The Veracity of Hope

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Every day, every day, every day, every way,
Gonna let my little light shine.
Light that shines is the light of love,
Hides the darkness from above,
Shines on me and it shines on you,
Shows you what the power of love can do.
Shine my light both bright and clear,
Shine my light both far and near,
In every dark corner that I find,
Let my little light shine
— Harry Dixon Loes

People like to put the word ‘hope’ into an imaginary place. A place of dreams and wishes. A place that isn’t ‘real.’

But nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.

If hope is anything—it is the absolute inner truth of a human being’s capacity. It is the absolute inner truth of what is possible when we come back into contact with ourselves, with what is important to us. I’m not sure there is any greater truth in the world than when you see hope re-emerge on the face of someone who had lost hope.

Over the last two years I had the privilege of working with a group of Alaska Native leaders—elders and younger people who live and work in their villages in the interior of Alaska. For their entire lives they have struggled against personal trauma, historical trauma, scarce resources and a system that works against their cultural values. Each of them in their own way have worked so hard to bring healing to their people and their villages. But healing is tiring. The problems are huge.

Trauma makes you tired. Repeated trauma makes you exhausted. When you see people who have lost hope, they look on the outside the same way it can feel on the inside when you lose hope—it looks and feels blank. Like there is just nothing there. No one there. When hope is lost, you can’t make a connection to someone else, and you have lost the connection to yourself.  I have seen this blank look many times in populations that have lived through war or historical trauma. They are polite as they listen, but they aren’t yet there. I have seen it on the faces of inner city school teachers and administrators on the front lines of helping for decades. They too look, as if, behind a wall.

This can look and feel like apathy. Where the inner voice is saying, “What’s the point?” “This is hopeless.” “Nothing matters.”

And I have felt that blank space in my own healing. A place that can make you feel lost, even from yourself. When you feel blank you are no longer in a fight or even a struggle—you don’t really know what you are thinking, your mind is, well, blank.

But blankness isn’t the opposite of hope. Blankness is the protection of it. It comes in like a thick fog and protects you from anyone seeing that something does matter to you. It protects you from them seeing it, and from you having to see it for yourself. If they can’t see it, they can’t take it away from you. If you can’t see it. You don’t have to feel the pain of disappointment.

It can be so hard to long for change, long for things to be different, to hope. It can hurt to stay with what is most important to you –and tolerate the disappointment of change happening so slowly, or not at all. Tolerate having to start over and over again.

So how does it change? How do people get hope back? How do you find it again?

By feeling and remembering that something does matter. That you matter. And this happens one small conversation at a time. It happens by being listened to and by listening. By hearing yourself talk about what matters to you. By connecting to your emotions again.

When we go blank we hide the ember of our hope. We protect it deep inside ourselves but it hasn’t completely gone out. And then with one small conversation at a time we fan the ember until it catches fire again.

It is that light that is unmistakable. It is the spring flowers after a long winter—bright and shining proof that life can be rekindled. Last week I saw that light shine from their eyes suddenly as they talked about what they want for their family, their village, their people. That light shined from their smiles as they laughed once again—and that light is contagious.

But I think that there is much we don’t yet understand about the blank places—the places we go to for protection and perhaps, respite. It may be that there are just some journeys of healing and change that need or require these blank places. These are such long journeys, back from healing from war, or apartheid, or historical trauma. These are long journeys healing from child abuse or gang violence or poverty. The blank places may be filled with resources we don’t understand or they may simply be a kind of anesthesia for the soul—when it’s too painful, this blankness kicks in and protects our deepest longing. Protects our light.

When I was in high school I taught horseback riding and when kids felt overwhelmed, out-of-control, or frightened, they would often drop the reins and grab on to the mane because that felt more solid—more safe than the tiny reins felt. But the problem, of course, was that then the horse did anything it wanted, which was, typically, to walk over to the gate and stand there. This is the blank space. You aren’t in control, you have let go and you are just going for a ride, or standing still, as the case may be. It took all their bravery and will-power to let go of the mane and pick of the reins again. To take control and risk feeling wobbly. This is exactly what hope looks like: it looks like someone picking up the reins of their heart again. This is what I mean about hope being true. Hope is really what allows for true action, it may be the truest truth we will ever know.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Helping women hold both joy and sorrow on Mother’s Day.

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
Of her life, and weaves them gratefully
Into a single cloth –
It’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
And clears it for a different celebration.
— Rainer Maria Rilke

The Mother’s Day we have is not big enough to hold all of a woman’s heart on Mother’s Day. Women need a different celebration. The Mother’s Day we have is a holiday of marketing and hype. It doesn’t represent women’s experience. It represents profit. In The US alone it is a 21 billion dollar industry. You can’t open your email, go in to a CVS or grocery store, or the mall without being bombarded by messages about Mother’s Day. You literally can’t get away from it for weeks. It is most telling that the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was so troubled by how the holiday became a marketing holiday rather than the sacred holiday she had intended, that she spent most of her life trying to remove the holiday from the calendar.

Women need a different celebration because the current celebration is one-sided. The current celebration is entirely too small to hold the experience that women have with the word mother, with the role of mother, with the relationship as a mother, and a relationship to a mother. I don’t want to take any of the joy out of the holiday for the women who feel joy. Joy belongs there. Celebration belongs there. Satisfaction and appreciation belong there. But our current cultural stranglehold on Mother’s Day keeps out the other very real parts of women’s lives. It forces women to put on only a happy face when they are often holding so much more. Yes, there is joy on Mother’s Day, but there is also much sorrow and loss—often invisible losses. And because of the mandate on happiness and flowers and all things wrapped in bows—women are asked to smile and hold their losses alone.  On a day when they are being ‘celebrated’ women are often left entirely isolated in their own experience—especially with regards to loss.

And the losses are many. Remember that women count all of their children on Mother’s Day—the born, the unborn, the living, the dead. It is a day of mourning for women who lost children to miscarriage or to death, as much as it is a celebration of the children they love and cherish. It can be a day of mourning for the women who gave their babies up for adoption and for some women who chose to have abortions—for the difficult decisions that they had to make. It can be a day of mourning or loss for the women who weren’t able to have children or who chose not to. A reminder of what was not and what will never be. There are also the children who are lost to addiction, to jail, to mental illness, to estrangement. Women count all of their babies—the ones who are here and not here, the ones they can hold, and the ones they can’t.

And on this day women are asked to hold the relationship to their own mothers in whatever form that holds. So many women who loved their mothers dearly and whose mothers have died are acutely aware of the woman they can no longer celebrate in the way they want, can no longer hold, and talk to on this day. Or maybe their mothers are sick, or have Alzheimers—still living, but no longer the person they were.  For these women, no matter how joyous the relationship with their own children, families, relationships—Mother’s Day can make them feel raw, and sore, with a deep, deep sense of sorrow or longing.  The absence of mother is felt as a gaping hole.

And sometimes this gaping hole isn’t from the loss of something wonderful, it is from the loss of what never was: for the women who were unmothered—hurt, abused, neglected by the very person who was supposed to fill their lives with safety and care. For the women who have spent many years learning to mother themselves. Mother’s Day, and the Hallmark cards that mark the occasion, is a reminder of the childhood that never was and never can be—of things they could never say about their mother because we live in a world that believes that all mothers are good. It is a reminder of what they didn’t get and all the hard work of healing that they had to do to become who they are now.

So let’s work to create a different celebration that would support a woman to hold her joy and her sorrows. Her joys as a mother and her losses as a mother. Her joys of her mother and her losses of a mother. Let’s work to support a woman to hold the love she has of her children with the sorrows of the children that couldn’t be. Let’s create a different celebration that doesn’t ask a woman to hold only one side of her story about mothers and motherhood on Mother’s Day. Let’s create a different celebration that allows her to hold all of her experience so that she may weave them gratefully into a single cloth. Let’s make the celebrations and conversations as big as the hearts of the women we are celebrating.

