I know I haven't blogged in a while. I haven't kept up on a lot of the things that I need to be. I have been feeling really burned out and have been struggling in a lot of ways that have not been easy on me or my family. This is really raw and emotional for me, so bear with me...
I have been working in a high tempo, high stress, retail environment for four years now. When I first started working there, I was a rising star. It took two years for me to implode and end up on short-term disability. When my daughter had been born a few months before I went out on disability, it sent me into a tailspin. I obsessed about being a supernatural provider and withdrew emotionally at home, cutting off my wife and daughter from love and companionship. Thus, I went out on disability.
When I returned to work after fighting through my PTSD and learning to cope, I swore that I would always be prescient at home from now on. My goal was come home from work with the energy and emotional awareness to be a good father and attentive husband. What ended up happening is that my reliability at work and my availability suffered greatly. It was made clear by my employer that they needed a level of reliability that I have not been providing over the past few months.
This raised my stress level at work, making work a 'non-permissive' environment - a place where I was at risk of losing my job or benefits or both if I couldn't sort this out. It made me realize, regress my performance to a mean over time and it is readily apparent that retail work is grinding me down and taking a long-term cumulative toll on my performance at work. That toll has sped up since I swore to always put my family first.
So now I have some hard decisions to make. The only work I find fulfilling is being of service to others. I have to balance what is best for me long-term with the welfare of my family. It's not a fun place to be, but one I am confident I will work through.
I know I haven't been active recently in the community I created. I know I haven't blogged as much. For that I am sorry. I needed to set myself in motion and resolve this issue with employment. Now that I have the short-term leeway to figure it out while ensuring the welfare of my family is giving me the time and space I need to figure all of this out.
I want to thank all of those people who have reached out to me via email to express concern over not hearing from me and from my readers who reached out to ask how I was doing. I truly value your compassion and understanding!
I seriously need to get out of retail. I used to love the holiday season. Getting together with family, good food, football, food comas...What's not to like? That has slowly changed over the last few years. Now I just want the holiday season to be over.
You wonder why? Let me break it down for you:
- Greed: The holidays are now all about 'Black Friday Deals' and stores trying to lure you in to spend money you don't have. Every year, you hear about people getting trampled when the doors open for Black Friday. People get mugged, robbed. People become violent when someone else takes the last 'Tickle-Me Elmo'. All the while, the companies are laughing their way to the bank. If their toy is the top toy, they makes bundles. If someone gets hurt trying to get a limited edition toy, the companies cheer - it just means demand is so high that it outweighs supply. They STILL make bundles. Now, they are doing their damnedest to lure you out of your home on Thanksgiving.
- It's About Sales, Not Family: When was the last time you remember someone saying they ate breakfast with their family on Christmas morning - and then opened presents. Families don't get together anymore. What makes it worse for me working in retail is that the odds are good I will be working on Thanksgiving...And Christmas Eve...And New Year's Eve...And New Years...All in the name of making money. I mean for crying out loud, it's not even the end of October and everyone is selling Christmas decorations. Seriously?!?
- It's the Angriest and Most Stressful Time of the Year: Working in retail, I get to see the ugliest behavior that customers have to offer every day for almost two months. Everyone is so stressed about getting everything they need for their parties. They get pissed when they are shopping at 9PM the night before Thanksgiving and we have the audacity to run out of whole berry cranberry relish. Then Christmas season hits and everyone is tired, angry and stressed - then they come shopping and take it out on retail workers everywhere. Have you heard the expression 'Shit Rolls Downhill'? Well, when managers get their asses handed to them by an enraged customer...the shit never stops rolling.
- Add PTSD to the Mix and What Do You Have?: Anger, Stress, Extreme Anxiety, Insomnia, Nightmares, Hypervigilance, Intrusive Recollections, Angry Spouses, Angry Parents, Depression. A veritable picnic - an emotional shitstorm of epic proportions.
That's what I have to face every year. I fight really hard to keep an even keel and to be there for my family and this is what I have to look forward to.
I need a vacation.
