A Healing Fog

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
— E.L. Doctorow, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

What they don’t tell you about healing from trauma or healing from grief is that there are long stretches where it isn’t at all clear what you are working on or where you are going. Lately, I feel like I am hiking through fog. A fog has descended and I can’t see a way forward, but I am slowly and cautiously putting one foot in front of the other. I can remember one particularly difficult drive in the fog 20 years ago with my friend Fran. We were leaving a training program in Western Mass and we had to get to Hartford—and as we headed east a thick fog rolled in as my little blue hatchback climbed a mountain. I couldn’t see anything at all ahead of me. I found that the only thing I could do to stay on the road was to open my car door and watch the yellow line below me as I drove to know I was still on the road. It’s dizzying even now to remember it. In fog you use anything you can to stay on the path.

Fog is soft. It takes away the edges of everything, so living in the fog right now isn’t emotionally intense, but it has me wondering where the emotional intensity went.  As much as emotional pain is hard, it feels like there is more clarity with it. It feels like it helps you see what you need to do or understand. Fog is different. I wonder what I can’t see because of the fog. I wonder what is out there that I am missing. I wonder what I am going to slam into without warning.

As a rower in college, we would slip our boats into the water into the morning fog and begin our workouts. It was easier then because someone was steering for me. It was my job to just keep myself focused on the act of rowing. I could happily just get lost in the fog, and ignore it. In many ways it was easier because there was literally nothing to distract you, you were in a cocoon of fog. And somewhere in the middle of the practice, the fog would begin to lift. Literally, it would rise so you could see just below it, the heads and shoulders of the people in front of you. The trunks of the trees on the shoreline. And then it would lift altogether and you would be rowing in the clear light of day. You would pull back in to the dock at the end of practice and see clearly what had been hidden before. I am heartened by this memory—that if you just get up in the morning and do your work, any work that is important to you, at some point, without you being completely aware of it, the fog will begin to lift.

In the fog, nothing stands out at all, except for the fog itself. There is nothing to orient off of—no landmarks pulling you. It is quiet and still.

Quite often in the summer in Maine there will be fog in the morning that will lift as the sun burns hotter toward noon. Sometimes there are whole days of fog, or even strings of days. Fog in Maine means a pause in the routine. It means you slow down, and take more time with breakfast. Tend to a chore that you hadn’t had time for. A whole foggy day means tea, reading and a fire. It is a wonderful forced day of rest.

And it may also be true that our experiential, emotionally foggy days are the same. That they come in hours or days or multiple days to have us slow down and rest. Not the rest of doing nothing, but a rest from the more sharp edged work of healing or grieving or growing. Fog doesn’t remove the struggles that we were working on, the difficult feelings, the difficult conversations. Fog just shrouds them for a little while. Softens their edges. Fog isn’t a rest from work. It signals a different kind of work.

I notice that this foggy feeling has me feeling more alone, and less hopeful that I could be found in this state. It’s harder to explain to others—I feel foggy and a bit lost. But perhaps this isolation is also necessary. The fog creates a boundary, it requires that we sit undistracted with our own experience. It feels like I can’t quite know where I am, but I am also not being pulled by the needs and wants of others. Fog requires that we reach out and speak out. We have to let others know where we are.

And then I remember hiking in the fog in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Thick fog. And you realize why all the cairns are there. For those who haven’t seen them—cairns are giant man made piles of stone and they line the trails in the Whites. The piles are probably 20-50 feet away from each other depending on the trail and in bright sunlight they almost look silly—so many stone piles lining the trail. The trail looks obvious—why would anyone need so many markers? But in fog, the next cairn is barely visible. In the fog, you see exactly why the cairns are there. You squint and find the next cairn and make your way towards it. And once you find it, you look for the next one.

Fog is the reminder to pay attention to the stretch of trail that you are on. To each footfall in front of you. What most people imagine about healing from trauma or from grieving is that you have whole conversations about it: that you simply tell a story or talk about what you experiencing. That you even know and understand what you are experiencing. But with healing it is often the case that the whole story just isn’t there. Or pieces are there, but you don’t yet feel enough trust to tell it, or even to know it, or hear it for yourself. So much of healing, I have found, isn’t so much stories, as simply one sentence at a time. Sometimes the same sentence over and over. Sometimes a word. Sometimes a metaphor. But those small words and simple sentences are cairns. They show you the path forward. You get one word. And then pause. And look out and find the next one. And it gets you through until the fog lifts.

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD