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.
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.
Well, I had another session with my individual therapist today. We did a lot of talking about my recent realizations about being black and white about everything. We still haven't come anywhere close to a work around or work-through. One realization that I did make was that survivor's guilt plays a huge role in setting the standards I hold myself to (and my inability to forgive myself for not being good enough) and why I can't forgive others for disappointing me (well, violating my trust is more accurate). There's a lot more to this that I still have to work through, that's for sure. One of the things she told me is that she's concerned that because I need to have people fall into one category or another (Trusted or Not), I may try to force people to fit into those narrow categories, even when they don't belong there.
We talked about this for the vast majority of the session and she asked me if there was anything else bothering when I unintentionally dropped a bomb on her. I could tell it concerned her greatly because her demeanor went from relaxed and attentive to focused and intense. Here's the situation:
Last week, Thursday night into Friday, I lost a day. What do I mean by that? I went to sleep a little after midnight and the next thing I remember coherently is waking up and realizing I have to be at work in 45 minutes - work started at 2PM. I slept for over 12 hours. I remember nothing in the interim. The next thing I remember clearly from that night is helping to clean the slicers at the end of the night. I know interacted appropriately with my coworkers, but I have absolutely no sense of the passage of time for that night. None. I have no idea whether I was asleep all that time either.
I drove home that night wondering whether I was going to be walking into a shitstorm at home. I had no idea. After talking about this with my therapist today and seeing how concerned she got, it raised some alarms in my head and I ended up not working on the newsletters I wanted to send out today - I could barely concentrate on writing this blog post. So I decided to take a break and watch a movie or two. I couldn't concentrate on anything and it was starting to ratchet up my anxiety something fierce.
What I thought was strangest was the timing. Everything was going well. My PTSD symptoms were wll-managed. The only thing I can think of is that it happened the night after I talked to the consultant about incorporation and foundation documents for the non-profit and I had a funding proposal that I put before a local veterans group for consideration. I was extremely excited. I was thinking that maybe my body doesn't know how to tell the difference between excitement and fear. I know my adrenalin was pumping like crazy.
Unfortunately, the end result was the same - I lost a day.
So now, I have to track when this happens to see if there is a pattern. I did some looking online and the specific information about the symptoms of TBI seem to fall in line with some of the issues I have with short-term memory, loss of sense of time, anger, etc. Anyone out there know more specifics or resources online that articulate this better? I don't want to pee up a tree and send doctors looking for ghosts if there's nothing to this.
OK, a few months back, I made a concerted effort to get into the gym for cardio and weight training as often as I could with my work schedule. Due to the limited hours at the gym I was attending, that happened to be once, maybe twice, per week I was able to get there. I had read a lot about how everyone was saying how much exercise improves your mood and can help to stabilize your mood.
Hmm. What I discovered was something very different. When you are only able to go to the gym once per week, your mood is a little better that day. The other six days, you feel worse. I don't think I was necessarily feeling more depressed. I think it was because I had gotten a taste of what a good mood feels like and my body was seriously pissed that I wasn't feeding the hunger. It made me very frustrated and exceptionally demoralized. I thought about the trade-off. Was one day of a better mood worth six days of 'meh'?
Um...No. It sure as hell wasn't and it made me feel trapped in a body I hated to see in the mirror. I didn't feel like there was anything I could do to make a real difference, what with my retail work hours and such. Well, early last month, I had finally had enough. I started looking for ways that I could work out consistently and maintain a better mood. It was not an easy thing to do. I felt myself getting more and more impatient and frustrated as the days passed and I wasn't able to find any kind of workable solution.
Then, over this past weekend, it finally hit me: I need a gym that's open 24/7. After a little bit of digging on the internet, I found a gym that fit the bill. I visited the gym on Saturday and loved it. I signed up the same day. I know I feel better about myself when I don't see a fat guy staring back at me in the mirror. I am dedicated to this. I have already been exercising and it has improved my mood a bit. It also helps that I can work my exercising in wherever it happens to fit into my schedule on any given day.
It's been incredibly empowering and I just started. I am having fun and, for the first time in a long time, I feel like there's still a chance to get thin and happy again. I just need to make sure that I send the warning out there to all my fellow community members - If you can't exercise on a regular basis, things could get worse, and quickly. Please make sure you've talked to your doc about this concern. If you are prone to severe depression, please think this through and make sure you are committed to improving your mood. After feeling my mood get progressively worse with sporadic training, I know from first hand experience how negatively it can affect you.