Today was one of those days. I woke up tired and angry. I was a little bit nervous about going to work because I didn't feel in particular control. I went anyways. Not even two hours into my shift someone did something that really triggered me (disrespect will do that). Next thing I know, I am shaking from the adrenalin and fighting off some extreme anger. My only saving grace was that I was responsible for tasks that left me to my own devices and allowed me to essentially ignore everyone. I made it over six hours before my anger finally made it too exhausting and stressful to stay at work.
I just couldn't figure out what the hell caused me to wake up that angry. Nothing seemed to make any sense. After I got home, I got changed and went to the gym. I did cardio until I couldn't sweat anymore. It cleared my head a bit but I still couldn't figure out what the hell had set me into that pattern of barely concealed and controlled anger. I hadn't been there in quite a while.
And then it hit me.
I only seem to get that angry when I feel particularly out of control of something - the spectre of TBI hanging over my head fits the bill nicely. Now I just need to figure out what in the hell to do about it. I am going to have to change some things in my lifestyle to help compensate for this. I have no resolution to the TBI issue in the near future but the workout helped a lot. Time to get serious about putting my life in order. Adequate sleep, exercise to burn off the adrenalin, anything I can do to stay stable and prescient for my family.
Guess we'll see how it goes...
Recently, I have noticed an uptick in the severity of my PTSD symptoms and my coinciding depression. It's starting to make me worry a little bit that not having a functional group to attend is slowly eroding my ability to cope and adversely affecting the effectiveness of my coping mechanisms. Or...It could be just a temporary uptick because of the uncertainty surrounding my upcoming TBI evaluation. Either way, it's decidedly annoying and not something I am handling well.
What to do? I am going to have an individual therapy session this week and I plan on talking to my therapist about my concerns and my frustrations with not having a group to attend. My PTSD is fighting to get through - the anger, the depression, the nightmares, and the insomnia. I also have been dealing with a higher than usual level of hypervigilance. Most nights I toss and turn so badly that I end up sleeping in my recliner, uncertain as to why I don't feel safe - I just don't.
What's even more frustrating is that there is a very clear dichotomy in my life. Everything is going so well with my non-profit and my plans for it. The more I work at it, the more I feel fulfilled and stable. When I have days where I don't have time to work on it, I feel a hair's-breadth from snapping at people. Today would be a prime example. I had to go to work early and I have not been able to do anything for my non-profit. I knew I wasn't going to have the time when I woke up this morning and it made it exceedingly difficult to deal with people at work. I am not even certain what ticked me off so much - they just did.
So, time to hold it together and hope I can figure this out. I only have ten more days to go until my TBI eval, so we'll see how it goes. I guess we'll see if I can hold myself together until them Fingers crossed.
This past Wednesday, I had my weekly meeting with my individual therapist and she expressed some concern about how black and white I was. She didn't express concern with the way I was black and white in the fiasco that was my last group session. She asked me if I was this black and white about most things in life in general. I said I was. She asked me if that bothered me and I said that it didn't really. Then she went on to give me scenarios: work, social gatherings, making friends, working with others in my non-profit. What happens in those situations when someone violates some aspect of my code?
My response? I rationalized it all away. The upsetting part is that I didn't realize that's what I had done until after the fact. It hit me later that night and ran me over like a train when I had time to think through it more fully. The inability to see and accept shades of grey is what has held me back at work and from making friends.
At Work: I voluntarily stepped down from a management position because I was too stressed out all of the time and was having difficulty handling my anger when people did little thinks that would trigger the massive overreaction that would ensue. Most of the time, I didn't show the overreaction and that's what made me so stressed and so exhausted all of the time. Up until this moment, I didn't realize that it wasn't the job that was stressing me out - I was my PTSD getting triggered. How about them apples?
Friendship: I haven't been able to make any friends for a while. Every time I make one, they do something that violates some minor aspect of my 'code' and I refuse to bend because 'I don't operate that way'. I have alienated almost all of the people I considered friends not solely because of what they did, but also because they violated my personal code which I have been treating as inviolable. The end result? I write them off and cease all contact because 'I don't need their shit'.
The End Result: Through unwitting actions I have taken, I have succeeded in halting my career progression and alleviated myself of friendships that should have been long-standing ones. Way to go me. The worst part is what it has done to my self-esteem and estimation of my self-worth. I feel like a pariah. I don't like the person I see in the mirror. I feel worthless.
