a communication error. Sorry."

Ok. Make sure you find out why there was a communication error-- why even after I called to say I was coming in for group and that I'd be a few minutes late, no one thought to mention that the group facilitator wasn't even in that day. Also find out why the front desk staff let me sit in the waiting room for an hour without telling me that she wasn't in that day. And then, fix the problem so the next time someone calls in sick, I actually get a message.  

"Well, yeah, that's the VA for ya."

So fix it. You. Not someone else. I know that one person can't fix the VA on their own. I know that the VA is a slow moving, bureaucratic beast. That doesn't mean that you as an employee have to subscribe to being useless.

I'm not that fragile (that I'll admit), and also I understand that things go wrong. Sometimes, when things to wrong, people at the VA are really good about trying to get things fixed.

Still, when the VA cancels appointments, or doesn't consider what the veteran needs over what the intern needs, or drops the ball and wastes a veteran's time-- these things add up. No one is going to the mental health clinic because life is going well (even if some parts of life are in fact going ok). I have my own set of PTSD and related problems, and as bad as mine can get there are veterans who have to deal with a ton more shit than I do.

I can't tell you why each of the veterans that have ended their own lives made that choice. I can tell you that when providers cancel appointments and don't offer backup, or VA employees just brush off problems that they think are small, that these are things that contribute to a feeling that no one cares about us. If the VA doesn't care-- the government of my country-- who does? It's a very slippery slope from there. 

Did I get what I needed from the VA yesterday? Yes. I got a new bottle of pills after I made enough of a fuss that someone did something so that I could.

Did anything happen to reduce the PTSD that was the reason I was there in the first place?

I got a new bottle of pills.

27 July 2015

One year down. Oh, and FU.

On Friday, I signed a new lease for my apartment-- it runs until August 15, 2016, and my rent increases by $10/month (which is less of an increase than I had expected). The entire process of signing the new least took under ten minutes, Landlord was professional and polite, and it was pretty painless.  Far less painless than I had expected.  It was, dare I say, pretty normal. Which is pretty scary.

This August, specifically the end of August, will mark a year since I was last homeless. It will mark the end of a year in which the goal was to stay stable for a year, keep doing what I was doing, have a stable place to live, etc.

I'm going to rant a little bit here, so fair warning. I'm going to repeat something that I've been saying for what feels like forever now. Since last year, when I was evicted from the VA Grant Per Diem (GPD) program, transitional housing for veterans, operated by Porchlight Inc of Madison WI, no one from Porchlight has ever called, or written, or emailed to see if I was all right. No one from the VA Hospital's social work office, or the VA Hospitals' patient advocate office, or from the VA's Madison homeless veterans program office has ever followed up to see how I'm doing.

My first reaction to that is fuck off, you VA and Porchlight bastards left me out on the street and didn't care if I lived or died. Guess what? I'm still here. Yes, I'm still angry about it. I'm trying to let the anger go and just move on, but it's difficult. When I do trust someone, and they violate that trust-- as both the VA and Porchlight did-- I don't easily forgive and forget. I hope that karma, for the people at the VA and at Porchlight that tossed me aside like a sack of shit, truly is a bitch.

If you knew me personally, you'd know that I don't say that kind of thing about many people. I'm probably one of the kindest, most gentle and down to earth veterans with PTSD you're likely to ever meet (although admittedly I do have my triggers).

-----

I've been struggling on and off lately. Part of it is that the anniversary of the start of Desert Shield is coming up soon, part of it is the lingering anger I have over everything that has happened over the past couple of years, and part of it-- the part that I'm just now realizing is a part of it-- is what's been
happening in Madison WI lately.

tl;dr The city doesn't have a practical day shelter for homeless people, the city (especially the Mayor's office) has decided that Madison has been far too soft on homeless people for far too long, and so ordinances like "you can't sit on a bench for more than an hour" are being proposed. The city has been trying to find solutions derping over this for several years now.

Madison seems, like a lot of other places, to wish that all of its homeless people would just either find places to live or drift somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind. You never hear about the quiet homeless people, the ones that do their best (as I always did) to fly under the radar. You hear about the ones that get drunk or high and yell at people, or the ones that panhandle too aggressively, or the guy that pissed against the wall downtown and got arrested.

You don't see the homeless people that fly under the radar-- or you might, but they just look a little out of place, a little transient. Some hide it better than others. I recognize them right away, but then again, I know what to look for.

There's talk of Housing First, an initiative that considers the cost of taking care of people living on the street vs putting people into places to live-- the idea being that it's far cheaper and far more effective to get people off the street first, and then address each person's problems once they have a stable place to live.  As I understand it, that's pretty closely aligned with the VA's idea of transitional housing. Get the veteran off the street, and into a managed environment where they have access to all of the resources they need to put life back together and not be homeless.

What a concept-- until you end up back on the street because the so-called charity that runs the program (and soaks up a metric shit ton of government money for doing so) decides they don't like you. Consider that for the transitional housing building I lived in, Porchlight gets market rent for every person that lives there. (True, as a program resident you only pay 30% of your income up to a certain amount, but the VA/HUD/etc fills in the rest up to market rate rent).

It still really bothers me that the system-- the VA, Porchlight, transitional housing-- chewed me up and spit me out the way it did. It's not something I can resolve. I'm trying to find something, closure maybe, that puts it all into perspective and I can't do it, at least not yet. I'm very cynical about it all, which takes a lot of energy that I'd rather use doing other, more productive, things.

Say what you want about ending homelessness. Say what you want about getting every veteran off the streets of America. It's just another "War on X", it's just more bullshit, until you actually do something about it, something more than just try to sweep the undesirables out of sight.  You can even give everyone on the streets a place to stay and claim you've eliminated homelessness, but you're lying. It's a hard thing, seeing so many people promising to get every veteran off the street when the system did everything it could to put me, a veteran, back on the street.

I'm angry, but I'm proud, too.

I'm proud that I managed to get the rent paid for an entire year, on time enough that my landlord (butthead though he may be) offered me a lease for another year.  This time next year, I'll have the Holy Grail of the Formerly Homeless-- two years at one address, with a good rent reference. Maybe, by then, I'll be far enough in time that the anger will have lessened, that I won't be so triggered every time I see a homeless person or read something in the news on how Madison is trying to get rid of the riff-raff.

By then, I'll be packing and getting ready to bug out though. See you in August 2016, California.