Memory is not linear. Neither are the emotions linked to it. It is true that emotions are modified with time. But with the flip of a random trigger, you can find yourself back in those distant feelings, even if not in their full intensity. All of us have emotionally struggled over the past year as the pandemic has altered our reality. For some, the increased vigilance, tension, anxiety, and fear is a reminder of when they felt this combination of emotions in the past. Many Veterans are experiencing increased memories of combat experiences leading to combat-related depression and difficulties on top the emotions and challenges related to the pandemic.
Earlier in 2020, I wrote a ‘Staff Perspective’ on learning to live with fear and how many combat Veterans seemed to not be as fearful as civilians were during the initial months of the pandemic. I still believe that combat deployments prepared many Veterans to flow more smoothly with the initial chaos of 2020. They had already learned how to live with fear. But for myself, as the months or the pandemic wore on, I realized initial benefits of my deployment experience (already knowing how to live with fear) were coupled with setbacks. I have noticed my mind wandering with much more frequency to deployment memories, ranging from good to painful with a lot in between.
My holiday season while deployed was constantly on my mind as I went through the process of figuring out how to celebrate the holidays this year. The odd part was that my holiday this year was no different from last year, with Skype calls to my family and friends, presents, holiday movies, and good cooking. So why did my mind say it was drastically different? And why was I daily reminiscing about my time deployed, especially what I did over those holidays? I haven’t revisited those memories in years!
I have spoken with fellow war Veterans and read even more about how the current pandemic environment is similar to a deployed environment with the constant tension, situational awareness, and isolation depression. As we know, current emotions and physiological states can be strong reminders of times when we felt similarly, bringing the past in to our present. I realize now that the constant tension and vigilance from the past year, so like deployment, has my non-linear memories flooding to the surface and triggering similar emotions and reactions.
Being in a unique position, as a Veteran and psychologist, I often think of my own deployment-related reactions to things and translate these to how to better understand and help other Veterans. So what have I been doing to cope during this pandemic, and can we learn something from this? The key thing for me, and what I think is critical for many, is to look to our traditions. These are what link our past with our present and future. They bring up memories that could be more emotionally peaceful, making present difficulties a bit easier to endure. This year I found myself recalling in detail my Christmas day in Iraq when I hunted down the movie “The Sound of Music” and watched it at the foot of my cot while locals drove by in a truck with a tree in the back, heading for the dining facility. To this day, I have no idea where they found a fir tree in the middle of a dusty desert. Why was it so important for me to find that movie at that time? Because growing up, it seemed to always be playing on TV around holiday times. While the movie played as I sat in my bunk, I experienced fond memories and emotions of more simple times.
The point is that rituals, traditions, and simple habits can all be used to remind us of times other than this pandemic, deployment, or other difficult moments. They can help bring a sense of security and peace. Memories and emotions linked to traditions won’t completely negate what is happening in the present. But they can lighten the load a bit and remind us that time will move forward from wherever we are. Finding traditions and rituals I could continue to do or somehow modify during this holiday season, no matter how small or big, helped pull me out of the stress of the moment and remember the connection I have to my life and others on a larger level.
I know many have joined me in watching out for our combat Veterans during this time. Understand that, however strong they appear, this pandemic environment may be increasing painful memories of deployments. Depression may be about more than what is happening now. But not all memories in life are painful. Memories can be used as non-linear tools to soften difficult times. Look for traditions linked to helpful memories and emotions. Is this something that can be done, even in a modified way, now and moving forward? Traditions cause us to think of times past and future – they center us. And that is something we all need right about now.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Debra Nofziger, Psy.D., is a Senior Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Nofziger is currently located at the Brooke Army Medical Center, TX.