#611 – Crash & Burn/Phoenix

“Lord of the Dragons” copyright KLab Global Pte Ltd.
Art by Gameco.com

I haven’t written in some time, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. The subject of this blog post was something I needed to tell family first before putting it out publicly, and now that certain people know, I can write.

Regular readers of this blog know that for the past two and a half years, I’ve been working towards an associate’s degree in diagnostic cardiovascular sonography. There are a lot of pre-requisites and co-requisites needed to apply to the program. One of those requirements is formal patient care education. This can be fulfilled through the college’s continuing education course for certified nurse aides, or by the EMT-Basic program, which would add an extra two points to an application worksheet where the difference between being accepted and not is often measured in hundredths of a point. Last spring, I tried the EMT-Basic program, and I crashed and burned out of it about a third of the way through the class. I had one experience actually out in the field in that class, and I started having panic attacks about the course, so I had to withdraw. This spring, I registered for the CNA program. I made it through the classroom aspect of the course very easily, and a week ago last Thursday we had our clinical orientation. There was some patient contact, but mostly it was a tour and an introduction to policies and procedures. The clinical started in earnest this past Monday.

Monday rolled around and as the start of the clinical drew closer, I became very agitated. I was having another panic attack, this time intense enough to have me vomiting and trembling all over. I got in touch with my instructor and texted her that I wasn’t going to be able to be there that evening. A little while later, she replied saying I should drop the course. (Texas state law requires that the nurse aide candidate complete so many hours of classroom and clinical contact. Since I was missing part of the clinical hours required by the state, I would fail the course if I didn’t drop it.) So I dropped the course. Doing so closed the door to me applying for my degree program this year, as the annual deadline would pass before I could take this course again. In effect, I have most of the next year off from school, since there’s nothing else for me to take but this class.

It was about an hour later that I realized that I had now had two panic attacks when faced with the prospect of direct patient care. If I couldn’t finish the CNA course, I wouldn’t be able to apply to my degree program, much less get in. This presented me with a problem. My degree is being paid for through Texas Workforce Commission as part of a program to retrain disabled people to return to the job market. As a result, the decision to pursue a sonography degree was one that the state and I made together after over a year of going back and forth proposing and rejecting various other career paths. Sonography was their idea, but it was the best option that was made available to me, so I took it. The contract I have with the state is very specific: it covers tuition and required books (used if possible) for core curriculum classes and pre- and co-requisites for the diagnostic cardiovascular sonography, as well as some supplies each semester. Anything outside this description is an expense I am responsible for. If I withdraw from a class due to illness and have to retake it, that is done out of my own pocket (I’ve done this multiple times now). In essence, I have a signed contract to be educated in a field that is giving me panic attacks anytime I am in direct contact with patients.

You see my dilemma. So I can either drop out of school with what I have, say it was a good try, and continue to collect Social Security disability checks each month until I die, or I can change my major and try for a different degree, knowing full well that I will most likely be responsible for all expenses.

My college has recently redone its student-oriented interface for its website, and with those changes have come a few new resources that were previously unavailable. One of these is a degree map which shows what your major is, which classes you have successfully taken, which classes need to be taken, and your progress towards your degree, shown as a percentage. There’s also a selection for “Explore Degrees” which will show you every degree the college offers listed in order of highest percentage of completion, as well as which classes have been completed for this other degree, which classes are outstanding for it and what the estimated tuition will be for these classes, and which classes you’ve already completed that cannot be applied towards the degree in question, and it compares all this information with the same information for your chosen major. Turns out I’m right at halfway through three other degrees, and more than 40% complete for several others, many of which aren’t in the health sciences department. Outstanding tuition for these degrees will run somewhere around $3000-3500.

I had a meeting later in the week with my campus advisor and it was agreed that there are multiple options available to me, and since I was going to have to take a year off anyway, I would spend that year researching a new major in a new field, with a projected return to classes in the fall of next year.

The next day, I met with my therapist, who agrees that I am making the right decision, but disagrees with me waiting until fall 2021 to go back to school. She wants me to keep myself in a college frame of mind by taking at least one core class this fall and next spring that would count toward all or at least most degree plans. I’m willing to do this, as this gives me until late August to make research my highest priority and that should be plenty of time to have narrowed down my choices somewhat and figured out what classes would be most universally applicable. The other reason is that my college has over 200 scholarships that are all awarded from a single application and essay. The deadline to apply for 2020-2021 academic year scholarships is April 1st, and with a GPA of 3.914 I should be academically eligible for almost any scholarship.

