It's taken me a while to work up to doing so, but I managed to decide to try visiting a Vet Center here and talking to someone about getting hooked back up with primary care and about what kinds of readjustment counseling they might have that might help me sort things out. My past experience with the VA, both hospital and Vet Center, is the reason I've not been to either for quite a while.
What follows next in this post is a timeline of my initial attempt(s) to get into primary care, and to get into some sort of readjustment counseling. I'm not feeling well, the last few months have really worn me down, and I'd like to try to get moving in a positive direction again.
Tuesday, Jan 3
Drove to the closest Vet Center, which is close to Atlanta GA. Since I officially live in Wisconsin, that's where I'd optimally go-- but I'm with family here in Georgia for the time being. My assumption is that the VA being a federal agency, going to a Vet Center in a different state shouldn't be an issue.
I don't call ahead; normally this would be a logical thing to do, but it's been my experience that standing in front of someone makes it harder for them to ignore you. People can't forget to call you back when you're in their office. It's also more of a personal commitment for me, since I have to schedule a time to go and I have to go through the motions of getting up, getting cleaned up and dressed, and getting on the road to actually get there. I can avoid calling. It's harder to avoid the promise I made to myself to go there in person. An additional reason for going there in person is that I'd really kinda like to sit down with someone and talk, even if it's just for a short initial meeting.
When I arrive around 1530, I talk to the person at the front desk and explain that I'm visiting, but that I am a combat veteran and I'm interested in talking to someone about readjustment counseling and getting help connecting with other VA services (mainly the hospital). Front Desk explains that no one's available at the moment-- there is someone but they're in session until 1600 or so-- and they offer to have someone call me back. I ask if I can wait, and Front Desk says okay.
There is a coffee maker, but no coffee ready. Front Desk mentions that there's a coffee maker, and that there's probably no coffee, but doesn't offer to make any.
Around 1630, Guy From In Back (GFIB) comes out since the session he was conducting is done. Front Desk explains my situation in a whisper, with significant nods to where I'm sitting, and after a minute or so of that, GFIB comes over to me. We shake hands. I explain again that one reason I'm there is reconnecting with VA healthcare, to which GFIB (rather defensively) says that that's not something they do here. I think on my feet and continue to say that I'm looking for readjustment counseling as well, which is apparently the right thing to say.
GFIB hands me a brochure explaining what a Vet Center is, a monthly calendar of when the Vet Center's groups meet, and a flyer for a chili cook-off. He also gets a clipboard and pen from Front Desk, which has several forms. One is a contact information form; name, address, which war were you in, etc. One is a patient conduct/patient rights form to sign. One is a VA patient information release form "so they can get my records sent down". The last is a mental health questionnaire that I've seen a hundred times.
The first two I more or less expected. I'm down with HIPAA so I'm willing to assume that I'm at a different facility and there needs to be authorization from me for them to access my records. (There shouldn't normally be someone from a state you don't live in accessing your health care information.)
The last (the mental health questionnaire) I expected too; it's one of those where you put a clear or colored plastic overlay over the answer sheet to determine one or more index scores (or whatever they call them). I answer honestly, knowing that when someone scores the sheet they'll recognize that I have some mental health issues that need to be addressed.
GFIB assures me that someone will call tomorrow. Once the paperwork's filled out, I hand the clipboard, papers, and pen back to Front Desk. That being that, I then leave to face Metro Atlanta traffic.
Wednesday January 4
0800ish: Vet Center calls. The call goes to voicemail, as I'm a night owl (and a hacker) and I'm still asleep.
1600ish: Vet Center calls again. I've been busy most of the day dealing with some stuff at the house, but I was about to call back when they called. So I call, and an appointment is set up for Friday January 6.
Friday January 6
There's a snowstorm forecast for Metro Atlanta, which may include rain, sleet, ice, freezing rain, snow, or a combination of all of the above. Metro Atlanta is wisely shutting down, and so around 1030 when I'm reaching for the phone to call the Vet Center and cancel, they call and cancel (actually they get my voice mail) because they're closing at noon. I'm not sure how much emphasis they intend, but they do make it a point to say that I should call back on Monday to reschedule.
Monday January 9
I call the Vet Center back to reschedule. The next available appointment is on Tuesday January 17th.
If you're keeping score at home, that's two weeks after my initial visit; and even though they canceled the appointment last Friday, it was on me to reschedule.
If things go the way they went the last time I was first in touch with a Vet Center, the first appointment will be taken up with telling me about what the Vet Center does and what services they offer. I'll probably need to tell my story for the millionth time. Then I'll be assigned someone else, and either I'll get another "we'll call you" or hopefully have an appointment set up with whoever someone else is. That will be followed by another week or so, since someone else's calendar is probably already booked. So I'm looking at two to three weeks to get an appointment with a real person that might be able to offer some help.
At no point thus far has anyone asked me how I'm doing or how I'm feeling; the closest has been the standard form mental health questionnaire I filled out, but I'd bet money no one has sat down and scored it yet. I'm not a mental health professional, but I've been a mental health patient for long enough to know which questions/answers are supposed to make someone sit up and take notice. (Considering the issues that made me go to the Vet Center in the first place, someone should be sitting up and taking notice.)
Two things need to be said at this point.
- I'm not a danger to myself. I have had no thoughts of harming myself.
- I'm not a danger to anyone else. I have had no thoughts of harming anyone else.
I know what triage is. When someone appears at your emergency room you look at what's wrong and how severe the problem is. How stable are they? Did they walk in or did they crawl on their elbows? Are they bandaged up already, or are they bleeding on the floor? Who needs a doctor/surgeon now, and who can wait? So I can sort of understand that when someone walks into a Vet Center and is polite and quiet and doesn't appear to be carrying automatic weapons, you don't jump to conclusions and immediately assign a status of Crazy Ass Desert Storm Veteran(tm) to the guy. I'd probably be at least a little offended if they did.
On the other hand, if someone drives 45 miles to your Vet Center (or whatever facility) and says he/she is a veteran that needs to talk to someone, and indicates via a standard mental health questionnaire that they need to talk to someone, they should be able to sit down and talk to someone right then and there. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now.
It is a very difficult thing for a veteran to walk into a Vet Center, or a VA hospital, or anywhere else, and say "I'm here because I need help."
Why doesn't the VA understand that?
I'm this close to telling the Vet Center to fuck off, but I do still feel like I need to talk to someone. That no one from the Vet Center has asked if I need immediate assistance with anything says a lot-- no one has suggested the crisis line, or the VA hospital. It's just "okay, see you next week", like we're going to meet for lunch at Mickey D's. I want to feel better, so I'm going to stick it out and see what (if anything) they have to offer.
As far as VA healthcare, I'm resigned to having to go to the VA hospital on my own and try to get a primary care appointment at either the hospital or one of the satellite clinics. I'll take my VA member ID card, and my DD214, and start at enrollment/the emergency room and try to make progress from there.
I have War and Peace on my tablet; that should provide enough reading material for the amount of time I'm likely to have to wait.
If I can't get seen in/near Atlanta, I'll make an appointment in Madison WI and go to that. When they have me fill out the travel pay paperwork I'll write "1900 mi." in the appropriate box. Maybe that will wake someone up.