This started as just another book review, but it got into Dr. Schmelzer’s blog along the way, so now I’m writing a whole post about her and her stuff. I do want to make it clear that I have tremendous respect for her and the work she is doing. I found the book immensely helpful, and while I do have some criticisms on her body of work, this is not an attack or indictment. As a result of exploring my conflicting feelings about possibly her two most famous publications, I have found myself subscribing to her blog because it’s well written and thoughtful: bite sized pieces of the advice she gives in her book in a timely manner relating to what is going on in the world around us. I just… can’t go to the “parents corner” ever again.
Journey Through Trauma: A Trail Guide to the 5-Phase Cycle of Healing Repeated Trauma
This book is designed to be a trail guide to the path of healing from long term trauma. That is also a little misleading since you have to walk the trail about a million times before you “finish” because, as the author points out repeatedly, the healing journey is not linear with a clear beginning, middle, and end, but rather like a progressive spiral. Imagine going up a mountain. You don’t just start at the bottom and go straight up. You either do switchbacks or walk a gentler sloping path around the mountain, getting a little higher up each time. The path of healing is like that. You feel like you’ve been here before, and you’ve seen this view, but you’re a little closer to the top every time you round the bend.
She also stresses that it’s impossible to walk this trail without a guide – a real human guide, not a book or map. She compares it to going up Everest, which is not a thing you do alone. Pretty much every book I’ve read repeats at some level the need to get professional guidance on a trauma healing journey. Even the ones that aren’t peddling therapy have still pointed out the absolute impossibility of fully healing from relational trauma without forming new bonds with other humans. I’m blocked pretty hardcore in this the same way all trauma survivors are (by my own fear and distrust, the worry that the other humans will hate “real me” or leave just when I’m starting to feel connected, etc), but I’m also blocked by Covid and living in this small town in Korea, which I also can’t change because of Covid. It’s getting really frustrating that not only is this pandemic taking away so many good things in my life, now it’s becoming a major obstacle to my healing.
Schmelzer reminds us of the need for a trained trauma therapist repeatedly and gives some very compelling arguments about it. I’ve been resisting finding a therapist since the fiasco in 2020 where I got 2 in a row that were not only unhelpful, but actively triggering me into worse and worse feeling states while offering zero support or recognition of that. Turns out, CPTSD is not a thing you can go to any ol’ therapist about. You really need someone trained in it, and who has done significant work on themselves in therapy as well. Armed by several of these books with a wish/check list of what I need in a therapist, I could look for one that will be what I need. Yet, I still have fear, I still have the “everyone lets me down always so I must do it myself” inner voice to get past, so when I went online just to look at options, I had a tiny baby anxiety attack and had to close the internet and go do other things. This takes work, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that it’s work I need to do with someone. My intake video appointment is now scheduled for early October.
I appreciate this book’s map of the healing process because it really is a good guide to the stages we need to go through over and over as we spiral up the mountain. I also enjoyed the detailed but simplified explanations of how the brain processes memory in regular events, one time traumas, and recurring traumas. However, these fade into the background next to my own big ah hah moment from this author:
The 3 Phases of Experiencing Trauma
She makes it clear that she is speaking of long-term trauma or repeated trauma, as opposed to a single traumatic event. It’s important to understand how these are different for several reasons, but mostly because it informs our healing journey. A single traumatic event like a car accident, a robbery or rape, or even a natural disaster like a hurricane can and will trigger the brain’s defense and panic mode (go go gadget amygdala!) which causes things like adrenaline and cortisol to flood the body, it changes the way the brain functions, bypassing the prefrontal cortex and going straight to action. It also changes the way that memory works, recording in HiDef everything that is happening and storing it in a special place in the brain. That’s part of why PTSD flashbacks can be so vivid. However, in the case of long term or repeated trauma, the brain simply can’t keep pumping out emergency responses day in and day out, so it shuts down certain functions. This impacts our emotions, reactions, memory, and many other things. It is part of the reason why CPTSD flashbacks tend to be only emotions without any visual/audio context because the memory storage function of the brain changed during that recurring trauma.
