08 May 2016

Random thoughts

Sometimes I just need to write to get all of this stuff out. Now is one of those times. It's disorganized. Sorry. Not sorry.

I was homeless from 2012-2014. You can find the entire story in my posts from those times; there's quite a lot of story there. Although I was in VA transitional housing for part of that time, I was also evicted from VA transitional housing. In 2014 I convinced a landlord to let me sign a lease, and I've been in my own place since. The entire experience is far, far more complicated than I can explain in a few sentences, but the summary is that whatever trust I had in the VA, or social welfare support systems, or people in general was pretty much destroyed.

PTSD is bad enough on its own. So many things come in through the senses, and when the brain is running the PTSD program (which it always is) all of the stimuli get evaluated and processed and obsessed about. It makes you hyperaware, and hypersensitive, but at the same time makes it hard to be engaged in anything and makes you want to avoid anything and everything. Nightmares mess with sleep. Flashbacks mess with being awake. Loud, sudden noises mess with everything. Lots of little shit that no one else ever notices takes you instantly back to the Desert.

Stuck in the sand.

There are a lot of things about Desert Shield and Desert Storm that I'll probably never completely resolve. I had a unique view, one that very few people had-- I saw evil, and I saw death, up close. Now, I have a similarly unique view of the world-- I read the news, and I read between the lines. I know that nothing is ever as it seems, not really. I see things, and I reach conclusions, which are sometimes based on facts and sometimes based on emotions, and I am often afraid. The Desert hasn't ever really ended. 9/11 happened, and then Iraq and Afghanistan happened, and at the end of every Operation we just start a new chapter. (I don't mean this to be political commentary.)

In 2000, the first time I encountered depression, I went to the VA for help. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. I was a programmer, where I wanted to be, but I wasn't happy and I didn't know why. Many of the same things that are wrong with where I work now, in terms of noise and distractions and triggers, where wrong there too. If I knew then what I new now... *sigh* I was dealing with PTSD then, but they didn't screen me for it. Even so, I don't know where I'd have ended up if I hadn't gone to talk to the VA then. Probably nowhere good.

In 2008, while I was still working more than full time (I had a full time job and a seasonal part time job), I went to the VA again-- perhaps I'd learned a little bit, finally-- because I'd realized that the problems I was having sounded a lot like PTSD and I figured that if anyone knew about helping veterans with PTSD, it had to be the VA. This wasn't just a blind assumption. All of the reading I was doing indicated that the VA had done a ton of new work to better deal with Vietnam veterans.

I was diagnosed with PTSD right away. It was no longer a surprise. Cognitive processing therapy was followed by mindfulness therapy, and during the time I had a girlfriend, PTSD therapy for couples.

Fast forward a bit to 2012. I had just completed the month long "transitions clinic", a program at the VA hospital for veterans in crisis. I wasn't doing well. I'd washed out of school for a year, lost my financial aid, and was in the process of being evicted from my apartment. I was at the VA twice a week that summer, once for "Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)" group, once for behavioral activation group. I was also in the process of realizing that no one near campus would rent to me with a pending eviction. This is when I first became homeless. It wasn't that complicated a process; once I got my stuff moved out and into a storage unit, I spent the night in my car. For the next few months.

Looking back on that summer, I knew I was going to become homeless. I've been going back to my blog posts from that time, remembering what I was thinking. I was on a lot of medication then-- literally, handfuls of pills. Uppers to keep me moving through the day, downers to get me through the night. I remember having a separate backpack in my car just for all of my pills. Reading my words from that summer and fall, I was in pretty rough shape, but I wasn't giving up. I was trying to get back into school, sleeping in the car or not.

Winter in Wisconsin, and my car finally dying, forced my hand. It was getting really, really cold at night sleeping in the car. My poor car wasn't handling it well, and often wouldn't start-- one of the things about living in your car is that your car has to be able to move. There was this thing called transitional housing through the VA, where I'd get an apartment and meals and a social worker to help me get back on my feet and back into a normal life. Sounded better to me than freezing to death outside a football stadium.

