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

Photo by Fidler Jan at

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

Holidays and Trauma: Holding Both

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Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory. That’s exactly what tradition and ritual are supposed to do. But holidays, unlike many ordinary days, are designed as full sensory experiences—they hit our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2016, but to your nose, or your tastebuds or your ears—it’s suddenly 1943, or 1969, or 2003. This time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, not just for people who have experienced trauma, but it is faster for trauma survivors because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were more frightening and highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors the problem is one of presence: it seems at the holidays you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the present. Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole time. It’s this awful juxtaposition between the memories you hold and the outside expectation of fun. You are sitting at a beautiful meal in the present and you are hearing the violence in your head from fifty years ago. Yet no one at the table knows.

For people who have experienced significant loss, the problem is one of absence. Every holiday marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. It can be a time when the loss is felt so keenly, when you count how old they would be now, what they would think about this holiday, when you see the world without them in stark relief. You feel badly for enjoying something without them. And of course for many people—both are true—the presence of the trauma and the absence of loss. Soldiers who know where they fought during a previous holiday and the troops who didn’t come home with them.

So I say to all those who struggle with trauma and loss at the holidays—you are not alone. Like the tale of the mustard seed, it is unlikely you could sit at any holiday table in the world without finding a fellow pilgrim on the journey of healing—either from trauma or loss. The cure isn’t the modern notion of ‘moving on’—the cure is a more difficult task of holding both. You see when you try to just ‘move on’ –then its either the past or the present—you are jostled involuntarily from one to the other. But if you can build the muscles to hold both –hold that both the past and the present are true—then paradoxically the present can become more real. Holding both allows you to hold your feelings from the past and your feelings in the present as real and true. Holding both is not so much an effort as a softening. You breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit. You don’t do anything in particular, but you don’t run away from yourself and you don’t expect yourself to feel differently than you do. Holding both allows an integrated whole memory to begin to form out of the colliding worlds, out of absence and presence. So start slowly, be kind to yourself as you begin this new practice, and as you feel more solid, reach a hand to someone who is just beginning.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016



It really happened and we need to heal from it


Yesterday’s testimony by Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a super storm that destroyed the shoreline of every trauma survivor. It tore through any protections any survivor had covering the old wounds. It destroyed any magical thinking that the powerful would protect the assaulted—especially if the assaulted were women.

Because of the Kavanaugh accusations I have witnessed days of testimony on my social media feeds of woman after woman recounting her story of sexual assault. The sheer numbers are staggering and each new voice seems to embolden someone else to share their story. We are witnessing a moment where survivors seem to finally feel that they will be believed and that their story matters. We need to listen to them, we need to listen to ourselves. We need to be able to hold the truth: it really happened.

This shift from burying an old story or hiding an old story or discounting an old story to the radical act of owning your own story has a shattering effect on your present. All the structures you were using to hold yourself together are busted up. I picture the newspaper photo of the woman standing in a sea of wreckage after the Moore tornado in Oklahoma a few years ago. She was safe and whole, and yet nothing was where it once was. She kept herself safe in her little protective cocoon during the storm, but now has to see all the damage that was done while she was in there.

This time when the protections get torn away, and the damage is visible is a very important and precious stage in healing from trauma. This is what I call the ‘unintegration’ stage—where things have come apart enough to get at the old wounds—to see what happened and how you protected yourself all these years. You can’t heal without this stage, but this stage and its raw pain is not the end of healing.  Unintegration is necessary because the old wounds get protected and we can’t see how much we have organized our selves and our lives to keep us from ever experiencing the trauma again. But telling our story and truth is just the beginning, it is not the end of healing.

The myth of trauma is that we can heal it entirely through testimony—that the story of ‘what happened’ is enough to heal us. We praise people who come forward and write and tell their stories of trauma—and yet we never really hear the stories that come after the testimony of trauma—the stories of what it takes to heal.

The problem is that most trauma is not just a single entity: Most trauma is really three forms of trauma. The first form of trauma is ‘what happened’ – the trauma you remember, the testimony we are hearing right now. This is what most people think of as the trauma. But trauma is much bigger than that. The second form of trauma are the protections you used to survive the trauma—the ways you changed yourself—your personality, your beliefs, your behavior-- to protect yourself from ever feeling that helpless, afraid or ashamed again.  These protections helped you survive, but they often also rob you of the life you want, the relationships that could sustain you, the joy in life that may be around you but you can’t take in. And the last form of trauma is the most invisible: it is what didn’t happen. It is the growth, development, experiences that didn’t happen while the trauma and aftermath were occurring. It is what was missed. It is what wasn’t learned.

 The reason our culture is so bad at healing trauma is that we stop with the first form of trauma—we stop with the story and the testimony. And we need to help people stay in the healing process long enough to really look at the protections they used to survive and really begin to sort what didn’t happen and begin to bring some of those experiences into their lives.

 So yes, to all of you survivors out there. It did happen. You can say it out loud and we will believe you.  And yes, when you say it and feel it, it will feel like the wreckage of your strong defenses are laying all around you. Unintegration is hard, but it is important. It allows you to see what was hurt. It allows you to see that you are still standing despite that. It allows you to begin to rebuild from a new place.

And to all survivors I say this: No one heals alone. If you are telling your story for the first time or the fiftieth time I encourage you to find a healing relationship. Most trauma is relational trauma, and relational trauma needs to be healed in relationship. I want you to not just tell your story, I want you to heal from the trauma. I want you to heal because you will get to live in your life and your relationships in a bigger and more joyful way. But selfishly I also want you to heal from trauma because the power of healing reaches way beyond you—you can inspire and support and stand firm in the world in ways you can’t imagine and we desperately need. It did happen, and we all need to heal from it.

For more information about how to find a therapist click here or use the Psychology Today website.

For more on healing from trauma, check out my book: Journey Through Trauma