The Mighty Logo

Why My Experience With VA Vocational Rehab for Depression Was a 'Circus of Confusion’

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs administers a vocational rehabilitation program for disabled veterans seeking to re-enter the workforce; one of the goals of the program is to train veterans to perform work that will not aggravate their disabilities. I participated in the program following a psychiatric discharge from the Navy, hoping to put the worst experience of my life behind me by starting a career I would enjoy and in which I would prosper. This goal was not met, in part, because my rehabilitation plan was managed by a counselor who understood my problems so poorly that the plan she devised could not help but cause the aggravation the VA claims it is trying to avoid. In a letter to a friend, I once described my experience with VA voc rehab as a “circus of confusion,” and have yet to find a more apt description of the debacle.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I regale you with images of sinister, mustache-twirling VA ringmasters and clown cars driving off in opposite directions with no clear destination, I need to balance the account with some background on my own failings and how they led me to the center ring.

When I left the Navy, I was a mess, which is not surprising, because I was a mess when I was in the Navy. Throughout my time on active duty, I rode a roller coaster of depression and deeper depression that culminated in my first suicide attempt after 10 months of service. At the time, I believed my depression was rooted in my dislike for Navy life and Navy people and that it would improve when I left the service. I was wrong, realizing only belatedly that my depression deepens the more I have to be around people, period.

While I was in the hospital, I was inclined to attribute my depression to other things, the most obvious being the hostility the Navy exhibits toward its members and the Kafkaesque environment in which it forces them to live. With those ogres looming over me, I did not appreciate how debilitating the simple act of coexisting with others is for me — though, of course, there were hints I prefer solitude. When I pictured my pipe dream of building fine furniture for a living, for example, the only time I ever thought about people in that context was when I imagined meeting the woman I would marry. Otherwise, I saw wood shavings spilling from the mouth of a hand plane to the floor of a solitary shop in the woods that no one could find unless I wanted them to. With the exception of the woman I would marry, I never wanted them to. My furniture vanished when completed, and money would magically appear in my bank account. I didn’t care to think about the hours of rubbing elbows with customers that such transactions require, because I knew I couldn’t do it and the dream could not survive that reality. Unfortunately, I wasn’t conscious of this fact at this point. I was too fixated on mistaken ideas of what was wrong with me, and the problem was compounded with the mistaken ideas that my various therapists had filled my head with. I stumbled toward my future, unaware I kept falling down because I was blind.

When voc rehab took me on, I enrolled in a cabinetmaking program at a local vocational school; the VA covered the tuition and related expenses. My battle with depression continued, as I was required to be around people, but there were moments when I could isolate myself with my work and find some measure of peace. However, I wasn’t able to work quickly, and there were many tasks I never could do well, such as Formica work on countertops. Consequently, I was unable to hold a job in the field when I graduated. With no other path open to me and fighting a losing battle with my emotional problems, I entered the Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program at a local VA hospital.

Considering my background in woodworking, the CWT staff assigned me to a shop that machined parts for wooden planters. The work was repetitive and mind-numbing; rather than helping me with my issues, it deepened my depression. Five months after graduating from cabinetmaking school, I was back in a locked hospital ward following my second suicide attempt. I had no interest in woodworking or anything else at this point. Following my release from the hospital, I had regained some equilibrium but had no clear direction in which to go. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with other things to try. All of my ideas required an education of some sort and my voc rehab benefits were all but used up.

I was conscious of the fact that a good deal of money had, seemingly, been wasted on me. I felt obligated to prevent my rehab plan from being a complete waste. When my counselor told me there was a way to do so, I accepted. At the same time, I also had the sense my participation was mandatory. The conversation had the same threatening overtones that laced my superiors’ inquiries into my incompetence while I was in the service. The counselor did not scream at and humiliate me the way my naval superiors had. It wasn’t necessary. I was conditioned by that time to tell those with power over me what they wanted to hear. So, when the counselor told me she intended to set me up in my own business… after I had been fired from two jobs for incompetence, and after only 18 months of trade school training, I willingly became the “freak” in her circus of confusion.

The counselor knew I was “slightly uncomfortable” dealing with people, as she characterized it. Because I was still, nominally, a patient of the CWT program, she arranged to have a staff member there handle the initial contact with my prospective customers. I would have to manage any subsequent contact on my own — something I could not handle. Before I could worry myself into the ground over how that was going to work, the counselor presented her solution to the other major problem facing me: my lack of experience. To remedy that deficit, she arranged for a local cabinetmaker to provide space in his shop for me to work, along with instruction. Further, she said the VA would purchase materials I would use to construct two pieces of furniture. I needed a good three months of training, she said, and then I would be ready to take on customers.

This arrangement offended me. For one thing, the cabinetmaker she’d found was a classmate from the same cabinetmaking school I’d attended. He stood in front of me as we waited in line to receive our diplomas at the graduation ceremony. A disabled veteran himself, he had qualified for voc rehab’s self-employment program and had set up shop in his garage with equipment the VA purchased for him; he was responsible for obtaining and paying for the relevant insurance and business licenses. After graduation, he worked in a local shop for a year before the VA decided he was ready to go solo.

I must have been an awful cabinetmaker if the instruction from a classmate who didn’t know much more than I did would be enough to prepare me to run my own business. This concern didn’t entirely arise out of my bruised ego; my alma mater’s cabinetmaking teacher had once told me he had worked in various shops for 15 years before he felt he was qualified to go out on his own. I didn’t think three additional months on top of a year and half of school was enough to qualify me to run a business, nor was my classmate’s one year in someone else’s shop enough to qualify him to teach me to run one. But I didn’t want to disappoint anyone and, acutely feeling that my rehab plan could not be a waste, I built an oak office desk with material the VA purchased.