The Solution?: Hell if I know, but at least I have made that realization and have somewhere to start from and something to work on. If this is what many of us go through in professional settings and in friendships, no wonder we have a tendency to live very isolated lives. Well, at least I know what I am going to be working on with my therapist over the coming weeks and months. I can't let this stand. Having success in starting my non-profit has only made me realize that I need more than an hourly wage at work. I need to live up to my level or experience and knowledge and work to put myself in a position to affect real progress in my professional life. Having started the non-profit also made me realize that, other than my wife and my parents, I have no one to share my passion with - no one to celebrate with. I'm tired of feeling lonely. Maybe it's time I go find a wading pool...
I am so frustrated, encouraged, worried, angry, disillusioned and exhausted all at the same time. This past week and a half has been ridiculous. Every time I would be ready to sit down after thinking through things that have transpired, something else would happen and I would delay the blog post and process the new insight. Well, I can't hold this in anymore, so I am going to break this down by associated emotion.Frustrated:
I just found out today that in the span of a year I went from perfect reading on my blood screenings to being pre-diabetic and borderline high cholesterol. I feel like no matter what I do to better take care of my physical health that the PTSD is slowly killing me and it frustrates the hell out of me. What do I have to do to get these train wreck of health problem after health problem under control? Live like a monk? Deny myself all pleasures? Develop workout anorexia? Starve? GAH! I want to throw things in frustration but the inanimate objects don't deserve that kind of abuse.Worried, Exhausted:
My daughter is seriously sick for the first time. Bronchitis and bronchiolitis. She woke up Friday night crying and coughing, post-nasal drip, and a fever. I didn't sleep from Friday night until Monday night when her fever finally broke. With already being on heightened alert after the bombings in Boston, I started thinking that something was seriously wrong with my daughter's health. I was the youngest and never was around sick kids so I had no idea that this kind of sick was normal. I never really got sick. I remember having the pukes once as a kid and mild fevers a few times, but that's it. I never got strep, maybe bronchitis once, chicken pox was only three or four spots and a fever. I had no idea it could be this bad and not be life-threatening. I was relieved Monday night and was looking forward to catching up on some sleep on Tuesday. The cough was resurgent Tuesday night. My daughter didn't pass out until after 5AM Wednesday morning and didn't sleep at school either. Needless to say, I'm worn a little thin right now.Angry, Disillusioned:
I went to group today, looking forward to talking with them about stuff. Very shortly into group, the new therapist told me I could not blog about what I learned in group anymore. I got very angry as blogging about what I learn is at the core of my ability to cope. I explained to her that I have never once violated anyone's privacy and only bring up things that I learn and have worked through as a result of going to group. I told her that I had received express consent from the group members before I blogged about it. My previous group doc had signed off on it and over the course of the past year, it has become an integral part of my therapeutic process. She still refused even after directly asking the members of the group who all said they were fine with it. When I stated if no-one has a problem with it...
She raised her hand straight above her head and said she had a problem with it. That behavior, in and of itself, was exceptionally unprofessional. I got really angry and told her that I would no longer be part of her group. She professed to not understanding why it had to be that black and white for me. New flash, moron. Everything is black and white with veterans with PTSD. The fact that she didn't know that, combined with her extremely confrontational attitude illustrated to me that the 'new hires' at the VA are 'warm bodies'. I continue to wonder if she got her degree out of a cracker jack box. It took me eight years to try group therapy again after my first horrible experience. What I have come to recognize is that aside from Doctor Casagrande, I have never had a client/doctor relationship at the VA that I felt was constructive. When I talked about it with my father tonight over dinner, he made an incredibly astute observation: "She doesn't care about the welfare or privacy of the veterans in the group. She doesn't want to see herself critiqued online."
Wow. Boy did that hit home. Her refusal was all about her ego.Encouraged:
I got the money into my account from the crowdfunding and started the ball rolling. I also got all four of my first choice board members and they are a perfect fit to effectively govern the non-profit. I have started the process of incorporating and have gotten the landing pages for the websites up and running and am incredibly proud of the landing page for Support No Stigma.
I still can't believe I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by such good people in my life. Honestly, I think that the love for my family and the good works I do on here and now in forming my non-profit are the only things that have kept me from institutionalization. Especially over this past week.
