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 

Go ahead risk it--meet your own voice and be brave, let your light shine.

For many years, there was a theory that play was an effective tool for learning for mammals because it was merely practice. The theory was that kittens practice play fighting because they are preparing for actual fighting or learning to catch prey. Or that young primates practiced caring for younger siblings as a way to learn child-rearing. But the people who researched play discovered that there was something bigger going on besides mere practice. Play fighting, as it turned out, was entirely different than actual fighting. Play fighting is reciprocal, and mammals that play fight go for different parts of the body than an animal would in actual attack. The researchers discovered that when juvenile animals were prohibited from playing—they were fearful and anxious of everyday activities. They were even fearful and anxious of social interactions. It turns out that play is about coming in to contact with the unknown. Play is not the practice of activity—play is the practice of being brave—of mastering the fear of whatever you are practicing. If play is a practice for anything—play is a practice of courage, of meeting what is unexplored, and learning to dance with it.

A few weeks ago I headed out to my alma mater to do some writing for the weekend. I was struggling with a section of a book, and decided some space away, in the company of students might inspire me to work through the challenge. But I didn’t get my best lesson that weekend in that beautiful library. Instead, my real learning came in the student center.

This past fall I had met a group of current students at a crew reunion, and they walked in to the student center the first night I was eating dinner and we greeted each other again—and then they joined me for dinner. When I asked what they were up to for the weekend, two of them offered that they were in an Acapella performance the next night and encouraged me to come, “We’ll save you a seat!” And so I showed up the next night, glad of something to look forward to, but thinking it was just going to be a lovely evening of entertainment—and not the education—and gift-- it turned out to be.

Their performance had a rhythm. One of the group members would come forward and introduce a fellow singer, and then that singer would sing a solo. And as they each began their solo, they would begin tentatively, their voice a bit softer, a bit timid. They looked somewhat surprised by their own voices, and as they kept singing they would soon hit a place in the song that seemed to feel like home, where they suddenly became bigger than themselves---where it seemed that light literally shined out of them.

And the moment they found their voice, the voice that was unmistakably theirs—they not only shined—the entire audience shined too. That moment was electric. And it happened in every single performance. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later—but in each song, the performer would find her voice—find that part of herself that was connected to everything—the song, herself, the audience.

It was a reminder that finding your voice isn’t a matter, really, as I had always thought—of knowing what you believe or knowing what you want. Though there is an element of that at times. Marianne Williamson famously said that “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  And in watching each of these performers, this dynamic was perfectly visible. It wasn’t that they couldn’t find their voice, it’s that when it first showed up, they were frightened by it. They kept their distance from it—inching toward it slowly. And somewhere along the way, they found their courage, they lost their fear and connected with the voice that was truly theirs.

The beauty of this particular concert was that I got a chance to watch, and learn, this lesson over 20 times. It was true of every performer, and it never got less beautiful, and their connection with their voice, less perfect. And it was perhaps the richest reminder of what is missing when we are trying to do anything new, or anything that is important to us.

I sat stunned during the concert at the beautiful simplicity of being brave in the face of fear and awkwardness. Of trusting yourself to lean on your own passion and the group of people singing with you, and to keep going. Stepping off some wonderful edge and finding that your wings not only held—they were amazing. I sat there wishing that I could hold on to the sense of wonder, and goosebumps and awe that I had each time these women did it—became the biggest and most beautiful versions of themselves. It’s so hard to hard to remember that you have to risk it—risk meeting your voice, yourself, your light. It’s not so much about finding your voice—it’s more about being able to stay brave when you meet it.

And now it’s the season of New Year’s resolutions and year-plans and plans to change our behavior or goals—most often based on what we perceive to be our flaws or the things that we don’t like. But after watching this concert, I am convinced that Williamson was right—it’s our light where our biggest challenge is—not our flaws. So instead of a long list of goals and resolutions—let’s all step off the edge of our nests, with our voice, with our practices. Be brave with your off-key notes, and messy drafts and bumpy meetings. Speak up, speak out and leap from the nest that you know as familiar. Meet your voice, meet your light and stay. Stay and ride the waves. Let the wind push you, grab you and trust your wings. You will fly, you will shine, and because of it, we all shine.

