My Second Birthday

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Today is my second birthday. I turn seventeen.

You might be asking yourself what I mean. (And you might be going “really?” but I wouldn’t blame you if you are.) Today is a very special anniversary for me.

Seventeen years ago today, I quit smoking.

There are some of you out there whose earliest memories of me include me smoking. But I would venture a guess that most of you have never seen me do so, and I would also presume that a majority of you didn’t know I ever smoked. I don’t talk about it all that often.

I started when I was 13, for the most idiotic reason that I’ve ever heard of. It wasn’t peer pressure – that I can understand. But when I was 13 I had very, very few friends and so peer pressure wasn’t a thing that I suffered from, fortunately. (It’s that lack of peer pressure that I largely credit with me never trying recreational drugs as well and only rarely drinking.) No, my reason? I liked it when it was cold and I could see my breath, and if I smoked I could do that year-round. Told you it was a stupid reason. I was an idiot, I confess.

Seventeen years ago today I was driving to Austin from an SCA event in Oklahoma in order to drop my then-girlfriend (now wife) off before driving back to Houston where I lived at the time. I got in a coughing fit and honestly didn’t know whether I was going to pass out or throw up first. I managed to get the car over to the shoulder where we switched drivers and we went to a fast food place for me to get a drink of water and to recover out of the heat. We stayed there about 20 minutes. On my way out the door, I threw away the pack I was working on, never to pick them up again.

The first month was particularly tough, but the cravings eventually subsided, only to be replaced with more frequent snacking. I gained about 30 pounds the first year after I quit. Now when I’m out in public, I do my best to avoid cigarette smoke, since the smell is very unpleasant and can make me nauseated in certain circumstances.

For about 18 years I smoked more or less a pack a day. The math says that’s very roughly 131,400 cigarettes, give or take about fifteen percent on either side to account for heavier days and lighter days and all-around poor memory. It took me roughly five minutes to finish off a cigarette. That equates to a year and three months of me with a cigarette in my hand, or roughly 2.6% of my lifespan spent inhaling tobacco smoke.

The good news is that in the 17 years I’ve been quit, my body has pretty much recovered to the risk levels of a non-smoker in many aspects. There’s still an elevated risk of lung cancer and COPD given enough time, but things like increased risk of cardiac disease have returned to normal.

I try not to live with regrets, but if I could do it all over again, I’d take a pass at the cigarettes. I honestly never really gained anything from smoking them, as all the friends that I eventually made later in life would have accepted me whether or not I was a smoker. I gained nothing and lost time and health and a lot of money to the habit.

I don’t try to tell my friends who smoke that they should quit. There’s enough evidence out there that it’s not good for you without me harping about it too. If you want to quit, you’ll quit. It’ll be hard, but it’s something you’re capable of. If I can do it, so can you.

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And There’s More

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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.

A List of Accomplishments

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Today is therapy day, and since I don’t remember all the progress that I’ve made over the last two weeks, I figured it would be prudent to summarize everything in a single place rather than looking through two weeks of blog posts during my session to grab the highlights.

For those new to the blog, remember that I’m on disability for PTSD, bipolar, and anxiety, and while these accomplishments might not seem like much, they’re kind of a big deal for me.

  • Set up an appointment to discuss a last-minute change to my Return to Work action plan that Texas Workforce Commission and I have in place. It’s the difference in a vocational certificate and an associate’s degree transferable to a bachelor’s program.
  • Went to the store on my own prepared to shop for a full week, stopped only by a lack of funds to cover the list I went to the store with, so the full week’s worth of shopping turned into about four day’s worth, long enough to tide us over until we could revamp the menu to more affordable fare. While at the store, I dealt with an anxiety-causing situation very well.
  • Went back to the store the next day to wrap up the week’s worth of shopping, this time with my wife.
  • Dealt with a difficult situation with customer service regarding two computer games that I play.
  • Took a trip down to San Antonio through bad rush hour traffic to have dinner with my mother-in-law and dealt with construction traffic on the way home. Bad traffic is one of my bigger triggers.
  • Went out to dinner on a Friday night without experiencing any anxiety at all about the situation – another of my big triggers that I avoided even at my best.
  • Went back to the store for the next week’s worth of shopping, again with my wife, but this time striking up and otherwise participating in conversations with people we know at the store.
  • Entertained a friend at home for a few hours and had an excellent time. Not necessarily an anxious situation, but it does show that I’m starting to socialize in person more these days.
  • Went to a friend’s house for a Fourth of July gathering with about 20 friends and about 4-5 people that I didn’t know beforehand. I chatted people up, I was conversational (about as conversational as I get at parties, generally speaking the more people are there the less I tend to interject myself into other people’s conversations, instead preferring to quietly observe), and I sat in on a new-to-me card game that I want to pick up a version or two of. Stayed considerably longer than I thought we would, leaving on my wife’s schedule rather than my own.
  • Went back to the store for a few items and ran in to pick things up while my wife waited in the car. At no time during this two-week period did my wife go to the store without me being present.

Wow. Looking back on things all at once, I really have made some strides over the last two weeks. I’m looking forward to discussing all of this during my session today.

