This is My Mind on Crutches. Any Questions?

For the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to having my body let me down. A shipboard accident at the age of 18 left me suffering from knee injuries that never resolved and devolved into osteoarthritis and other degenerative joint conditions. That disability cut my Navy “career” extremely short – if my knees had failed while I was working in my normal workplace, a carrier flight deck, my life and likely others’ would be endangered.

After leaving the Navy honorably due to my knee disability, my life was without direction, and I was still coming to grips with the fact that I was limited to desk work for the rest of my life. I had a hard time psychologically, going from a literal lean, mean fighting machine to someone facing a limitation I had thought of a concern for old age, and it was hard for me to even grasp old age.

Given my reliance on my intellect throughout my life, it isn’t really earth-shattering that I would end up working with my mind, rather than with my muscles, but the sudden closing of all of those doors was extremely depressing. I was fortunate that a family friend was the Chief of Police for a small city in the Atlanta area, and his department was in need of a dispatcher. It turned out that I was very good at the work, and, like my service in the Navy, I had the personal satisfaction that I derived from public service. The job turned into a career, culminating in my working in the communications center of the state Emergency Management Agency, a position which let me turn my lifelong interest in computers into one of my duties: information systems administrator for the communications division. I was given a lot of leeway in developing applications. I was proud to develop the software that the communications division adopted for statewide  incident management. It remained in service for several years after my departure and marked the point when my career really changed from public safety or emergency communications to information technology, especially infrastructure systems and database administration. The same small city where I had started as a 911 dispatcher years earlier hired me as its first IT manager.

Actually, I was the entire IT department, and although the city had created the position, it had made no preparation for me to actually start work. I had to find or commandeer literally everything I needed: an office, computer, telephone, furniture – everything. The city’s computer systems and network were completely undocumented.  The flipside of having to do literally everything myself was the rare opportunity to design and implement everything from the ground up.

I had enough on my plate to justify at least three full-time-equivalent positions, supporting the life-critical 24/365 operations of the 911 center,  fire/rescue, police, and jail.  Since those additional l FTEs didn’t exist, I was never truly off duty. I stayed so engaged that I didn’t recognize the toll it was taking on my family life. The heavy work pressure seemed necessary to support my family, and, as long as I had a good, hands-off supervisor (the city manager), the extreme stress felt like “good” stress. It was rewarding.

When circumstances changed, particularly the replacement of the city manager by a new one who had never held that position before, my ideal career quickly started to unravel. The new city manager was a micromanager in the extreme, made worse by his mistaken belief that he knew anything about information technology and his habit of praising performance one day and condemning the same performance the following day.

My major depressive disorder, which had been chemical/organic in origin throughout my adult life and well-controlled by medication for several years, began to become reactive to external life situations – a development with which I had no experience and for which I had no coping tools. In addition,  I began suffering from acute panic and anxiety attacks. I began finding reasons to work at night or at locations other than my office in city hall. Within a few months, the anxiety/panic reached the point of my seeking medical attention for it, and my psychiatrist starting me onto anti-anxiety meds (benzodiazepines).  As I continued to worsen, I was compelled to seek an ADA accommodation and formally notified the city of my intention to take FMLA leave. I was utterly speechless when the city manager fired me the following afternoon with no warning. I suggested to my then-wife that she might want to go ahead and take the kids to her parents’ – I didn’t want them to see Daddy have the complete breakdown that followed – one from which I still haven’t fully recovered, despite improvement with the anxiety disorder. The separation from my family…and then the marital separation…there seemed to be no bottom to the abyss of my depression.

Enter the knees again. They continued to degenerate, as my daily life had sunk to the point that muscle atrophy was inevitable, and my orthopedist referred me to a pain management clinic, adding OxyContin and then MS Contin (due to intolerable cognitive side effects with the former) to the potent mix of psychotropic drugs I was already taking.

Despite  the generally effective antidepressant and anti-anxiety regimen (and the generally ineffective pain regimen consisting primarily opiates due to an allergy to NSAIDs) and the addition of therapy with a psychologist, things have remained fairly constant over the past few years – unpredictable depressive episodes, often with suicidal ideations, persist, and I still experience cognitive effects such as short-term memory loss. The military and other organizations have a maxim that “if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist.” For me, that has become literally true. My memory can’t be trusted, which is part of why I write down what many consider Too Much Information. Putting it in a publicly-accessible location allows me to reach it from any computer, and, perhaps more importantly, it might let people in similar situations know that they are not alone.

It took me years to fully come to grips with my physical disability. The awareness that my mind is letting me down, and that it MIGHT not get better, is a much tougher pill to swallow. My life feels like someone in a waking coma – the machine is still working, but it is very difficult to control the input/output: focusing my mind on a new problem or adding new capabilities is often beyond me.

I have worked hard throughout my life to make the contents and capabilities of my mind valuable, not just to myself, but in the marketplace, and if I’ve lost that,  I can’t envision a Plan C.