Originally, I’d planned to build a dining table also, but made so many mistakes building the desk that there wasn’t enough material left for the table. It also took several months to build what a professional would complete in a week or so. I was depressed, and it hampered me. But with perseverance, the desk was completed and displayed at the VA hospital’s canteen store, with a stack of flyers that said: “A patient can build items similar to this. Inquire at CWT.”

There were only two inquiries. One concerned the construction of a dining table that required an intricate spindle turning that could not be purchased, and I did not have the skills necessary to produce it. The other inquiry was for a computer desk. An employee and her husband had decided I could build it if I could beat Walmart’s price. Some number crunching confirmed I couldn’t even pay for the materials at Walmart’s price, let alone my labor and the insurance policy the VA insisted I carry. (They didn’t cover that.) There were no more inquiries after my prospective customer base learned I either lacked the skill to produce what they wanted or could not provide it at Walmart’s prices.

But the desk had turned out OK, the CWT therapist said. The raised panels looked nice. At least I was learning a lot in my apprenticeship. This statement raised some issues. For one thing, I hadn’t learned to do raised panels from my former classmate/current instructor. I learned to do those by reading magazine articles. When I told the CWT therapist this, she said, “Are you getting much of an apprenticeship at all?” I was livid. While I had felt I would be punished if I did not follow my rehab plan, I had felt comfortable enough with the CWT therapist to express my concerns with it. Now, after months of doing so, I believed that was the first time she had heard me. After this suddenly stunning revelation (to her), what we discussed in the session highlighted another issue: four people were involved in my rehab plan besides me, and every one of them had a different idea about what the plan was supposed to accomplish.

The CWT therapist thought I was an apprentice to my former classmate. The voc rehab counselor thought I was running a business. My former classmate didn’t care much one way or the other as long as he got his check from the VA every month. Finally, I had yet another therapist who never believed I would succeed. According to him, it was necessary for me to fail so that I would see my status as a disabled person more clearly and accept the fact there are going to be things I cannot do.

While the four clown cars were driving off in four different directions, it was clear to me that I was unqualified to be in the business of building overpriced furniture I wasn’t capable of making, for customers I was not capable of dealing with, from the shop of a classmate who was also my instructor, who learned everything he knew about raised panels from me. The CWT therapist said she would intervene with the rehab counselor. It must have worked; a few weeks later, my classmate left a note on my workbench. The VA was not going to fund the arrangement any longer and I needed to move out immediately. I packed my stuff and left.

I met with the counselor soon after. She said she had another arrangement we could try. It would involve marketing through craft shows, though I wasn’t good enough yet to get into the juried ones. Again, I was livid. If I wasn’t good enough to get into juried craft shows, I wasn’t good enough to work professionally. If I wasn’t capable of working professionally, why had she pushed me into running my own business? But I swallowed my anger as she added that working shows would require me to deal with the public more than I had at the VA hospital, but that wouldn’t be a problem, would it? Fearing punishment if I disagreed, I said that would be fine.

But I was done. I never attended the follow-up appointment. Mail from the counselor’s office went into the garbage whether I bothered to open it or not. I didn’t leave home much. If they wanted to punish me, they could come and get me. After a few months, the counselor sent a letter saying my case had been closed and I was now rehabilitated.

I beg to differ, as I did not benefit from the experience. I was too depressed to participate effectively in my own rehab, and the plan itself was inappropriate for many reasons, not least of which is that it ignored my limitations so absolutely that I often wondered if the counselor had confused me with someone else. (Which she had, in a sense, because I was never comfortable enough with her to show her who I was and what I needed from the program.) My irritation with the counselor is tempered, though, by my anger toward myself. I was too “stupid” to realize that when I selected cabinetmaking for my career path, I had chosen badly. I had one shot to get it right; the VA does not have the resources for do-overs, and they should not be expected to endure infinite do-overs for every veteran who has trouble getting his act together. I had one shot, and I blew it. College would have been an uncertain and expensive gamble given my difficulties holding a job, and every entry level job I’ve ever seen advertised requires working with others. Voc rehab was the only road open to me, and it was a stretch of pavement that ended abruptly in the middle of nowhere, as if it didn’t know where to go.

The image of a directionless road in a desolate place seems fitting. Having told a story that criticizes the VA, I am at a loss to offer solutions, a faux pas of some magnitude in communities that deal with problems that have no easy fixes. All I can offer is a story one of my therapists once told me. He’d been treating a veteran for alcoholism and the veteran was ready to employ voc rehab’s services to move forward in his recovery. The counselor was resistant to providing help, saying she wanted him to have two years of sobriety under his belt before she would consider doing anything for him. According to my therapist, an alcoholic with two years of sobriety doesn’t need the help. He viewed voc rehab as a tool that could assist the healing process, while the counselor seemed to view it as a way to return veterans to the workforce after their issues have been dealt with.

The counselor’s view has merit; my issues had not been dealt with sufficiently before I started my rehabilitation, and time and resources were wasted as a result. On the other hand, my ongoing struggle with depression suggests it is not an issue that will ever be “dealt with” with any finality. It is a day-by-day struggle, and a rehab plan that had accounted for my problems could have placed me more firmly on a path with a sense of purpose and a reason to keep fighting. Because time only flows one way; we suffer the consequence of not knowing whether what we do will work out until we do it. As such, there probably isn’t a good way to determine whether a veteran is ready for rehabilitation or not. Having said this, many of the problems that occurred in my case could have been avoided if we had done a better job of communicating with one another. While the clown cars were speeding away from me, I was juggling a set of obligations I could not meet because I was too scared of the VA to speak up. When I found my voice, no one heard it. For too long, my words vanished into the folds of an empty Big Top because the VA did not believe my concerns were important.

Photo by John Fornander on Unsplash

Originally published: December 18, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home