Learning to live with what is broken

....In feigned completeness I would walk the lonely
longest distance between all points and others
because in their connection my geometry will have
been faithful to its own imagined laws...
— Barbara Kingsolver, American Biographies

My own imagined laws. These laws make so much sense in my inner world—with my geometry. They are the laws of nature, the rules, the commandments I created to survive trauma. Don’t move. Don’t flinch. Ignore what hurts. Figure out what they want or need and do it. Feelings are dangerous, shut them down. I used to call them the ‘old rules’ but now I don’t even know what to call them. They are habit, they are instinct, they are woven into the way I approach relationships. The way I form expectations. They are so hard to unlearn, to ignore, to change.

It is so hard to see these laws for what they are because they are substrate, they live below the surface, they are not what you see in my work, or hear in my words, they are the emotional source code that my behavioral computer runs off of. I can’t see them until I have lived them. So many times I have thought that I understood them, changed them, saw them for what they were—and then I suddenly find that I am living the old laws again.  I stay silent when I should have spoken up. I don’t ask for help or reach out. I am sure I have made them angry. The rules can feel so real, even if you know, really know, that they aren’t real anymore. That they don’t fit your life now.

This is the disorientation of surviving trauma. You are always living in more than one place at a time: your body is in 2019 and your brain, your emotional system can be catapulted back to 1969. Or 1972. Or 1982. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t lived through trauma. It’s hard to make this dynamic visible. It’s hard to objectively see the dilemma for what it is. But last week, I got to see in a much more visible and less emotionally charged way what it looks like when a map doesn’t match reality.

I was visiting my brother in Nashville and we spent Saturday running errands for his job. He has a truck with a video screen GPS navigation system built in to the dashboard. As I had never been to Nashville before I didn’t notice at first that his GPS didn’t match up with where we were. But as I began to pay attention, I noticed that the road we were on was not the road on the screen. His GPS was broken, but in a sort of magical way. The road we were driving on was in Tennessee; the road on his screen was in Missouri. No matter where we were driving—we were in one place, and the GPS had us located in someplace completely different. It was inconsistent and it would shift around. Sometimes on the screen we were on a small back road even though we were currently on a major highway. Twice the GPS located us in the middle of a lake. Once we were even in France. His GPS also had a feature that showed the weather—so often the GPS warned us of rain and lightning even though at the time we were driving through a cloudless day. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the make-believe world we were driving in. I’d look at the road ahead and then look at the GPS to see where the car thought we were. The map that looked so real, and actually was real, it just wasn’t where we actually were. It wasn’t our currently reality. It was impossible to use this GPS map to navigate.

I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO SURVIVE TRAUMA!”  You are in 2019 driving through your life and your whole internal GPS operating system is running off of a different map. I wanted to take everyone I knew for a ride in that car. I wanted to shout “YOU TRY AND NAVIGATE YOUR WORLD WITH THAT MAP.” It is exhausting to always feel lost. It is exhausting to always be trying to get back to where you are.

Seeing that GPS made me realize something I had been fighting for a very long time. As hard as I had tried to reprogram that map—years and years trying to undo, unlearn, rewrite those old laws—much of my GPS was fundamentally broken. Yes, some of my hard work had paid off—and some of the old rules and old laws seemed to fade away. But there were plenty that never seemed to yield. There were too many times that I was standing in the present trying to navigate with an old map and the weight of this constant struggle filled me with despair.

I took my inability to fix my internal maps personally. I saw it as a character flaw. But realistically I could no longer see it as a lack of effort. Watching that broken GPS helped me decide that I was too tired to fight my old GPS anymore. When I got back from Nashville my therapist and I discussed whether it was time to admit that perhaps there were parts of me that just weren’t going to get better. Parts that might remain hurt and that what I was living with was as good as it was going to get. I decided to finally surrender to what was broken in me: I was just going to observe it and let it be. I was going to do what my brother did with his broken GPS—just drive around with it and not use it for navigation—not try to use it as any form of information other than what it was—information about my history.

In admitting defeat the first thing I noticed was a sense of relief. I could feel the exhaustion and there was massive relief from not having to fight it anymore, not have to rally against it anymore. I actually could feel myself breathe more deeply.

