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05 November 2010

In between success and failure, hanging on by a thread

There's a saying that's become pretty common when people write about veterans becoming students:  "Students who have served in the military are often more successful because of their experience in the military."  For many student veterans, it's a true statement, and in some sense it is true for me as well.  If I hadn't gained the work ethic and ability to deal with tough situations that I did during my time in uniform, I would not still be in school.  For many others, sometimes including me, I think that saying you'll automatically be a better student because you're a veteran is a bit misleading.

Many of us do come home, unpack, go to school, get good grades, graduate, and go on with our lives from there.  Those are the student veterans you read about, the successful ones.

Many of us have issues adjusting, and you hear about them (and me), too, but usually after they've been through the adjustment.  It seems like there's a beginning to that adjustment, and an end, and if you can just get through that, it's all okay from then on.

Many of us also have those periods when we're hanging on by our fingernails.  We're depressed, we're anxious, we're seeing and hearing shit, we're withdrawing, we're angry, we're one step away from really falling over the edge, or at least it feels that way.  It's being caught in the middle, that space no one sees, when we're between success story and another veteran suicide story.  Day to day, minute to minute, just trying to get by and make things better a little bit by a little bit.

The idea that I'm supposed to be doing well, that I'm somehow defective and unworthy because I'm often struggling to get everything done and do well, has been affecting me a lot lately.

You're taught, from the minute you step off the bus and onto those yellow footprints that when you wear the uniform, it's not just your uniform you put on-- you're putting on the history of everyone else who has worn the uniform before you.  Honor and duty and commitment are ideals that were established long ago, and part of being a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine is living up to those ideals.  

If you don't do well on an exam, or miss an assignment, or sleep through a class, what does that mean in terms of being a "successful student veteran"?  Because that's what you're supposed to be, right?  I mean, you made it through basic training and tech school, you've lived through two tours in the Middle East, you should be able to handle this school stuff no problem. 

Right?

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I don't know my magic formula for success.  If I did, I'd be getting A's in all of my classes; I know that I'm supposed to be studying 2-3 hours a week for every hour I'm in class, getting eight hours of sleep a night, exercising 2-3 times a week, and staying organized, but I'm having trouble getting all of that done.  Feeling really anxious, really depressed, and really triggered lately hasn't helped.  The medication's helping, or at least starting to help.  I'm beginning to feel a little better.

This weekend, I actually have plans to go out and do something.  Tonight, I'm going to a potluck organized by some friends from work (which could, depending on your definition, qualify as my first "college party" in a long time).  Tomorrow I'm going to a house party of a different sort, a get together of a group of divorced people organized through meetup.com.   

And Sunday, I'm going out on a date.  It's a first date, just coffee.  It'll be the first time out on a first date since I was diagnosed with PTSD, the first time on a date since I started the new medication, and the first time I've been faced with how to tell someone that I have PTSD.

I'm looking at all I have to do this weekend; there are actual social engagements scheduled, even an actual date.  But I have a lot of school related stuff to do.  I'm under the gun on one assignment that's over due, I have three assignments due next week, and I have a test next week.  This past week scared me a little, with the sleepless night-- I can't afford to have more nights like that-- and I really wonder if I should be going out and doing these things rather than jamming on schoolwork.

It's that night spent alone in my apartment, awake, pacing, freaking out in varying degrees, that makes me think I need to get out, need to be out with other people, need to see how things are with the new medication and how I react to social situations.  The "support network" you always hear about being so important is built by talking to other people, making connections, building friendships.

I think there has to be a certain point where yes, the skills you learned in the military are important to your college success, but they begin to become less important... you're not the same person you were before you joined up, and you're not the same person out that you were while you were in.  The reality is that now you're all of those things wrapped into one, with a side of PTSD, and you're in a new place and a new situation.  There's a lot to be said for the old rules, but they don't all apply here.  If you follow only the old rules in a new place, it just doesn't work.

You have to adapt.  And you have to keep trying to adapt successfully, even if you don't now exactly when "adapt successfully" will happen.

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