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21 June 2015

Making hyper vigilance into something positive

Today (well, actually yesterday, since it's already Sunday where I am) I slept. Finally. I haven't been sleeping well lately, for the past few nights or maybe the past few weeks. My schedule is pretty wonky anyway-- I work night shifts, and so I am usually awake all night and try to sleep during the day. It's close to, but not quite, a vampire's schedule. I'm trying to keep the happy  + productive  = work + sleep + hack + caffeine + medication - PTSD equation balanced, but there are a lot of variables and solving for x is difficult sometimes. Some days there's no solution, and my body says "Ok, today it's payback time. I don't care what alarms you set or what you have planned, you're going to sleep for 12+ hours".

Once I'm up and out of bed, it takes a little while for me to get dialed in. I need to look at the weather, partly because I don't want to get wet walking to work/the lab and partly because I'm fascinated by the weather and I look at a lot more than just the temperature. I glance at social media to see if I have any notifications. Maybe I'll scroll through my Twitter feed, glance at a couple of the Facebook pages/groups where I have some responsibility for what goes on there. Siri tells me what day it is, and what's coming up on my schedule, and I often say thank you because it's the polite thing to do-- computers are people too, right?-- and then I go and do where and when my calendar says I need to go and do.

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I'm struggling with hyper vigilance, which is a symptom that goes with PTSD, and the fear and the paranoia that come with it. Being homeless really made the hyper vigilance part of PTSD worse, because just like in a combat zone you have to view everyone you see as a potential threat. One threat is people who think you have something work taking, and because you're homeless they think you're weak and they can take it from you. The other threat is two headed-- first, people who will figure out that you're homeless and do something to get rid of you (i.e., call the cops). The other is, as you might guess, the cops who might arrest you for trespassing.

I've worked with, played softball with, gotten drunk with and talked to a lot of police officers in my life. Lots of cops are veterans, and there are many parallels between serving as a police officer and serving the military. In the very limited interactions I've had with police officers as a homeless person, they were nothing but polite and professional. Cops are generally pretty cool people. Still, I never wanted to get myself arrested, and so I learned to be very aware of my surroundings and very aware of the presence of police officers, cameras, and similar kinds of people and devices during my time on the street.

This is in addition to being very well trained in keeping my eyes open for unusual things, people that seem out of place, things that are in places the shouldn't be, and things along those lines. The military teaches you these things, and they are part of your job-- especially when you spend half of your time on active duty in other countries where there are people who are in fact out to get you. America has enemies. See something, say something isn't a slogan for the military, it's how you do your job.

Vigilance takes energy-- a lot of it-- and hyper vigilance obviously even more so. It's a "shields up 24/7" mentality, and it keeps not only your brain and nervous system busy but also all of the biological systems feed your brain and nervous system. It is exhausting. It's depressing too, because I end up feeling tired and yet not sleeping right, and I feel bad about myself because it feels like something's terribly wrong with me.

It has its benefits, though. It kept me alive in boot camp-- I needed those few seconds advantage I got between hearing the click of the intercom system and the start of the playing of the recording of reveille every morning. Who's to say that the extra few seconds advantage I got in the Desert by being tuned in to the sound of the PA system activating that announced SCUD alerts wasn't a benefit? How many times have I avoided a person, place or thing because something just wasn't right, and in doing so avoided something bad happening?

That's the PTSD talking. There is no answer. I don't know. In reality, probably not as many times as the PTSD tells me. There's a certain point where I can be so hyper vigilant that I spend all of my time worrying and none of my time enjoying or recharging. That's when it becomes a problem, because that's when I start avoiding other people. I stop going some places, and then soon I stop going to any place. I avoid people, and then I actively push people away.

Which is no fun, really.

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There is a broader issue here-- to some extent, hyper vigilance (along with the other symptoms of PTSD that I experience) is something that I need to learn to live with. Someday, hopefully, it along with the other symptoms and the bad things they bring will lessen. In some ways, things are in fact better than they used to be. I'm aware of what's going on now, and aware of why it happens. I'm working to correct the bad parts of all of this, using therapy and medication and practice.

The broader issue is that while hyper vigilance can cause a lot of problems and make a lot of things difficult, when writing software it can actually be an advantage to be able to be so acutely aware of everything that could possibly be a danger.

Software is supposed to be robust, meaning that if something goes wrong, a program should be able to recognize that something has gone wrong and deal with it. Maybe the network is down, but because the software is capable of doing so, you can continue working until it comes back up. Maybe a disk drive can't read a file, and the software knows how to give an error message that actually says what the problem was before stopping. Maybe a call to a function doesn't supply the right parameters, and the function includes a test that catches the error before bad things happen.

It is very easy to go too far. It's easy to let hyper vigilance, and PTSD in general, take over to the point where your brain is so busy worrying about everything in the world that could happen, that you can't think about whatever meaningful work it is you're trying to do.

My brain wants to be hyper vigilant-- in my life this has been a normal state. Terrible things have been happening to me since I was abused as a kid. Chaos, and trying to make sense of the chaos, is how my world has always worked. Maybe it's hard for other people to understand that, I don't know. I do know that it interferes with life, things like getting good grades and getting to work on time and making and keeping friends. It's an obstacle, in so many ways.

Even so, when I'm working on writing software, I'm trying to leverage the hyper vigilance I experience and put it to good use without letting it take over and make it impossible for me to get anything done. (Jargon alert: if you're not a software developer, please hang in there for a few sentences.) That's why I'm taking part of the summer to learn about unit testing, and automated software testing tools, and test driven development (TDD).

In computer science classes, if it compiles and runs on the given test data, it ships. Which is fine, but as I've been learning by working on hackathon projects, the real world is a lot messier.

There are some things that can be tested automatically; there are linters like jshint that will find errors in your JavaScript programs and alert you to their existence. Things like missing semicolons, or variables that are defined in the wrong place, or brackets and braces that don't close. Programmer mistakes. It's not all that different than a spell checker or grammar checker keeping you in line when you're writing a paper.

There are also tests-- which are really just programs themselves-- that can be written that run a program with a particular set of inputs, and check the outputs to see if they match what's expected. If a test passes today, and I add a new feature, and then tomorrow the same test fails, then something I did when I added the new feature screwed things up. I'm human, and so I make mistakes when I write new code or modify old code. Testing helps mitigate them though-- both in catching the simple stuff, and in writing the tests themselves. Writing the tests is where the hyper vigilance is an asset, because the part of my brain that's very good at coming up with all of the ways things can go wrong gets to do its thing.

This is the heart of what I'm trying to do lately. I'm beyond tired of PTSD causing me to not be able to do things. Instead I'm trying to turn things around, to use the good parts of the bad parts to move forward. PTSD, at least in my opinion, isn't something you can cure. The memories of what happened will always be there, and especially over time the symptoms have become a part of my life. I've chosen to make the best of them; maybe in doing so, someday they won't be symptoms so much as they'll just be.
















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