And then this relief gave way to sadness. At first I felt sad because I didn’t just let go of the fight, I also let go of hope. And there is real sadness at this loss of hope—loss of the relentless hope that it all would get better. Hope that there was a version of me that was unhurt by the trauma. Relentless hope is a such a powerful pain medicine—it numbs this sadness somehow— and it allows the fantasy that if you can heal something, then maybe the trauma never even happened.

But once the sadness from the loss of hope subsided a different sadness appeared. A deep, heavy grief—grief for what I lived through, grief for what didn’t happen and grief for what might never heal. And this grief is with me now. I realize I have spent years running away from it, wanting it to be gone, wanting to fix it, wanting it not to be true. And now I am just sitting with it, the way you sit at the bedside of a very sick friend. Learning to live with what is broken is like that I think. You can’t do anything to actually change the situation, but you can be there, you can stick by yourself, and you can be good company to yourself while you go through the experience. And maybe that’s healing of a different sort.

© 2019 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

Another America: Otra America
By Barbara Kingsolver

A Safe and Necessary Distance for Healing


I woke up this morning to the crack of rumbling thunder in the distance. It was a compelling sound: close enough to see the storm, far enough away to watch it with interest and not fear. I am far away from home this week—working in Dubrovnik and my hotel room looks out over the Adriatic Sea. My room has a small balcony that is covered and I took my coffee out and sat and watched the storm as it dumped rain on the mountains across the way, as lightning shot down and thunder echoed along the coast. I am not sure why, but sometimes you can feel even safer, even more solid—when you are in a storm, but have just enough distance and safety to take it in. A safe distance from a storm can feel safer than when there is no storm at all.

For some reason, this storm so very far from home reminded me of how much I loved being in elementary school when there were thunderstorms. It would be nearly dark outside and you could watch the pouring rain through the big windows of the school, and yet inside it was bright and cozy and colorful. School was my safe place—so I think I could actually feel the dark and hear the thunder and experience myself holding what might have been otherwise frightening only because I had the safety and coziness of school to lean on.

It seems that in order to heal and hold what is hard, scary, or difficult that there is a requirement for a necessary safe distance.

Across our lives—no one escapes storms:  illness, loss, death, violence, grief, trauma. And when the storms of life hit you are in it: you are soaking wet, you are wind-whipped, tired, grief-stricken, terrified, anxious, angry, frustrated and disoriented. These storms often mark necessary times to seek shelter —to hunker down out of the storm. Hunker down enough to get through, to survive, and wait for the storm to pass.

But in the realm of healing from any real or repeated trauma I think that these storms—and their aftershocks tend to continue long after the actual storm. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years. The lighting continues to strike and the thunder continues to roll and your healing isn’t served by seeking shelter completely away from the storm, but rather the healing is served by being able to sit through the storms and observe them. And this is the healing of a necessary safe distance.

Last week I was working with some very tender and painful feelings—old storms, buried storms, storms that in the past had sent me running for cover—storms that I just wasn’t able to hold or to watch. And last week I had found just enough safe distance to sit and observe them— the storms were close enough to see, and loud enough to hear —there needs to be a certain clarity so that you can really see your storm.  And this clarity made it so that I could see them enough to talk about them. Describe them well enough that I wasn’t alone with them. They were close enough to see, but far away enough away so that I wasn’t as afraid—and I could stay still long enough to work with them. This necessary safe distance is such a special place and it can be such a hard place to find.

We don’t just find this safe distance within ourselves. We also, and maybe especially, find it within a relationship.  We can get some necessary and healing distance from our storm by talking to and connecting with another person—getting the story out of our heads and hearts and bodies and letting someone else see it: see it and hold it from their perspective. What is healing, what provides us some distance is not that they see it exactly from our point of view, which we often think of as the healing element, but rather that they can hold it from their point of view—that we can borrow this distance—even for a moment.

I think this might help those of us who are in the business of helping other people—whether we are therapists, counselors or parents or loved ones. It seems that there is a misunderstanding of empathy and what it means to help someone through a storm. While I both believe and teach that empathy requires us to see something from the perspective of the other, to feel what it feels like to walk in their shoes—and this is one of the necessary aspects of empathy— I also believe that what can be truly healing is that you can have empathy but also hold your center. You don’t lose your perspective entirely—you allow your perspective to be ballast, to create that necessary safe distance.  