In long term, recurring trauma, you have three things to look at:
- What happened to you? – what was the actual trauma? This can be hard to answer in the beginning because protective measures in your brain are keeping you from looking at it head on. You may not even be able to put it into words because the speech and language center of the brain is actually CUT OFF from where the traumatic memory is stored.
- What did you do to protect yourself? – this may be conscious or unconscious actions. Unconscious actions are things your brain does on its own like emotionally numbing, dissociating, forgetting, and rerouting memory and thought connections. Conscious actions may be easier to remember because you probably came up with those in a less dissociative moment. We gotta see both.
- What didn’t happen? – not in the “well it could have been worse” sense, that platitude can die in a fire. In the sense of what did you miss out on? What developmental milestones, what life growth milestones? What were you unable to do, see, or grow from because you were trapped in trauma? And oh, wow, is this a doozy.
Don’t Live in the Past, But Do Visit There
I, like many of you, was taught by family and society at large that dwelling on the past is unhealthy and undesirable. “Just move on. Just get over it. You can’t change the past, so stop dwelling!” But if we don’t spend some reasonable amount of time “dwelling” then we can’t understand what happened to us and we will never heal from it. Shoving aside past trauma simply because the traumatic event is over is NOT HEALTHY. People will fight you about it because they a) don’t want to confront their own pain, so watching you do it makes them uncomfortable, or b) don’t want to take responsibility for traumatizing you or others, so listening to you work through it makes them feel shame and guilt, followed quickly by rage and blame.
Just… like…don’t talk to those people about your journey, but also, don’t let them stop you from taking it.
So here I am reading these three phases and going, “wait. what?” and revisiting all the little “if only” and “what if it had been different” thoughts I’ve ever shoved to the side because “you can’t change the past” and it was like a revelation to finally feel like I’m allowed to make space for those feelings. Yeah, no one wants to live in the past. That’s not the point of this activity. We suppressed, denied, and cut out the painful and traumatic parts of our lives in order to survive them as they were happening. Once the trauma is over, and we no longer need those survival tactics, we have to fully experience the things we locked away so that we can put them in the past where they belong.
COVID19 Is a Traumatic Event
In applying this to the Covid pandemic, which is a global scale recurring traumatic event, it made a lot of things fall into place for me. Like, why did we all go from panic to burnout so fast? Because the brain shuts down a bunch of cognitive functions when it can’t sustain ongoing trauma. We just did that collectively as a planet. The book has some examples of this kind of widespread, community trauma response in countries where there’s been war, intense civil unrest, dangerous political upheaval, or national natural disasters which destroyed large parts of the country. We have examples of how large populations experience trauma. This is just the first time in recent memory that we’ve had trauma on a global scale to contend with.
We can see phase 1 in the news every day: what is happening to us? A global pandemic, restrictions, closures, economic hardship, and of course illness and death. Most of us are at least marginally aware of phase 2: what we are doing to protect ourselves. I’m part of the Animal Crossing horde, and pretty much everyone in there knows that our intense obsession with the gameplay is a coping strategy for pandemic stress. Other people got really into sourdough. We’re all either numbing or dissociating to some extent whether we know it right now or not. However, we are all intensely aware of phase 3: what we’re missing out on. It’s easy to see the missed holiday gatherings, missed campus activities, missed vacations, weddings, graduations, and other milestones. I think in some way because it’s so obvious to think about what we are missing out on during this trauma, that it made it easier for me to understand how this is a part of all long term trauma.
I had read a bit about attachment in a few other places, but almost everything that is published focuses on children. Which makes sense because attachment is a thing that happens (or doesn’t) to developing children. However, time keeps on ticking, and those children grow up, so what happens to adults who had attachment disorders as children. Again, there’s a little stuff on this, but mostly in terms of criminal or violent behavior. We do love a good “true crime”. This was the first book I found that had any real discussion of what attachment disorder might mean to me as a non-criminal, yet still affected adult. I honestly don’t think I could summarize it or explain it better than the original text, so brace for heavy quoting:
“And now, before every parent reading this section fears that they have ruined their child, what is really important to understand about attachment and healthy relationships is that it isn’t about getting it right all the time. It isn’t about being the perfect parent…In fact, powerful research shows that both parents who have secure relationships with their children and parents who have insecure relationships with their children get it wrong about the same amount of time (roughly 50 percent)…Getting it wrong is actually just part of what it means to be in a normal relationship. So what distinguishes a secure relationship [is] your ability to go in for repair. Parents who have a secure relationship with their children keep trying something else in the interaction until they get it right enough. Or they apologize for getting it wrong. Or they get it wrong and inquire. And this constant state of “try something — get it wrong — repair” is how we human beings teach each other how to be in a relationship with each other.”
