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10 January 2017

Hurry up and wait


It's taken me a while to work up to doing so, but I managed to decide to try visiting a Vet Center here and talking to someone about getting hooked back up with primary care and about what kinds of readjustment counseling they might have that might help me sort things out. My past experience with the VA, both hospital and Vet Center, is the reason I've not been to either for quite a while.

What follows next in this post is a timeline of my initial attempt(s) to get into primary care, and to get into some sort of readjustment counseling. I'm not feeling well, the last few months have really worn me down, and I'd like to try to get moving in a positive direction again.

Tuesday, Jan 3

Drove to the closest Vet Center, which is close to Atlanta GA. Since I officially live in Wisconsin, that's where I'd optimally go-- but I'm with family here in Georgia for the time being. My assumption is that the VA being a federal agency, going to a Vet Center in a different state shouldn't be an issue.

I don't call ahead; normally this would be a logical thing to do, but it's been my experience that standing in front of someone makes it harder for them to ignore you. People can't forget to call you back when you're in their office. It's also more of a personal commitment for me, since I have to schedule a time to go and I have to go through the motions of getting up, getting cleaned up and dressed, and getting on the road to actually get there. I can avoid calling. It's harder to avoid the promise I made to myself to go there in person. An additional reason for going there in person is that I'd really kinda like to sit down with someone and talk, even if it's just for a short initial meeting.

When I arrive around 1530, I talk to the person at the front desk and explain that I'm visiting, but that I am a combat veteran and I'm interested in talking to someone about readjustment counseling and getting help connecting with other VA services (mainly the hospital). Front Desk explains that no one's available at the moment-- there is someone but they're in session until 1600 or so-- and they offer to have someone call me back. I ask if I can wait, and Front Desk says okay.

There is a coffee maker, but no coffee ready. Front Desk mentions that there's a coffee maker, and that there's probably no coffee, but doesn't offer to make any.

Around 1630, Guy From In Back (GFIB) comes out since the session he was conducting is done. Front Desk explains my situation in a whisper, with significant nods to where I'm sitting, and after a minute or so of that, GFIB comes over to me. We shake hands. I explain again that one reason I'm there is reconnecting with VA healthcare, to which GFIB (rather defensively) says that that's not something they do here. I think on my feet and continue to say that I'm looking for readjustment counseling as well, which is apparently the right thing to say.

GFIB hands me a brochure explaining what a Vet Center is, a monthly calendar of when the Vet Center's groups meet, and a flyer for a chili cook-off.  He also gets a clipboard and pen from Front Desk, which has several forms. One is a contact information form; name, address, which war were you in, etc. One is a patient conduct/patient rights form to sign. One is a VA patient information release form "so they can get my records sent down". The last is a mental health questionnaire that I've seen a hundred times.

The first two I more or less expected. I'm down with HIPAA so I'm willing to assume that I'm at a different facility and there needs to be authorization from me for them to access my records. (There shouldn't normally be someone from a state you don't live in accessing your health care information.)

The last (the mental health questionnaire) I expected too; it's one of those where you put a clear or colored plastic overlay over the answer sheet to determine one or more index scores (or whatever they call them). I answer honestly, knowing that when someone scores the sheet they'll recognize that I have some mental health issues that need to be addressed.

GFIB assures me that someone will call tomorrow. Once the paperwork's filled out, I hand the clipboard, papers, and pen back to Front Desk. That being that, I then leave to face Metro Atlanta traffic.

Wednesday January 4

0800ish: Vet Center calls. The call goes to voicemail, as I'm a night owl (and a hacker) and I'm still asleep.

1600ish: Vet Center calls again. I've been busy most of the day dealing with some stuff at the house, but I was about to call back when they called. So I call, and an appointment is set up for Friday January 6.

Friday January 6

There's a snowstorm forecast for Metro Atlanta, which may include rain, sleet, ice, freezing rain, snow, or a combination of all of the above. Metro Atlanta is wisely shutting down, and so around 1030 when I'm reaching for the phone to call the Vet Center and cancel, they call and cancel (actually they get my voice mail) because they're closing at noon. I'm not sure how much emphasis they intend, but they do make it a point to say that I should call back on Monday to reschedule.

Monday January 9

I call the Vet Center back to reschedule. The next available appointment is on Tuesday January 17th.

If you're keeping score at home, that's two weeks after my initial visit; and even though they canceled the appointment last Friday, it was on me to reschedule.

