16 February 2017

Vet Center therapy, careers, dating, social anxiety

Like the past two posts, this one is a bit late in being posted. It was supposed to be split up into different posts, but even though it's a little disjointed at times I think it's better being mushed into one.

There's a lot here. I talk about individual and group therapy at the Vet Center, careers, dating, and social anxiety. All of this took a couple of cups of coffee to write, and well may need a couple of cups of coffee to read as well.

Today's Vet Center Appointment; Feb 3

Today was an anniversary-- one month since I'd first gone to the Vet Center to talk to someone. I'm going to talk (and perhaps rant) on that a little; my main reason for going there in January was that especially after Christmas I was having a lot of problems with PTSD (and anxiety, and depression). The goal then was to talk to someone, hopefully a veteran, who'd been there that would have some understanding of what I might be going through. My secondary goal was to get refered back into the medical/mental health side of the VA, hopefully without a lot of red tape (hah!).

Secondary goal is easy, Vet Center shrugged it off and said "not our problem". No help at all.

Main goal: it took three one hour appointments to get through the intake (!), which is a long form with lots of standard questions about me and my life and service and etc. All of the questions were looking for answers that I've already provided at one time or another, meaning they're in my records somewhere, but had to go through all of them again. I'm feeling frustrated by this, just as I am every time I get a new social worker or counselor or intern or whoever and have to tell my life story yet again. It's also a half hour drive each way, meaning I'm burning gas that I have to pay for because the VA isn't efficient enough to look at my records. (Which is approaching whining, I admit, but it still needs to be pointed out.) And, finally, the most important part is I'm not getting any actual help with PTSD. I'm just answering questions and telling my story.

It does feel, now, a lot like it felt in the months after ETS. Different place, different people, don't know much of anybody here, don't have a full time job, not altogether sure which direction to start walking towards.

I've had a number of interviews at Tech Companies Whose Names You Know, and a couple at companies whose names you don't know, and the result has been the same. There have been a couple that almost said outright that I'm too old. but most just mumble something about cultural fit or abruptly stop calling back altogether. In the same way that I've begun to accept that I'm probably not going back to being a college student any time soon, I'm probably not going to slide into a traditional corporate job either. So one goal is to look into resources for veterans who want to start up a business. Last of the freelance hackers, or something like that.

There was also a goal that social worker sort of created for me, that I'm supposed to look into local opportunities to do tech work for someone (even if it's just volunteer work). Meh. At one point I mentioned that I was having trouble evaluating American Legion and VFW posts online, because a lot of pots really don't have an online presence-- Social Worker's response was that that might be a source of something productive to do. Like I said, meh. You want a functional static web site, I can do that-- but there's no intellectual challenge in doing it. (I built my first static site for money in 1996.)

I'm also going to join a group therapy thing that meets every two weeks, where there's a moderator and the veterans get to talk about whatever. Now we're getting somewhere. I'll start going to that next week (which means it'll be a total of about five weeks to get from initial visit to actually talking about what's been bothering me. Ugh.)


I have a primary care intake appointment coming up as well; if the first thing they say is "do you have any health problems?" I'm probably going to scream, because that will mean that no one will have looked at my records and I'll have to answer a lot of the same questions I just answered. Yes, I'd like a referal to mental health. Batshit crazy PTSD. Second floor of the hospital, right? I'm approaching the idea of the mental health clinic here the same as I'm approaching the Vet Center-- tell me what you have to offer, and maybe it fits what I need right now and maybe it doesn't.

Bear in mind that is will, again, be an intake appointment, so I'm not sure how much actual "do things to make Opus healthy" stuff will happen. Since the appointment is next week, it'll be about six weeks to get to an actual medical or mental health thing.


I'm thinking out loud, probably going in circles.

I don't regret my decision to leave Wisconsin. I'd taken being there as far as I could (and perhaps even a little bit past that). Things were only going to get worse for me, had I stayed. It's not home if there's nothing there to go back to, so my recent depression hasn't been because I'm homesick.

Over the past two years, since I got off the streets and back into my own apartment, I did pretty much the same thing every day. Wake up at around 1400. Pace back and forth for a while, a couple of hours, doing the self talk thing trying to get focused. Clean up, get dressed, get out the door, walk to campus and try not to get hit crossing the street or on the bike path I walked on. Find something to eat before either going to work or finding a place to sit down and work on my own projects. Work on those projects, or work at work, until the building closed. Then either stay (hide) at work until almost dawn, and then go to the only place that's open all night for food, or go straight to that food place if I wasn't at work. Sometime immediately before daybreak, walk home and silently pray that I wouldn't encounter some weird scary drunk person, which almost always happened anyway.