© 2017 Gretchen l. Schmelzer, PhD


Trauma and the Holidays: 3 Practices to Reclaim Joy

The holidays can be tough for people who have lived through trauma. The holidays come with so many reminders, so many triggers. You can start your day in an Ok mood and then suddenly Nat King Cole is singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” on the radio and you are catapulted onto the way-back-machine.  Or the smells of baking, or the sights of lights, or the stress and pressure of trying to get everything done or make everyone happy.

The very nature of any holiday is the strong connection to ritual and tradition—to connect the past to the present and have a bridge to the future—all through the repetition of the things we do, what we eat, the songs we sing, the way we spend our days. If our holidays were happy ones, we can instantly tap into that happiness from the past and draw on it like a deep well. But if holidays were deeply unhappy, violent, or grim—then the reminders can bring us right back—even if our current situation is more peaceful. The power of holiday and tradition—to create a time-warp event of ‘once upon a time’ can mean that at the holidays—it can feel impossible to unhook from past traumas even if they have receded at other times of the year.

Essentially, the way to heal the holidays is to create new connections in the brain and body. Your brain has some very well worn paths and connections and what you need are some new connections and, frankly, some new unrelated memories.  Here are some practices to jostle the old connections, make some new ones and stretch into new memories. Not only can you survive the holidays, you might even heal stronger through them.

1.     Create a new tradition. A brand new tradition. Something that you can connect to and doesn’t connect to your past—or if it does, it just taps in to something positive. In my 20’s I started baking Christmas cookies with my best friend in the tiniest of apartment kitchens with a loaned Spritz cookie press from my 80 year old landlady. Twenty-five years later, we are still making our cookies. Those cookies were such a wonderful handhold into a new future of holidays. They gave me a way to connect to Christmas, and through giving them away, connect to other people. But there are so many ways to create new traditions. I have had clients who joined choirs, or started their town’s Luminaria event. Sometimes doing something for someone else made someone feel better, like the woman who started a Toy drive for a hospital. And sometimes it didn’t even seem related to Christmas—one client created a tradition of a movie marathon with her family—each year they picked a different theme—Star Wars, or James Bond—and played with the theme as much as they could. Be creative! New traditions help you tap into a new joy and they give you something to look forward to.

2.     Be Mindful of living in both past and present. In a previous post on Holidays and Trauma I referred to it as holding both. Stop expecting yourself to ‘get over it’ and just let yourself live in it as best you can. Mindfulness is the best antidote to abandoning yourself. If you can stay mindful and actually stay with yourself, you paradoxically are creating a new experience for old memories. Trauma is about feeling helpless. Mindfulness is about being able to stay with whatever comes up—so in that moment you are not helpless, you are making a conscious choice to stay. It is powerful medicine against helplessness. When you feel yourself getting triggered by the past, take a deep breath and look around. What can connect you to the present? What can you take in and see as beautiful, as peaceful and joyful? It doesn’t have to be big. It can be the way the rain is sparkling. It can be the cat sleeping. Any image or sound that helps your brain feel joy or peace in that moment will do. Maybe it’s noticing something you are grateful for. Whatever the new, positive thought is, it will interfere in the old connections between the old trauma and the trigger—it will build more muscles in connecting to the world you are living in now.

3.     Take a break. Remembering that trauma is connected to the feelings of terror and helplessness, it is so important to remind yourself that the trauma is over, you survived it, and it is the present: you are no longer subject to living in a terrifying or helpless situation. The problem with trauma is that it can create that old experience in the present in your body and brain—it’s what I call an emotional flashback. I sometimes describe it as the feeling of feeling like you are drowning in a pool—thrashing around wildly—only you have forgotten that the water is only 3 feet deep. You can actually put your feet down and stand up. So in the midst of holiday trauma triggers—help yourself remember that it is the present by letting yourself take breaks: Just walk outside for a moment and take a deep breath of air. Or, listen to music that doesn’t remind you of the holidays, or read a book about something entirely different. Distract yourself with a stupid old TV show for an hour. Fix that shelf or replace the batteries in your household appliances. Change the conversation to something that helps you connect to your self in a way that helps you feel grounded. And if you are worried about what people will think if you need to leave the conversation --offer to wash the dishes or walk the dog, or read the kids bedtime stories—and they will be grateful. The main thing is that you stop the action for a moment and give yourself a break.

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