15 July 2015

Missing the Desert

There's been something out of whack for a while now. It's along the lines of when you're driving a car, and either it's making a strange noise or there's a odd vibration coming off the tires, or maybe it's just the road, and you really can't tell. The car is moving, you're keeping up with traffic, but things don't feel like things are all good. You wonder when the car isn't going to start one morning, or one evening, stranding you wherever you are. You hope it doesn't, though, at least not for a while longer. It's a feeling of dread, or maybe it's just regular fear, because you know what can happen and you're afraid that it's about to happen (or happen again).

I occasionally run into a ROTC cadet-- Wisconsin has ROTC detachments for all of the services, so there are quite a few of them here. It's always interesting hearing what they're doing for training. They don't have war stories yet, so I get to hear about the two weeks in summer and the PT and all of those other fun things that I don't have to worry about. Honestly, during the time I was active duty it was highly unusual to hear "ROTC" in a sentence without the word "puke" attached (as in, those f'n ROTC pukes), but I do my best to behave and play nice. :) 

I'm jealous, though, because there are so many things I miss about being on active duty. It's grounding, in a way, to be able to talk to ROTC pu cadets because we talk about normal things. The day to day stuff, the funny things, what's different between now and then. Cadets mostly haven't been to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Many of them, if they stay with ROTC, eventually will go to those places. At the very least, they'll train to be prepared to go to those places. Until then, though, they're much like I was before I shipped out for the Middle East-- motivated, dedicated, and overall pretty happy. That's not to say that I've never been happy since I went overseas. There have certainly been a lot of happy moments, both overseas and after coming home. My life isn't that bleak. It's an attitude, though-- a frame of mind. You're part of something important and it's a good feeling.

It hit me extremely hard when Porchlight evicted me from the VA Transitional Housing program a year ago. There were some things I could have done to slow down the damage-- I could have withdrawn from school, I could have asked for incomplete grades for my classes, they would have understood, right? My situation would be better now had I done those things, right? Maybe. My two years in the program would have been up last November, and no one had done anything to help me find a new place to live. I'd have been out on the street at the start of a Wisconsin winter. (Apartments around here are leased on academic years, August to August. There are no open apartments in November.)

Of course, it would hit anyone hard being evicted from an apartment and finding themselves on the street, but I'd already been there. Transitional housing was supposed to be about recovery, getting back on my feet, and then getting moving forward again. The VA (and in fact the country) was supposed to have my back. A grateful nation, a VA sworn to eliminate homelessness among veterans. I'm sure some people have been helped, but in my case it turned out to be all bullshit. The VA patient advocate couldn't (or wouldn't) do anything to help. The VA homeless program director here was a large part of the reason I was evicted. Even letters to Senator Tammy Baldwin didn't help. 

When you've been homeless, and you find yourself a new place to live on your own, it makes you ineligible for any kind of assistance. Convicted felons who are released from prison on parole get parole officers whose job (in theory) is to make sure that the felon doesn't end up back in the joint. Homeless veterans who find homes again get nothing. No one checks to make sure you're doing all right. No one follows up to see if you're managing things all right, that you're getting your rent paid, that you're taking your PTSD medications and getting to your appointments. You still have the same PTSD that made you homeless in the first place, but that's someone else's (yours) issue to worry about.

Last summer, I was seeing a social work person at the Vet Center here until she transferred out to a different job in a different state. Her plan for me, her advice, was that I should continue where I was. She likened my situation to being 'retired' in that I only needed to work part time, that I was receiving disability payments, and that I could keep going to school and attending hackathons-- and that right now that's all there needed to be for me. 

After she moved on from the Vet Center, no one ever called me back to start working with someone else. I eventually just showed up one day and asked for demanded an appointment. I more or less randomly picked someone, a relatively new social work person that I had previously worked with at the county veterans service office. She was a combat vet, had had some of the same problems I'd had with school, etc, so figured it would be a good fit. She did help me get some things straightened out, but it wasn't long before she was indicating that I didn't need to be there-- that I sounded like I was doing fine, that I was on the right path, etc. When the Vet Center was packing up to move to a different location, she almost literally swept me out the door. I haven't heard from the Vet Center since, and I don't ever plan to go back. 