-----

If things go the way they went the last time I was first in touch with a Vet Center, the first appointment will be taken up with telling me about what the Vet Center does and what services they offer. I'll probably need to tell my story for the millionth time. Then I'll be assigned someone else, and either I'll get another "we'll call you" or hopefully have an appointment set up with whoever someone else is. That will be followed by another week or so, since someone else's calendar is probably already booked. So I'm looking at two to three weeks to get an appointment with a real person that might be able to offer some help.

At no point thus far has anyone asked me how I'm doing or how I'm feeling; the closest has been the standard form mental health questionnaire I filled out, but I'd bet money no one has sat down and scored it yet. I'm not a mental health professional, but I've been a mental health patient for long enough to know which questions/answers are supposed to make someone sit up and take notice. (Considering the issues that made me go to the Vet Center in the first place, someone should be sitting up and taking notice.)

Two things need to be said at this point.
  1. I'm not a danger to myself. I have had no thoughts of harming myself.
  2. I'm not a danger to anyone else. I have had no thoughts of harming anyone else.
These things need to be said so you have the proper context; the mental space I'm in is serious, it's urgent, and it needs to be addressed. If I don't do something now, if I don't talk to someone about things, it is possible that things eventually can slide to somewhere I don't want to be (specifically, changing the status of either 1. or 2. above).

I know what triage is. When someone appears at your emergency room you look at what's wrong and how severe the problem is. How stable are they? Did they walk in or did they crawl on their elbows? Are they bandaged up already, or are they bleeding on the floor? Who needs a doctor/surgeon now, and who can wait? So I can sort of understand that when someone walks into a Vet Center and is polite and quiet and doesn't appear to be carrying automatic weapons, you don't jump to conclusions and immediately assign a status of Crazy Ass Desert Storm Veteran(tm) to the guy. I'd probably be at least a little offended if they did.

On the other hand, if someone drives 45 miles to your Vet Center (or whatever facility) and says he/she is a veteran that needs to talk to someone, and indicates via a standard mental health questionnaire that they need to talk to someone, they should be able to sit down and talk to someone right then and there. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now.



It is a very difficult thing for a veteran to walk into a Vet Center, or a VA hospital, or anywhere else, and say "I'm here because I need help."

Why doesn't the VA understand that?

-----

I'm this close to telling the Vet Center to fuck off, but I do still feel like I need to talk to someone. That no one from the Vet Center has asked if I need immediate assistance with anything says a lot-- no one has suggested the crisis line, or the VA hospital. It's just "okay, see you next week", like we're going to meet for lunch at Mickey D's. I want to feel better, so I'm going to stick it out and see what (if anything) they have to offer.

As far as VA healthcare, I'm resigned to having to go to the VA hospital on my own and try to get a primary care appointment at either the hospital or one of the satellite clinics. I'll take my VA member ID card, and my DD214, and start at enrollment/the emergency room and try to make progress from there.

I have War and Peace on my tablet; that should provide enough reading material for the amount of time I'm likely to have to wait.

If I can't get seen in/near Atlanta, I'll make an appointment in Madison WI and go to that. When they have me fill out the travel pay paperwork I'll write "1900 mi." in the appropriate box. Maybe that will wake someone up. 

29 December 2016

One more thing about Christmas

Christmas is, for the next eight months, finally over. (That's not a typo; in 2016 I first saw Christmas things in stores over Labor Day weekend.) This year was a lot different than recent years for me, so I still have a few things to say about it.

On Christmas eve, I attended a candlelight service at the same church in Atlanta where I attended a Christmas concert earlier this month. This time I sat in the main sanctuary, although by choice I sat in the row of chairs that was along the back wall. I'm just not comfortable sitting in rows of people where there's movement and noise and everything else behind me; this is one of those things about PTSD that I've learned to just accept. I've not explained everything about my PTSD to my family other than my sister. She's passed on to the rest of the family that I'm not that comfortable with crowds and noise, and so it wasn't a major issue that I moved to the back of the room. (That I was in the main sanctuary (with the choir and the musicians and everything else) was in fact a step up from the Christmas concert where I sat in a completely different room and watched on a big screen from a remote corner of the room.)

At some point in the near future, I'll probably attend Sunday services at the same church. It can be a loud place, there is sometimes a lot of movement and noise, there are kids that are always unpredictable sources of sudden noise. The two times I've been there at least, people have been willing to allow me as much space as I've needed. During the Christmas eve service, when I was sitting alone at the back of the room, there was a point where it was time to turn to people around you and say hello-- a nearby usher went out of his way to come over and say Merry Christmas, but other than that I had personal space.