There’s also another possibility for covering expenses in my new major. My college advisor recommends that I do my due diligence on whatever major and career I choose and then return to the state prepared with facts and numbers and sources to ask if they will allow me to write a new contract. It’s a slim chance, but it’s better than none at all.

This is the end of a four-year journey that has suddenly and unexpectedly taken a fork in the road. But rather than the end of the line, I prefer to see this as the start of a new journey, one where I get to choose the final destination, not the state. (This means that I can and most likely will choose a major that will provide options to transfer to a four-year university and a bachelor’s degree, something that was out of the question going through the state.)

Unfortunately, this is coming during a fairly deep downward spiral. I’m not experiencing any suicidal ideations, I’m not in any danger to myself, but I’m spending whole days locked between the need to accomplish things around the house and the complete apathy of doing anything at all, let alone chores. The end result is that a lot of the time I can’t tell you what I spent any given day doing since most of it was probably either sleeping or scrolling mindless through websites without any real direction. It’s hard not to feel just a little like a failure after putting so much into one degree only to just drop it without preamble. But I have a game plan. I’m going to spend the rest of March working on my scholarship application, then concentrate on turning this depression around in time for the fall semester, all the while researching new possibilities and interests. I will rise from the ash of this dream like a phoenix, with new life and a new direction.

And There’s More


Today I set an appointment with Austin Community College’s Student Accessibility Services office to discuss my disability and what they can do for me, if anything. The perceived stress of school might be enough to trigger a notable setback in my progress. I’m hoping not, but I’ve noticed that really stressful times tend to be difficult for me even now.

So I have three outstanding appointments with school, one tomorrow to see my academic adviser, one next Tuesday to talk about my disability, and one on the 26th to officially introduce me to the Health Sciences program.

Three months ago, I would have probably lost it over so many changes to my status quo happening all at once. It still boggles the imagination to realize how far I’ve come in such a short period of time.

But this also reminds me of how bad things were for me at one point. When I moved back to Texas in 2012 I was not the best, but tolerable enough to be somewhat active in the SCA and somewhat social. Then things took a turn for the worse and sometime in 2014 I had a very steep decline in my condition. I almost refused to go out and do anything, I stopped driving unless I had to, I couldn’t go to the store, even with my wife with me. Things were bad and they stayed that way for several months, with only rare instances where I would step outside my comfort zone for anything.

I started to really turn the corner earlier this year, occasionally testing the waters to do things like go out to eat and go to the store with my wife for short trips. I didn’t have the annual dip in my activity level during the winter that I’d recorded the previous two years. I wasn’t really looking forward to change, but knew it was going to have to come soon, and I’d better be ready, so I pushed myself to try things again. And then I changed my anxiety medication. Once that happened, and once it had had a chance to build up in my system, I started making rapid progress.

I often attribute the change to the medication, but in reality I’d been working on this change for well over two years. The meds just changed my brain chemistry enough for it to suddenly be easier to do the things I was already doing, and without the biological obstacle in the way the behavioral progress sped up.

I still have bad days, but they’re few and far between now. They’re not really bad days anymore, more like bad moments in the day, suddenly there and gone just as quickly. It feels more like what I imagine “normal” is like.

And I’m kind of liking the difference.

Needing Advice


To briefly catch everyone up: I am on disability for mental illnesses, have been for three years now. I am improving somewhat, and so to help prepare for my eventual return to work I have gone to the Texas Workforce Commission for vocational rehabilitation services. I started this process back in September of last year. TWC has a 90 day window with which they can create an action plan for a client. My action plan is centered around me returning to school to get educated in a new field. I met with my counselor a few times and was in touch with him through phone calls and emails for a handful more, and throughout the process things seemed to be in flux. My initial direction, an associate’s degree in architectural drafting, was dismissed early on because of the lack of job opportunities and the fact that the program I was planning on taking would not educate me enough to hold positions in the field. After that, I started looking at a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. I have radio experience and thought this would be an interesting way to go. However, when I presented this it was dismissed by TWC as being too broad in scope. This happened on day 83 of my 90 day plan, so at that final meeting I was more or less given the option of medical billing and coding or nothing, and so I signed my name to an action plan revolving around getting a certificate in that field.

Subsequent research on my part revealed that there was an associate’s degree in health information technology available at Austin Community College – where I was planning to go for medical billing and coding – and that it could transfer over to a bachelor’s degree program at Texas State University. So I called my counselor to set something up, and was informed that my counselor was no longer employed by TWC, and that I had an interim counselor handling my case until someone could be permanently assigned to it. I called the new counselor and presented my situation to her, that I was in the action plan because it was the only option I was given at the end of the window, and that many things that I learned from my former counselor were eventually corrected very late in the process, so I wasn’t really given much of an opportunity to think anything over. In light of that, she said that she would be willing to take another look at my action plan.

