Be the light you wish to see...

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it
— Edith Wharton

The season of lights. The festival of light. How light gives us hope in darkness! All it takes is one lit candle to change the feel of loss into hope, of dark into light. Just one candle can make all the difference.

As someone who was not raised Jewish, I have often wished that the Hanukkah story had become more secularized—so that we all could have borrowed the faith and devotion and hope from the story of the oil and light lasting the eight days. There is such power in them: faith and devotion and hope.

And somehow no matter how big the occasion or small the occasion, candlelight transforms it into something more powerful, more hopeful, more connected to the history of all people who have had faith and hope. This fall I watched a young friend turn 8 and blow out candles on her cake and you would all recognize the look of anticipation and joy before she blew them out—that look is universal. Her face lit with candlelight.

And here at the holidays—shrouded in lights, after an autumn filled with so much darkness, the question is: can we bring our own light? Can we spark the light in others? Can we connect to the light that inspires us? If we are feeling dark, we can light one, simple, single candle within us?

I think that we always think too big when it comes to faith and devotion and hope. I think we think grand, and we need to think in terms of one single candle. One light that can, and often does, like the oil, last much longer than you can imagine.

You can use any light within you to light the candles around you. You can use the love of anything that brings you joy: your relationships, your work, your pets—whatever warms your heart. And then you can bring that light to another and warm their heart. I have so many memories of people who I didn’t know, who smiled at me as I came out of a building, or into work, and they changed my day. They made me feel seen, and loved, and “okay” on days that I didn’t feel that way. They took their light, and lit my candle. In such small increments you can bring light: to the people near you, to the person waiting in line with you, to the cashier, to the toll taker on the Jersey turnpike. Wherever. Light a candle. Bring your warmth.

Edith Wharton said that there are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it—so if this is a year that you can’t seem to light your own candles or anyone else’s—then do what you can to reflect any light you see. Just take in what you can, reflect what you can and reconnect with your light. We all have those years—when the best we can do is reflect.

This time of year can be so busy, and come with so much expectation. There can be moments of such longing, for people, for times past, for expectation unfulfilled—as well as real feelings of sacrifice and hardship and loss. You can’t fix it or fill it or change it—not all at once, if at all. But you can bring some light to it. You can bring your light to it. And the world will be warmer. And more hopeful. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016

Book Excerpt: Read "The Invitation" from the upcoming book Journey Through Trauma



Dear Reader,

There are so many things I want you to know. I want you to know that healing from trauma is possible. I want you to understand how being hurt, how living through trauma, how the difficult act of survival has affected you. I want you to know how all the things you did to survive and protect yourself have saved your life and how they may also now be robbing you of the life you could live. How they could be robbing you of your ability to do the work you want to do in the way you want to do it. How they could be robbing you of your important relationships with the people you love and who love you. And most especially robbing you of a relationship with yourself: of any kindness or compassion toward yourself. I want you to understand this because understanding how trauma has impacted you helps you know why the hard work of healing is worth it.

I want you to know that healing is possible regardless of how long it has taken you to get here. No matter when you come to healing, it is possible. I know that many of you think that it isn’t. I know you believe that it is too late. But actually, it’s never too late. However old or young you are, healing is possible. Our brains are malleable and they continue to grow throughout our lives. The brain’s ability to grow is what allowed for our survival, and that same plasticity allows for our healing. It will take work. It will take help. It will take practice and persistence. It may involve tears, sadness, anger, and frustration. But it is possible.

I want you to understand how trauma works—how it impacts brains and bodies. I want you to understand the genius of our brains and bodies for survival. For getting us through. I want you to understand the mechanisms of trauma because understanding them will help you understand yourself, and will help you know what to expect in the process of healing. I want you to understand how trauma works so that when you catch yourself doing certain things, your attitude isn’t mean or judgmental—but instead you think to yourself: Of course, this is what I do. And then you have the ability to say: What else can I do? Understanding how it all works gives you a solid platform from which to grow and leap and try new things.