That I'm finding a particular church a comfortable place to visit now and then isn't something you should read a lot into. I disagree with the idea of organized religion on a lot of philosophical points. In spiritual terms I walk my own path, which sometimes lines up with what other people think and sometimes does not. I'm not looking for salvation. I'm not even looking for answers to questions. (On the other hand, I'm also not opposed to religion, if it works for you then it works for you.) I won't become a member of this particular church, or any church, but I'd be lying if I said listening to the choir and such doesn't help a little with the PTSD. Being in an environment that feels a little bit safe and comfortable, and being around people who are generally positive and welcoming helps with the PTSD too.

It doesn't matter how far you go or how fast you travel, you can't escape yourself. Working hard for long periods is one of the ways I fight PTSD; if I'm able to concentrate I can get a lot done, but my experience has been that I need long blocks of time to get myself organized and get into that mental place. As a hacker it's not that different than getting into that mental space where you're one with the machine, but the PTSD makes it much harder to get and stay there. That I need long blocks of time to be productive also means that at the end of those blocks I need to both physically rest and give my brain some kind of chance to rest. The combination of the hour from here to Atlanta, a couple hours of listening to a pretty decent choir and some admittedly decent musicians, followed by the hour drive back home adds up to a positive diversion.

During the service I attended on Christmas eve I had a number of interesting flashbacks going on. (Several involved the building being on fire, masked and armed gunmen surrounding and attacking, incoming missiles, etc.) December is the last month of Desert Shield, Christmas immediately before the start of Desert Storm. This isn't a happy time of year for me; the end of the calendar year is the calm before the world catches on fire. Going to church helped, overall, even if my reasons for being there weren't the same as everyone else's.

-----

This was also the first time in a very long time that I did anything family related for Christmas. Until I showed up here in October, I hadn't seen any of my family that lives here since 2003. I hadn't ever met their spouses, or their kids (some of whom have graduated college). Since where I live has a big dining room (and dining room table big enough to hold everyone), Christmas dinner was here this year.





My sister is here too, so she helped with a lot of the work of getting the house ready. There were a few times where she was sort of running around doing things, and I just had to walk away and ignore whatever was going on. I don't really "celebrate Christmas". I don't buy gifts, and I let people know that I don't expect gifts, because a) I don't have the money to buy stuff for myself much less anyone else and b) I find the whole holiday season really overwhelming and really not much fun. By the time it was time for people to be here, I was pretty much done with the entire idea.

Dinner was all right. Plenty of food. No drama to speak of. Only one loud moment, where I jumped out of my chair and I thought my heart would beat out of my chest, but it was only family making noise about a good thing regarding football. After dinner conversation was all right too, but there's a certain point where you're family and I love you and I love seeing you but now I need quiet and you need to GTFO.

After everyone left, I went upstairs and slept for ~12 hours. Then I was up for a while on Monday, felt like I'd been run over by a truck, went to bed and slept almost continuously for another ~24 hours. Now it's Wednesday.

-----

This Christmas was exhausting, but that's because I challenged myself. Going to church services and being around actual family, doing actual things with actual people, required stepping out of my protective shell. It's not enough to just be somewhere else. It's not enough to have just found somewhere that's quiet (which this place is, and which is an awesome thing). PTSD always seems to find me whereever I hide. It adapts, damn it, so I have to keep adapting too.

For those of you who are keeping score, I participated in four different events three of them outside the house, this Christmas.


17 December 2016

More About Christmas

One evening this week, I was spotted in public again-- this time at a youth choir Christmas event at the University of Georgia that a member of my family was performing in. I had some initial reservations much the same as I had about going to the church Christmas event I attended in Atlanta last week-- strangers, people, noise, commotion, fear of what could happen, all of the wonderful voices in my head that PTSD loves to turn up loud.

I went anyway, for the record.

The venue was a performing arts center on campus at UGA. I'd never been there (and in fact haven't been much of anywhere at UGA yet) but since it's on a campus I was willing to convince myself that it would familiar there. There was a parking structure, so parking was easy, although it was eerily familiar to the one I called home when I was first on the street at Wisconsin. (A lot of places are, but distance in both time and distance from then helps.) The venue itself was of course nice, the lobby already full of all of the relatives and friends of the kids who were going to be singing.

The lobby: crowded. Noisy. Family had been there for a while so they had a spot close to the actual entrance, which also meant that I ended up in the crowd at the actual entrance. This was okay, I took a few deep breaths here and there, but it was okay.

I also made note of all of the exits, fire alarms, staff, all of the infrastructure. Double checked my pockets, which I'd already checked, made sure my pocket knife and Leatherman and flashlight were all where they belonged.