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Published in: on 2010 08 01 at 09:11:35  Leave a Comment  

Memories from the San Joaquin Valley

A bit of background: On December 7, 1988, I reported to my first U.S. Navy fleet duty station: Attack Squadron 22 (VA-22), “The Fighting Redcocks,”  based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, California. The squadron has since been redesignated as Strike Fighter Squadron 22 (VFA-22), but the Fighting Redcocks remain based at NAS Lemoore, the Navy’s west coast premier air station and home to Strike Fighter Wing (formerly Light Attack Wing) – Pacific. The Naval Air Station is located on California Hwy 198, a few miles west of the town of Lemoore in Kings County. It is approximately a 30-minute drive to Fresno, in the heart of California’s central valley. Each winter (at that time) a thick blanket of fog would settle into the valley, probably due to a reaction between the relatively mild winter temperatures and the colder air blowing in from the Pacific: San Francisco on an enormous scale.

At that time, almost all of the squadrons at NAS Lemoore flew the same type of aircraft: the A-7E Corsair II, a carrier-based light bomber. Although the A-7E was capable of flying missions in all weather, the extremely poor visibility at Lemoore was deemed an unnecessary risk for training flights. As a result, we spent 4 or 5 months out of the year playing cards. As I had arrived near the beginning of a particularly long foggy season, I literally did not know what my base looked like for the first 6 months I was there. I could not see a person standing three feet away from me. A shuttle bus ran between the administrative area of the base, where our barracks was located, to the more restricted operations area a few miles away. My new shipmates helped me by making sure I knew which direction the bus stop was and how many paces as I walked out of the barracks. They did the same for the enlisted club, the operations mess hall, and the brightly-lit, but still invisible, McDonald’s directly across the street from Barracks 12, which our squadron called home. I could get to work, food, and alcohol. The necessities having been taken care of, the rest would have to wait for spring.

I have always loved the beauty of the outdoors. The following is a post about some of my memories (caveat: from 21 years ago, but still as vivid as yesterday) about my first spring after the fog finally lifted. It was previously posted on my Facebook page, and it meant enough to me that I wanted to preserve it. It has been edited slightly from the original post for contextual reasons.

I still remember working nights, and the sun coming up directly in my eyes on the way home as it rose over the Sierra Nevada around 9am, an hour or more after “sunrise” and the first time I ever saw the peaks of the area of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks from Visalia. I had arrived at Lemoore in the middle of the fog, and after it finally lifted, I just assumed they were clouds for weeks afterwards. Nothing east of the Mississippi is that high in the sky except clouds or aircraft vapor trails.One day something made me just stand there and watch them – always in the same place and never drifting.

That’s one of the (few) things I loved about NAS Lemoore in summer – I could see from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, over the Coalinga Hills to the Coast Ranges. That and the friggin jackrabbits. We used to have to hop into trucks and chase the jackrabbits and coyotes off the runways and taxiways so that we could conduct flight ops. You’d think a big, loud A-7 or F/A-18 coming toward them would have been as much of a clue as a grey truck. Of course WE had 54mm flare guns. I don’t advocate setting coyotes on fire with red flares, but this was the Cold War, and as exhilarating as it was to be the tip of the spear, we knew who the adversary was, and he had a spear, too. Although if we were “on the beach,” we were training, rather than in an operational role, but we took our jobs no less seriously than those who maintained and flew the B-52s with the white undersides or the Air Force Strategic Air Command tankers that supported them. If you’ve lived long enough to remember the Berlin Wall, hopefully you can understand that there was no such thing as a “just practicing” mentality at that point in the history or our Armed Forces. Nor should there ever be.

Remove before flight

For those outside the Navy airdale community, “Balls” is the nickname given to each squadron’s aircraft whose number ends in “00”. This plane is reserved for the “CAG”, or air wing commander. The aircraft whose number ends in “01” is the squadron commanding officer’s aircraft. This A7-E is from my old squadron (Attack Squadron 22, now Strike Fighter Squadron 22, “Fighting Redcocks”) and is now on display at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

a7e_fallon_display.jpg

To see one of “my” birds on display as a museum piece breaks my heart because I know it intimately. I have walked on top of it, scurried beneath it, fueled it, crawled inside of it, and sat in its cockpit. It no longer serves the purpose for which it was built – to rain ordnance onto the heads of our nation’s enemies and keep our country safe. That torch has now been handed to the F/A-18 and its successors. I hope that the A-7E and other aircraft of its era that have been retired can serve an educational purpose, especially for our country’s young, to teach them to maintain a strong Armed Forces but strive always for a peaceful solution to disputes between nations. Those of us who have stood watch over this country, and those who do so now (including my two stepbrothers, one of whom survived being shot in the chest when his Kiowa Warrior helo was shot down in Iraq) and in the future, offer our blood and our lives to keep OUR nation safe, not to be spent cheaply on foreign soil. Let the politicians take up arms and fight their own wars of foreign aggression.

Published in: on 2008 01 13 at 18:37:27  Leave a Comment  
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