I want you to understand that all that turmoil that can happen inside you makes sense. You aren’t crazy. This is just what happens when you survive trauma. That doesn’t mean that what you are feeling feels good, or how you are behaving is necessarily the best thing for you or is supporting your relationships. It means that what you are feeling and how you are acting makes sense in the context of surviving trauma.

I want you to understand that all trauma is not the same. It can look like it if you are trying to find information on the Internet. If you look up post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) you will find a list of symptoms and a set of recommendations. But it is not all the same. Just as physical trauma is not all the same. If you were run over by a car, there couldn’t possibly be a standard protocol for your healing. It would entirely depend on how the car hit you—did it break your arm or leg? Cause a head injury? Internal bleeding? And psychological trauma is no different. Trauma is the very definition of something being utterly shattered. And what gets shattered differs for each person.

And I especially want you to understand what I call repeated trauma. This is the trauma that happens more than once. There is a big difference between the trauma that happens one time, like a car accident, and the trauma that gets repeated. If you are in a car accident, a whole host of responses are expected from any onetime trauma. When a traumatic event happens once, humans are generally spurred into action by their biology—a huge release of adrenaline that makes you ready to fight, ready to act, and that sharpens your memory of the event so you can remember it clearly to protect yourself from it in the future.

But what if instead you were in a car accident every day for years? It sounds crazy—a car accident every day for years—but this is exactly what it is like when traumatic acts are continually repeated, as they are for people who live through war, or child abuse, or sexual abuse, or domestic violence, or gang violence. When trauma gets repeated we have a different set of reactions. Our human physiology is built for efficiency. Traumatic events require a lot of energy. Our brains and bodies tell us that we can’t afford that much energy and attention. So if trauma gets repeated, instead of gearing up, we go numb. When a smoke alarm goes off in your house once, you pay attention; if it goes off every day, then you cut the wires or pull the battery so you don’t have to hear it anymore. Going numb is the trauma equivalent of pulling the battery on the smoke alarm. Going numb serves the important purpose of allowing us to go on with our lives. It is what allows soldiers to keep fighting, and survivors in war zones to keep living. It is what allows abused children to keep going to school. It keeps you from taking in each new act of violence. It protects you from the extremes of emotion that could affect your memory, your health, and your safety. It is the emergency response system that your body automatically employs when trauma gets repeated—hunkering down so you can conserve energy.

So, repeated trauma isn’t just about what happened to you. It is also about how you survived it. It is about how you protected yourself from the years of it. In order to understand why it is so hard to heal from trauma, it is important to understand that repeated trauma is really three aspects of trauma that combine to make up what we call repeated trauma. The first aspect of repeated trauma is what did happen—the experiences

of terror and helplessness that you remember. The second aspect of repeated trauma is what aided survival—the protections you created to survive the trauma, the ways that you shut down or geared up or escaped. And the third aspect of repeated trauma is what didn’t happen—the growth and development you missed because you were surviving being hurt, the help you didn’t get, the conversations you didn’t learn to have, the skills of everyday life that you missed learning. Healing from trauma requires you to work with and repair all three.

I also want you to know that no one heals alone. You will need to find help in order to heal. This book is a way to understand the impact of trauma that you lived through, how you protected yourself, and what you missed in your growth. It is a way to understand the impact of what happened to you and how you may be still living as if the trauma could still get you, as if it were still happening. But this is not a self-help book. This is a how-to-understand-and-use-help book. It is a what-to-expect-from-trauma-treatment book. This book demands that you get help, but it also provides the information you need to feel empowered and secure in your helping relationship.

Understanding trauma is not enough to heal it. Healing from trauma requires leaning your weight on the support of a therapeutic relationship in order to let the traumatized parts of yourself heal. If you broke your leg and didn’t use crutches to take your weight off the broken leg, you couldn’t properly heal the break. It is the same with trauma. Some of you may choose a therapist: a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, counselor, or member of the clergy. Some of you may choose some form of group therapy. But I am telling you up front, at the beginning: in order to heal, you will need to get help. I know you will try to look for the loophole in this argument—try to find a way that you can do this on your own—but you need to trust me on this. If there were a way to do it on your own I would have found it. No one looked harder for that loophole than I did.

