It really happened and we need to heal from it


Yesterday’s testimony by Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh was a super storm that destroyed the shoreline of every trauma survivor. It tore through any protections any survivor had covering the old wounds. It destroyed any magical thinking that the powerful would protect the assaulted—especially if the assaulted were women.

Because of the Kavanaugh accusations I have witnessed days of testimony on my social media feeds of woman after woman recounting her story of sexual assault. The sheer numbers are staggering and each new voice seems to embolden someone else to share their story. We are witnessing a moment where survivors seem to finally feel that they will be believed and that their story matters. We need to listen to them, we need to listen to ourselves. We need to be able to hold the truth: it really happened.

This shift from burying an old story or hiding an old story or discounting an old story to the radical act of owning your own story has a shattering effect on your present. All the structures you were using to hold yourself together are busted up. I picture the newspaper photo of the woman standing in a sea of wreckage after the Moore tornado in Oklahoma a few years ago. She was safe and whole, and yet nothing was where it once was. She kept herself safe in her little protective cocoon during the storm, but now has to see all the damage that was done while she was in there.

This time when the protections get torn away, and the damage is visible is a very important and precious stage in healing from trauma. This is what I call the ‘unintegration’ stage—where things have come apart enough to get at the old wounds—to see what happened and how you protected yourself all these years. You can’t heal without this stage, but this stage and its raw pain is not the end of healing.  Unintegration is necessary because the old wounds get protected and we can’t see how much we have organized our selves and our lives to keep us from ever experiencing the trauma again. But telling our story and truth is just the beginning, it is not the end of healing.

The myth of trauma is that we can heal it entirely through testimony—that the story of ‘what happened’ is enough to heal us. We praise people who come forward and write and tell their stories of trauma—and yet we never really hear the stories that come after the testimony of trauma—the stories of what it takes to heal.

The problem is that most trauma is not just a single entity: Most trauma is really three forms of trauma. The first form of trauma is ‘what happened’ – the trauma you remember, the testimony we are hearing right now. This is what most people think of as the trauma. But trauma is much bigger than that. The second form of trauma are the protections you used to survive the trauma—the ways you changed yourself—your personality, your beliefs, your behavior-- to protect yourself from ever feeling that helpless, afraid or ashamed again.  These protections helped you survive, but they often also rob you of the life you want, the relationships that could sustain you, the joy in life that may be around you but you can’t take in. And the last form of trauma is the most invisible: it is what didn’t happen. It is the growth, development, experiences that didn’t happen while the trauma and aftermath were occurring. It is what was missed. It is what wasn’t learned.

 The reason our culture is so bad at healing trauma is that we stop with the first form of trauma—we stop with the story and the testimony. And we need to help people stay in the healing process long enough to really look at the protections they used to survive and really begin to sort what didn’t happen and begin to bring some of those experiences into their lives.

 So yes, to all of you survivors out there. It did happen. You can say it out loud and we will believe you.  And yes, when you say it and feel it, it will feel like the wreckage of your strong defenses are laying all around you. Unintegration is hard, but it is important. It allows you to see what was hurt. It allows you to see that you are still standing despite that. It allows you to begin to rebuild from a new place.

And to all survivors I say this: No one heals alone. If you are telling your story for the first time or the fiftieth time I encourage you to find a healing relationship. Most trauma is relational trauma, and relational trauma needs to be healed in relationship. I want you to not just tell your story, I want you to heal from the trauma. I want you to heal because you will get to live in your life and your relationships in a bigger and more joyful way. But selfishly I also want you to heal from trauma because the power of healing reaches way beyond you—you can inspire and support and stand firm in the world in ways you can’t imagine and we desperately need. It did happen, and we all need to heal from it.

For more information about how to find a therapist click here or use the Psychology Today website.

For more on healing from trauma, check out my book: Journey Through Trauma

The Sacredness of Beginnings

deer 2.jpg
If we are to have a culture as resilient and competent in the face of necessity as it needs to be, then it must somehow involve within itself a ceremonious generosity toward the wilderness of natural force and instinct. The farm must yield a place to the forest, not as a wood lot, or even as a necessary agricultural principle but as a sacred grove - a place where the Creation is let alone, to serve as instruction, example, refuge; a place for people to go, free of work and presumption, to let themselves alone.
— Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

I stood four feet from beauty yesterday. A young doe somehow missed my coming down the path in the woods and froze solid only feet away from me. She was nearly within arms reach. I was walking my dog and because the deer was so still, he didn’t notice her. The doe and I made eye contact. Her ears twitched. And I stood still for a moment between two creatures whose instincts were at odds with each other. Run towards and run away.  I took in as much as I could, though it was only moments. And then I had to move on before the dog and the deer recognized each other.

And I think that is how it is with all new things in our lives—we come upon them suddenly—we barely recognize them in the mix of all we are looking at. And when we stop, we can see clearly. The new thing staring at us, requiring us to be still and quiet just to see it.

