Good grief...

There’s no Doppler radar for this. You almost never see it coming. Sometimes it gives you a hint at its arrival—losing your keys, forgetting appointments, a sudden wish that everything would stop or everyone would shut up. But mostly, grief slams into you full force, leaving your insides shattered. Grief doesn’t pick your best day or even your worst day. It picks any day it damn well wants. It picks the very day and time it needs to.  Grief doesn’t run on your, or anyone else’s schedule. It runs according to its own inner maniacal, goddam, genius wisdom.  And it leaves you in pieces, taking one simple breath at a time wondering how you are going to get through the next hour.

Meanwhile, what is so absolutely crazy, is that everything else in the world looks normal. Completely and utterly normal. You have been hit by hurricane force winds and a massive storm surge. And no one else sees it. You are standing in the room, soaking wet and blown around and everyone else is just talking like nothing happened. It’s insane. You stare at them and try to make out their words and sentences. You try to nod and smile so no one notices your soaking clothes and your windblown hair. And for that moment you hate everyone around you for acting like it’s all okay. Acting like there isn’t this giant loss, this gaping hole where your heart usually is. And forget language. Words are entirely too small to describe your current condition. It feels pointless to try.

When it hits, like it did for me today, you have to work so hard to remember that there is something beyond the storm. This is why grief is so very hard at the beginning of any loss or any journey of healing. It is why we stay away from it. In the beginning all you know is the storm. You haven’t come through it once, or even twenty times to know what’s on the other side. And knowing it never, ever makes the storm less powerful. Knowing what’s on the other side doesn’t make the grief feel better, or less painful. It just helps you hold on long enough for the storm to pass. It keeps you from running from it. It helps you allow the grief to do its good work.

The good work never feels good. There’s no magic on the other side of a storm. But there is more. More of something.  What’s been splintered during the storm has opened up space. More space inside you where there was tightness or pain. More ground beneath your feet. It won’t protect you from the next wave of grief, but it does allow you to hold the love and grief of others in a bigger way—and eventually it allows you to hold your own. And that is good. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

No one heals alone: Finding a therapist

One of the biggest roadblocks in healing from trauma is this idea, “I don’t need help, I can do it myself.” Here is the common refrain: “I don’t need a therapist or a group—I have my friend (wife, husband, children…)”

 Why? Seems like they could, right? They love us. We feel good with them, safe with them. In fact, it feels like they should be the ones to heal us. They can listen to our problems, and often do. They often listen non-judgmentally as we recount our stories. They often have advice for us, and certainly tell us they love us. They can hold us tightly and kiss us good night. Why isn’t it enough?

We expect our friends and our spouses to be on ‘our’ side. When we feel bad, we want them to help us feel better, not hold us accountable to change. We want them to say the right thing, not the ‘growth promoting’ thing, or worst of all, nothing, and let us sit there with our thoughts. It’s funny, people automatically understand the need for a couple’s therapist when a couple is having a problem. Friends know that they can’t say what they need to both parties and still be ‘loyal’ to their friend, or not be seen as ‘taking sides.’ They know that there are truths to both sides and that they are in over their heads to try and help. Most often you hear, “I’m not going to get in the middle of that.”

 A healing relationship is like a couple’s therapist for both sides of the self: the self that wants to change, grow or heal—and the part of the self that wants to stay the same, the part that is afraid of, or unable to change. A therapist’s role is to hold both of these realities—to not take sides, but rather to support both sides by creating an environment in which both sides can grow and integrate.

How do I find help? What kind of help is best? This is an important question with a lot of answers. There is no ‘perfect’ guide. When friends and family ask me what to look for I give a pretty basic answer—what you want in a good therapist or guide or consultant is what you would look for in a good parent. You want someone who can be consistent, patient, hopeful, and who knows that this journey is about you and your growth, not their needs or success. You want someone who knows about trauma or is willing to learn. You want someone who can laugh at themselves and who can tolerate their emotions and yours. You want someone who is willing to let both of you make mistakes and who can have a conversation about it when it happens. You want someone you can respect. You want someone whose basic premise is: whatever it is, we can talk about it. And, you want someone who is a good match for you-where you feel safe, and where you feel like you will be understood and heard.

