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



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

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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