But it’s just not that easy. We try to observe the new thing and meanwhile at the end of our leash are the old habits, the old instincts and a constant familiar tug toward what we know—what has felt comfortable—what wants to continue. What wants to chase that new thing away because the quiet and stillness and openness required to let it in is just too scary—too unknown.

Growth requires these moments of stillness and anticipation. Of simply not-knowing. Growth requires that you can be lost between these two states of yourself—the old and new, your inner hound and the young deer, and just be still for a moment. This state of in-between is so necessary, and so unsupported by our culture. Even for the healthiest, happiest among us, this is not an easy place to find or to stay. Our culture wants to fill that place with things, with achievement, with judgments and busy-ness. If you take the time to do nothing in order to sort out what your next move or idea is, you will likely find yourself feeling badly for ‘not getting anything done.” Our dayplanners and calendars have slots for every hour which imply that every hour must be equally productive. But it just doesn’t work that way. Especially with beginnings.

And if you have a history of trauma or significant loss, beginnings can be even harder. Trauma is about being overwhelmed and caught off guard—and so the precious open state of beginning—the quiet, still place that is necessary for growth—doesn’t feel nourishing, it usually feels terrifying. Trauma survivors hate to be caught off guard, so rather than actually taking in what is new, they anticipate the old, scary experience of the past—even if it is nowhere near them, even if it is long gone. Better to know what is coming, even if it is bad, than be surprised.

And this is why healing from trauma is so important—not just because you want to heal the wounds of the past—but because healing allows you to grow again. It allows you to have a new relationship to beginnings, to openness, to growth. This healing can take a long time—and even when the terror or fear has subsided, you will still struggle with the newness of the experience, with the feeling of being lost in the unknown.

Most beginnings don’t look like much at all. Like the doe, they blend in to their surroundings so perfectly you almost miss them. The beginning of a trail head for most hiking trails are not easy to spot—they are a break between trees, maybe a rock outcropping, nothing more. Which is why beginnings need our help. They need our attention and care.

The thing about growth is that it happens in cycles, think circles and not lines. Beginnings don’t stand out at the front of anything, they happen after endings. Beginnings are really an 'in-between.' The beginning of a butterfly happens in-between the caterpillar and the butterfly. The beginning of the frog happens in-between the tadpole and the frog. Beginnings are easy to miss because we expect to be somewhere else.

So beginnings need our respect.  There will be time ahead for the hard work and gratification of moving forward—for seeing things get done. There will be plenty of time for the challenges that you can see and share and wrestle with. But in order for all of that to happen: you need to be able to be still. To honor and witness the young and innocent as it appears in our life over and over. To trust the experience of not-knowing long enough to find the ‘new.’  And they need our protection. We need to protect the forest of quiet so the new can show up. We need to protect the hours in our day where we can integrate what was finished and allow the new beginning.

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD


the healing power of the ordinary

A traumatic experience is by very definition extraordinary—it is defined as an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself—something that you experience as totally out of the ordinary. But repeated trauma is different. With repeated trauma, long term trauma, intergenerational trauma—the extraordinary becomes utterly and completely routine—trauma becomes what is expected.  When you are healing from trauma there can be such a wish for something extraordinary to happen—some big shift the way things happen in the movies. In the movies, people change their whole lives in an hour and half. You want to believe in the one conversation that will change things, the one cathartic meltdown. The scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’s character tells Will “It’s not your fault.” and Will is healed.

But I have found that some of the best healing is not the extraordinary—it is the utterly and completely ordinary. It is the daily dog walk, it is the morning coffee, it is the routine of food shopping or doing laundry. It is the smile that the cashier at the store gives you, and the one you give the woman walking in the door of your office. For many of my clients the daily-ness of caring for grandchildren was immensely healing. For others it is ordinariness of planning for life’s typical events—birthdays, Halloween, staff parties. The chance to live out the normal events of their week—and to know that they were part of the fray.

When I am having a bad day one of my favorite people to talk to is my brother-in-law. He loves sports, and he loves to sail. I could listen to any of these conversations for hours—and it’s not because I share his interests—I don’t love hockey and I don’t know much about sailing—but I love listening to him talk about them because his joy is simply contagious. They are easy, flowing conversations that aren’t trying to get anywhere in particular. They are about the ordinary—and they allow for something extraordinary. My other favorite healing conversations are listening to he and my sister-in-law talk about their kids—they love their kids and listening to people talk about their kids can be one of the most healing conversations of all, because kids, regardless of age, are the gurus of ordinary. This is, of course, why children drive most parents nuts—the relentless ordinary that goes with them. When people like my in-laws or my best friend tell stories about their kids they are mostly tales of a peaceful ordinary.  The ordinary frustrations, the ordinary school bake sales, the ordinary struggles of growing up and moving. There is nothing quite as soothing as the peaceful ordinary. A peaceful ordinary is the necessary and healing antidote to the violent ordinary. So never underestimate your ordinary days, or your ordinary support of others. It is what helps the healing happen.