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD



Let it be.

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.
— E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Healing is often on its own trajectory. We don’t really decide when certain parts of ourselves start to heal. We can’t really schedule our healing moments for convenient times. In the same way you can’t really schedule when your child will learn to walk, or talk or lose his first tooth, or break up with his first girlfriend.  Growth and development happens when the conditions are right, when things come together. And healing, especially healing from grief and trauma, is another form of growth and development. It is rehabilitative growth—it is growth that starts up again with parts that are often sore or unused or unpracticed.

Healing, mending, growth—they happen when the conditions are right. It can be a long slow process of letting things shift, of feeling like nothing is happening, of working hard to just not to use your old habits or old protections so that hurt parts of yourself can come in contact with each other or come out into the light. Much like you are waiting and hoping for your child’s developmental milestones, you are waiting and hoping for healing—but really nothing can prepare you for the messiness or the discomfort of healing. You have waited so long for it, and when it comes you think, “Can I go back?” “Should I quit?” “I thought it would feel better or easier.”

Much of what is written about healing—whether from trauma or grief is about what you can do. Self help books are filled with what you can do.  And there are times when you are doing. Most of what people imagine trauma therapy to be is a series of telling ‘war stories.’ And I think what gets in the way of people being able to tolerate treatment is that healing is much bigger than that. We are bigger than our worst story and we have to grow beyond them and with them and through them. Not only is healing bigger than that, it is slower than that. Some of healing is doing, but even more of healing is being. And we imagine being to be easier than doing. But often it is not. It is one thing to tell your war stories. It is entirely different to just sit in them,  to be in them.  And it is even bigger to have someone witness our being.

As E.L. Konigburg states above, “…you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you.” Theses are the days of healing no one writes a book about or makes a movie about. The times of healing when you have to let the work you are doing swell up inside you. Find all the edges and the empty places.

Yesterday on my walk I found myself humming, “Let it be.” It was a very grey day and I was visiting a friend in Rhode Island who had very kindly watched my dog while I was away. We both decided that we needed fresh air and headed to the beach for a long, lovely walk. And there’s nothing like a walk on the beach, on even a grey day to remind you that life has its own rhythms. Endless, loud, beautiful rhythms. The waves crash in and roll back out. The colors of the water and the sky and the sand captivated us.

It is so hard to have the same faith in the rhythms of your own healing. That there are times when it will roll in, and times it will roll out. And it is so hard to just stay with it when it shows up, and brings in all the mess with the tide. Oh the patience it takes. To find the treasures in the mess. The shells. The beautiful rocks. The sea glass. No, healing doesn’t show up when it is convenient. But when it does. Let it be. Hum it. Feel it. Grow. Heal.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Parent's Corner: The Courage of Parenting with a History of Trauma

This is for all of you parents who lived through difficult childhoods, difficult years--through trauma (however you would define it), through neglect, through war—especially, but not necessarily, as children. This is for all of you who had to do whatever you needed to do to survive and now you are out on the other side. You made it with a lot of grit and effort. Your life is calm. It is good. And you are working hard as a parent to raise your children, whether they are toddlers, teens or young adults.

As a therapist I saw how hard it was for you-- as you work to raise your children in a life of happiness, even as that was something you did not get as a child.

You grew up in the country of trauma—and you managed to emigrate from that land and come to this new country of health—of peace. The country of health where your children are now growing up.

On the outside this sounds like the perfect happy ending. Parents are safe, and children are happy and healthy. It should be easy, right? It’s not. Because if you do it well, if you raise your children to get what you didn’t have –and I am not talking about material things, though they may figure in; I am talking about attention, and consistency, and care. I am talking about help with their homework and going to their games, and friendly dinner conversation. I am talking about the freedom of being a child, of being able to be age-appropriately self-focused; to be able to lean on you and struggle with you, and even ignore you.