So here goes nothing. I hope this word of warning gets to the people that need to hear it the most. Get up, exercise and take very careful stock of of how you are feeling. If it is affecting you, don't let your motivation stagnate. Caregivers, talk to your vets about their mood and find out how they are doing. Communication is key. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but trust your instincts and your vet's gut. You know as well as I do how low our self-worth can be. Throw the listlessness of the medications we take and it can be very easy to convince ourselves it's not worth the effort. So...Support your veteran and do what you can to keep them motivated. I know it's not easy, but the rewards are worth the risk if you can help them get in shape.
Good luck out there and happy lifting!!
This past Monday, I met with my individual therapist and we talked about how I feel trapped by my current situation: I am not able to make a job change easily because my family depends on my income and health insurance. I can't get to the gym consistently because my work schedule is erratic and I come home from work emotionally spent. I don't have the time I would like to pursue my advocacy endeavors because of my work schedule making it nearly impossible to meet with my colleagues. It has made me feel more and more depressed and more and more demotivated.
When I explained all of this to my therapist, she understood how this could adversely affect me but brought up one point that stuck with me and made me think: It is your choice, whether you realize it or not, to stay in that job. It is also your choice to put all of your emotional energy into your work even though you don't get paid to be emotionally invested in it. She asked me, "What do you think would happen if you chose to save that emotional energy for the other things in your life?"
Why is it the simple things that always seem to be the hardest to change? Being emotionally invested in my work has been ingrained in my since childhood. I told my therapist that and she came back with, "No, that's your job. Advocacy is your work. Put your emotional energy into that and I bet you will feel better and have more energy to find a way to get to the gym and to be there for your family".
It's a foreign idea, but makes a weird kind of sense to me. She followed this up by explaining to me that I have the ability to choose what I devote my energy to. I can't control the fact that I am currently unable to change jobs because of my financial responsibilities. What I CAN control is who benefits from my energies the most - my job or my advocacy for veterans. I have felt trapped because couldn't see any way to take control of the situation and it was causing me to become extremely depressed and unable to see any positive outcomes.
So now comes the hard part. I have to change my behavior - a behavior that has been an integral part of my professional identity since I first started working. I have to learn how to redefine what my work is so that I can devote my emotional energy to my advocacy, my health, and my family. It is definitely not going to be easy but it will be worth the effort.
It's amazing how being laid up for a week can adversely affect your outlook. Even though I am feeling physically better, I am feeling progressively more depressed and that concerns me greatly. People who are ill for prolonged periods are prone to mild depression. When you add PTSD into the equation, thinks spiral down a whole lot faster and a whole lot farther.
What's frustrating as hell is that I KNOW this and I can't seem to snap out of it. I am doing everything I can to stay focused on doing things that are productive and fulfilling for me and it seems to be helping a little bit. While I know I focused a lot on the things I am dissatisfied with over the past few days, I haven't come up with any good plans to address those issues. I am going to read over everything I wrote in my last blog with my wife and see what we can come up with. Sometimes I get my thoughts out on here and forget that I haven't shared them with my wife.
All I know is that my wife's love and support mean everything to me and help me regain proper perspective when I get in these funks. Maybe, if I remembered to share with her all that I blogged about she would be better equipped to deal with me.
Yep, still in a funk. At least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. My ear is finally healing better and as soon as I am allowed to go back to work, I think that the majority of my depression will lift. If it doesn't lift, on to plan B. When I figure out what plan B is, I'll let you know.
Introspection...Ally or Enemy? It's a question I have been asking myself a lot over the past few days. It seems that every time I have too much time on my hands to sit and think, I get evaluate everything that's going on in my life. I look at my home life, my work life, being a husband, being a dad. I examine every facet of my life, ad nauseum. In some cases, in excruciatingly fine detail.
I have to wonder how healthy this is for a person like me to do. I seem to get less and less out of it the longer I look. While, I know that there is a lot that makes me very happy in my life, there is also a lot that has left a very bitter taste in my mouth. I wonder if I will ever be able to realize my full potential, and sitting on my duff recuperating from a physical health issue doesn't lend itself to feeling positive about what the future holds.
What I have begun to realize is that I desperately need more out of my professional life - and soon. I think about all of the things I could be doing with my time to advocate for changes in behavioral health care, to educate people about PTSD, to work to reduce the stigma associated with PTSD. It makes me sick to my stomach that I am spending my time in customer service in a grocery store. It's depressing and demotivating. I am an accomplished speaker, an even better writer. Yet, here I sit, wondering how I got myself stuck where I am. I constantly think about hunting for work in Veteran Advocacy. I look online all of the time. I think about the good I could be doing and I feel trapped by the need to make a living to support my family, unable to get out from under the thumb of crap wages and a shitty economy.
