How Does the Body Register War?

[Psychology Today] How Does the Body Register War?

The news of my high school national exam came in 2014, ‎‎announcing that I was awarded a scholarship to leave ‎‎Yemen and study in the United States. The ‎timing was perfect because Yemen’s war was ‎reaching an ‎unprecedented peak. Amidst this positive news ‎and as a ‎fresh high school graduate, people were killed for their ‎beliefs or for declaring the wrong statements. ‎Yemen became a nation of mobs where killing occurs ‎at a rapid speed.‎

Most people who witness war die in ‎it and the few who survive rarely write about it. We are also ‎‎simply overwhelmed with an overload of information with ‎hollow language and surface statistics. ‎We become ‎desensitized to human suffering and pain. We no longer can ‎empathize and sympathize with those whose lives have been marred by a crisis. We ‎read the news but it barely resonates. ‎

What about the people who lived through war and ‎then ‎escaped it? What about their trauma? What is war? ‎When ‎does it begin? And when does it end?‎ These questions ‎might lack a sense of urgency for most people but they ‎are the guiding principles for my life. Not a day passes by without my thinking about war ‎because my life has been defined by it. My experience of war ‎is neither unique nor different. It applies to all of those ‎who hailed from traumatic ‎environments. We as a group need to tell the world, loudly ‎and clearly, that war begins when it ends.‎

‎I was attending high school when the Arab Spring protests ‎‎took place in 2011. We were forced to leave our classes and ‎participate in the revolution, to protest against a corrupted government. We ‎were ‎naïve to make informed decisions. We were charmed ‎by the ‎chaos because stability never produced fruitful ‎results for us. ‎We were on the verge of war, though we did ‎not know it at the time. We witnessed simultaneous and ‎numerous ‎traumas, though we were not aware of that ‎at the time. We ‎were driving the country to ‎become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, though ‎that did not matter much at the time. ‎We were in the middle ‎of a war.‎

Like most students in my school, I participated ‎in the ‎protests, for no other reason than to fight a corrupt ‎‎government. We were fed up with inequality and we wanted to ‎‎take agency over our lives. But during those presumably ‎‎innocent protests, some of my friends were shot ‎by the ‎police. We were witnessing death in front of our eyes. ‎We ‎were traumatized but did not feel the trauma. It is ‎similar to ‎those who get into car accidents and never ‎remember the ‎pain at the moment, and those who ‎get raped ‎but only later experience its painful and often ‎‎unforgettable repercussions. ‎ Our brains were traumatized ‎and our feelings were numbed.‎

I was lucky to receive a scholarship to leave Yemen and ‎study in the U.S. When I arrived at the University ‎of Miami in 2016, I was relieved because finally, I was away ‎‎from the chaos. I thought that my experience with Yemen's ‎war was over. I am now in Miami, Florida, surrounded by nice ‎‎beaches and warm weather. But my body and brain, as well as my ‎mind, never forgot about the war. It has been imprinted in my ‎‎DNA. I would go to class, and my imagination ‎would ‎wander to contemplate any possibility that the class ‎would be ‎interrupted by protestors, similar to what happened ‎in Yemen. I realized that the ‎war in ‎Yemen was still haunting me in my new environment. ‎‎Although I was physically away from Yemen’s war, I became ‎mentally paralyzed by it.‎

The effects of the war often manifest in how I relate to ‎‎people. Since the war in Yemen is a war between people, I ‎‎had a challenging time navigating intrapersonal ‎relationships with my new connections in the United ‎States. The war left a scar on my ability to connect with ‎people ‎because growing up in a traumatic environment ‎alters the ‎healthy configurations of my brain. ‎Growing up ‎in the middle of a war altered my sensibilities and how I ‎resonate with the experiences of people whose lives were ‎not exposed to war. I was alienated by my experience ‎because few people understood my predicament. I was ‎having war in my body and mind and soul. ‎

Although I have been away from Yemen for seven years ‎‎now, I have been living the war vicariously and virtually. I ‎‎will wake up reading messages on WhatsApp and Facebook, ‎‎announcing the death of friends and family members, who ‎‎have been affected and lost in the war. After ‎receiving horrifying news, I will then have to walk into ‎my classroom and pretend as if nothing has happened and as ‎if I am ‎living a happy and healthy life. ‎Those contradictions ‎result in pain that words fail to explain. Those of us ‎who have experienced war do not often understand our ‎experiences. Nor could we communicate our ‎predicaments with others. The experience of war ‎changes the psychology and biology of the human brain.‎

I have attempted to distance myself from the war and to ‎‎close all social media accounts, but whenever I talk to my ‎‎family, who are still living in Yemen, they will update me. Our conversations are full of sad news. All I ‎‎learned from those conversations is the number of people ‎who‎ have died or who were injured in the war. I almost always ‎need a ‎therapy session after I speak with someone from home. ‎My family still lives in Yemen, a universe that ‎has a mind of its own. The war became a normalized routine they grew accustomed to. I have not seen my family since I left Yemen. But when I ‎contemplate visiting them, I fear going back to the country ‎in which I was born and raised. I no longer feel at home in my ‎original home, and I struggle to belong in my newfound ‎home. I exist in the in-between, alone. That is the reality of the immigrant ‎and the refugee. ‎

When I attended the University of Pennsylvania to pursue ‎my master’s degree, I could not think of studying any subject ‎‎but the war in Yemen. It was my daily reality yet ‎I was physically living in Philadelphia. I had to regulate my ‎‎attention so that it could not be preoccupied with anything ‎else ‎but the war and its tantamount calamities. Even ‎in the Ivy ‎League space, I was negatively impacted by my ‎experience ‎with the war. It is the sad reality I had to endure. ‎‎While my colleagues were excited to find the next ‎groundbreaking idea, I was trying to ‎understand the breathtaking experiences of war in Yemen. ‎We were in the same class but our minds were operating ‎in different universes.‎

In my moments of optimism, I often think about the end ‎of the war. After seeing horrifying images in the news, is there an end to this mess? Are we ‎heading ‎toward destruction or can we hope for a bright ‎future? When does a war end? ‎I soon realized ‎that, when I left Yemen, I technically ‎was no longer in the war. However, the moment I ‎entered the U.S., my experience with the war truly ‎began. I was confused by my experience ‎because I expected ‎to have a positive experience free of war. My war with the collective war in Yemen ‎began when my physical involvement with it ended. ‎

Being in a safe and secure classroom evoked my ‎memories of war. When I'm ‎hanging out with my friends, I ‎experience a ‎high degree of trauma. When I try to ‎connect with people, I feel paralyzed by pain. When I ‎try to engage ‎with the world and actualize my full potential, I feel ‎pulled back by war. The most important lesson I ‎learned in my life is: War begins when it ends. ‎