One of the most difficult things about life after combat is the background noise. Its those constant mental processes that make it nearly impossible to be fully present in the moment. It requires so much effort to keep all the back ground noise in the background that it distracts us from the current events, conversations, or work.
The white noise is responsible for many of the issues that combat veterans face, like irritability, memory problems, and occasionally the thousand yard stare. It is this incessant sapping of focus that leads to many other complications like drug and alcohol abuse and depression.
So what is the background noise. For me its all the little processes like scanning, looking for threats, and trying to remain in control of the adrenaline and breathing. This however is not the greatest sap of my focus. The big drain is the blockade that runs on all of the memories from combat. It is a really bad blockade but it is there none the less. The memories tend to get the best of me when I am sitting idly. The 2 points in time that i find my mind traces back to those memories are when I am a passenger in a car or plane and right before I go to sleep. I figure thats because I am alert but not doing anything so my mind wonders and without me trying to block out the memories thats where my mind settles. You might say well thats dumb just don’t think about it. There is a very real biological reason why my brain would focus on those memories. Its the same reason as to why your adrenal responses are hard wired into your bad memory section. Its because the things that were usually bad memories were things that threatened your life or forced you to fight. So your brains keeps those memories on the forefront of your brain so that it can identify a possible threat that much faster. Good idea if something was always trying to kill me, but not necessarily the case.
To give a better example of why the background noise sucks, I will use an analogy. Take your computer for example. Open up a bunch of windows and minimize them and then open up another window and try to do something. Computer is going to lag or ding at you annoyingly. Its going to take twice as long to do a simple task and probably burn through your patience. This is essentially what is going on when I am talking about the background noise. Your brain is good at doing some pretty amazing stuff but when its distracted like that, you aren’t running on full steam and things suffer. I hate that feeling of not being present. I don’t like how I feel when I suddenly do become present and realize I have no idea what the person is talking about or where the lecture is. This whole autopilot thing is not fun way to go through life.
How do you stop the background noise. I don’t know the answer to that one. But what I do know are a couple of tricks to make it less noticeable. Get yourself a little notebook and a little pen that can slide into it, keep it in the opposite back pocket of your wallet or in your purse. When you are told something or think about something you need to remember write it down. Good for two reasons one, it is a written record of the thing you need to remember and you can go back to it. Two, the act of writing something down requires your brain to process that information and hopefully store it in the long term memory. Another trick I have started recently is at the end of a conversation ask yourself a series of questions about what just happened. What was the individual’s name? Are there any tasks I incurred from that meeting? Is there another date for another meeting? What was something memorable from what they said? What were they wearing? Yea something as simple what were they wearing can actually be a difficult question. These are just some of the things I try to do to make it a little bit more bearable, until I don’t hear that background noise anymore.
The interesting thing is that the background noise is so incredibly distracting and yet if you do not look for it, you won’t know its there. You will just not be present in everyday life, you will struggle with your memory, and be irritable for an unknown reason. Recognize and acknowledge it and you can do something about it. So now that the background noise is brought to the front of your mind, do something about it.