15 September 2015

That t-shirt isn't worth it

I spent the weekend at MHacks, a hackathon that's held every semester at the University of Michigan, with about 1,000 other hackers plus the people from U of M who run the hackathon and all of the sponsors who sent recruiters and engineers. Participants had 36 hours to hack and build something interesting with either hardware or software, or a combination of both. There were also tech talks and demonstrations, a hack expo where we got to show off what we made, and prizes for the best hacks in a number of different categories.

I've been doing a lot of prolonged exposure therapy work lately with the VA, the idea being that by intentionally facing the things that trigger PTSD, repeatedly over time, eventually your PTSD symptoms should diminish and PTSD should become more manageable. It is, for instance, very difficult for me to concentrate in classrooms-- I'm often very hyper aware, very tuned in to every sound and motion that's going on around me, and then once I'm triggered the noise and motion take me back to the Desert. This applies to the work place as well, where if it's too noisy and there's too much going on, I have trouble concentrating on the code I'm writing (or whatever it is I'm doing). Hackathons are not necessarily known for being quiet. There are always people moving around, collaborating, discussing, eating, drinking, etc., so in addition to the various things that make hackathons fun, hackathons are also a chance for me to be out in the real world without a lot of additional pressure. (Sure, I'd like to win a prize, but if my project doesn't turn out perfect by the end of the hackathon I don't have anything to lose.)

I am also in the beginning stages of looking for an internship at a tech company, and the companies that sponsor hackathons do so in part to recruit new employees and interns. I talked to quite a few companies that do things that I'm really interested in, which is directly confronting PTSD's tendency to make me avoid anything triggering. One of my goals at the hackathon this weekend was to talk to employers, tell them I was looking for an internship, and most importantly, get some practice explaining that I am a veteran and that the timeline of my life was shifted considerably by the time I spent in the military. It's also a goal of mine to get back to thinking of myself as a veteran in a more positive light vs being a veteran who is angry about having been homeless, and presenting myself as such to other people. My elevator pitch needs some work, and I'm okay with that. It will get better.

One of my answers to working in a busy, noisy environment is that when I find that I'm not concentrating well, or I'm having problems with flashbacks, is getting up and going outside for a while, taking a walk, doing something else. I take some quiet time for myself, and sometimes I think about the problems I'm working on and sometimes not. Often I'll refill my coffee cup or water bottle. If there's food to graze on, I'll get something to eat. At a hackathon, I'll walk around and see what other people are doing, or go to a tech talk, or just talk to one of the sponsors. If I'm feeling really anxious, I need quiet for a while, but often just talking to someone for a few minutes is often enough to bring me back to the present.

I've been learning over the past couple of years that when I'm having problems figuring something out, I just need to stick with it and keep trying until it clicks-- as many cups of coffee, or walks around the outside of the building, or whatever it takes, plus trying whatever it is again and again until things work. School isn't always like that-- in school you get one exam to prove that you've absorbed and understand the concepts. It sometimes takes me the equivalent of several exams to get some of the inner secrets of implementing things in JavaScript right, because of all of the interruptions I have to take to stay focused on things. I'm also learning how to cope with this, and it's getting better.


There were a couple of times this weekend where my PTSD became very visible, very quickly.

I avoided the opening ceremony, but went to the closing ceremony. Different hackathons do these different ways. This particular hackathon, the closing ceremony involved taking a chartered school bus to somewhere else on campus, which wasn't the most fun I could think of doing. The ceremony itself involved a lot of yelling, and cheering, and "CAN THIS SECTION YELL LOUDER THAN THIS OTHER SECTION" type of stuff, which to me is incredibly uncomfortable-- I don't like yelling and loud noises, they're triggering. Instead of being excited to see the hacks that are about to be presented, now my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking and I'm in full on battle mode. I'm thinking to myself "This is incredibly uncomfortable but I'm going to stick it out as long as I can and hopefully it will be back to normal voices soon."

Then, one of the organizers announced that he had a box of free t-shirts to give away and that hackathon staff were at the back of the room (where I was, with my back to the handicapped section where no one was sitting) to start throwing them to the people who were the loudest.

People went nuts. Several people started to try to climb over me to get into the empty part of the row I was sitting in, at which point I pulled out my military voice and said "NO. Go AROUND." When they continued to try to climb over me, I had to stand up and physically block them and tell them that they were not going to get past me. One guy, even after that, still tried to climb over me, and I had to tell him point blank that if he didn't stop immediately that I was going to put him on the floor. I meant it, too. Bear in mind I was already feeling triggered by the "WHO CAN YELLLLL THE LOUDESSSTT" competition, and I hadn't slept since Thursday night. It was entirely the wrong time to try to climb over me, especially for something as silly as a free tshirt (sponsors give out lots of t-shirts; I brought 10 new shirts home with me this weekend, it's not like they're a rare commodity).

I have mixed feelings about this.

I know that these greedy fuckers people did not intentionally try to harm me-- they didn't have anything personal against me, we didn't know each other, and they'd all been up for 36 hours or more the same as I was. They're probably not bad people. Still, it took both a verbal response and a physical response-- me standing up and physically pushing them back-- to keep them from literally stepping on me. I don't want to be the angry veteran. I don't like being angry, in general. I have been struggling with having a short fuse, which I know is coming from the PTSD, and I don't want to let the PTSD cause me to be an asshole. I don't pick fights, but if you're inconsiderate enough that you'll risk harming me to get a free t shirt, I am feeling increasingly justified in responding physically (and possibly with force). It's often hard to tell if this is the PTSD talking (in which case I'd like to limit the response) or that I'm actually gaining some confidence and self-esteem and I'm not just going to put up with people being that inconsiderate.

Not long after that, I decided (or realized) that I'd had more than enough excitement for one day, gathered up my stuff, went outside, and let the person I drove there with know that I was ready to be picked up to head home. The closing ceremony ended a while later, and since I'd found a spot that was in the lee of the stream of people coming out, no one who was inside when all the fun was going on noticed me. As I said, I don't pick fights. I avoid them. Once I've made my point-- which someone else has required me to make-- I'm done.

This is new territory for me. I don't like that it happened, but there was a time in my life when I didn't stand my ground as much as I wish I had. The results were, of course, not much fun and I ended up in places I didn't want to be. I'm still learning about standing my ground, it still feels wibbly wobbly sometimes, and I sometimes I feel like I'm just winging it.

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