When I went in to meet her, I showed her the award plans for both the certificate program in medical billing and coding and the associate’s degree in health information technology. I explained that I wanted to do a job that required the higher education. She went to consult with another counselor there and eventually asked me to join the two of them in the other counselor’s office. They told me that they would be willing to look at changing my plan, and because of the way that my former counselor wrote it up, it would be an easy administrative switch and nothing more, but they explained that it would be an uphill battle finding work in the field. They presented another option to me: sonography. I told them I wasn’t prepared to make a decision that day, partially because I wasn’t about to be railroaded into yet another field that I had had no time to research on my own and partially because I was going to head home from that meeting, grab my luggage, and hop on a flight to Phoenix for my father-in-law’s funeral, and they gave me two weeks to think things over.

During that most recent meeting, I was told that regardless of whether it’s a certificate program or an associate’s degree, TWC would only pay out $173 per semester. I filed that away for a time when I could discuss it in depth with my counselor, and so today I sent her an email stating that if the assistance was truly only $173 per semester, there’s no way I could afford even the certificate program. She wrote back and told me that this was the case, so I asked her what my options were. She told me that she wanted me to wait until I had heard back on my FAFSA application before making a decision to opt out of school, and then she forwarded me another series of emails that she’d had with TWC’s ACC liaison, wherein the liaison said that the assistance was either $3,000 maximum for a certificate program, or $173 per credit hour, plus books. I wrote back telling her that $173 per credit hour was a lot more reasonable and that I’d do my research into sonography and get back to her at our follow up meeting later this month.

So here’s where I’m at with this decision.

Pros for health information technology: the action plan already lists health information technology as the direction that I’m going; the associate’s degree easily transfers to a bachelor’s degree program.

Cons for health information technology: jobs are scarce; there’s almost no opportunity to sit down; while employers can’t discriminate by law, the vast majority of people in the field are older women with 30 years experience.

Pros for sonography: the pay is significantly better than health information technology; the job outlook is phenomenal; I have had a passing curiosity on how sonography works for some time; the field was recommended by a senior counselor based on his knowledge of the job market.

Cons for sonography: while it’s not as bad as health information technology, I would still be on my feet a good deal; changing the action plan to sonography requires a rewrite and separate approval, which may not come despite a senior counselor saying that if there’s any problems in the approval process to send the decision makers his way; shift work may have me working nights and/or weekends.

Given this list of pros and cons, I’m leaning in the direction of sonography, but want to get your take on it. If you have an opinion, please let me know either here, on Facebook, or on Twitter. My follow up meeting is on the 27th, so I’ve got about a week to mull this over.

Let me know if there’s something that I’ve missed. I look forward to hearing from you.

NaBloPoMo Day 20: Fear of the Future


A few years ago, I was absolutely terrified of growing older, because I didn’t know how in the world I would make it past a certain age. The thoughts passed as I started concentrating on more pressing matters, and I haven’t really thought about what the future holds until recently.

But now the fears are worse than ever.

I’m 46 years old. Partially because of my intolerance of a high-pressure, competitive work environment and partially because of my complete lack of a background that I can actually do (I have two vocational certificates, both of which are for a line of work that requires standing for hours at a time, something my back will not tolerate anymore) and partially because of my own lack of motivation to make my career my legacy, if I returned to the workforce, I would be doing so at essentially an entry level position, no matter what field I managed to find work in, and would likely not move past that tier of responsibility for some time. (This is all taking into account my own mental health as it stands today. This might improve over time but that remains to be seen.) I can’t afford to go back to school to improve my chances of finding a career, as the student loans would likely not be paid off in my lifetime and I don’t want my daughter to be left paying them off on top of her own substantial education debt, plus by the time I could graduate and find work, I’d likely have 15 years in the workforce before I was forced to retire. Right now, because I’m on disability, our budget is so tight that in the coming weeks there will be less than a dollar of wiggle room in order to be able to pay our bills one pay cycle.

Now tack on the extra expenses of seeing the doctor more often, seeing more doctors, and paying for more procedures and prescriptions, and the future looks very, very bleak indeed.

What little bit we had managed to save for retirement was eaten up in 2012 when we both lost our jobs within three months of one another and couldn’t find work for several months afterwards. (I have yet to return to work, in fact.)

