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02 January 2016

2016

It really struck me as odd, the number of people I saw staggering drunk between campus and my apartment in the early morning hours of 2016. Granted, I live in a neighborhood that's mostly students, and it's not that unusual to see drunk people any night of the week. NYE is one of those times of year when the quest to be shitfaced is amplified even more than normal. I lost track of the number of people that were just... well, staggering around. Think zombie apocalypse kind of staggering, but a lot less organized. It was sad, and a little bit frightening. I crossed the streets I was walking along several times to avoid the zombies, er, drunk people.

I have a small (I think it's about 12oz) bottle of Jameson's Irish Whiskey in my cupboard. In 2015 I think I took a total of four shots from it; I bought it in 2014 at some point, so it's been sitting there for a while. I can count on one hand the number of beers I had in 2015, most of those during the week I was visiting a buddy from Desert Storm. It's not true that I never drink, nor is it true that I don't like alcohol-- I have a few favorite beers, and a few favorites from the liquor cabinet. A beer or a shot, once in a (great) while, tastes good and is pretty damn enjoyable. Sláinte mhaith.

Alcohol-- getting drunk-- is a part of The Culture here. I know that not everyone gets as shitfaced as the people I encountered over the past couple of nights, and for most NYE is a special occasion. No school tomorrow, no work tomorrow, get dressed up and go out and have fun (or drown your sorrows), I get it. I don't look down on people who like to go out and drink. It's your life, do what you want. 

I don't know exactly how, but about the time I stopped being married I stopped drinking for quite a while-- over a year. Since then it's as I said above, a drink or two now and then, with "now and then" meaning pretty rarely.  At VA appointments that's one of the questions they have to ask every so often-- "how many times have you had a drink in the past month?"-- and when I answer none, they always give me a look like, sure Mr. PTSD, you go ahead and tell yourself that. *shrug*. It's true. I used to drink a lot, daily, when I was married. The alcohol didn't fix any of my problems. No wife, no need to be buzzed every night.

I often wonder, for those years from 1991-2004 (between coming home from the Desert and getting a divorce), if the reason the PTSD wasn't as bad then was that I drank so regularly. The PTSD was certainly an issue, and I can recall many times when it showed itself. I didn't know what PTSD was then, not really, and the VA didn't even consider it a problem for me. They never asked. No one did.

Right now, I'm on medication for PTSD (and related depression and anxiety). I take 50mg of venlafaxine, twice a day, and before I go to bed I take prazosin to help calm down nightmares. I'm not sure if it helps a little, a lot, or not at all. I'm fighting depression pretty hard lately, which may have something to do with it being winter in the upper Midwest. Days are short and often pretty gray. It's cold outside. I want to be somewhere else, somewhere that's warm and sunny (and where people are not quite so focused on getting shitfaced).


I know I need to get back into therapy for the PTSD. All of the work I've done up until this point to fight it has been productive, but my level of symptoms is staying pretty high. I'm trying the things that have worked before, but often it's like trying to fist fight in the fog at night-- I know my opponent is there, but I can't see through the fog well enough to land a meaningful punch. 

I also admit that I'm avoiding getting back into therapy, mostly because I don't trust that the VA has anything to offer that will help (I've been writing about this for a while now, I know). It's an emotional response more than a practical one, and I can definitely see that. Cognitive therapy wants me to challenge beliefs, one of which is the belief that the VA no longer has my back. One of the challenges is "what's the likelihood that this is true?" and I can only answer that yes, this is true-- or at least, it's been true recently. It's a classic stuck point. It's very difficult to tell yourself that the worst won't happen when it already has.

The world is also full of triggers right now. I try to steer well clear of politics in my writing, but damn-- the world can easily be seen as coming apart at the seams.  Syria. Ukraine. Russia. France. San Bernardino (!). Iraq, still. Afghanistan, still. So much going on, so much bubbling just under the surface. One of the core things about PTSD is that you lose the ability to see the world as a safe place, because you've seen and felt and experienced a time and place when it wasn't. It's becoming increasingly difficult to see the world as safe when it's so possible for some random jihadi to show up and start shooting. I'm not sure anyone has definite answers, but I'm becoming much more sure that none of the current presidential candidates even have a clue what to do.

There are positives though-- even through all of this, I've been able to get a lot accomplished over the past year. I've been to a bunch of hackathons that have involved travel to other universities and working with students from other schools. I've built, or at least tried to build, some cool applications. This past year I helped organize a hackathon, and I'm helping organize the same hackathon for this year. I'm really proud that I've been able to be a mentor to other computer science students on a few occasions-- it's a very good thing when people respect my knowledge enough to come to me with questions. I've solved some interesting problems at work, both strictly help desk related and in my role as a software developer.

I'm also learning, slowly and carefully, how to ask for accommodations for PTSD as a disability at work. It's easy to find out that asking for them at work is something I'm legally entitled to, but it's a whole different matter actually asking for things like a quiet space to work and schedule flexibility. Corporate America, especially tech, can be so competitive-- it's hard to stand up and say "look, I'm not 10X, I have a disability, but I can still be a valuable asset to your company". It's not even that I've received a negative reaction from anyone-- it's the fear of that happening that makes it so difficult.

So, in several ways, in the new year I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. Reading, studying, debugging, implementing, testing, borking things up, backing out commits when necessary, trying again. I'm going to have to bite the bullet and trust the VA a little bit-- the medication isn't doing what I need it to do, and maybe it can't. Maybe I need a different dose or another different kind of pill. Maybe there's therapy I haven't tried that's actually just what I need. Maybe what I need, the VA doesn't have. I'm looking into a service dog as something that might make my life better. I'm looking into other kinds of therapy, trying to remember that there are other options to consider.

In other ways, I'm going to try to do less of some of what I've been doing over the past year or so. Still being in Madison is hard because there are so many different places and things that have memories attached, and I walk past or through them every day to get to where I need to go. I'll still get angry when I see other veterans that are homeless, and I'll still take every opportunity to call bullshit when I see people talking about helping but actually doing nothing, so there will be rants like this paragraph now and then. Hopefully time helps heal some of the memories. Maybe therapy will too.

I'm also going to remind myself as much as possible that I could very well be one of those people who was staggering down my street the other night-- but I'm not. Some days I win, and some days the PTSD wins, but I'm fighting it standing up and not from the inside of a bottle.

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