To fall patiently...

This is what the things can teach us: to fall patiently, to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly
— Rilke

I wish had met Rilke: I think he would have a lot to say about healing and growth because his poems really get to the heart of healing and growth. That heaviness, that wobbly-ness- which he somehow elevates to a sacred place. It’s so much more comforting to feel like your wobbly-ness is sacred than to feel like it's some character flaw.  It’s amazing how much we all want solid ground, the solid of experience of knowing exactly where we are. And yet, the very definition of growth and healing is to move into a new beginning—a new space that you have not yet inhabited.

Initially it can feel like those first tentative steps you take on ice in the winter where you tap your toe out ahead of you, unsure of whether to put your full weight on your feet. Will this new ground hold me? Can I really put my weight into this new way of being?

Recently I was on a walk to the woods and I came upon a Goshawk in a dead tree. I was captivated by his regal stance, and stood watching trying to keep my dog still. When I started to move it seemed I caught the hawk off-guard and he leapt off the tree and instead of launching up, he fell for a bit and then caught his stride and began to fly. Like Rilke tells us, sometimes you need to fall before you can fly.

The big myth about healing from trauma is that it is some sort of linear process where you are ‘done’ with that. Whatever that is for you. I am not saying things don’t change, or that you don’t really shift in how you understand and approach the world. But I can say that there are plenty of times when you think you are just going to solidly launch from your branch and instead you must fall patiently.  Yes you won’t know when it will happen, but you will eventually catch the wind under your wings.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016

It's never too late: Old dogs can heal

I have heard so many people say things like, “It’s too late for me to heal what happened” and “There’s no one who could help me” or “I’m too old to get help for this.” These statements are some of what has motivated to write about trauma and to create a better understanding about healing from trauma.

I believe it is harder to heal from trauma the older you are—but not because you are old. As I have described in an earlier blog, repeated trauma or long term trauma is not one trauma. It is really 3 forms of trauma. The first form of trauma is the trauma that you experienced—the ‘what did happen.’ The second form of trauma are the protections –the defenses—the way of being that you created to survive the trauma. These protections become a part of your personality, your way of being, your habits and routines. And the third form of trauma, the unseen impact of trauma, is what didn’t happen- it is all the things you didn’t or couldn’t do or learn because you were living in trauma. It is the experience of peace and calm, it is where your attention could have gone if it weren’t focused on survival.

It is harder to heal from trauma when you are older not because you are old, and an old dog can’t learn new tricks, or there aren’t good people to work with you and your trauma, it is harder because you have lived for so much longer with the protections and defenses. You have lived so much longer behind your wall—and it feels impossible to imagine any other way of being. It feels impossible to imagine being outside of the prison with the wind on your face—in a world where you don’t know the rules. Healing from trauma means letting go of these protections—living without them—for moments at first, and then gradually for hours, days, months. And it means risking new behavior, risking experiencing the ‘what didn’t happen.’

And I describe it as a risk on purpose. Living with your old protections, living as if the trauma could happen at any time again—that feels safe.  There was Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onada who held out fighting on a Philippine Island from 1944 until he was finally found and relieved of his duties in 1974. 1974. The war had been over for decades. But continuing to fight the war sometimes feels more sane. It makes the war more worthwhile. It provides hope for a different outcome. It can be so hard to let go of the war knowing that when you do, it is really over. It happened and you can’t change the outcome. Surrender really is surrendering the hope for an outcome that can’t happen.

Leaving the world of trauma, of your protections, where you are always ready to go back, is a big move. And anyone’s hesitation about healing, about wondering whether it’s worth it, or whether they can handle it, is a valid worry. It isn’t easy. It involves a lot of hard work, and it involves a lot of grief. Only in the quiet after the war can you begin to remember and feel what it felt like during the war. When you finally start living without your protections, when you finally start risking the new experiences—really, only then, can you fully feel what it felt like to live through the trauma at all. And many people catch glimpses of this grief and think it would be impossible, think that they wouldn’t survive it, they catch a glimpse and they say, “No way.”. But they forget the most important thing: they already have survived it. The grief is old. It is painful, but it will go.