And when you are the person who is being helped, it is important, and may even be comforting, to not only feel understood, but also to have a bit of space left open by the other so that your storm, your feelings, your experience are yours to observe, to hold and to see –that you can hold the whole of your experience and yet not do it alone. You have the benefit of another’s distance from your experience. To feel understood but also be able to see your problem from their vantage point.  I think we forget that in moments of empathy— there is a mutuality—there is the experience of the person who is experiencing the storm— but there is also the experience of the person who is listening and supporting and guiding—and part of the empathic healing comes not because the two people have the same experience suddenly, but because empathy allows the person who feels badly to both be understood and to borrow, even if for a moment—a necessary and safe distance from the storm.

© 2019 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD



Love, love, love

It is Valentine’s day. The day to celebrate love. And I suppose in some small way I want to put the word ‘love’ back in healing. I am all for science and I am all for modern medicine, but when we are talking about healing from trauma we are talking about healing trust and healing attachment and connection. We are talking about people trusting and connecting with other people and we are talking about people trusting and connecting with themselves.

For people who have been badly hurt, love seems a long way away. A country too far away to reach. A homeland one longs for.

I know there are lots of good treatments for much of what ails us physically and emotionally, but to that list or alongside that list we should add love.

The word ‘love’ gets tangled with romantic love and that is not what I am talking about, even if it is Valentine’s Day. Strong affection, attachment, devotion, enthusiasm for, fondness, tenderness, caring. Love isn’t the cure to trauma, but without it, it is hard to imagine healing. Love is what wraps what was wounded. Love is the cast that can hold that broken bone of the psyche steady as it knits back together. Love is what gets absorbed to rebuild what needs to be rebuilt. Love isn’t healing, but it is the raw materials needed to create it. Love is what is needed to, as Galway Kinnell states, “to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow, of the flower, and retell it in words and touch, it is lovely, until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.” 

For now, you don't need to do anything different except maybe alter your stance-- allow the word 'love' to hang out with all the other healing words you use. Allow yourself to imagine the possibility that love can support your healing. It is both the way in, and the the goal, all at the same time. Play with it. Wonder about it. Explore it. You may even learn to love it...

Don't start the year with resolutions. Start the year with your questions.

Photo by Fidler Jan at Morguefile.com

Photo by Fidler Jan at Morguefile.com

The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.
— David Whyte

This year skip the decisions. Skip the resolutions. Don’t resolve, change, vow, promise or start. Don’t start the diet, the exercise program, the life change. Don’t start the beginning of this year with the end—don’t start with a decision.

Start the beginning of this year with a question.  Maybe you already have a question. But if you don’t you can begin with the big “What if’s” in your life—What if I did, or What if I didn’t. What if I said ‘Yes’ or what if I said ‘No.’ What would it look like if I jumped in? What would it look like if I held back? What would it be like if I started something new? What would it be like if I did what I was doing entirely different? Or, what would it be like to really commit to the course I am on? What if I changed? What if I stayed the same?

Let this be the year that you invite your questions. Allow your questions space. Make friends with the questions that have been following you these last few years, tugging at you for your attention. Wishing for you to listen. To understand. To just give them a chance.  

We spend an awful lot of time protecting our old decisions, digging in our heels for old goals that are still tied to old shoulds and oughts. Shoulds and oughts that may or may not even belong to you anymore. Old goals which haven’t been updated or pondered. We protect these old decisions and old goals that desperately need to be asked new questions.

So start this year asking yourself some questions and notice the feelings that come up: maybe a bit of fear, maybe a bit of excitement? Maybe anticipation, freedom, wonder, anxiety? Maybe apprehension, anger, hope, courage? Can you sense a feeling of movement? Can you feel a part of you wake up—take notice—look around? It is actually hard to live in your questions without a feeling of stretching, of possibility, of growth. And please don’t look for answers, or a single answer to these questions. Not yet. Let the answers, the feelings, the possibilities rattle around inside you. Let the questions wash over you. Let the questions walk along side you. Let the questions simply rest next to you or curl up at your feet.

Let the questions, like a seed, grow a bit. Let them extend into the parts of you that need to feel more connected to your values and purpose. Let them extend in to the parts of you that have grown tired of yourself or in to the parts of yourself that you have forgotten. Let the questions inspire and embolden that voice inside that has waiting to be heard for so long—your own voice and not the voice of others.

This year, let yourself, as Rilke says, ”live your questions” and you may find that over this year you will gradually, “without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  What are your questions?

© 2019 Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD

Some Reading that May Inspire Questions….

Letters to a Young Poet
By Rainer Maria Rilke