Originally posted © Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014






In Praise of Being Grounded

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

“You’re grounded!” Two words no teenager wants to hear. These words are the sign that your plans are sunk and all possibility of fun is gone. Being grounded means being disappointed. It means missing out. It means being stuck at home with everything and everyone you don’t want to be stuck at home with. And truth be told, it is no fun for the parents either. When parents ground their kids they are also stuck at home with an angry teen who will spend the entire time in a state of sulking silence, maybe not trying to make their parents miserable, but doing a pretty good job of it anyway.

I’m 53 with no one to really ‘ground’ me, but that’s what I did this last weekend. I grounded myself. I’d been on the road for most of this spring, coming home, dumping my suitcase, and repacking it and moving on.  Keeping up with things enough to avert a crisis, but not enough to know what was actually completed. My life was starting to feel like a professional version of the fairy tale, The Red Shoes—where I was dancing as fast as I could—and mostly staying upright— but my life had an energy that was starting to feel quasi-maniacal.

I arrived home at midnight on Wednesday looking towards another fast turnaround to head out for the weekend on Thursday afternoon. I had planned on this weekend for months and I had been looking forward to it through the early part of the week while I was working. But on Thursday morning I stared at my suitcase with exhaustion and began to wonder aloud whether going away was a good idea.

Immediately I argued back. Of course I needed the weekend! I rationalized that the weekend would really help me—I could ‘chill out’ and ‘recharge my battery’—but even as I said these things out loud I knew the words didn’t feel true. I knew I felt untethered and off balance.

For the better part of a day, I sat in a standoff with myself not entirely unlike any scenario of a parent and teen. There was the part of me that wanted to go away—that argued and rationalized that, no, really, I would definitely get to everything that wasn’t done next week—that I really, really needed the time off—and there was the part of me that stood there in the doorway of my room as the inner ‘mean mom’ and said, “Nope. You are grounded sister.”

As disappointing as it was, it was just time to stop. It was time to stay home. It was time to regroup. It was time to ‘be grounded’ so I could actually ‘get grounded.’

And did I hear that inner voice of wisdom and say, “Oh, thank you. That’s so helpful.” NAH. I did what any self-respecting teen would do in the situation of being grounded: I called my best friend. I wanted my emotional wingman, I wanted someone on my side. I wanted someone to trash talk the inner mean mom and make it possible for me to do what I wanted, so I could go back to that inner voice with just the slightest bit of snark and say, “See, Jane thinks it’s a good idea.” And Jane did her job perfectly— she tried to help me figure out how to go away—because that’s what best friends do—they want you to get what you want.

But the problem with true inner conflict is that there really is no bad guy—no one to take sides against. Because for better or worse—you are actually both sides. You are the angry teen. And you are the mean mom. And that’s the beauty of it really—when you finally drop the end of the rope in the tug of war with yourself. You are both. And in that moment of stopping—you have all aspects of yourself in one place—but not yet together.

You can’t get grounded until you stop, but how do you ground yourself? At its most basic level, it is about stopping, and, as one of my wise mentors says, ‘being where your feet are.’ But the act of stopping is usually not enough. Getting grounded takes work. And it takes different kinds of work at different times—depending upon what feels untethered or disconnected.  First, you have to have some sense of your physical and emotional state and ideally connect your brain to your body. Marsha Linehan, who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy writes about grounding yourself in your five senses. Using the warmth of something like hot tea, or a cool washcloth. Or the sound of music you like or the smell of something that soothes you. This is a handy practice because your five senses are always with you and if one doesn’t seem to help, perhaps another will. Other grounding practices are mindfulness and breathing which can help you connect your body and your brain. And some people need more activity—like walking or biking to bring themselves in to the present.

Another thing that can be amazingly grounding are routines. Slowing down enough to reestablish and connect with routines that help you feel healthy and more solid: bedtimes, meals, walks, reading—routines that can offer some consistency and constancy and help you relax and settle in to yourself and your life. They can be especially effective at grounding you when you have become ungrounded by crisis, loss or trauma. And sometimes things like tidying up and putting everything away, or organizing something (anything) can help you feel like you and your life is more in order.

Once you have reestablished a physical connection with yourself —and a connection between you and the rhythms of your life, you can also ground yourself in your values and your noble purpose— ground yourself in the motivations that drive you and the reason you get up in the morning. Connecting to your values and purpose can recalibrate your inner compass and remind you where you are headed or where you want to go.

Being grounded is not a quick fix like penicillin or a pain pill—it’s a feeling that needs to work its way back into the fabric of your being. It needs some time to settle, to knit, to mend. When you regain that feeling—you need to steep in it a while. Take some time to feel the ground underneath your feet, and your feet underneath your body. Take some time to feel your breathing, your values, your purpose and your relationships. And take time to have all the pieces of you get to live in the same place for a while—long enough to find common ground.  The common ground of steadiness and sturdiness – a platform from which you can leap again—when you are ready.  

 © 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD