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.