So there you have it. What a ride, huh? It's all about the timing. Individually, any one of these issues would have been manageable. The fact that timing crammed them all together in a seven day span almost put me under. All I know is I am relieved and grateful that I am still here. A year ago, things would have played out very differently.
OK, so what's the deal? This week started off with me being a huge bundle of anger and anxiety. I was anxious about my psoriasis, work, my fundraiser. My anger was resurgent, causing me to have to use a lot of energy to keep it in check. My psoriasis was so bad that I had to be removed from handling food. My fundraiser was only half way to the minimum I needed and there were only seven days left.
Things were so off course that I couldn't remember to do even the little things that had become habit over the course of the previous months (washing dishes, drying the shower, folding my laundry). I caught myself thinking on Tuesday. If this is the reward I get for trying, why should I bother? I was as disheartened by my situation as I can remember being, compounded by the fact that I was seriously working to turn the corner.
Then I got REALLY angry. I mean blind rage, hatred filled, anger. Who was it directed at? Myself. It was like the part of me that has kept me going all this time had seen and heard enough. The thoughts that went through my head weren't pretty but they sure as hell snapped me out of it. I was able to channel that anger and regain my motivation, albeit with a little bit of a darker edge.
Then Wednesday came.
My fundraiser had a banner day and it now sits at $700 over the minimum I needed to start my non-profit. My psoriasis flare-up receded back to it's normal levels in the span of 12 hours, without explanation.
And Then Thursday:
The dermatologist decided to put me on Enbrel. I start this coming week. I initially expressed concern about how the injections would compromise my immune system but he told me that it suppresses the immune system in a targeted way that can leave people open to increased risk for infection, but if you don't have a history of chronic infections, it shouldn't be an issue. I thought about it and about all of the people I know who have seen dramatic results. Hey no harm no foul, right? Might as well and see what happens. If it doesn't work as advertised, I just cycle off of it, no harm done. The kicker: this ridiculously expensive regimen won't cost me a cent because my psoriasis didn't manifest until after starting military service and tearing up my knees and elbows in basic. Since it is service-connected, it's covered.
So here I sit. I talked to work and they said I was good to return to my old job and they recommended working with my area manager to create a contingency for future flare-ups. Again, going out of their way to accommodate my service-connected disabilities. And I'm still angry.
What. The. Hell.
Granted I recognize that my anger actually served a purpose this week and pushed me through a difficult spell, but I'm good now. Can it please go the fuck away? It is exhausting and I don't have time to be a zombified husband and father. If anyone has any ideas, I'm all ears.
When the week started, I thought it was going to be a good week. Overall, it was. I went to the gym a few times and started getting myself used to the feeling, did cardio on the nice weather days toward the end of the week.
Wee little problem: The more active I became, the more my anger flared back to life.
Needless to say, this worries me greatly. I didn't read about that in the small print when I signed on to get myself back into shape and improve my overall health. It just doesn't make any sense. The harder I worked out, the stronger the anger became. I am wondering if that was one of the underlying reasons I was putting off getting back into shape. It really makes me curious if I knew, on some level, that the exercise and weight training was going to bring back certain things that I wanted to leave behind.
I guess it's time to work through it. I am going to the gym a little later today and I am going to push myself to physical exhaustion to see if I can find an end to the anger or if it just makes me tired. I am hoping that I finally feel like I can safely let the anger out now that I have a constructive outlet. The problem becomes containing the anger when I am not at the gym. I have to be able to maintain my stability at work and at home or this is not going to work. It's not going to be an easy balance to find, but they offer Tai Chi at the gym as well and I am hoping that I can use the forms and breathing to channel my energies more effectively and coherently, rather than wanting to lash out at whatever's closest.
Some of my downtime this past week, I have been reading the book I was asked to review and I found myself unable to really devote my attention to it. My mind kept on wandering back to all of the things that were making my anger flare up and what I could do to contain it:
- My Psoriasis: I can honestly say it's never been this bad. Ever. It's all over my head and face and flakes up throughout the course of an average day. Some of the time my skin is so red it almost looks like port-wine stains. The patches on my elbows and knees are growing and I have new random patches showing up everywhere. It should have been my first indication that there was something wrong festering deep inside. The only time my psoriasis flares up is when I am physically ill or deeply emotionally troubled about something. It's been getting worse and worse for about six months now. The problem is, I have no idea what the underlying cause is and that has been keeping me up nights recently. Aside from the obvious physical issues, people also assume that I have poor hygiene because I have dry flaky, patchy skin. It makes me incredibly self-conscious. I have resolved to make an appointment as soon as possible with my dermatologist at the VA. The topical creams are not working. There has to be another option. It makes me wonder if the stress I had been under over the holidays followed by the passing of my doc started me down this road to anger. Then to top it all off, my body rebels. I feel like I am wearing my soul on the outside for everyone to see. It makes me feel very vulnerable, like my soul was laid bare against my will.
- Feeling Unchallenged/Underappreciated at Work: While I know it was my choice to step down from the Team Leader position at work, I feel like I am squandering my skills and talents. I know it's good work and great benefits, but I am qualified to be and do more than I am, more than I was. My problem has always been that I don't play office politics. I didn't when I was in the military and I don't in the civilian world. I know for a FACT that it pisses me the hell off that the ass-kissers and the fuck-up-move-ups always seem to get ahead in our culture. I was raised to believe in meritocracy, for all the good it's done me. Excelling in the classroom has given the title of 'overqualified'. What a joke. Why don't people say what they mean? They should say, "I'd hire/promote you but I am threatened by your competence". I might as well put on my Curriculum Vitae that I have a BS in Underwater Basket Weaving for all the benefit I have gotten from my college degree. Huh. Didn't realize that was bothering me so much. That's, at least, part of the root cause.
- Frustrated by My Inability to Raise Funds to Start My Non-Profit: This one isn't anger, per se. It's frustration that I can't seem to convey my message clearly or passionately enough to get all of the financial support I need to make my non-profit a reality. Granted I still have eight days left to raise $2200, but it's hard to feel optimistic about raising it in that short of a time. So that begs the question...what the hell do I do? Is this anger at myself? Is it my passion turning inward and festering? I need to figure this out. More importantly, I need to find the saving grace I need to meet my fundraising goals. I need this more than anything to feel like my professional life is worth a damn. So yeah, I think there's a wee bit of anger festering there too.
It seems like I have more to work on than I thought. It feels a little overwhelming, honestly. So...
I'm starting with the gym and making sure I get the constructive outlet for my anger worked into my daily routine. I don't see much of any other options right now. So, off to the gym I go. Maybe I'll find some more answers in the peaceful emptiness of cardio.
After everything that happened yesterday, I needed to find answers. I was in no condition to work but tried anyways. I made through a little over two and a half hours of my shift before I couldn't hide my grief anymore. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. I left work and I headed straight to the VA and asked to speak to the Patient Advocate. I was ushered into his office and he asked me how I was doing and what he could do for me.
I told him about the past month and the way that I had been treated and that I was very upset with the manner in which I had been informed of Doctor Casagrande's passing. He responded without remorse that he and upper level administration had decided the best way to handle this 'situation' was to not allow non-clinical personnel to say anything and to keep mum until the vets came in for their next scheduled appointments. At that time another doc would be waiting to (sarcasm here) 'blindside' an unsuspecting veteran with this horrible news. I was stunned. I told the advocate that I don't have scheduled sessions with Doc Casagrande and that I was only in his group CPT session. The advocate responded, "So many people come and go through the groups that we didn't bother." Again - stunned. I told the advocate it would have been easy to see, if he would have bothered to look at the rosters that I had been at EVERY session for the last six to nine months. Remorseless, he deflected my comment with something along the lines of what's done is done and 'gee, we're so sorry you found out this way.' I followed up by telling him that no one offered me grief counseling, nothing. He very quickly offered, :"would you like to talk to someone now?"
It was at this point that I realized that the administrators had no flipping clue how to handle these situations. This advocate, along with administration higher up, put hundreds of behavioral health patients at risk with their approach to dealing with the doc's passing. I wondered if the disconnect flowed into the care side, so I said I would like to talk to someone. I was introduced to a clinician (I don't remember if she was a doc or a nurse or a social worker) and talked about how messed up I was from all of this and it became very evident to me that she was distressed at how distressed I was. She told me that every veteran that she had seen in connection to Doc Casagrande's death had reacted EXACTLY the same way I have. She also mentioned (although I don't think she really meant to) that there were still veterans that didn't know because they hadn't been in for their scheduled appointments yet. She told me, "I know, after everything that's happened that you have no reason to trust us, but would you at least talk to one of the docs tomorrow who is taking over Doc Casagrande's patients?"
I could sense her frustration with the whole situation. This was an utter mess and Doc's co-workers were just as caught in this storm as I was. I said I would meet with someone tomorrow and I scheduled my time to meet.
After I left and was on my way home, I thought about the whole situation and it made me incredibly disgusted. That patient advocate was to advocate for what was best for the patients. Either one of two things explain his decision: He was lazy and didn't want to put in the extra work and due diligence to make sure every one of the doc's patients was informed as quickly as possible OR he was put in the position to make this decision without any knowledge of what WAS best for us. The VA needs to understand how much danger they put the veterans in. If I was any less stable than I am, I would have done things I would have regretted (become a danger to others) or done something I would never be able to regret (committed suicide). Every veteran should have been afforded an equal opportunity to grieve and should have been told in enough time to attend the memorial services. The way they decided to handle this situation was reprehensible and inhumane.
So, I stand by what I said yesterday in my post. The VA needs radical change. And it needs it now. No longer can we continue to put our nation's heroes at risk due to the ineptitude or apathy of bureaucrats. I will fight from now until my last breath to make sure this change happens. Come hell or high water. I have had people tell me the system is too big to change. I respond with this. Bullshit. When the people you are designed to serve are forced to go elsewhere to ensure they receive quality care and compassion, you have failed to meet the most basic of requirements for your continued existence. I will not bear the legacy costs of a broken VA when those legacy costs are paid for with the blood of my fellow veterans who have lost hope and take their own lives. The time for change is now. Let's be heard, folks. Don't stand silent and condone this with your inaction. Fight for the change we all deserve.
So I go to the VA for my CPT Group therapy and I see doc's not in there again. Feeling angry, I track down another doc I know and ask him what the hell is going on. I demanded to know what was going on with Doc Casagrande.
The doc I confronted looked at me, stunned. He had that 'oh, God, you don't know' look on his face. He told me that doc had passed away over two weeks ago. Yep, that's right over two weeks ago. The social worker in the room two weeks ago KNEW and didn't say anything, didn't address the subject or the grief we would feel. To the deepest core of my psyche, I felt violated - emotionally raped.
***UPDATE: They got the date of his passing wrong...It was AFTER my last group session. They never contacted me and no grief counseling was offered when I did find out.
I stood there stunned as I felt the floor fall out from under me. I asked about memorial services - already been held. Could I visit his grave? - Cremated. I asked about a few more things at the desk and then stumbled out to my car.
That's when the anger hit. The most furious and hell-bent anger I have ever felt. I was shaking. I thought, "THEY ROBBED ME OF MY RIGHT TO SAY GOODBYE, TO FIND CLOSURE". I got in the car and started driving home. All the while I was thinking:
Our veterans deserve top quality care. The dangerous actions (or, in my case, inaction) of the VA endanger the veterans they so strongly profess to care about. The VA proved to me today that radical change is needed. They need to be replaced with a system that is patient first, bureaucracy second. Enough is ENOUGH. This is to all of the politicians who want to sit around and squabble like spoiled brats. ENOUGH! You claim to have your constituencies' best interests at heart. Put your money where your mouth is. Your petty partisan politics have continually put funding for the VA programs at risk, making it impossible for them to make long-term plans for improvement. This, Congressmen and Senators, is YOUR dishonor. Prove to me that you are worth even a fraction of the sweat and love that Doc Casagrande gave to the veterans he served. Let his legacy be the standard to which we, as veterans, hold you accountable.
I arrived home and opened the door to get out of my car. As I closed the door to my car, I felt the anger blow away in the crisp spring wind. As quickly as the anger was there, it was gone. Blown away by my resolve to honor the man who had made such a huge impact in my life. Stay tuned for the memorial piece, being written now.