They were.

The performance: an opening cellist. A couple hours of really good music and singing. I like a lot of different kinds of music and I really do like live performances-- even (and especially) classical stuff. The crowd was of course polite because it's a classical music thing-- once you're in your seat you stay put, turn off your cellphone, and pay attention.

Me, I follow the music and the singing and just go with it. Two hours went by in a few seconds. The kids doing the singing approach the arts the same way I approached computers as a kid, and that shines through.

Afterwards, a reception. Finger food and punch, lots of people standing around and lots of small talk. Certainly not my favorite environment, but again a few deep breaths here and there helped. It was important to me to stay for the reception to show my family member who had performed that I was both there and really enjoyed being there (and I really and truly did enjoy it).

None of this should imply that PTSD wasn't a factor. It most certainly was.

There were a few anxious moments, flashbacks, times when my heart tried to beat itself out of my chest. More than a few times that I reviewed where the exits were. At least a couple of time where I realized I was somewhere else for a few seconds or a few minutes.

It was a little weird too because going to a kid relative's Christmas concert is something that "normal people" do-- it's hard to imagine (although based on hats, there was at least one other veteran there) that there were a lot of people in the audience who were imagining the entire place in flames because the enemy had sent in a surprise air strike.

-----

Tentatively, Christmas proper is scheduled here for this next week-- this is the time and place when Family Who Are Here get together and "Do Christmas".

I'll be there. (!)

I haven't actually "done Christmas" for a long time-- for the past several years it's been just another day where I hoped Mickey D's was open for dinner. When work was open, I always worked on holidays instead of sitting at home. I didn't have family in Madison anyway, and really didn't feel like dealing with all of the potential shit that comes with family and holidays enough to go visiting. And, I usually didn't have much in the way of resources to go anywhere anyway.

I'm not buying gifts for anyone, nor have I asked for gifts-- as in years past I don't have the money to buy gifts and so I figure it's fair not to expect any back. If I go to someone's house I'll bring food-- a cheese tray or something like that because if I'm eating your food, I should supply some too.

At some point, if things get too loud or complicated or whatever, I'll find the front porch or back porch and go outside for a while-- I don't smoke, so it won't be for that reason. I'll go out and look at the trees or the stars or whatever, give myself some space.

-----

As to whether I'm going to church this Sunday I haven't decided. I'm not sleeping right-- up until dawn, sleep till late afternoon-- and when I do sleep I dream fast and hard so I wake up tired. That's one of the reasons I kept the workaholic schedule I kept in Wisconsin, so when I got home I'd be exhausted and fall asleep. That kind of schedule makes it hard to be up for church on Sunday morning (even more so when the church is an hour away).

Normal people seem to manage it every week though, so.

That's kinda the theme lately, trying to put the past few years into some kind of perspective and move the fuck on. Try doing some things, like being with family at Christmas, that at least imply normalcy. Beyond that, no promises, but I'm trying.

12 December 2016

Church and Christmas

"Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said 'Ma’am I am tonight" --Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis   
 
I haven't ever written much here about religion, or spirituality. Suffice to say that I'm not religious, I'm not a church goer, and other than attending a Catholic school through junior high school I don't have a religious upbringing. Once I got to high school, I was in a public school and that was that. In basic training at Lackland AFB, I went to church every Sunday. Which service I attended varied-- there were two, one Catholic and the other Protestant. I checked out the Protestant service a few times mainly out of curiosity but also because it was something different. Since then (which was a long time ago) I've been to a Catholic mass only a few times, and that usually only as included in weddings and funerals.

It doesn't help that I'm a childhood sexual abuse survivor, and that my abuser was (and still is) a God-fearing (to hear him tell it) Christian who attends church every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, teaches Sunday School, etc. etc. etc. It also doesn't help that when I confronted him, and the rest of my family on that side, that all I got was denial and personal attacks on my integrity (they accused me of making it all up). That side of my family isn't the Catholic side, but it's still very difficult for me to put any faith in religion when someone like that can be so abusive and just get away with it.

I've read a great deal (sorry if that sounds a bit pompous, it's not meant that way)-- literature, philosophy, history, and yes, religious texts. I own a Bible, given to me by a Gideon who was handing them out to troops leaving for Desert Shield. At various times, although not recently, I've probably read every verse in both testaments. It's fascinating reading just by itself, and I have always been interested in the "bigger picture"; the intersections between religion, philosophy, literature, history, and science. None of these exist on their own, they all happen in parallel.