The problem isn’t that you or I aren’t self-sufficient enough. Or strong-willed or brave or tough or hardworking enough. The problem is that the trauma most people experience happens between people. I’m not talking about the traumas that are natural disasters—tornadoes or hurricanes. I’m not talking about car accidents or medical illnesses, even though all of these things can be traumatic. I am talking about relational disasters—the nightmares of people perpetrating violence and terror on other people: war, child abuse, domestic violence. That is what most psychological traumas are—they are repeated relational traumas.

And herein lies one of the most difficult paradoxes of trying to get help when your problem is trauma: you have to get help in order to heal, and because the trauma happened in a relationship, it is very hard to believe in and trust help. It’s the moral equivalent of surviving a plane crash and being told that the only way to get help is by getting therapy on a plane every week. I want you to understand that the things you did to survive being hurt repeatedly are the very things that can get in the way of asking for and trusting help. This is a normal and expected response to repeated trauma. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It means that you did a good job surviving and now you have the difficult task of healing.

And even though you can’t heal alone, and you will need help, healing from trauma is still your job. The trauma that happened to you wasn’t your fault, but healing from your trauma is your responsibility. Only you can do the hard work of healing your trauma—no one else can do it for you. Your therapist or group can help guide you and be there with you along the way. And your family and loved ones can support you and cheer you from the sidelines. But no one can fix it for you. This is your journey. Your healing belongs to you. You are creating your life, and your healing is your accomplishment—the gift you give to yourself and the people in your life.

Healing takes a lot of hard work, and you will likely feel worse before you feel better. Healing from trauma doesn’t mean that in the end you will feel great all the time in the same way that a “happy childhood” doesn’t mean that kids are happy all the time. Happy childhoods are filled with lots of struggles and difficult moments. Complete and utter meltdowns occur for all the good reasons that children need to have them. Happy childhoods aren’t happy because the kids are always smiling. They are happy because the kids are free to grow up—to focus on their own growth and development—in a safe enough environment that supports that growth. Growth can be hard. And a healthy adulthood, or an adulthood where you have healed your trauma, doesn’t mean you are never sad or angry or frustrated. It doesn’t mean never getting triggered by your trauma again. Healthy means whole; it means you get to have a self, with all of its complexities. It means you get to have a whole life made up of all your experiences: the traumatic ones and the nontraumatic ones. It means that you have the right to have all the ups and downs of normal growth and development for your developmental age. It means that you are living in the present with a sense of a future—not just surviving or living in an ever-present past, protecting yourself from what has already happened.

I am writing about trauma because I believe it is possible to heal. I believe it because I have seen it. I have worked as a therapist for over two decades in large clinics, clinics in housing projects, in residential treatment facilities, on psychiatric units and medical hospital units, and in private practice. I have worked with survivors of World War II, the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam, and 9/11. I have worked with survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and community violence. I have seen people struggle through their trauma and come out on the other side.

But my motivation for writing this particular book—about what the healing process is actually like—is also that I have watched many people who experience trauma give up. I have watched them give up on treatment, give up on themselves, on relationships or jobs that were important to them. I have watched them despair and lose hope. I have watched them start the healing process and not know ahead of time that the road to healing is difficult; it is steep. They hit hard spots. They think they are going to “feel better” and instead find that working with trauma is challenging, and that it brings up lots of painful feelings and memories. I have watched as their old protections or defenses begin to crack, or they know they need to give them up and they hit the inevitable long and difficult stretches of healing, the relapses, the setbacks, the slowness of the healing process—and they think, This is impossible. I can’t do it anymore. And they quit.

