09 October 2011

Fear of... everything.

I have had the most difficulty in two disciplines since transferring to my current university- Computer Science, and Mathematics. I am a Computer Science major and Math minor. (Houston, we have a problem.) Why are the classes I love the most the hardest for me to handle? Am I not cut out for this college stuff? When are my dues finally paid? I've been asking myself, "Do I even deserve to be here?"

Do I deserve to be here? At this university, in these fields? Among all these smart people?

The answer to this question requires some background. Go get a fresh cup of coffee. It's a long answer.

When I first started college, Windows and OS/2 were battling it out, and in some circles, OS/2 was actually winning. Files were still stored on 5 1/4" floppies. It took a year of being in school before I'd be able to actually take a programming class. I'd been working on my own, all through high school, but I knew there was more to programming than the small projects I'd worked on.

There were, of course, students that had been in school longer than I had. They wore suits, had resumes, were deciding which company they wanted to work for. The program there was Management Information Systems. You know, white shirt, red tie, dark blue pants, nice shoes.

Over 90% of the graduates of that program found jobs immediately after graduation.

Me, I hacked into one of the university's computers. I was bored to tears there, and between that and the PTSD that I didn't have any idea about yet, I didn't last two years there.

Once I'd reached my first duty station after Air Force tech school, I didn't have a lot of experience, but I basically knew my shit. The NCOs that I had as trainers would work on stuff, and I would watch because I was "still in training." More than halfway through my tour there (not the Desert, yet), we had a shop full of new equipment. Other than the two NCOs that had actually gone to get training, everyone in the shop was equal as far as knowledge of the new system.

The new system was large and complicated, and at the beginning, I babysat for the new hardware. If an alarm went off, I'd get to watch someone else fix the problem. Blargh. It didn't break much though, so I ended up having a lot of free time at work. I spent that free time learning how the system actually worked-- reading the technical manuals, playing with it, seeing what happened when a certain button was pushed.

I knew the system, as well as any of the operators and any of the other technicians in my shop.

The PTSD was there with me then, too. I remember having a hard time concentrating, getting things right, staying within standards. Most of the knowledge I gained on that tour was in the middle of the night when I was working alone in front of the equipment racks.

I'd been back in the states for about a month when Desert Shield happened. I was still in-processing at my new unit. My shop NCOIC looked at my training record from my last shop, and smiled- I was already trained on all of the equipment in the new shop. It took a while, of course, to earn the respect of the other technicians in my shop. That's how it goes when you're an E-3. But I knew enough that I was up to speed pretty quick. (Actually, I was ass out of luck in the Desert halfway around the world, so I admit I didn't have much of a choice.)

It always makes me chuckle that I didn't get M-16 training in that unit until after the war was over and I was back in the states again.

I had mixed feelings about being a civilian again, a year later. I enjoyed what I was working on, and had earned some respect. I was still an E-3, and subject to all of the fun things being an E-3 entails, but as a technician I was pretty solid.

Fast forward again... I'm out, I'm back in school. I've decided after the first two weeks that I don't want to be a Journalism major (doesn't everyone at some point?), and I've switched back to Computer Science. I'd failed the first programming class at the first college I attended, but I'd paid some attention. I did well taking the class again at the new college- well enough that after the first assignment, the prof asked me if I'd seen this stuff before. I was proud of that.

I got involved in the ACM Programming Contest, competing against student programmers from schools in several other states. None of the teams I was on ever made it past the regional level, but we were not at the bottom of the list. After participating, I ended up being the recruiter for the next year's team- which turned out to be two teams plus alternates. We placed 5th and 7th in Division II. Not bad for a small commuter college.

Which brings us to the present.

Here, the Computer Science department actively encourages participation in the ACM Programming Contest. Teams from here have made the world finals consistently for years.  Where before, I was happy to get six people to meet once a week to even look at problems for the contest, here you have to earn your way onto a team. The flyer announcing tryouts reads "Good coder? Prove it."

And, here am I. Being here for me is pretty close to Rudy finally getting to play for Notre Dame, k?

I remember spring semester here, where I'd sit at the back of the lecture hall taking notes, and looking at the other students in my class. Kids, I'd say to myself. This was me back in the day. Pair programming is encouraged here; two heads are better than one. On the first assignment, the guy I'd paired up with was miles ahead of me. He'd sat down the night it was assigned and hammered out most of the code. Me, I was still learning the language syntax.

I've been realizing, slowly and gradually, that I am afraid-- afraid that I'm not good enough, fast enough, smart enough to hang with the level of talent that sits next to me in class.

That, I believe, is where part of my anxiety in computer science and math classes comes from. It's part of the reason I find it hard to talk to my professors and classmates. It's the constant fear that I am not good enough. I'm pretty susceptible to depression anyway, so it's not a long road to feeling bad enough that I don't want to go to the library, don't want to work in the labs, only have a couple of friends in my major.

I am afraid of living in the world I fought so hard to reach.

The PTSD is part of this, of course. The hyper alertness, the jumpiness, the lack of concentration, the flashbacks and nightmares, the panic attacks. I'm a disabled student, and with all the fucked up shit I've seen and done, that I carry around with me, I'm trying to perform in a discipline that is based on thinking clearly. The one thing that is hardest for me right now.

Getting here wasn't so easy. I feel banged up sometimes, and then I realize I am banged up.

I wonder what fate has in store for me... how many of my nine lives are actually left.

And yet.... here I still am. Here I still am.


  1. WOW this is a great post for me personally. You sound almost indentical as me. With the exception I was in OIF and not Desert Storm. I too am a Computer Science major I just started college this past fall at age 31 thanks to the Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation the government offers disabled veterans. And like yourself I too have been diagnosed with PTSD, among the 3 herniated disks in my lower back from my deployment.

    We are good enough for the education and have earned the right to be here unlike others. Keep your head up..

  2. Thanks,reaffirmation helps. :) I sometimes feel like a minority within a minority-- vets in school are the outer, and Desert Storm is the inner. Very good to hear from you.

    Hope the semester is going well- stay in touch, k?

  3. Will do.

    Never would have thought I would ever feel so disconnected going back to college but I look at the young kids and think of my last 10 years and all I have been through compared to theirs...they will never understand where I am coming from in my perspectives..

  4. @Libby: My experience with younger students (especially group study/group projects) has been *very* positive. The world they know at college age is a lot different than it was when I was early 20's... so I see it as adapting to their world (the present) more than them adapting to mine. Just stop yourself whenever you say "Well, when I was...." :) :)

  5. @Long-time RN: More or less. I've been able to talk to three of my four professors, and they've been very supportive. I have a fourth to talk to, but she's not physically at my campus. It's been difficult for me to send that email explaining things-- and I'm not sure why. Still working on it though. I have a doc appointment this week at the VA, so maybe that'll help.


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