I try not to dwell on thoughts like this. But any time I think of the future I don’t really see a place for me in it. I see myself homeless and alone and not lasting long on the streets.

This is not where I wanted to end up at the end of my life. I wanted there to be enough saved to be able to make ends meet when I retired. Now there’s no chance I’ll ever be able to retire. Either I’ll remain on disability for the rest of my life, or I’ll have to somehow work until I die.

I don’t like talking about money, and I don’t like talking about my fears, because they both depress me greatly. But lately that’s always in the back of my mind.

I don’t know what the future holds. But right now, with things going the way they are, I don’t see a way out of the hole that I’ve spent my life digging for myself.

Do I plan on giving up? No, not yet. There’s still a chance that something could happen that would help turn this around, and I’m hopeful that it will happen.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


It seems that all I talk about on here sometimes are my little victories over my health struggles, how I have this great little tool, how I believe that things will get better. Last night would not be one of these little victories.

I had a pretty serious meltdown. When I was a teenager, I was yelled at when someone was angry with me. Oftentimes, the yelling was accompanied by hitting, either with a belt, switch, or paddle. Last night, I started to panic about leaving the house today (I have both my medication management and my therapy appointments this afternoon) and I was “going into my head,” an expression we’ve started to use whenever I stop listening to, or more accurately can’t hear, what someone is saying, and before the other person can finish their thought, my brain responds with the worst case scenario. This caused frustration in my wife, and she began raising her voice, since in her upbringing, you kept escalating volume until the other person acknowledged and validated what you were saying. Our pasts collided with one another as they usually do, with me unable to hear what she was saying in order to validate it, her yelling at me to get her point across, and me terrified that sooner or later, the hitting would start. I became a child again, mentally speaking, and that part of me was very scared at all the ruckus.

Eventually we calmed back down, and things got back to normal, but it took time and a lot of silence between us.

This morning, I’m not quite so panicked about my appointments, though the extraneous stops I was planning to make while I was out got tabled due to stress over money and effort. (While still fairly light, lugging my 17.3″ gaming ultrabook around, along with its cooling pad, power cord, mouse, headset, books to read, paper to take notes on, diabetes supplies, checklist books, pencils and erasers, and meds for the day suddenly became a lot more effort than I wanted to put into a trip to Starbucks. I can cut that down to the laptop, the mouse, my Bluetooth headset, my meds, my Moleskines, and my writing implements if I’m not planning a big trip, but the intent was to spend the morning out of the house, and a trip that long would eventually require battery power. Anyway, this is not a blog about my obsession with electronic gadgets, so let’s get back to the meat of the post, shall we?) I’m still planning my day around my two appointments, which means eating at a time that will allow me to check my glucose between appointments and not while in one or the other, and I’m still planning to pick my wife up from work (whenever I have the car, due to my agoraphobia, we usually plan on a plan B to get her home just in case; it’s been necessary about a third of the time).

If I can just make those two appointments, that will be the biggest single accomplishment that I’ve made in weeks. It’s difficult measuring your accomplishments not on the scale of getting a promotion at work (something that’s occurred precisely once in my life) or graduating from college (something that’s never occurred and likely at this point in my life never will) but on the scale of making it to your doctor and your therapist without completely freaking out and hiding under the covers in bed. It goes a long way to making me feel like my life has been and will continue to be a failure, but I have to remind myself that I have several chronic illnesses, and my body and brain are just not cut out for greatness measured in the way others measure it. As much as I’d love to say I’m going to get off disability, the fact of the matter is that right now I’m actually worse than I was when I was going through the application process, and I barely made it through that. With the way that my illnesses have been progressing, I see an extension of benefits in my future, not a career.

Yet there have been some astounding strides made to help me. I found out that my 30 year old bipolar diagnosis was either incomplete or incorrect, and that I’ve been treated using insufficient modalities all this time. I’ve learned a lot about my new borderline personality disorder diagnosis, and I’m continuing to educate myself on an almost daily basis. I’ve found that there are others out there who support me while I struggle to find some sense of normality in my life, and discovered who my true friends really are.

Maybe one day things will change. Maybe one day I can get back into the work force, doing something that I’m passionate about and can really set my mind to succeeding at. (I’ve wanted for over a year now to work toward certification and work as a peer support specialist, because the greatest resource I can offer many people is my life story and how I succeed in managing my symptoms through all I’ve experienced.) But today is not that day. Today is a day to conquer going through the door, out into the cold, bright day, facing my fears head on.

One step back. Two steps forward.