So I'm not opposed to religion, or to your decision to be a part of one religion or another. There's good and bad in all things, and this being America you have the right to choose. If you want to say the Lord's Prayer in school before classes start, or if you want time off and a private space to face Mecca and pray five times a day (or whatever your faith's practices are), I believe you have that right. If everyone allows everyone else just a little bit of wiggle room we all fit together better.

All of that being said, last night I went to church.

One of the things you'll see and hear and read about PTSD and recovery is that part of your "support network" is supposed to include "spiritual support", but there are seldom details attached to explain what people mean by that-- I suspect they mean "go to church generally" but that's pretty open ended as well. I've never seen a church hang a banner outside that says "PTSD sufferers welcome!", but that might be because I just haven't passed such a banner on such a church.

Point being, I've never considered church-- in general, or specifically a Christian church-- to be something that might help in working through PTSD. I don't have any specific experience with this kind of thing, and in light of my philosophical issues with religion (see above) it's never been an issue.

All of that being said, last night I went to church.


"Church", in this case, being a large (but by no means the largest) church in Atlanta that some of my family are members of (and active participants in). This weekend is special in that it's the weekend of the annual Christmas show/concert. I was invited, as was my sister who has been there lots of times before and who acted as pre-event tour guide in assuring me that it was a safe and reasonable event for me to attend.

The actual show/concert was in the main room, which was full when we got there and which I wouldn't have felt comfortable in. I used to go to concerts regularly, but since PTSD has been an issue I don't feel safe in crowds. There was another, smaller room available that held a lot less people. This smaller room had some tables and chairs, and I picked one of those that was in the opposite corner from where the main seating (and screen showing video) was. The table gave me a full view of the room, who was coming and going, doors, escape routes, etc with my back to the wall.

I'm not a music critic, or a theater critic, and anyway the choir and musicians and actors were all from the church and not professionals. There were parts I liked, and parts I wasn't as thrilled about, but overall it was pretty cool and I really did enjoy all of it. I do like live performances, and this one (which was really a collection of live performances) was a lot of fun to watch.

There were of course references to God and Jesus and the story of Christmas, which makes sense considering it was a church event in a church in December (a few days before Christmas). One message that was very clear in all of what was said was that, hey, if you like what you see here tonight and are looking for a church to belong to, we have room for you and we'd love to have you here.

My shields are up. Way up. It's bad enough what happened when I was a kid, there's also seeing up close and personal what happens when there's a war and shit starts blowing up. There's all of the friends and the girlfriends and the family and everyone else that are no longer a part of my life for whatever reason. There's all of the other things like being homeless and dealing with a disability at work and seeing the world through all of those different lenses. I've trusted a lot of people over the years and most of them have turned out to be people I should have never trusted.

It's for that reason (those reasons?) that I had to force myself to go last night. I'd really rather just ignore Christmas like I ignore Thanksgiving and every other holiday, because avoiding holidays is just so much easier than dealing with the noise and people and expectations have about how you/I should behave. Other than perhaps when the grocery store or Wal-Mart is busy, last night was the most I've been out and among people since I arrived in Georgia.

I don't want to be in the house all the time. Some of the time, in fact most of the time, I'm perfectly happy being where I am now-- sitting in my room/office in front of a computer doing whatever. I am certainly an introvert and I need my alone time, and alone time and quiet are a huge part of how I manage my PTSD.

The problem is that just staying in the house by myself is not an escape-- the PTSD follows me, it's here all the time. As much as I try to fight it off, and as much as I manage to succeed, PTSD adapts and changes and finds a way to get back in. This is why I think the idea of being "cured" of PTSD is bullshit. There's no magic pill that cures you, you have to change and adapt and learn new ways to cope with it. Your environment changes, people around you change, and so you must change.

I have reservations about nearly everything I've done in the past to try to get "out there" and meet new people and make new friends. I've been a part of a lot of different groups of people that aligned with my interests-- amateur radio clubs, emergency communications teams, softball leagues, dart leagues, bowling leagues, VFW, American Legion, singles groups, Meetup groups. Many of those groups I just listed were willing to take my time, my effort, my equipment, my money and not give a lot back. Some of them were excuses to go out and drink. Some were like an endless series of not meaningful first dates. Which ones were which overlap, shift around. That I'm (still) having to force myself to get out and do things because PTSD says it's not safe out there and because I don't-- can't-- trust anyone says that these things I've tried ultimately didn't work.