And I understand why they quit. I have wanted to quit many times myself. I am not only a psychologist who has helped others with their trauma, I have lived through it myself. I grew up with the stories of trauma that my parents lived in their childhood, and the terror and fear that they created in our household—to watch my mother taken away in an ambulance, unconscious after being hit, or to stand for hours while she screamed in a rage, not knowing who she was talking to. I know what it is to watch my brother get slammed against the wall because he didn’t put his napkin in his lap, or to watch as furniture got broken. I know what it feels like to feel terror, and I know what it feels like to live with the consequences of that terror. I understand and believe in healing from trauma because I have guided others, but I believe it in my bones because I have traveled these difficult miles of healing myself.

Healing from trauma is not an event or a linear process. It is a series of cycles that spiral through recognizable phases. These are stages you will cycle through again and again as you move toward health and wholeness. This new method of healing allows you to know where you are, what the work is, what the challenges are, and what you can do to move through the stages gaining the healing and learning you need. So I have written this book as a trail guide, as a way to know and recognize the terrain of the work that you are doing, of the healing you are seeking. This is not a book about other people’s stories, and it is not even entirely my story, though I will speak to some of my experiences and the experiences of others to deepen your understanding where I can. This book is intended to be as accurate a description of the trail and the territory as I can give you so that you can make your own journey, create your own maps, tell your story, and heal from trauma.

Reprinted by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Gretchen Schmelzer, 2018.

Journey Through Trauma will be released on February 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order through your favorite retailers here



Want to enjoy the holidays? Learn to Oversupport yourself...

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful
— Mae West

I was sitting down to write today’s blog on what I thought was going to be about how to best support yourself during the holidays—especially if you have experienced trauma or significant loss—when I realized that I kept wanting to say that the main thing that you would need to do is oversupport yourself—and I realized that this whole idea of oversupporting needed to be a blog in and of itself. The blog before the blog so to speak.

As we head toward that most puritanical of holidays (with its emphasis on gluttony not withstanding) the idea of oversupporting oneself needs some clarification. I have used the term with myself and my clients for a long time and it always takes a long time to explain because here in America with its constant push for excess there is a cultural rule that you shouldn’t actually need anything—especially support and extra care, and if you do, you should only take the bare minimum. It’s like some weird anorexia of self-caretaking that is secretly lauded.

This whole problem is partly fueled by the habit of comparing our insides to other people’s outsides and coming up short. This has only been exacerbated by Facebook with photos of smiling families and Pinterest with a thousand ways to decorate a house or a cupcake.

What does oversupporting yourself mean? It means doing what you need to do to take care of yourself: getting enough sleep, getting enough food, doing what recharges your batteries –and then doing even more. It means on the week that you have volunteered at church and both your kids have away games and the boss is coming in to town—that you do not decide to make every meal from scratch unless that is exactly what recharges your battery. It means letting yourself off the hook and buying cupcakes for the event instead of feeling like you must bake the cupcakes and turn them into Disney characters even though it means staying up until midnight to do it.

Oversupporting yourself means doing what you need to do to keep that internal cellphone battery of yours all the way charged. This is the main difference between surviving a week and really living a week. For some reason we believe that keeping our internal batteries just out of the red zone is enough—rather than being fully charged. If you can lean into oversupporting yourself, even if the week is stressful for whatever reason, you will have enough resources to really live it. It means letting other people help. Letting them fold the laundry even though it won’t be folded perfectly. Letting someone bring the pies or the mashed potatoes even though they won’t be exactly how you would have made them. Letting someone else write the report. It means being able to distinguish the difference between perfection and good-enough and then know that for 80% of life good enough is exactly what is needed. It means recognizing that your kids would really rather have a happy parent than a perfect cupcake.

Oversupporting yourself is actually not easy. I have witnessed many clients struggle with it. This is because most people believe that they shouldn’t need any support so they often feel badly when they try this for the first time. They have to fight back all of the voices in their heads that shout things like, “No one else needs this much help.” But if they can bravely accept and work toward support they all notice that they have way more ability to enjoy the people in their lives and they have more ability to roll with the ups and downs that always come with busy times. If you oversupport yourself—then when the car gets a flat tire, or your kid gets sick, or the oven breaks or the client requires an emergency meeting—you have something left in your tank to manage—and you aren’t on your last raw nerve.