Most of the time, other than the time I spent hacking or working, I was pretty miserable.

Still I miss having a place to go and a sense of purpose, even if that sense of purpose was mostly all in my head. It meant something that I worked at a help desk and was the most experienced person there, and it meant something that I was a software developer. I liked that I went to the computer science building to work. Getting there every day, even if it was just to work on my own stuff that no one else cared about, was a victory. I knew my time there was going to come to an end, and I had hope that all of the work I was putting in would be something that would get me to something better.

At my last Vet Center appointment, the last of the intake questions was setting up goals. What do you hope to accomplish with Readjustment Counseling? We talked for a while about having a Plan B, in case Plan A doesn't work out-- if Wisconsin was Plan A, I'm on Plan B now, so what is Plan B really? I'm struggling with the answer(s). Certainly I'm not happy with the way things are here and now. I'm anxious, depressed, often triggered. I planned for something, and somewhere, different. Where I am is actually a lot nicer and more comfortable than what I'd planned for, and I'm not sure if that makes it easier or more difficult.

What do I want to accomplish here? What do I want my life to be like?

Much of the past few years has been (or has felt like) struggling for survival. Every day a struggle, every day you live to see another day is a victory. I'm not struggling to that extent right now. I don't have much money, I can't afford to go out and do much, I have to be careful with what I spend even on essentials like groceries, but the basics of food/clothing/shelter are covered.

Shelter is probably the weakest link, because all it would take is one argument that ended in "GTFO" and I'd be living in my truck. I don't think that will happen, and I hope it won't, but it's a valid concern. I'm where I am because someone else was generous enough to let me stay here. I'm told I don't have to worry, but the thing about having been actually homeless is that you know it's possible. Up until the point when it happens, you can get by not believing that it will ever happen to you, but once it does you can't ignore that it's not impossible.

So I keep a $20 bill in my wallet, even though I never use cash, just in case my debit card doesn't work for some reason like my bank doesn't recognize where I am and puts on a security hold. I have a bug out fund, money that's set aside to get me moving again just in case I have to leave here. I have a strict rule that I won't have more material goods here than fit completely inside my truck, in case I need to GTFO on short notice. I keep a blanket and a pillow, and a jacket, in my truck in case I ever need them. I haven't worked out a set of possible places to go from here, places that I can get a cheap room to chill while I figure shit out, but I'm working on it. If need be, I can be packed up and out of here in a couple of hours. (Where I go from that point is anyone's guess, it's just that I don't ever want to go through all of the stuff I went through the first time I was evicted.)

One thing I'm supposed to do before my next Vet Center appointment is look into being self-employed, or starting my own shop. The interviews I've had with potential employers have gone pretty much the same way-- you're very technically capable, you have a lot of interesting experience, and let's see here... oh. You're old. Ok, bye. Based on my experience working in an open office at Wisconsin I'm probably not going to fit into someplace with an open office well, even with accommodations (and do I really want to go through that battle again). One alternative is working for myself.

A side note here: one of the neat tricks interviewers like to play, instead of asking how old you are (which it's illegal to ask) is asking when you graduated. Another equally neat trick is asking when you got out of the service. 

Short answer, that doesn't work. Long answer: Social Security sends me money every month because they consider me disabled. If I start up my own business, then I'm not disabled. The worry is that if I were to lose the benefits I have as a result of being disabled, and me being my own boss doesn't succeed enough for me to live on, then I a) don't have work income and b) don't have disability income either.

(It would be a ton different if I could convince the VA that my PTSD is service connected, because the compensation you get for that has different rules. You can still work, and in fact if you have a service connection and you own a buiness you get preference for things like federal contracts. For right now, that's not an option that affects anything; I've been fighting that battle for years now.)

Another goal that came out of last week's Vet Center appointment was finding local resources for things to do/get involved in. I've sort of been doing this on my own anyway, trying to Google recon Legion and VFW posts and such. I made the point that it's been difficult because posts often don't have much of an online presence. I'm a hacker. If your post doesn't have its own web page that says something about your post, I'm willing to bet that as a hacker there's not going to be much at your post to catch my attention. It's not even a generational thing any more, really, I've just had more than my fill of hearing "oh, you're a computer whiz". No, I'm a hacker. There's a difference. I don't expect that everyone at a given post will understand that, or even be into tech, but it's 2017 and a website that says something meaningful about your post just isn't that damn hard to come up with.

There was more discussion on this, things like finding ways to help other veterans-- there's certainly a need for peer support among veterans, but it felt a little odd to have that come from someone at a Vet Center. The first rule of First Aid (as I remember it) says that in trying to help someone else, don't turn the situation from one person needing help to two people needing help. Resilient though I may be, I'm not sure that right now I'm qualified. I might be wrong, maybe I'm more qualified than anyone because of all the shit I've been through, but right now I don't quite feel up to it.

It's also important to realize, and I'm not sure SW understands this, that "here" right now is *just another place*. I don't have a sense of home anywhere, except maybe the sub-world of airports and train stations and hotels and truck stops and rest areas. Where I'm from is just where I'm from, it's not a place where I have anything to go back to-- and here I'm a stranger until I'm not, and even then I'll always be a person that's from somewhere else. This isn't my first time living outside my home state.

A number of years ago, when I did social anxiety group therapy (this was way before I was diagnosed with PTSD), one of the ways I got out and did social things anyway was through Meetup. There was one group in particular that I did a lot of events with, things like going out to dinner and mini golf and all kinds of things, and overall it did me a lot of good. I even found a girlfriend through Meetup, a relationship that lasted about two years (until I started really having serious problems with PTSD and found myself dumped). Another group I was involved in for a while was an outdoors group, made up of people who were way higher speed than I was. These were people who scoffed when I said I bought stuff from REI, because it wasn't serious enough gear. That's a longer story, but it bears mentioning. Finally, there were a lot of other events that I attended that were just events, just things to do. They got me out of my apartment, if nothing else. Once I was back in school, I didn't really have time to do Meetups, and most of the people I'd sort of met also just sort of faded from view.

I could go that route here. There's certainly no shortage of Meetup groups around Atlanta metro. Most of them, getting involved really only requires joining the group and RSVPing that you're going to be at a particular event. It usually takes checking out a few different groups to find one that fits, but there's probably at least one that does, so there's a lot to gain and not a whole lot to lose.

Before all of this PTSD shit happened, before I was in school then out of school, before I was homeless, etc., when I met new people all I had to say was that I was divorced and working at shitty company A. That put me on pretty equal footing with most people. That I was a veteran really didn't come up in most conversations, and so it really didn't matter that much. It didn't even come up that I was in therapy for social anxiety.

Life's become more than a little more complicated. Now, I'm a veteran with a disability. I live here for now because I'm here helping family but I don't have a job. I'm from somewhere else, so I don't know the inside jokes that everyone knows who's lived in a place for a long time. I don't know and don't care about your sports teams. That's all before I get to the part about (social) anxiety, depression, PTSD, and just in general being something of an introvert anyway. Who might not be here in six months.

Yeah, just the kind of person you're looking for, I know. Kinda defeatist, right?

The answer (or the challenge) to that is, "you don't have to tell anyone all of that", and that's true to a certain extent-- wearing all of that on one's sleeve is the same as keeping one's shields up to make damn sure no one can hurt you. I've spent a lot of time pretending, hiding in plain sight, looking like I belonged wherever I was. It was out of necessity, being homeless you learn things like how to blend in because the alternative-- that someone finds out you're homeless and don't belong there-- is that at minimum you're humiliatingly escorted out, at maximum you're arrested.

I've had enough of hiding.


So, group (therapy at Vet Center). I'm not going to get into great detail about the people of the group-- it's one thing for me to talk about what's in my head, but it's another to talk here about what other veterans say. Nunya. I do think it's important to talk about the mechanics of the group, in case someone's wondering what a group therapy thing at a Vet Center is like.

Most of us are there early, so we're waiting in the waiting room outside the Door. There aren't that many places to sit; one of the few pieces of furniture is a couch, which forces people to sit together on the couch. The TV is on, for no apparent reason. I wonder if some interior design person thought it would be a good idea to try to make the waiting area look like a living room to make it more "comfortable", and I decide that they failed miserably. The coffee pot sits alone on a counter, unused; there's no one inside the Desk, so I didn't check in, but at this point I've given up on ever being offered coffee.

SW1, the same person I've been talking to, opens the Door and beckons. Handshakes are not offered, but I've given up on ever being offered one of those, too. We follow into the Back, where there is a Conference Room. In the Room, there is a circle of chairs. We all sit down, predictably filling all of (and only) the chairs that face the door. I point that out, which produces some nervous chuckles. There's a white board with a one word theme for the session. There's another moderator here, SW2.