Last night, after the show was over and I was sitting down to help demolish a pizza with the same family members I was at church with, I mentioned the random act of kindness I'd been the recipient of last week-- random person stepped up and paid my entire bill for groceries. Family (who have lived here for years) responded by saying "Welcome to Georgia".

When I left Wisconsin to go to Florida to help my sister move, I didn't have a detailed plan for what I'd do after that was done. Georgia wasn't on my list of places I wanted to be, it just worked out that there was room for me in my brother-in-law's house. Although the plan was to head for California, it really didn't matter as long as the name of where I was going rhymed with "the fuck out of Wisconsin".

I might be willing to start believing that Georgia was a pretty cool place to land.

Church, as an experience for a special event for Christmas last night, wasn't the worst experience I've ever had. I was able to find a quiet corner where I felt pretty safe, no one bothered me, and in fact several people smiled and/or said hello as we passed each other in the hallway during the evening. I expect that on a normal weekend, when there's not a special event going on (and when everyone's not busy making that event happen), I'd have had someone from the church notice that I was a new face and stop to say hello. This isn't a bad thing, just an observation-- it was really a friendly environment.

Since I mentioned support networks, or at least interest groups a bit ago-- one of the things about "use your support network" is that that advice really only works if you have one to start with. It's hard to build one, harder to keep one. You can't lean on something that's not there. In transitions clinic the VA would say things like "list your support network" and my response would be "if I had such a great support network why the fuck would I be here?" It's just that it's not that simple a thing in practice.

I'm willing to concede, somewhat, as I pace around the room talking to myself about all of this (yeah, I do that, constantly), that going to my niece's church occasionally might not be the worst thing in the world. People there seem pretty decent, as do people here in general. I might even like going, because it seems like a comfortable and maybe even safe place to spend part of a Sunday that I would otherwise spend reading Hacker News (which I can read when I get home anyway). It's likely that there are at least a few veterans around and it's a natural law that if there are vets in a room they'll end up in one corner talking. Taking a broader view, maybe just maybe the people at this church really are decent people worthy of some level of trust eventually and being around them for a few hours might be a good thing maybe.

I still have questions, concerns, doubts, hangups, PTSD symptoms, (social) anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms to get in the way, which they all will. I'm hoping that if I can get away from them, for even just a little while, I can start to remember (or find out) what it's like to just be a shade of normal.

Maybe.

-----

A postscript about me and religion: on the form that says "indicate which religion you are" I'd probably check "other" or even "spiritual but not religious". While I'm not a Christian, I respect many Christian values. That being said, I respect values that belong to several different major religions-- some I agree with and try to model myself after, some I don't agree with and therefore stay away from, but I respect people's right to them either way.  I'm always deeply honored when someone invites me to services or events at their church (or more generally, "place of worship"). I've been to services at quite a few different churches of various Protestant denominations. I've been to a synagogue. I've observed prayers at a mosque (okay, I only peeked through the doors, but I was genuinely curious). I've been to a Wiccan handfasting. 

That I'm writing about religion isn't something you should read too much into. Occasionally attending services at a church (any church) is just one way I'm trying to do something different to get out of the bubble. I'm not seeking salvation, rather I'm looking for a place where I can just lower shields a little bit. The particular church I visited this weekend seems pretty chill, and if it turns out not to be I just won't go back. I got the impression that someone new just showing up for services now and then would be welcome, and if that person wanted to become more involved then they'd be welcome too. It's a start. PTSD sucks, and if this is something that helps it'll be a good thing.

I was a little reluctant to write this post to start with; again, the shields are up and I'm not in a mood to just trust people to do the right thing. Religion is one of those topics that sometimes attracts more attention than is desired. If you are somehow motivated to steer me towards your path, know that I truly respect your path--given the need I'll defend your right to walk it-- but I'm happy following my own for now (strange and/or winding though it may seem).

09 December 2016

Next chapters

What the hell just happened?

Let me back up a few steps.

Last night my sister, who I helped move/rescue from Florida a couple of months ago and who I share a house with now, and I were out grocery shopping. We're both between jobs-- she's only a couple of years into retirement. I'm looking for something new after leaving Wisconsin in August. These are both longer stories, but the common thread is that neither of us is rich right now. She had a lot of expenses that were associated with moving, and while we both have some income we need to keep an eye on what we each spend each month. Food we try to balance between the two of us, with the added factor of making sure we keep the house pantry filled and replace what we use from that.

