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08 June 2017

Trippin' on pills

I've been spending a lot of time reading my own writing. I never had any concrete goals when I decided to start writing this blog, it's just that I'd looked for information on how to handle college as a person with PTSD and hadn't found much. Maybe I could, by recording my experiences, add something to what little discussion there was. As time went on, this blog became a place to vent and a diary, and often both. It still is those things. Most of my posts here aren't prepared ahead of time, I get an idea (or two or three) for some period of time, which is often pretty short, and then I start typing.

My first entry here was on 7 December 2008. I was still a part time student at Madison Area Technical College, juggling classes with a full time job I hated and a part time job on the same university campus (UW-Madison) that I hoped to someday graduate from. PTSD has me in pretty rough shape lately, but it had me in pretty rough shape back in 2008 too. When I sit here and chronologically follow my posts from then until now, I realize just how much and for how long I've been fighting to keep my head above water.

PTSD and I go back much farther than 2008, for the record, but that's when it was actually diagnosed and that's when I started writing blog posts about my problems with it.

If I were required to write the closing chapter of this story right now, the chapter would be a narrative of how I had done my best to overcome trauma, a disability, failure, and a bunch of other things while in the end failing to do so. The last sentences would not end with a glowing description of my graduation ceremony, there would be no final page consisting of a picture of me in cap and gown holding my degree (which is what I'd ultimately planned for my final blog entry). The final page, if I had to write it today, would simply be blank. The book would end, without a moral to the story or even a punchline.

I washed out of UW-Madison in spring 2011; yes, I returned to UW-Madison for one semester in spring 2014, but the time between, during, and after that actual last semester was entirely dependent on spring 2011. It would not have been an outrageous thing for me to have tried to kill myself after I lost my appeal, and was told that I'd have to take at least one semester off. I have met students at UW-Madison who had done exactly that, in some cases making more than one attempt, because the grades they were getting didn't meet what other people expected. I decided, instead, to stay and fight my way back. No way was I going to let this PTSD shit beat me. No way was I going to take "the easy way out".

In fall 2010, I was in my second semester at UW-Madison. The first, that spring, had been a train wreck. I spent most of the summer working, but I also spent a large amount of time looking at what had gone wrong and trying to come up with answers. I made some pretty major changes; I moved into an apartment that was nearly on campus, eliminating a nerve wracking hour long bus commute back and forth every day. I talked to the campus disability resource center and got set up with a Livescribe smartpen to take better notes in class. I did a lot towards planning to study more effectively. I retook two of the classes that I'd failed in spring.

Even with all of that, I was still struggling; so in mid-October 2010 I called and made a mental health appointment at the VA. From https://stillinthedesert.blogspot.com/2010/10/choosing-medication-as-treatment-option.html:
And right now, the writing in journals and making flash cards and working through cognitive therapy worksheets isn't getting it done.  So on Tuesday when I'm at the VA hospital, my doc and I are going to discuss medication as a part of my treatment plan.
I believed then that I was pretty close to figuring it all out, that all of the therapy so far and all of the research I'd done on how to be a better student added up to something that was close to a solution that would see me through the rest of college. Maybe, I thought, if I could just get over this last bit of trouble I'm having, then everything would be cool. If I could concentrate a little better, that would be enough. My own research suggested either sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil) as options for medication; the choice turned out to be sertraline.

I passed all of classes except one (and that was a pass/no credit class so it doesn't count), putting up a 2.6 GPA. Not stellar by any means, but a long way away from failing everything.

By January the amount of sertraline I was taking had been increased, and both trazodone (Oleptro) and bupropion (Wellbutrin) were added to my prescription list.

By February and the first set of midterm exams, I was already in trouble, already behind in my classes. I was able to get help with testing accommodations, but I never did get caught up. That semester, spring 2011, was another train wreck. After that semester is when I'd officially washed out, and UW-Madison required me to take a year off.

In fall 2009, I was working the same two jobs and taking essentially the same class load and did all right. In fall 2010, I was also working the same two jobs and taking essentially the same class load and did all right. Neither of those semesters were at all easy, but I didn't fail my classes.

If I told you that I'd failed out of school because I was drinking too much, or smoking pot too much, or using too many illegal drugs, you might be inclined to say that these were likely reasons to wash out. Bad results are almost expected from people who do these things. How many people go to UW-Madison for one or two semesters, get into the binge drinking and party atmosphere, zorch their classes, and then end up having to transfer somewhere else? You never see these students, but there's a whole office of academic deans and support staff that work full time to handle processing them out.

From https://stillinthedesert.blogspot.com/2010/12/finding-track-of-time.html, in early December 2010:
I am having a great deal of trouble with time and sleep management since starting on the meds.  The past few days, I've had so much of an issue that I've been questioning the increased dosage-- was this really a good idea?  I'm having more trouble now, not less.  WTF?  
Correlation does not equal causation. I know. I don't have any science to show you that says that the psych meds I was on are the direct cause of my problems in classes in spring 2011. There were other forces at work in my life in the first few months of 2011. I had a new girlfriend who I'd break up with a few months later. I was still working two jobs. My classes, mostly math, weren't easy classes. 2011 was also the 20th anniversary of Desert Storm. Could there be unaccounted for factors? Of course. Maybe I was eating too much pizza, or drinking too much coffee, or listening to the wrong kind of music.

I will say that based on what I wrote, which is a pretty unfiltered recording of what I was thinking at feeling at the time, my life started taking a serious turn for the worse at the same time as my medication doses were being increased and the number of different medications I was on was being increased. That I was able to get at least something accomplished-- passing all of my classes in fall 2010-- may well have been due in part to positive effects from the initial dose of (only) sertraline that I was taking.

It's strange now to read my own blog entries where I'd say that yes I was feeling ok about this or that, and read how brave and noble I felt in staying in Madison and vowing to return to UW-Madison. I look at my MyHealtheVet records from the mental health appointments I had then, and I was often recorded as saying that yeah, things weren't always going well but I was optimistic. Of course I was optimistic, I couldn't feel anything else.

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