Seems Like a Simple Thing

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Today we had planned to go to the store together, and then to do our radio show in the evening, and do a lot of goofing off around that. But instead my wife got called into work for seven and a half hours, which put everything else on hold. So I decided to take up the slack on my own.

I dropped her off at work, then came home for a few minutes, long enough to make a menu for next week and a corresponding grocery list, and then I headed to the store.

Now, for most people, that’s absolutely no big deal. But I haven’t been to the store but once by myself in years, and that one time was to only pick up one thing. This is the first time that I’d prepared to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping on my own in a long time – I think we were living in Illinois the last time I did that, and we’ve been back in Texas for going on five years now.

Furthermore, it’s the first time that I’ve gone to a grocery store on my own on a weekend afternoon in a very, very long time. Even when I was doing the best I was able to in Illinois, I avoided the store on Saturdays and Sunday unless it was absolutely necessary, and even then I went either with my wife or late at night, long after the crowds had died down.

So while it may not seem like much to you, to me it was a very big deal.

I made it through the store with only minor anxiety for part of my trip. When I first got there, I started mirroring another customer’s path through the aisles. She was talking at someone on her phone – I hesitate to use the term “talking with” since she was speaking almost nonstop the whole time I heard her – and she was speaking very, very loudly. This unnerved me, and it started getting my anxiety up, but I managed to fight it well enough, and eventually she jumped ahead of me in her progress and I couldn’t hear her anymore. (It took putting four aisles between me and her, though.)

That was about the time I decided to check Quicken, just to be on the safe side, and I’m glad I did, because there was considerably less money in the account than I had anticipated, so I went through the process of picking the stuff that we absolutely had to have for the next couple of days and putting everything else back. On a bad day, that would have embarrassed me and triggered my anxiety. Today, it did nothing. (We’re going to make it through to the next paycheck, we just needed to drop back and plan something cheaper for a few nights.)

I came home, put the groceries away, and then the shopping bags. (Austin has a city ordinance prohibiting the use of disposable plastic grocery bags. We carry reusable bags with us everywhere.) And I sat down and took it easy for a while.

That wasn’t the end of my day, however. There were several household chores that were in need of doing, so after a decent enough rest, I started in on those. Even without the trip to the store, it’s been a productive day.

I went to get my wife from work and was able to surprise her with many things around the house, and we had a nice dinner before settling in at our desks for an evening of leisure on the computer. She went to go lie down, however, and while she did I wrapped up the last of my checklist for the day (with the exception of bedtime stuff).

I’m tired, but it’s a good tired.

A Potential Change of Plans

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Yesterday I wrote about my discussion about school with my therapist, and mentioned that she wanted me to contact my Texas Workforce Commission case manager regarding changing my action plan with them. Here’s why.

Late last year, I began working with TWC on a plan to get me back to work. They could either give me assistance with trying to get work in an area that I was already capable of doing, or they could give me assistance with retraining me for a job in a new field. I have two vocational certificates, one in massage therapy and one in pharmacy technology, and both of those fields require long hours on my feet, something that I can’t do anymore because of my back. So rather than risk returning to generalized clerical work, something that I’ve spent a good portion of my professional life doing, I opted to pursue education in a new field.

I initially looked for an associate’s degree in architectural drafting, but subsequent job searches turned up precious few leads statewide, and none within commuting distance from where I currently live, so I started looking at another field. After discussing my options with my case manager, I decided to go to my final meeting with TWC intent on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. That meeting went disastrously, as I discovered from my case manager that everything that I’ve suggested as a potential field of study wasn’t considered feasible by TWC standards, and I was basically given the choice of accepting a certificate in medical billing and coding or walking out the door empty handed with nothing to show for my time spent with TWC. (TWC has a 90-day window to design and approve an action plan. This final meeting was on day 83 of my window.) So I settled for medical billing and coding and went home to research what would apparently be my new career.

It turns out that medical coders make decent money, better than I would have gotten as an architectural drafter, and there were better job opportunities, so I decided to make the best of the situation I found myself in and start looking into everything that I needed to do to enroll for the fall semester.

I had my orientation on Tuesday afternoon, where I learned what the next steps to enroll were, and I had a good meeting. I wrote about it on Facebook, and a friend of mine told me that she was pursuing an associate’s degree in essentially the same field out of state. I was curious, and after a few minutes of research discovered that Austin Community College, the institution that I would be attending for my certificate program, offered an associate’s degree in health information technology, which covers both medical billing and coding and medical records analysis. The potential for becoming gainfully employed would be increased significantly with an associate’s degree, so I filed that information away for pursuit after I had gotten the certificate and had worked enough to afford the degree, if the field interested me. I was further encouraged that the associate’s degree at ACC would transfer to Texas State for a bachelor’s degree in health information technology, so there would be the potential for even further education in the field.