There’s no magic in healing. You won’t become someone else. But you will get to experience yourself without the emotions of survival running your life. You will get to see your life not just in a past-perfect tense of what happened and what might have been, but also in the present, and the future- of what might be. No, it’s not easy to surrender your island of trauma, the safety that you know, to risk a different safety, a peaceful safety decades later. No it’s not easy, but you were strong enough to survive—which means you are more than strong enough to heal.

  © Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD 2014



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



The Power of Despair

 GLS, 1997

GLS, 1997

There comes a time my friends when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November. There….We are here—we are here because we are tired now.
— Martin Luth King, Jr, Montgomery, December 1955

Nearly two Score and Nineteen Years ago on December 1, 1955,  Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus. She didn’t die during her arrest unlike many of the recent events we have been witness to, but many others during that era did. Some died during the arrest, and many, many died after they were taken to jail awaiting trial. Sheriffs simply opened jail cells and let lynch mobs take them. Juries acquitted anyone who was white. This was a long, violent, and tiring story in 1955. It is an unconscionable and exhausting story now. There was reason for despair then, and there is certainly reason for despair now.

Despair is defined as the complete loss or absence of hope and it is one of the human emotions that can feel the most painful and dark because despair knocks the light right out of you. It leaves you without a compass, without the energy to get up, without a reason to. Despair begins to tell you that there is no point to anything, that you might as well lay there, not get up. Nothing matters.

As someone who is wired as an optimist I find despair one of the most intolerable emotions. I am usually not just a glass is half-full person, I usually imagine an additional glass entirely. I have wielded hope as a massive source of energy and protection against despair. But eventually it doesn’t work: you find yourself face to face with the endless of fight against injustice—against something so very wrong—and whether that injustice or wrong happened just to you, or someone you love, to a group you belong to or all of humanity—you see it for what it is and you can’t imagine how you are going to live in a world and know, really take in, that injustice. That wrong. That level of sorrow for knowing that you couldn’t change it and knowing the size of it now, not knowing how it can be changed. You believe it is impossible. You are brought to your knees.

And paradoxically that is often the turning point of despair. At my most despairing I have gone in to talk to my therapist and chosen to sit on the floor, instead of the chair. I wanted to sit on the floor because I wanted to be where I was—the bottom—the place ‘you can’t fall below.’  And in admitting I was at the lowest place possible, I found the ground. I found something that felt real and solid. The healing part of despair is that it can actually be incredibly grounding: you know where you are, you see the world as it is, and you can get some clarity about what is wrong—what is really wrong at the root of it all.

In despair we find the most pessimistic and hardened parts of ourselves. And in despair we find the most pessimistic and hardened parts of our communities. In finding our darker sides we are, ironically, more whole.

John Lederach who has worked with communities post-conflict on peacebuilding talks about the fact that the pessimism of the people who have lived through the worst cycles of violence may be one the biggest sources of true change. He calls their pessimism a gift, not an obstacle. Lederach calls pessimism grounded realism: “grounded realism constantly explores and questions what constitutes genuine change. For people who have lived for long periods in settings of violence, change poses this challenge: How do we create something that does not yet exist in a context where our legacy and lived history are alive and live before us?”

Despair brings us in contact with our most authentic selves and it compels us to demand that authenticity from the relationships around us. When we are feeling despair we cannot in any way tolerate fakeness, clichés or bullshit. When we are despairing we need authentic, we need real. We need it from ourselves and we need it from others. Hope is the fuel that helps us keep moving toward healing, toward the better imagined state. But hope often keeps us from being able to see and take in the trauma that has occurred- and it keeps us from seeing how we protect ourselves from knowing this—hope can keep us from becoming whole. You can’t do surgery in rose-colored glasses.

Despair is a turning point. In a state of despair you see the bigness of it all—and because of that you are freed from a world of simplistic duality—of there being an easy answer, of it being this-or-that. Despair helps you hold the complexity, which is the only real hope of healing. So we need to sit with our despair, sit on the ground if necessary, and we need to be able to sit with other’s despair as well. We need to trust that the ground that has been burned by despair is preparing for the seeds of change, the seeds of growth. And we must be the faithful gardeners of this growth by holding our pessimism and distrust and risking our hope again. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016