If your child lives in this world of health, what’s difficult and painful is that they really will never understand your world—the world you grew up in. And this can be incredibly lonely. And can make a parent feel incredibly torn. On the one hand all you want is for your children to get what you didn’t get and have the opportunities you didn’t have, and on the other hand you worry that they don’t appreciate what they have and that they won’t get the strengths you have that saved your life. Holding these two vastly different worlds is so very hard and takes so much strength.

What I tell parents who have lived through trauma is this: If all goes well, your children will never completely understand you. They will love you and they will learn from you, but your experience will always be foreign to them. Maybe when they are adults they might be able to understand some of it, but they will never know what you really lived through. They will never see the world through the same lenses as you do. They will take things for granted that you see as the biggest gifts. They will not see all that you do for them, because what you do for them is a part of the fabric of their lives. Children only see what they live in. This is as it should be. It means you are doing it right, but it can feel so isolating.

One of the most baffling things for parents who have lived through trauma is this: childhood isn’t always easy, even if everything is going well. Learning is hard work. Growing up is hard work. Kids struggle and wrestle—they cry, they tantrum, they worry, they do thing wrong. They get sad over small things and small disappointments. Even in the happiest of households, it is a long trail with a lot of ups and downs. It takes a lot of learning to build the muscles of becoming a healthy person. And for parents who lived through trauma, this can come as a shock. Many of the parents I have worked with have voiced a similar sentiment: I thought a happy childhood was easy—I never imagined my kids having a hard time if there weren’t bad things happening. I don’t understand them when I see them getting upset over ‘nothing.’ I don’t understand them. And they don’t understand me.

And what I try to help them understand is that in healthy families—the kids are doing the developmental work they need to do. They are working on their growth, not yours. You need to work on your own growth, healing and development—so that you can support the growth and development of your kids.

It is tempting when you have had a difficult childhood to want to give your children the childhood you didn’t have. Yet the most important thing you can do is give your child what he or she needs. Each of your children will need different things—different parenting—than you needed –or even than the other siblings need. A more anxious kid needs different parenting than a more risk taking kid, for example.   

The biggest casualties of a difficult childhood are the emotions. If you grow up in trauma you survive by shutting your emotions down, and then you have kids, and man, kids are nothing if not emotional. And they can trigger yours. How do you suddenly learn to manage your emotions? Find language for them? Tolerate them? One of the best books on emotional coaching is Faber & Mazlish’s How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids Will Talk. It is a clear easy guide to talk about and coach kids through emotion. I made it required reading in all of the therapy classes I taught because it was the best guide out there, even for future therapists. And as you help your kids with their emotions. You can learn about your own.

Parenting with a trauma history is one of the bravest things that people can do—and it is invisible. If you are doing it well, nobody knows. Nobody cheers. If you had been physically disabled by a past trauma and chose to run a marathon—people would call you brave. But we don’t do that with emotional wounds. They are invisible and the parents who rise to the occasion—and parent with love and purpose—who give what they never got—they are unsung heroes.  

One of bravest things you can do is to heal from your own trauma—because it allows you to hold your feelings, it allows you to get just a little bit of what your own children are getting—some support and help with the hard things. It allows you to have someone help you and coach you about child and adolescent development and understand what the losses and gifts were in your own trauma. It might help you understand your child’s world, this new world that you created. It is easier to have compassion for your children’s struggles when someone has had compassion for yours.

So I say to you. Stay strong and know you are doing one of the most difficult things I have witnessed. That you may feel alone, but you aren’t alone. That your courage and bravery are creating not only a better world for your children, but for the world right now and for generations to come. And as you teach your children about love, have compassion and love for yourself and the journey you are on. 

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD