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22 December 2009

Graduation. Yeah, baby.

When I first posted an entry here in December of 2008, I'd taken college about as far as I could, on my own-- I knew something was really wrong, I knew something had to be done, and I went back to the VA. Part of the reason for doing so was that I needed to get re-enrolled, because I knew I'd be leaving my full time job and I'd need health care coverage. The other part of the reason was that I knew I had PTSD symptoms and needed to do something about them.

This December, I still have PTSD, but I also have an associate's degree-- I've graduated from the two year college I've been attending, and I'm moving on. I'll be a student at a four year University in January 2010, where I'll still be a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder. I can, however, look at the piece of paper that says "you set a goal, you busted your ass to reach it, and you made it" and know that-- no matter how messed up I'm feeling on any given day-- I will find a way to keep going and get to the end.

Last year when I started writing here, I was looking for answers. There is in fact a lot of information about PTSD and what it is online, but I didn't find much actual guidance. So I'm going to try to pass on a few school specific things that have worked for me this semester.

  1. If you haven't had any treatment for PTSD, get to the VA (or wherever) and ask for it. Ignore every thing you've heard about the VA, and every prior experience you've had with the VA-- just call and say "I think I might have PTSD and I think I need some help." It'll be the hardest phone call you ever make, but it will be the most rewarding in the end.
  2. Let people know. Tell your family, tell your professors, tell your friends. You don't have to get specific, just tell them you're dealing with something difficult and you might need some wiggle room. Most people will let a deadline slip or shrug off a bad mood you're in if they know that a) you're trying and b) you have something going on, and you're not just being an a-hole.
  3. You will have good days, and you will have bad days. If you don't get it all done today, get done what you can. If homework isn't happening, get the laundry done that you've been ignoring, and try not to beat yourself up about it. Start over tomorrow.
  4. Take the best notes you can in class. Your mind will wander, so get a digital voice recorder and record all of your classes, so you can review what you've missed later. I also used a four color pen, so I could use different colors for different ideas: black for headings/titles/main concepts, blue for additional details, red for specific steps to solve a problem, green for info that was important, but not critical. Label the steps where it makes sense to do so-- step 1, step 2, step 3-- so when you're doing homework, your brain has some orders to follow.
  5. Find tools you're comfortable with. I found that I prefer using pens and pencils that are a little bit thicker, and I like having a white eraser separate from my mechanical pencils. I also like working on narrow rule graph paper or loose leaf paper, in a three ring binder. Have backups of each-- extra paper, extra pens, extra pencil lead.
  6. Use a calendar and a task list to keep track of where you're supposed to be, and what you're supposed to have with you when you get there. (I use Google calendar/task list, synced with my smartphone.) Keep your task list short-- focus on tasks at hand. Adjust as necessary, which will be often.
  7. Find a quiet place at school-- a study lounge, a meeting room, the library, a chapel, whatever-- and pack up your stuff and go there when the bullets are flying in your head. You don't necessarily need to be able to work there; my space was standing outside one of the less busy doorways at school, usually with a cup of coffee in hand.
  8. Music, especially loud and in your face music, can help snap your mind back. I listened to a lot of Linkin Park this semester on Pandora.
  9. Go with what works, discard what doesn't. I couldn't study to save my life at home, so I spent all day at school and did my problem solving-type homework there. I took my reading-type homework to work, where I got interrupted a lot-- but as long as I marked where I was, I could return easily and keep reading.
  10. Ask. For. Help. Get over yourself, and ask for help early, and ask for help often. You may well be the toughest, smartest person in the class, but PTSD will do its best to mess you up. The most powerful weapon you have is "Hey, I don't get this. Could you explain it again?"
All that being said, I don't believe there's a magic formula-- what worked for me might be different than what works for you. But keep trying. It can be done.

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