Very long story short-- VA transitional housing, at least the way Porchlight runs it, isn't designed to help veterans with PTSD get their lives on track. It's designed to put government money into Porchlight. I managed to get myself back into school, but the same semester I returned to school I was kicked out of transitional housing and back onto the street.

Stuck in the sand.

tl;dr It was bogus. But when the sherriff's deputy shows up at your door there's not much else you can do but GTFO.

I talked to the social work office at the VA Hospital. I talked to the Patient Advocate. I talked to my Senator's office. I talked to mental health. I talked to the Vet Center. No one offered any help. I wasn't "chronically homeless" so I wasn't eligible for HUD-VASH. I'd subletted a room in an apartment for the summer, which had the effect of making me ineligible for any assistance because I was no longer homeless.

The VA Community Programs person wrote in my VA medical records, after I'd complained to everyone I could find, that all I'd been after was free food and a free bed.

Somewhere in all of that, I did the VA's Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy for PTSD.  Last year there was a "booster support group" for veterans that had done the therapy. Turned out that the support group was run by a different intern every week. Also turned out that I was limited to only six sessions in a year. It also moved to a day of the week that I couldn't get there regularly, so I pretty much just said "fuck it."

Somewhere in all of that, I went back to the Vet Center for help getting life together as a formerly homeless veteran. I didn't find much help. The last thing my person there said was "well you're showing up for appointments and so I think you're doing fine and don't need to come here any more." So I said "fuck it" to the Vet Center too.

Somewhere in all of that, the VA put me on medication for diabetes that made me quite regularly throw up whenever I ate anything, then put me on more pills to counteract that-- which didn't work. It got to the point that I couldn't take any pills without throwing up.

I sought help from mental health, who assigned me an intern that "kept her own appointment book". Later, I read in several VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports that that's one way that VA clinics cook the books when it comes to wait times for appointments. Let's say you make an appointment directly with a provider at the VA. You both know you have that appointment a month from now. She doesn't enter it into the appointments system as a new appointment until the week before the date. So now the clinic is getting veterans in with a one week wait time. BAM.

I've never really had the chance to "recover" from being homeless. For a lot of the time I was on so many pills that I'd started referring to them as Skittles-- I took pills literally by the handful twice a day. I don't know what the long term effects of any of the pills are, and neither does the VA.

There wasn't such a thing as a blog then, so I don't have any notes to read, but I often look back on the years immediately after I came back from the Desert. I was medicated then, too-- I drank a lot, all the way up until late 2003 when my ex and I split up. Then it just really wasn't much fun any more.

I've been a part of a couple of veterans organizations for whom drinking is their reason for existing. Honor guard? March in the parade, go to the local post to drink, then drink on the bus all the way home. Meeting? Adjourn to the bar. Support your post! Spend money in the bar. Support the beer tent. Drink. I'll consider joining VFW or the American Legion again when either organization declares itself dry and out of the business of getting veterans drunk.

Social life? Romance? It was bad enough just being an adult student, a veteran, having PTSD, and anxiety and depression. Try explaining that you used to be homeless.

It has been a rough several years, fighting to stay here, fighting for my life to stay here and make it all work. Trusting people to help, who had only empty promises to offer. Thinking people were your friends when they really didn't give a shit one way or the other.

Watching as the same university you've been fighting to stay here to attend is chopped up into little pieces by your state government. Watching class sizes increase-- PTSD and 300-person lecture halls don't mix. Not being able to get into class sections with smaller sizes because they're full on the first day of registration.

The VA? They forgot you. PTSD, anxiety, depression, homelessness, and they haven't been in touch in over a year to see if you're even still alive. This is what it means to fall through the cracks.

I don't know what the future holds. I'm moving to California.

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