Annnyway. The particular grocery store we were in is located in a far flung sub-suburb of Atlanta. We were there partly because we needed certain things that are only at that store and partly because we needed to go somewhere because we hadn't been much of anywhere this week (tangent: I'm fighting off some hard depression this week, and my sister lived in south Florida before moving here and thinks anything colder than 70 degrees is too cold). Where a Wal-Mart is more or less a place where you go because prices are low, this particular grocery store was not that kind of store-- not quite on the level of a Whole Foods, but somewhere in the middle.

As we were looking for stuff each of us had on our personal lists, and in the process counting pennies and looking for cheaper options to what we wanted (generic or store brand vs name brand, what's on sale, etc) we noticed that we were... well, underdressed. Most of the other shoppers looked like comfortably well off (or at least professional) people from the suburbs of Atlanta, which is probably just who they were given the time of day and location. My sister and I are both pretty casual and looked a little out of place in jeans and hoodies.

So maybe we just looked a little scruffy. But whatever.

I unloaded all of our stuff from the cart to the conveyor belt, and as the cashier was scanning it all a guy stepped up from in line behind us. I was instantly triggered-- who the fuck are you and why are you coming up behind me?!-- until the guy said "Hey, let me do you a random act of kindness. Let me pay for this for you."

Excuse me?

I was flabbergasted. I had no idea what to say, and for lack of anything better, that's what I said. It took me a few seconds before I could get out a "thank you but you really don't have to do that", and anyway he insisted. I made it a point to shake his hand, properly say thank you several times, offer an awkward man hug, etc. as we left.

My sister also said thank you, and once we were out in the parking lot she asked me what was wrong (I must have had one of those thousand yard stares going on). My answer was that I'd never had anyone do anything like that. Ever. A penny short at the gas station, a beer when someone saw I was a vet, sure, but no one ever stepped up behind me and put over $100 on their credit card and bought me a week's food just because they wanted to do something nice for someone else.

She wasn't surprised, and said so. My other family members here weren't particularly surprised that this happened either. Their general response was that "well, people around here are good people and do stuff like that fairly often."

Wait, what? I need to think about this.

I'm from Wisconsin. America's Dairyland. People are nice where I'm from, or at least I've always thought so. I know, not everyone in any given place are nice and not everyone in any given place is an asshole. It's a broad (and unfair) generalization to say that people from one state are nicer or bigger assholes than those from any other state-- it's just like saying that people from one state drive better or worse than drivers from another state.

Yet.

I haven't been flipped off since I've been here. On the way back from my recent trip to Wisconsin and back, the closest was one time in Atlanta when another driver and I tried to get into the same open space in the center lane. As soon as we saw each other, we both waved at each other, shrugged, backed off, and went on with life. No one's even come close to hitting me crossing a street or road or parking lot when I've been walking. No one's yelled at me from an open car or truck window to "take my fucking earphones off and pay attention".

My interactions with other people here have been somewhat limited-- I'm out in the country here, where in Wisconsin I was in downtown/campus Madison-- but I'd be hard pressed to come up with a time when I've encountered anyone here  who was just plain being a dick. In Madison it was a daily occurrence.

There are a lot of other things that happened in Wisconsin-- times when people had a choice. They could be giving and helpful, or selfish and unhelpful, or to just ignore me until I went away. Mostly-- not always, but mostly-- people chose to be the latter two and that contributed to me becoming homeless, to me staying homeless, to me not being in school, and ultimately to me leaving Wisconsin. I'm not saying that everything that happened was entirely not my fault, but there are a lot more times that people didn't help than times when people did-- including people and charities and everyone else that promised me they would.

I did so much and went through so much to stay in (and at) Wisconsin, and at the time I considered it to be worth it. I could have left, but I didn't. To be fair, I had no where else to go, but I really did believe it was worth staying and fighting.

Lately I'm not so sure.

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Random acts of kindness notwithstanding, I'm struggling a bit to adjust to being here.

First, I don't know anyone here in Georgia other than family, and my family here I don't know all that well. Until I got here this fall, I hadn't seen two of them since 2003 and I'd not met their spouses or kids at all. I'm that weird relative (in this case, an uncle) that shows up out of nowhere-- the scruffy lookin' long haired veteran that no one knows quite how to handle or what to say to.

It doesn't help that it's the "holidays"; I don't usually do anything special for Thanksgiving, or Christmas. I usually avoid dealing with either, which makes things a little awkward. Everyone was traveling for Thanksgiving, so that wasn't a big deal, but I don't know how Christmas is going to happen (or if I'm expected to participate). Information flows indirectly between me and the rest of the family via my sister, and as far as I know nothing's been decided.