For people who have experienced trauma and loss oversupporting yourself not only allows you to get through the holidays without fear of coming apart—with enough support holidays can actually be times of healing. You will have enough space inside you to both mourn the losses and take in the present—and by holding both you can feel more whole. The losses mend.

So as you head into the holiday season. Be brave! Be radical! Do more than you need to do to feel solid and cared for. Buy the pie! Don’t rake the leaves! Leave the dishes! Experiment with what it feels like to take care of yourself and do just a little more. And help others in your life do the same.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2017




Imagine being loved anyway

The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.
— Barbara Kingsolver

I am so tired of people lecturing about trust. About how it is the basis of relationships and what ‘3 things’ lead to trust. I’m tired of it because it is all too simplistic. I am tired of it because they try to make it sound neat and clean and easy. Something you can accomplish in a workshop or in some online class. They give you catchy slogans. Inspiring picture quotes. They make it sound logical and linear and they support this with symbolic equations such as Trust = relationship X time—even though obviously neither relationships nor time is completely linear so how could the product of these two things end up tidy or logical?

When you learn about the psychology of attachment you learn that trust is built from the survivability of the parent. Parents create attachment because they just keep showing up and trying to make things a little better for the infant—they feed it, change it, rock it and help it get to sleep. They make mistakes and they repair them. They are there. Over and over endlessly, they are there. And this endless thereness. This endless thereness with repair after repair—this is what creates basic trust.

And this week after a difficult conversation in my own life I am convinced more than ever that trust is built not because you are loved, but because someone loved you anyway. They loved you when you were angry, or messy, or cranky or a total and complete pain in the ass. They loved you when you forgot, or remembered—when you said it or when you didn’t say it. They didn’t love you because you could do it—they loved you anyway, even when you couldn’t.

It’s hard to describe how fully you lean in to someone in this moment—the moment when you can’t or you didn’t or you won’t. The moment that you feel so badly about yourself, the moment that you think all is lost and you think you are falling off a cliff into some abyss where you will be all alone.  The moment that you don’t believe in love at all, the moment you don’t for a second think you could be loved as you are—that moment: you lean all your weight in to the hope that it exists. That moment you let go and jump with no real belief that anything will catch you but with the prayer that it will. You think you are falling forever and then the rope holds and there’s something that catches you. You find out that you are tied in to something--that you are held.

This is what infants do every day. They can’t live on their own, so they place their entire lives in the hands of their caretakers. They cannot do anything without the help of the adults around them. They cannot express themselves except to cry or protest when they need something else. Infants make this trust fall every single day. And, lucky for them, they don’t know anything else—so they just do it.

But if you didn’t get to learn this lesson in trust and attachment when you were young, then you know too much fear to treat these kind of trust falls as anything other than danger. You organize your whole life so you never have to rely on anyone. You make sure that you never get caught off guard--you never get disappointed.

But if you are lucky, at some point your long practiced strategy will fail you. The chess pieces will align on your board in such a way that you can’t use your old moves. There’s no other square to move to. You can’t use any of your old tricks. You will run in to a situation that you just can’t control and your guard will come down. You won’t be able to do it yourself. You won’t be able to fix it so you don’t feel anything.  You will be disappointed. You will be disappointing. You won’t be able to hold yourself together. You will fall apart, and you will lean on the support of something other than yourself.

And remarkably, the world doesn’t actually end. In fact, it sort of begins.

You find yourself in a world where you no longer have a fear of falling because you have hit the ground and despite the loud ‘thud’—you are actually fine. You are cranky, you are messy. But you are fine. You find yourself in a world where there is space enough for all of you, even, or especially, the parts you don’t like.  Being loved anyway means that suddenly, there’s nowhere else to go. There’s nothing else to do. There’s nothing to fix. There’s nothing to get right and there’s no one else to be, but yourself.

And that’s enough.

© 2017 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD