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08 September 2015

Summer's over

Labor Day Weekend is a marker for a lot of things, but if you follow a calendar made up of semesters and breaks, Labor Day means that summer is over (regardless of when classes actually start, and regardless of how damn hot it still is outside). The start of fall semester means that there are a lot more other students around, and that makes places that are always quiet in summer into places that are now busier and more bustling. 

Dealing with PTSD is like pushing an apple cart-- as in, don't upset the apple cart. When all of the apples are stacked up properly, the stack holds itself up. If you hit a bump, or someone bumps into the apple cart, things go to hell pretty quickly-- the apples fly every which way, and you have to start the process of finding all of the damn apples and stacking them up again before you can keep pushing forward. 

In summer, the apple cart was pretty easy to push once the apples got stacked on it. I had a quiet place to work the majority of the time, I didn't have a set schedule other than work, and while I had a lot of hacking to do this summer, I didn't have to worry too much about interacting with people-- I could do my own thing without a lot of external triggers.

The end of summer and the start of classes upsets the apple cart-- what works in summer doesn't work during a semester when there is a lot more to do that has to be done on other people's deadlines. Where in summer it doesn't matter so much where my sleep pattern is, during a semester the rest of the world  wants things to happen during daylight hours. Things like classes and appointments tend to happen during the day, so that means I'm out moving around more during the day when most of the rest of the world is, and things can get noisy really really quickly. That's not to say that there are no triggers at night-- there most certainly are-- but things like crowded classrooms and sidewalks are daytime things. During the day, during a semester, the apple cart tips over much easier than it does in summer at 0300.

I've been dealing with that since the semester started, not always gracefully. My sleep pattern is changed, so I'm a bit out of whack. I get where I need to go, most of the time, but I can feel my anxiety level creeping up. I'm also actively fighting the urge to just be a hermit, which means I'm actively fighting the PTSD that wants me to be a hermit. Fighting this shit is work, dammit, and it can be draining (which doesn't help).

This is what the prolonged exposure therapy I'm working on at the VA is all about-- the more you confront the things that feed the PTSD, the less they have a hold over you. Given enough exposure, the reaction you have to your triggers lessens until at some point they don't rule your life (that's how it's supposed to work). I'll be honest-- I struggle with this PTSD stuff. The therapy helps, the meds help, but there are still a lot of things that I struggle with, things that are keeping me from being where I want to be.

This matters a lot, because if I don't want to just quietly live out my days as a hermit on disability, I need to change the situation. I need to learn to do the best I can in the "real world" (whatever that is), and along with that I need to have a full sense of what my limitations actually are. I might well need accommodations to be fully productive, but they don't help if I don't know what I need.

I've been to a bunch of hackathons, and I'm going to a bunch more this semester. In the past I've mostly worked alone instead of finding teammates to work with. This is the avoidance and hyper awareness part of PTSD-- leave me alone and just let me work my ass off. I don't have to explain to teammates when I need to go walk outside for a while because the noise and the number of people moving around is driving me insane. If I get really triggered and can't get my project done, no one but me is disappointed. Working alone is safe. Working with other people-- strangers who don't know about my issues, or my triggers, or even that I'm a veteran, is most certainly not safe. What would they think if they knew? What if someone pisses me off? What if I just can't function?

So, this semester, I'm going to try (again) to team up with other people at hackathons. I can't just be a hermit programmer-- it's really not me, no matter how much the PTSD tries to tell me that that's who I am. There's so much more to the world than what I can hack on my own.

There's also the idea that I'm going to need a job, writing code and being paid for it, this time next year. So I'm going to try to talk to the sponsors and recruiters, and I'm going to try being honest about myself-- that I do have a disability, that it is PTSD from combat, that it does affect and challenge how I work and finally that I might need accommodations if I'm hired.

I'm not sure if that means I'm brave or stupid-- how many Silicon Valley interns with PTSD from the Persian Gulf War do you know? I don't actually have to disclose my disability, the ADA says so-- but I can't just pretend it doesn't exist. I've tried, and it ultimately doesn't work. In terms of the apple cart, I'm about to push it down a steep hill in San Francisco  with no brakes and try to keep the stack of apples together.

Summer's over. First hackathon of the semester is MHacks, this weekend at the University of Michigan.



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