My sister and I were invited to a musical Christmas program at a family member's church in Atlanta this weekend. I've tentatively said yes, even though probably the last thing I want to do is go to a musical performance and be around noise and a ton of people I don't know (especially around Christmas). My sister has been around veterans for a long time, knows about my PTSD, and has conveyed that I'm not big on noise and crowds. Word has been passed back that the church is very chill, and there's another room besides the main one where the program will be shown on video. (My PTSD hasn't been specifically mentioned, but my niece is smart and can fill in the blanks.)

So I'm going.

As much as I enjoy the quiet of being in a mostly empty (of people) huge house out in the country in Georgia, being here isn't an end in itself. It's not forever. I can't just stay here in my bedroom office hacking and ignore that there's a world around me-- to be perfectly honest, it's lonely sometimes. I don't know what kind of a social life is outside these four walls, if there's a place where I'll fit in, if there are new friends to make, if there's a woman who would even start to put up with my shit.

I don't trust people. 

Many of the people I've been around the past few years have been people that weren't worth trusting. People that said they'd be there that weren't. People that said they'd help and did the opposite. People that would say to my face how important I was, and behind my back ignore me. People that said they loved me, but when it came down to it they only loved what I did for them and not who I am. People that could accept me when I agreed with them, but wouldn't when I didn't.

So I don't trust people, and it's the PTSD and it's the experience, and it's hard to imagine even remotely trusting people ever again.

The second issue is that of trying to find a job-- not knowing anyone here makes it hard to network, and the sheer size of Atlanta makes it hard to know where to start. I'm not even sure I want to stay here, or if I'll even have that option. I've had several nibbles that led to phone/video interviews at companies on both coasts, without much luck even after multiple interviews.

Let's just be fucking honest here, they find out I'm 48 and a veteran with a disability (PTSD epecially) and I'm done. Discrimination? Probably, but I had enough of fighting that battle at Wisconsin with my experience there getting disability accommodations. It's not worth the fight just to be somewhere you're not wanted.

I acknowledge the person in the back of the room who correctly points out that having all of the bad things about PTSD (as well as the good ones) written in a blog for the entire internet to see isn't something that most career guides would recommend.

However, I disagree.

There are a lot of things that worked together to get me this far, that kept me away from drugs and alcohol, kept me out of jail, and overall kept me alive. One of the most important factors has been that I've been increasingly honest with myself. I look in the mirror and I see myself, a veteran with PTSD and depression and anxiety. I'm not happy that I have these issues. I didn't ask for them. If there was a way to turn them in to supply, I would, but there isn't and I can't. The only option is to look myself in the eye and accept who I am, problems and all.  You can't run from yourself. 

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There is a bigger issue here; being this far away from Wisconsin (both in terms of time and in distance) has given me time to think but more important time to look at where I was. It was a situation with no good end, and I feel comfortable saying that leaving was a good decision. It's hard to say that where you're from is a bad place for you to be. I moved back to Wisconsin after having left once before.  The best I've got is that given what I knew then and what I was ready for then, I did the best I could where I was. 

Case in point: for all the time and energy (and money) I put into hackathons, I got a lot back. I learned a million new things, built some awesome projects, met a lot of other hackers and sponsors and employers. I even helped build and organize a hackathon. I even won a couple of prizes! It was certainly worth the effort. That I made that effort for a long time while living in shelters and on the street, well, that didn't matter so much to anyone but me. My exit from school means my exit from attending hackathons, and when I tried to continue with that community I was pretty soundly rejected. I'm the guy who blew the "age of participants" bell curve, that outlier at the edge that got airbrushed out. It's apparent to me now that within that community I was tolerated and that's about it. When it came down to brass tacks, there wasn't room for an "old guy", no matter how qualified or how much he could offer. 

So a chapter in my life closes. It's not the first, won't be the last. It's still hard. It took a lot to get my life arranged, in spite of everything that was happening, so that I could put my energy into hacking-- learning new things, catching up, making my skills current. There was only so much I could do, and I did that and more. 

There's a hole in my life where all of that used to be. 

I try, even when talking to myself, to come up with some kind of answer to go along with all of the questions. It's like when you see a documentary that does a really good job of describing a problem but at the end never proposes a solution-- so what I'm trying to do lately is study and learn and pick up new skills. One of the things I've learned from working with hackathon projects, including and especially my own (!) is that there's a lot of shitty code out there and a lot of potential vulnerabilities to find and fix. Security has always been an interest, and this seems the right time to pursue it.

(That and working on what needs to be fixed on my truck, and keeping the leaves from covering the driveway, and putting BB holes in beer cans out back.)