Standard procedure, a handout with the purpose, goals, and guidelines for the group. We go over that. SW1 and SW2 introduce themselves, then we go around and each introduce ourselves. It's cordial, all of the participants are veterans after all; I get shit about being the lone Air Force flyboy. I give it back. Discussion is friendly, but guarded-- I've been in enough therapy groups now that this is ok, I'm with my people now, but not everyone has. For some this is their first group therapy thing, and they're a little nervous. (I am too, truth be told, but I have practice both hiding it and seeing it.)

We find things in common pretty quickly; we're all brothers and sisters here. It's a friendly (without being sprinkles and rainbows and bullshit) atmosphere. No one's arguing or pushing in any particular direction-- my feeling is that we're sort of feeling each other out, and getting used to this group therapy thing. I'm convinced that I'm at least as much of a basket case as anyone, but the point of the group is to help show that we're not alone in what we're feeling and dealing with. As far as that goes, we don't get much into specifics. Even among (and perhaps *especially* among) veterans, it takes a little to get to the point where you can really admit what's going on inside your head to someone else.

As I've felt and thought in other groups, I wonder if it might be better to close the door and leave all of us there to talk amongst ourselves for a while instead of trying to make it a guided group. A SW as a moderator is something of an authority figure, and that's sometimes a limiting figure. It can be hard to be completely honest if you feel like someone's taking notes to ask you about what you said later.

Afterwards, a few of us cluster outside by our cars chatting for a few minutes. Again, nunya, but it was friendly. Not everyone wants to stick around and talk. People have other places, jobs, families, school, etc.

I see, in each of the other veterans in the group, a little of myself. I also see bits and pieces of the people I worked and served with. I'm not sure what the others in the group think of me as a person, and to some extent I don't care (which sounds horrible but isn't meant that way), but respect and trust are important. I want to be able to be honest about things in the group, to be able to share stuff that will help me (by talking about it) and them (by sharing something helpful that helps someone else sort shit out).

If you've been reading for any length of time/number of posts, you've no doubt noticed that I carry around a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment-- most of it directed at the VA. Someone has to say something. If I'm having all of the trouble I'm having, not just recently but over the past several years, there are others having the same problems getting help. If *I* were elected president, the first executive order I'd issue would be one that said that any VA employee that shrugged their shoulders and muttered "well that's just the VA for ya" would be immediately terminated. Let a veteran fall through the cracks? Same thing. GTFO. Before being confirmed as Secretary, a person would be given a DD214 and be required to get themselves enrolled in VA health care, using just the resources we're given. Maybe then someone would understand.

See? Anger and disappointment.

These negative emotions overflow past the VA and become a lens that I'm using to look at the world. Tech. College, the University of Wisconsin specifically, but school in general. People. The Country. Whatever. I've been punched enough times in the gut that it doesn't matter who's throwing the punches, I just don't want to take another one. Anger and disappointment, being the grumpiest veteran in the room, is a way to let people know-- whoever they are, it doesn't matter-- to think twice before trying to be that next punch.

It takes a lot of energy to keep those shields up though, and there are those times lately when I wonder just how to let the shields down a little and take a few breaths. Going to the Vet Center here was the first step-- it was either that or pack up the truck and drive somewhere, anywhere, but running isn't a solution. I've been lots of places, on both coasts and in the middle, and no matter the place when I close my eyes I still see the Desert. So if *that* isn't going to change, something *else* has to change, or nothing that's really important can change.

Make sense? Nah, didn't think so. :)

I've actually had scattered moments, over the past couple of weeks or so, when the fog clears for a little while and I can sort of concentrate on what I'm trying to do. I make small progress, win small victories like getting ntp working right so all of the computers in my lab have accurately synced clocks or making changes to some of the small scripts I've written but not looked at for quite a while-- the same kinds of things I've done when I've felt like this before. I'll look at an app, or a web site, and find something wrong with it-- and know that I can do it better. Sometimes, most times lately, those positive moments are just that. Moments. It's frustrating. It's there, and then it's not.

This week I finally have my primary care intake appointment, during which I can ask for (and I should get without incident) a referral to the mental health clinic. I don't know what they'll specifically have to offer other than another (!) intake appointment but it's worth checking out. I'm going to note for the umpteenth time that since Jan 3 when I started this whole process, I've yet to discuss my PTSD directly (or at all) with anyone. Hopefully talking directly to mental health will change that.

I'm going to stick with the individual readjustment counseling, and the group, at the Vet Center for now. If nothing else it gives me something to go and do once a week that's at least a step in the right direction (or at the very least, it's me getting up and out of the house).

Update: I'm done with the Vet Center. Reasons here.

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