“…We vividly relive a combat experience or see the world that we are in, in the here and now, as if it were somewhere in the combat zone.” (Hart, 2000, p. 109)
Reminder: For the next few weeks, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.
We sometimes forget what we want to remember and sometimes remember what we want to forget. Forgetting is an important part of the human mind. We need to forget some things to make room for other things and to make sense out of senseless things. But there are memories we never forget.
We remember snapshots, like the first time we saw our spouse or child. Such memories return as flashbulbs providing vivid pictures of bits of our past and allowing us to relive the feelings of another time. The first time I jumped out of an airplane and my parachute opened. Gratitude—and surprise at the sudden quiet after that noisy old flying boxcar. It was exhilarating and pleasant.
Combat memories are not so pleasant. They can also flood upon us not just as flashbulb memories of little snapshots, but as full production movies we call flashbacks. We are suddenly overwhelmed by the sensation of living the experience all over again in the here and now. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence for me—although, not so rare for some of my brothers.
Memories elicit feelings, and that can be very pleasant, instructive, and helpful. Big memories like flashbacks can also elicit emotions. Such memories may not feel good, but the emotional consequences feel worse. What is the difference? Emotions exceed feelings because they include physiological responses.
Flashbacks produce feelings and emotions. They produce chemical changes, such as adrenalin, that cause many more changes in the body. Our breathing and heart rates change. We perspire. We may get weak—or, unbelievably strong. Such physiological changes may be exhilarating, but as they continue for three or four days, they hurt.
Combat Veterans would not usually choose to have such memories. We have ways to avoid them. We repress certain memories. We think about other things. We stay busy with work and/or hobbies. We drink. We focus anger on certain people or things. We refuse to talk about them or be around people who do.
None of these things work forever. Memories percolate to the conscious mind at the most inopportune times. In nightmares. While we are driving. At a funeral. When we are hunting.
Sometimes it is a sight, sound, feeling, or smell that triggers the memory. Smells are especially effective. Many of my Vietnam Veteran brothers cannot stand the smell of nuoc mam, a sauce made of fermented fish and used like soy sauce. Because I lived and ate with Vietnamese as an advisor, I actually like the smell. Nor am I triggered by the sound of tonal languages or the look of Asian faces. Americans who fought in the jungles in isolation from the Vietnamese people have more difficulties.
The human mind has another avoidance mechanism. When powerful memories emote physiological responses, part of the mind goes away. We dissociate, meaning we lose time. It may be for only an instant, or it may be for frighteningly long periods of time. Some of my friends have reported finding themselves at their safe spot in the desert far from home and hours later than their last conscious memory. I am, again, fortunate to have little experience with this phenomenon.
Two points about dissociation: First, it is a protective mechanism to shield our minds from reliving our trauma and is, therefore, useful; Second, it is a cue to us to take action (breathing, EMDR, talking left brain to right brain, calling our psychologist, talking to a friend) to cope with our emotions. We cannot forget everything—nor, should we—but, we need not let our memories destroy our present and future.
There are methods to cope, but we must learn and use them, and for that, we must have help. Our Veterans need our support after they come home. Support Troops After Return (STAR).