For many, the Cold War is a distant memory. For those under 35, it's history. Then there are people like me. Those who saw the human and economic cost of mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons to keep the peace, extrapolated that scenario to its logical outcome and concluded that homo sapiens sapiens was much more likely than not to fuse itself along with its home world into a sphere of radioactive glass to serve as a dire warning to intelligent life everywhere. This sense of doom was compounded if you lived in East or West Germany, two of the linchpin countries that were little more than pawns in a game of geo-political chess between the superpowers. A game that lasted four decades. A game without a winning scenario. A game in which checkmate equaled extinction.
I understood this by the time I was 13 in 1975. I spent the next 15 years believing it was highly unlikely I'd live to see 30. This was a factor in my decision to emigrate at 20, and the reason why I tirelessly and vocally opposed the Cold War during the 1980s, when everybody in America seemed to embrace it with abandon.
These days, I rarely think about what it was like during those 15 years, living under a cloud of existential doom, barreling towards a seemingly inevitable chain of catastrophic events I had absolutely no power to prevent. As a result, I never went through a youthful phase of feeling invulnerable or immortal. I did not take foolish risks, nor did I do anything else that might shorten my lifespan even further. But mostly I was really, really angry. And I didn't even know it. Consequently, I have vivid memories of emotional outbursts that shocked and confused me as much as those they were directed at. This doesn't happen anymore. I have faced and worked through the emotional aftermath of growing up with an acute awareness of the constant threat of nuclear extinction.
Every once in a while, however, I am viscerally reminded of what that felt like. Take, for example, the following twitter conversation with @biochembelle and @kejames, about the emotional toll of accidents and terrorists attacks that cost lives - events close to home that remind us those lives could easily have been our own.
Yikes. Hoping for best, given circumstances. Amtrak Train From Washington Crashes in Philadelphia http://t.co/uZBfmAahok— biochem belle (@biochembelle) May 13, 2015
There's definitely an extra scare factor when it's a route one takes often...— biochem belle (@biochembelle) May 13, 2015
@biochembelle The London Underground bombings hit my regular commute. A meeting time got changed that day otherwise would have been me.— Karen James (@kejames) May 13, 2015
@kejames Whoa. Was booked on PanAm108 that exploded over Lockerbie '88. Fight w/ family caused me to change reserv day before @biochembelle— Claudia Taake (@ct_la) May 13, 2015
@ct_la Oh wow. I have no words, except that I’m glad you are still with us, obviously. @biochembelle— Karen James (@kejames) May 13, 2015
@kejames Likewise!! Didn't affect me deeply at the time bec I didn't expect to see 30 (believed ColdWar=>Extinction) @biochembelle— Claudia Taake (@ct_la) May 13, 2015
@kejames But was very angry at those working to actively shorten what little time I believed humans had left. @biochembelle— Claudia Taake (@ct_la) May 13, 2015
@kejames Wasn't till Twin Towers fell that I found my self face to face w/ survivor guilt. Took therapy to sort thru that. @biochembelle— Claudia Taake (@ct_la) May 13, 2015
The above exchange triggered memories of an event I hadn't thought about in many years.
Within a year or two after the Berlin Wall fell and it became evident the human race might actually survive to see the 21st century, I went on a very enjoyable date in NYC. Until the conversation turned to the Cold War, current events and the future of US-Russian relations. As always, I expressed my outrage over growing up in a country that was arbitrarily divided into two halves upon which disparate socio-political systems were imposed. How it didn't stop at ideological differences, oh no. How East and West Germany got to play involuntary hosts to ever-increasing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, aimed at targets on "the other side". Enough nukes to kill everyone on the planet many times over.
My date was American, and like many, viewed the Cold War and its recent end as a triumphant victory for the United States. When I was done ranting about the barbarism and moral bankruptcy of the Cold War, he nonchalantly remarked: "Oh come on, admit it! It totally worked!"
An intense flash of anger brought me to my feet in the restaurant. I vividly remember fighting back the urge to punch him in the face. I forgot what I said to him; it left him stunned, along with everybody in earshot. I stormed out of the restaurant and never saw him again.
I did not comprehend what had just happened, or why. But this was not an isolated incident. Slowly, I began to realize that my emotional reactions to the Cold War were not ok, not healthy. In therapy, I found a name for it: "Cold War Hangover". It got better with work and over time. Yet the intensity and pervasiveness of it remains remarkable, as do the memories and emotions triggered by the commitment to nihilism and destruction that was the Cold War.