Right now I have a pharmacist-- not a psychiatrist, a pharmacist-- managing issuing prescriptions for my medications. I have an appointment with her coming up in about two weeks, at which I'll probably ask to have my venlafaxine dose raised slightly. Honestly, at this point I'm managing my own medications. She asks how I'm doing, fills out a form on a computer, and if I say I need more she ups my dosages. I see her every few months, with about the same regularity and same formality as taking the car to a mechanic's shop for an oil change.  

I also have a social work intern (excuse me, resident) working with me every other week helping me deal with managing taking other pills, the ones that earlier this year were causing me to yak all over the city as soon as I took the pills. I'm back to taking the psych drugs and keeping them and food down, so there's progress. Last week, she called in sick and so missed my appointment. Now it's up to me to make a new appointment (she did call yesterday, and say that if I called before noon I could get an appointment today; I work nights, so I was asleep by time business hours came around to call). 

Finally, there's a 'drop-in' group at the VA hospital for vets who have previously been through the Prolonged Exposure therapy program; it's meant to be a booster (the VA's word), to help with applying the PE therapy. I showed up yesterday, but no one else did-- including the group facilitator. I was running late, and called to say that I was running late but would still be there. The group was supposed to start at 1500, when it got to 1550 I got up and left. No one noticed, no one followed up.

It's too bad, really. I was looking forward to the group-- the only other participant is a Vietnam vet, and we have a lot in common despite the differences between the Vietnam war and the Desert. I wish the group was a constant thing, every week, indefinitely. It isn't.

I'm not 'critical', or 'in crisis', at least as far as the VA is concerned. I'm not homeless, or suicidal. I'm not drunk, or high, or violent, or a threat to anyone. I'm actually pretty quiet. I don't make a lot of noise. I keep to myself a lot. I make it out of bed a large majority of the days in a month. I get cleaned up, I get dressed, I go to work (where I get paid to work with computers) and I go to the lab (where I don't get paid to do anything). I'm spending most of my waking hours this summer writing JavaScript, learning to write unit and behavioral tests for software I've written (and that I am writing). I've been learning a new programming language (php). I'm doing a ton of work some days, and a half ton on others, and the days where I don't get much done don't happen all that often.

Working hard is something I like to do, but there's a line between working hard to make progress and working hard to self medicate. I don't drink or use, I stay up all night and code. That's my passion, and it is also sometimes my therapy, but it's a finite resource. I can't work sixty hour weeks every week even if I am having fun.

I know that the stuff I'm learning, the practice I'm getting, will pay off in the near future. If I hadn't decided on my own to get into hackathons and start writing software again, and going to school again, I wouldn't have the job I have now where I'm being paid to write software. I try to stay on the good side of the line; try to eat actual meals, try to get somewhat regular sleep, etc. I walk to and from, averaging about 10,000 steps a day (or so says my Pebble watch).

It's for the most part, lately, a solo journey. The VA doesn't care what I'm doing, how hard I'm working, that I avoid using global variables, or that I'm moving to Silicon Valley (or maybe Silicon Beach, we'll see) next year. Maybe the VA doesn't have the resources, to keep a drop-in therapy group going indefinitely or to check on all of the veterans that probably need to at least be checked on occasionally.

I used to trust the VA, though. I used to believe that the VA had my back covered, that if things really and truly went to shit, they'd be able to be there and help. I no longer believe that. When I tell people at the VA what happened with transitional housing, they never have an answer. When I tell people at the VA that I'm still struggling, they tell me I'm fine even though when I walk down the street, I see the Desert. I'm not an angry person, but I sometimes have a short fuse for no reason at all and I know it's the PTSD. The person at the VA writes this down, maybe, and then it's forgotten.

I miss the Desert. I miss wearing BDU's, being part of a unit that was itself both unique and a part of something much bigger. I even miss the discipline, the shit work that fell to me as an airman, the things that happened that seemingly made no sense at the time (and even the things from the military that still don't make sense). 





No comments:

Post a Comment

If you'd like your comment to stay private, please let me know in your comment. Anonymous comments are also allowed.