Finding the right person or group is mostly a matter of trial and error. You have to ‘try them on for size.’ You have to see if they are a good match and the only real way to know that is to meet with them and talk with them. That being said, sometimes you don’t get a lot of choice. Depending upon your healthcare coverage, and where you can obtain help—sometimes there are limited options. But limited options doesn’t necessarily mean poor care. Almost all therapists I know have spent part of their careers in system where they were the only option for people getting help. And this situation is not much different than other aspects of your healthcare. If you go to the emergency room, you don’t generally interview doctors.

What you need to do is to see if the person or group you seek out will be a good match for your healing journey. Can I work with this person? If I have differences of opinions or have doubts about their capacity—can I ask about them?

Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • What do you hope to get out of treatment?
  • What is the most difficult thing about coming in today?
  • What would help you to talk?
  • What gets in the way of talking?
  • What gets in the way of taking care of yourself?

And here are some questions for you to ask your potential therapist, guide or consultant:

How long have you been working in this field?

  • What do you enjoy about it?
  •  How do you typically work with clients?
  • What happens if we disagree?
  • What are your expectations of clients?
  • Have you worked with clients who have a trauma history before?

 These questions are just a start, and you are free to ask them anything that would help you feel more comfortable working with them. Some people find help on the first try and some on the second. I found it on the sixth. It is different for everyone. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

Take two poems and call me in the morning

As a psychologist I don't get to write prescriptions, but if I could, I would most often write them for poems. The language of healing is the language of emotions. And the language of emotions is a hard one for most people to learn. As someone who teaches emotional intelligence in the corporate world, I can tell you that being able to sense your emotion, name it, and then be able to talk about it —and manage it—is a skill that everyone is working on. And when you have lived through long term trauma, this skill is even harder. 

But once you can identify the feeling and want to talk about it, words can fail. I have found that the words often just feel too small for the feeling you are having—or somehow the words don’t connect to the feeling—it feels hollow. But one place that feelings learn to connect to words, and images and stories is poems. Poetry is the intersection of all things emotional. Poems allow your brain to begin to hold the images, feelings, and words in one place, at the same time, without the pressure of a full narrative. 

Poetry?! I hear you saying…I know poems may not seem macho enough for some of you, but that’s because you haven’t met the right poets. You need to meet David Whyte. He’s a poet who, if you saw him, you could say: Man, that guy could kick my ass. Actually, he doesn't need to lay a hand on you-- the blows come anyway. His words help lost parts of yourself find each other. His words can give you the capacity to capture your courage to heal again. In this blog I will often bring in poems and pieces of poems—they are the often the best first start to the language of healing and the practice of living. Poems are invitations to the journey that so many have dared to make—the journey of loss and the journey of reconnecting with life. When you read a poem you join an immense group of fellow pilgrims. You are not alone in your work, in your healing. So in order to heal you can start with this poem—an invitation to start, to find your voice and your courage. David Whyte’s poem Start Close In ~ Here's the first stanza, and the poem read by the author below.

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

David's books are available here: Most are available on kindle as well. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

"Man, that’s amazing work—you are badass!"© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

When you hear friends and family talk about having to go to physical therapy after an injury or a surgery—they talk about it in groans and laughs. They talk about how tough their particular physical therapist is —how hard they made them work, how sore they are—in a way that sounds macho, or badass

This is not the conversation that people typically have about psychological therapy. There is some mistaken notion, especially the worse someone feels, that after a session of psychological therapy you will not be sore, but instead will ‘feel better.’ As if you were sitting down to talk with an old kindly grandmother or a hallmark card—and not someone trained to help you heal and stretch and grow. 

Psychological therapy is exactly like physical therapy —except it is done though words instead of those colored rubber bands. Old tight habitual muscles are forced to stretch and find new ways of moving. Psychological bones that were broken and healed over are re-broken and reset and then slowly put into use for you to use again. All of this work makes you sore. All of this work requires stretching.

This is where the platitudes from other people become especially annoying because they ask you, “Are you feeling better?” and you want to shout “No!— I am sore, I feel raw, I’am anxious, I’m trying new things!” The problem is that just like physical therapy, terms like  ‘feeling good” and “feeling bad” don’t really tell you anything: you will always feel more sore on your way to feeling functional. We judge physical health by flexibility, strength and range of motion. Shouldn’t we assess psychological health the same way? It’s my dream that someday we view psychological strengthening just as ‘badass’ as we view physical training. So help me make this happen. When you hear of someone working hard on their issues say, “Man, that’s amazing work—you are badass!” Watch them smile. Change the conversation about healing.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014