16 August 2015

Yesteryear and Tomorrow

"This time, this day, a year ago, I was sleeping on the street. That's where I slept that one night, or that other night. That's where I'd hunker down when it rained. That's the building that I knew stayed open late, and that's the one that I knew closed early on Sundays."

Geez, when do these thoughts stop? I'm not sure if they ever do, at least as long as it's still exactly a year since so many things happened, and at least as long as I still walk past these places every day. This is something you never hear the people who say "find a home for all of the homeless veterans" talk about-- what comes next. Lately I've decided that it's similar to what people say about stray dogs and cats. Find them a good home. Once you find them a good home, everything is fine. Happily ever after. Right?

It's not that simple. People (veterans) (me) aren't that simple. A person isn't just homeless, then not homeless, then homeless, then not homeless, then everything evens out and returns to normal. It's not like a pool of water, that eventually returns to being smooth and calm after you've dropped a pebble (or a huge rock) into the middle of the pool.

A year has gone by, a year in which I've done a lot to move forward. On a basic level, I've survived. I'm still here. I get up, get dressed, go to work, go to the lab, make sure I eat, occasionally sleep (and occasionally don't). Now that I'm back on meds I'm actually taking them regularly, and I think they help. I've taken on new responsibility at work, adding a new position as a student software developer.

I've written, rewritten, borked, fixed, reborked, and refixed more lines of JavaScript than I can realistically count. I've been learning about new tricks, like using linters and code style checkers, what unit tests are and how (and why) to write them. That's all on my own. Then there are the hackathons I've attended, at places like Cal and USC and U of Waterloo. I even helped organize a hackathon, my way of giving back to a culture that has given me so much (and has helped get me through a couple of seriously hard years).

This year, I'm going to more hackathons. Last year, it was cool just to be there, just to participate. I freely admit that I didn't do enough to network-- I worked on projects mostly alone, and while I talked to almost all of the sponsors at each event, I didn't really push myself to make connections. In a way, I regret that, but I'm trying to give myself some credit. Being there was an accomplishment in itself, actually building stuff was another accomplishment, and while I didn't win any prizes I did get some positive feedback. The projects I built usually weren't finished, but the sponsors sometimes liked what they saw anyway. I'm not that concerned about prizes-- I'd be thrilled beyond belief to win one, but it's not the end of the world if I don't.

It is an awesome thing for me to have an idea at a hackathon, try to build it, and then see a couple of months later that some startup in San Francisco just got $20 million to do something similar. On one hand, you could say that my idea wasn't that original or unique, because someone else had the same idea. I'll give you that. On the other hand, though, my project idea was good (practical) enough that someone was willing to put up more money than I've ever seen to start a company to build something similar. I'm pretty down to earth. I expect to be rich and famous about as much as I expect to put on the makeup and platform shoes and get on stage with Kiss. Even so, when engineers from Silicon Valley companies tell me they like something that I built from scratch in 36 straight hours, I've decided it's okay to feel good about that.

PTSD is the negative voice in my head, the voice saying I should just avoid all of this-- that the world is too dangerous, that I can't do this, that people will never understand once they know that I have a disability and that I can never be good enough to overcome it. I'm actually not sure exactly what it means to say I've overcome it. At what point do I (or can I) declare victory? If you're a hockey player and you break your leg, rehab, and come back to play hockey at some useful level, you can say that you beat your injury. You "overcame adversity". I've sometimes tried to look at PTSD (and the associated anxiety and depression) using that broken leg metaphor-- you're hurt, and you have to heal. Time and effort and patience. At some point though, when you break your leg you can maybe walk normally again and from then on you're all right. It's hard to see things that way when things seem to have been getting worse for far too long.

It's easy to see the steps I've missed, the times, I've fallen down. It's easy to look at the places I've slept and the places I've hidden from the thunder and rain. They're always there. They don't go away, they don't change, they're often unavoidable-- walk a different way, and there's another place with an attachment. Even my apartment, which is home, has attached to it how I felt and the way things were last year when I first moved in. Prolonged Exposure therapy, which is what I'm doing at the VA these days, says that in order to lessen the effect that trauma has on you, you have to face it again and again. Eventually, like water smoothing a stone, the rough edges go away.

I'm still carrying around a lot of anger-- at the people from Porchlight who didn't respect me, cared only about what they thought was best, didn't support me and in the end left me on the street to fend for myself. The people from the VA, who passed it off as either someone else's problem or as my fault. I know that I need to work on this part. I don't forgive easily. There's no excuse that anyone involved can make for what happened that I can accept, not right now anyway. (I don't consider myself obsessed with winning, but I don't like to lose either.)

Anger sucks when it's a part of PTSD. There's the anger that comes from knowing that for all I (and everyone else) did in the Desert in 1990 and 1991, things ultimately still got worse. Politically, it's up to you to decide if invading Iraq again was a good idea. My opinion, if Saddam Hussein had been left in power, he'd have waited out the sanctions and his government (and its actions) would still be a problem. It's hard knowing that we did what we needed to do, and still a lot of people died before it was all settled. It's also up to you to decide if things are settled. Now we're fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Russia has annexed Crimea and is threatening Ukraine-- hopefully you see the picture even if you don't agree.

Anger is also a tool of the avoidance that is a part of PTSD. People don't generally like being around angry people. Being angry is a way to keep other people away. Angry vet? Better keep your distance. People don't fuck with you when you look angry. They move aside, they make room. They don't make eye contact. They don't ask questions. No one asks questions, no one needs answers. Anger is like an armored cloak that you can wrap around yourself to ward off everything. Anger is a self fulfilling prophecy-- enough anger, and all the bad things that PTSD thrives on will happen, sooner or later.

It's also exhausting being angry. Anger isn't wielded like a sword, or at least I don't wield it like a weapon. I use it as a shield. It's not an aluminium garbage can lid, easily bent and easily swung around. It's wooden timbers reinforced with lead plate held on by heavy bolts forged by a blacksmith. Mostly it swings through the air, but if it connected with anything, anything would be at the very least dented. It's heavy to carry and heavy to swing around, and it's not as easy to put down as I wish it was. Carrying anger around isn't fun.

That's what the continued PE therapy is about; the goals I'm working on in PE therapy are the same goals as I've been talking about. Talking to more people, especially the people from the sponsor companies. Making connections. Getting to hackathons, finding ways to get there which is sometimes easy and sometimes not. Applying for them in the first place. Coding. Testing. Learning new things. Testing the limits-- those things that trigger the PTSD, that awaken the voices-- pushing at them, prodding them, eventually going past them.

Ultimately, constantly fighting the battle is exhausting just by itself. Some days, I fight bold and brave. Some days I'm tired, and being bold and brave doesn't happen. Some days I win, and some days the PTSD wins. This is the really hard part. The rest of the world wants bold and brave every day, even though most people will tell you that all people have good days and bad days, if you have too many bad days it's a bad thing. PTSD often means more bad days. The question then becomes, what do you I on the bad days? Will people, like my coworkers and my employer(s), be willing to ride out the days when I'm not 100%?

That's the hard part. Figuring that out.

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