Yep, that's introspection for you. It allows me to make important realizations - realizations about things I need to change in my life. Yet, when I am in a position where I don't get to choose when the introspection ends, I get caught in the quagmire of depression and catastrophic thinking. I am on pain meds, so I can't drive anywhere, I can't work. I am stuck here at home with one of two options: sleep or think too much.
So I sit here and think. And contemplate the edges of a sword that never get dull from overuse.
This is the danger of isolation for veterans with PTSD. It suffocates our will, douses the flame of hope. Too much introspection is not a good thing. It's like painting yourself into a corner, with no one around to notice you have until the last stroke has already been painted.
Boy was that a depressing trip. I think I need to make sure that I get to CPT group tomorrow, despite my inability to drive myself. I need something to shake the cobwebs loose, something to turn my sight outward. I need to focus on getting a hold on the depression as it sinks its claws ever deeper into my psyche. I need to focus on my wife and my daughter, how much they need me to be here for them. I'll find a way, I always do. I think I just needed to get those poisonous thoughts out of my head. To rattle those insidious doubts from their nesting places in my mind.
I know I can make it until tomorrow, and that's all that truly matters when the going gets rough.
So, yeah...I started working out again this past week. I have realized that the only way that I am going to be able to stay committed to working out is to go all out. What's odd is the way that I came to this realization: I have been in a funk for the better part of the past week. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why in the hell I was feeling so down. I started putting it together after I had worked out last night after work. I had been starting slowly and letting my muscles get reacquainted with weight training. I hadn't added cardio into the mix quite yet. When I got home from from the gym last night, I was almost instantly grumpy and withdrawn.
And then it clicked.
I wasn't fully committing to working out and I wasn't kicking the endorphins into high enough gear for the 'feel-good' to affect me. I thought about it a lot. I felt good while I was working out but it immediately started to fade as soon as I was done. It kept on leaving the gym feeling faintly dissatisfied. I knew that you had to attain a certain level of physical activity for the endorphin release to sustain itself for any length of time. With this in mind, I decided it was time to throw in a half-hour of cardio today. My body felt good and I wasn't sore, so I figured I might as well.
So today, I got out of work, headed to the gym, did 30 minutes of cardio and then weight training. My hunch appears to be correct. When I finished my workout, the good mood was still there and I felt good. I still felt a little out of balance after a week of 'I feel good, I feel like crap'. I liked the way I felt today. I was more aware and focused at home. I wasn't withdrawing from my wife and daughter.
So let this be a lesson to everyone else out there: When your doc says you need to exercise, take it seriously. I feel so much better when I am working out. I am more alert, more engaged. *so tired - going to bed and finishing tomorrow...*
Ok, to finish up:
The word of caution I have for all of the others out there that are feeling balanced on their medication: Exercise releases a lot of chemicals into the brain that cause feelings of happiness and contentedness. It might be a good idea to pay a little closer attention to your mood while you are getting into the habit of exercising consistently. Any time you drastically change your brain chemistry, it can change the potency, duration, and effect of the medications we are on. Please don't take this as an excuse to avoid exercising. Trust me when I say that the difference is wonderful. Just don't do it half-way. You'll thank me later.
Well, my last CPT session went really well. I was talking about how I had gone into a funk over the holidays and how I was trying to eliminate stressors from my life. It was an interesting conversation. We talked about how my lack of regular schedule at work was keeping me from being able to get into a routine. Routines are important to me. When I have a consistent schedule, I am able to get to the gym and workout. When I am able to work out consistently, I feel better and look better. I expressed how frustrated I was that I couldn't seem to find a way to get myself on a routine. What I realized is that having a job in retail doesn't exactly lend itself to maintaining a low stress lifestyle.
I was all down on myself and one of the guys from group and pointed out to the doc and me how much progress I have made. I thought. What Progress!?! He went on to explain that when I first came to group, I was a hot mess. All of the problems I had been trying to find solutions for were intangibles - worst case scenarios, even though they had little chance of ever occurring. I stressed out about all of the things that were out of my control. What he told me was that I need to keep a proper perspective. What he sees is a guy that is focused on addressing tangible problems that will lead to an improved quality of life.
It goes to show you how incredibly important objective validation can mean to a vet with PTSD. The progress I have made was so gradual that I didn't notice any change in my perspective or any changes in the way that I address problems. I really couldn't see the forest for the trees. My perseverance has paid off, yet I was still the last one to know!
It truly floored me. I sat back and absorbed it for the remainder of group and felt something I hadn't dared feel in a really long time: hope. If I persevere, stay the course, can I really make a more fulfilling and happy life for myself and my family? Maybe I can. Maybe I can.