I mentioned this to my therapist yesterday, and also mentioned that in the pursuit of the next steps for the certificate program I had learned that my former case manager, who had stuck me with this field in the first place, was no longer with TWC, and that my case was being handled by someone new. My therapist recommended that I reach out to TWC and ask what the possibility of switching my action plan to the associate’s degree would be. I didn’t really hold out much hope, but I told her that I would try. So this morning I sent my new case manager an email explaining the situation.

My new case manager called me this afternoon to follow up and ask a little more about what I was looking to do, and why. So I told her briefly about the background of my case and how I was pretty much assigned this field by my former case manager, and how the addition of the medical records analysis would increase both my earning potential and my employment prospects. She said that she would need to meet with me to discuss this in further detail, so I have an appointment on July 11th with her to go over my suggestion.

I honestly don’t hold out much hope for a switch, mostly because I know that TWC won’t cover the expense of prerequisite classes, and the associate’s degree program has five prerequisite courses before the start of the six-semester program. But at least I will have talked it over and found out the answer instead of assuming what it would be.

If I don’t get to switch to the degree program, that’s fine. It just means that once I get back to work, I’ll start saving money to be able to go back to school on my own, should the field prove to be interesting to me. If I do get to switch, that’s even better – an associate’s degree in one field is better than none at all to some employers, so even if I choose to leave the field eventually, I’ll have an education under my belt.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find out.

Back to School

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I’m going back to school in the fall for Medical Billing and Coding, and today was my orientation at Austin Community College. It was a good session, but short, and likely would have been shorter had there not been  a couple of obstacles in the way.

When my adviser brought me back, she took my application, reviewed it quickly, then started telling me about the coursework that I would be taking. First semester was recommended to be three classes, then second semester would be four, and third semester was two more classes and the practicum. This differed from what I read online, but I figured there was a change to the program that hadn’t made the website yet. The fall 2017 continuing education catalog was just released today, and this was the first time that my adviser had looked at it.

I told her that I could likely take the full four classes since I’m on disability and not working during the day, and she told me that the fourth class was largely on campus, with some of it taught online. Again, this was different from what I learned online, but I went with it. Then she told me that she couldn’t find the class listed in the catalog, so she checked online to see if it was in the system, and it wasn’t, so she told me she’d have to get back to me with all the registration information I’d need for that fourth class.

It’s at this point in time that she asked me if I was sure I wanted to take the medical assistant program, and I corrected her. She looked back at my application and said that she must have read it wrong, and then she wondered about the medical assistant program being “on the run” and probably not something someone coming back from a disability would want to jump into. She was thinking medical billing and coding given that piece of information, and I told her that was what I wanted. So she scratched through the classes that she highlighted and started over.

She told me that there were two semesters, the first being all the non-coding classes, and the second being all coding classes and the practicum. That meshed with what I’d learned online, so I felt we were back on the same page at this point. She went back through the catalog to highlight the correct classes and noticed that one of my four wasn’t listed. She checked online and sure enough, it wasn’t in the system, so she told me she’d give me a call when it was live and accessible. She asked if I had any questions, and I told her that I’d never done online classes before, and would she give me an idea of what to expect, and she filled me in on how they were run. That was the only question that I could think of, and she said she was available if and when others came to mind.

We shook hands and I left, making a stop past the registration desk to make sure that when I registered later online, I knew what information they needed from the catalog.

The whole thing was over in about thirty minutes. It was a good meeting and I’m looking forward to registering. My next step is to contact my TWC liaison at ACC and start the ball rolling on tuition arrangements, and when she clears me – and I have information on the fourth class – I can get online and register. At that point, it’s simply a question of picking up textbooks and waiting for class to start.

The online classes are arranged differently than the classes on campus. Each class is taught sequentially, so I’m only taking one class at a time. The downside to this is that each class lasts just a few weeks, so there’s very little room for getting behind. I’m going to have to stay on top of my classwork in order to succeed in this program, but I believe I can handle it.

I’m really looking forward to getting this first step to getting back in the workforce underway.

Steady As She Goes

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I had my first follow-up appointment with my new psychiatrist this afternoon. He asked how things were going, and I told him about the event on Saturday – how I didn’t have panic attacks beforehand like I’ve been doing recently, and how I handled the minor panic attack at the event. He said that it sounds like the Zoloft is working as expected to control my anxiety, perhaps even a little bit better than expected, and he said that he was going to keep my meds where they were. He wanted to know if I felt myself wanting to do things that I had been avoiding and I told him that the event on Saturday was my return to an aspect of the SCA that I hadn’t felt up to pursuing in years, so he was pleased to hear that. He inquired about side effects and I told him that I haven’t seen anything. I was honest – not every day is rosy, but very few days are truly down right now, and he commented on how things seem to have turned around for me pretty notably in a short period of time. He advised that the Zoloft still hasn’t reached maximum efficacy, so I might see that similar attacks like the one I had on Saturday are even easier to deal with in another month or two. He asked if there was anything on the horizon that might test the Zoloft at full strength and I told him that I was returning to school in the fall, and that the plan was for me to be working again about this time next year. He was happy to hear that I’m looking forward to school and to getting back to work. He wants to see me again in August, just to follow-up around the time that the Zoloft has well and truly kicked in. All in all, it was a very good appointment.