24 October 2011

Why I'm wearing a hat with the logo of a defunct company

Sometimes looking back at the way things were before being diagnosed with PTSD can help put things in perspective in the present. This is me, describing me doing poorly at something I'm good at doing, but in hindsight. This is a long post, so you might want a fresh cup of coffee.

The hat in the picture represents one year of my life. I was a programmer at that company for that year. I started there very soon after the company had gone public, and it was a frenzied place, a start-up type atmosphere. The location where I worked was in what used to be a one floor warehouse. It was an open room with low rise cubicles, and no false ceiling. You could look up and see the original timber supporting the roof, the air vents, etc. About what you'd expect for a small, mildly hip multimedia company. (We'd previously been bought out and made part of

For a hacker who had just dropped out of college to take the job, it appeared to be heaven. Hell always looks like heaven when you first walk in.

I should point out that I worked with some really awesome people there, and I even enjoyed being there at times. The building is still there, and it has a history-- it had a small part to play in the building of the first atomic bombs, which I always found interesting. There's so much that was wrong about being there, though, and I had no clue at the time what any of it was about.

I got there early in the morning, and often stayed a few hours past quitting time. I was on salary, and didn't get overtime, but I didn't really care. It seemed that I got a lot more done before everyone showed up. It was quieter, people weren't bothering me, I could think more clearly.

When the rest of the company showed up, it was hard to get work done for a number of reasons. One, the programming tools I was working with had been developed in house. They'd been created so that programmers didn't have to write so much code. Me, I like writing code, and at the time I was pretty good at writing programs using Active Server Pages. At the time, ASP was a leading tool for building dynamic websites. The projects I was assigned to didn't use ASP. All of my projects used the in house tools, which  once I learned them, I despised.

Another was the noise. I've been to quieter shooting ranges. The company's mission was putting home listings online, and realty companies would send us faxes. Constantly. Then there were the printers, and the copiers. With the high ceiling, and low walled cubicles, there was no sound dampening. I knew at the time that the noise was distracting, but I didn't know what triggers were. Now, I can see (and hear) that the noise triggered me over and over again every day.

I worked in a group of programmers that reported to one guy. Ya know the boss in Office Space, the one with the TPS reports fetish? This guy was his brother. I'd have three or four projects to work on at once, and it was up to me to prioritize them. I'd dig into prioritizing them, PTSD and anxiety would kick in, and with the noise and the "we gotta have this now" atmosphere, I'd have trouble getting anything done.  I'd be paralyzed and disassociated all morning.

Then there were the account managers. They were the interface between the technical staff and the customers. These were the people that would see that I was at my desk, email me, wait five minutes, and then call me to see why I hadn't checked and read my email yet. I'd let the phone go to voicemail, as I was in the middle of writing code. Then they'd IM me, and I'd ignore that. So they'd come to my desk and interrupt me to see why I didn't respond to their IM about the voicemail they left about the email they sent.   AAACK!

I found a snapshot of one of the websites I worked on, captured by At the time it was captured, I was still working on the site. I have no association at all with the customer that wanted the site built, and I imagine they would find it very odd to see a link to there, from here. None of the links will work properly when you get there. But here's the link anyway:

In the end, it was hard for me to accomplish anything during the day. The projects I was working on took longer and missed deadlines, which brought more phone calls and emails and meetings. I felt like a one legged man in a butt kicking contest, because I was in a terrible work environment for a person with PTSD. The noise, the interruptions, the multiple projects at once, the fluid deadlines...

...had I stayed with the company, I'd have been laid off three months after I left anyway. The company's stock price would soon plummet-- the founders of the company were making millions off of insider training and illegal accounting, and contractors were being brought in to crank out cookie cutter websites. I was the rat that knew the ship was sinking, and I dove off first.

I actually turned in my notice the same day as the lead system administrator. Neither of us had discussed leaving with each other. By the end of that day, there was a consultant doing that job.

At the company where I next worked (I left Homestore in August 2000), I wasn't very productive on the programming project I'd been contracted to do. There was some PC hardware stuff that I did get done, but that was about it. I'd been to several VA mental health appointments, and was on Celexa. I didn't do jack at work. That company fired me on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving 2000. I was able to bullshit them into keeping me for two more weeks "so I could wrap up what I was doing". I was depressed and on medication, and honestly didn't give a shit. I needed the extra pay. And then, I was an unemployed programmer in the middle of the dot com implosion.

It was the last time I made a decent living as a programmer.


Yeah, that's a lot of thinking about the past. Especially for someone who is trying to live in the present. There's a lot that matters from back then, mainly that I had the skills. I knew my shit, and other programmers told me so. I had the work ethic, could handle the long hours. I was good, dammit.

But... I was also in an physical environment that kept my PTSD constantly triggered. The workflow was the exact opposite of what I needed. The company was going to turn out to be a sham, a money grab, and no matter how hard I worked or how good I was at my work, nothing was going to change that.

The next company was more stable, but no better for a person with PTSD.

At home, my marriage was crumbling. My then wife was an alcoholic, and although I didn't drink as much as she did, I drank a lot. Beer was measured in pitchers, not glasses. She turned out to be a lesbian who had lied to me about her sexual preference since we'd met.  I was suffering from depression, which I knew, but I didn't know about PTSD- to me, that was something associated vaguely with Vietnam, something I knew nothing about.  Work was better than being at home, but not by much.

A couple of years later, the courier job I had found fired me too. My car wasn't drivable and my Dad had just passed away. And people-- I was drunk. And getting drunker.

A person can only hang onto the limb above the river for so long. Eventually, you let go. Splash.


Now, it's about 0330 in late 2011 and I've been struggling to get to classes and get even a little portion of my classwork done. I have an exam to take this morning, and I'm four chapters behind. But in writing all of this, I think I've begun to wrap my head around the idea that none of what happened was my fault.

I'd left college and gone into working as a programmer with pure intentions, just as I'd gotten married with pure intentions. I believed that those were the best ideas of what to do at the time.

My marriage dying, the company I worked for imploding, the dot com bubble popping, the PTSD I didn't know I had.  The sexual abuse when I was a kid. Desert Shield. Desert Storm. Not one of those things was my fault. I had no control over any of those things. They just happened.


I have an exam in a few hours. I need to study. I have three choices.

I can study here, in my apartment. I probably won't get shit done, because there are distractions here. Lately, I've gotten pretty good at sitting at my desk thinking and doing nothing while time ticks by. So no, that won't work.

I can walk across campus, alone, to the only library that's open all night. With my laptop. And a thermos of coffee, since the cafe' is closed. Um, no. The coffee I can handle, it's the walk across campus alone with $1500 worth of computer that's a problem.

Or, I can drive to the closest 24hr restaurant, where there is food, coffee, and free wifi.

Folks, we have a winner. Booth for one, near a power outlet, please.



The hat. Oh yes, the hat. The last person to wear my hat was a pretty good programmer. It's time to put that hat back on.

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