This was a fairly large revelation to me, because I felt frequently that none of my parental figures (bio or step) were willing to do ANY repair work, or try anything different. If their way didn’t work, then clearly I was the problem. Why couldn’t I just figure it out/ get it/ do it/ stop whatever they didn’t like, etc. And it’s pretty shocking if you think about it, because this kind of behavior isn’t even close to what most of us think of when we think of abuse or even neglect. She goes on to explain the three main types of insecure attachment: anxious (preoccupied), avoidant (dismissive), and disorganized (fearful-avoidant). To help survivors in the journey toward recovery, Shmelzer says, “It’s helpful to think about each of the insecure attachment styles as a solution to a problem. Each of these attachment styles was the best solution that you could come up with to cope with poor, inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive caregiving.” Again, I think it’s relevant to note that “poor” and “inconsistent” are listed alongside “neglectful” and “abusive” because insecure attachment doesn’t only come from abuse.
Anxious (preoccupied) Attachment
“If you are anxiously attached, you decided to use a strategy of managing inconsistent caregiving by becoming hypervigilant – and anxious. You want to believe in relationships and you pay close attention to relationships, but you don’t believe in their reliability. Children who employ this strategy look clingy or fearful – never wanting to let go, for fear they will never be able to grab hold again. If you are an adult who employs this strategy you may find yourself assuming that no matter what you do, you will be abandoned by the people you love, or that the relationship is too fragile to handle your problems.”
I thought about this one. I do this sometimes. When I have in the past found a person that I thought had some special unique ability to care for me, I could be clingy, but I always hated it. I hated the way it made me feel, like why should I have to beg or struggle so hard just to be loved? A part of me knew that wasn’t right, and far more often than not, if a person wanted me to put on a show for their attention, I turned into this next attachment style pretty fast.
Avoidant (Dismissive) Attachment
“If you are a person with a dismissive attachment style, you settled on the opposite strategy – you decided that it was too hard or painful to try to rely on unreliable caregivers and chose to simply ‘not need’ anyone, seeing any of the normal proximity seeking as a weakness; you work instead to protect yourself through self-sufficiency. You often look pretty solid on the outside, but feel disconnected on the inside. Others may feel like they can never get close to you.”
I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time living in this style, too, but it felt like a cycle: I’d get lonely or optimistic and I’d start trusting and investing in a person (or people) and then they would leave, let me down, betray me, ask too much, give to little… in other words: be human… and I would withdraw, turn tough and self sufficient and disconnected. But then I’d get lonely again… It reminds me a LOT about the story of the Wise Turtle, which was one of my favorite books as a child. I may have even convinced myself that alternating between these two unhealthy coping mechanisms was somehow “wise”, but it turns out there’s another name for not being able to attach to an attachment style:
Disorganized (Fearful-Avoidant) Attachment
“[T]he last category of insecure attachment is called “disorganized” in childhood and “fearful-avoidant” in adulthood – and tends to be the result of the most abusive or neglectful parenting. In many ways it’s an attachment style where neither of the strategies of the other two, anxious or dismissive, worked well enough – neither getting close nor staying away was consistently successful – and so you may find yourself alternating between them in what one of my psychiatrist colleagues once described as a “closeness-distance” problem. As a fearful-avoidant person you can find no safe distance. Often the solution is a false self. You create a persona that looks good on the outside, but you believe that if anyone knew the “real you” on the inside, they would leave you, which forces you to work desperately hard to make the outside look good, which means that you have to hide your problems rather than seek help. And because you believe that this false self is a fraud, it’s hard to let anyone get very close for fear of being found out.
I really hate being called out like that.
This is a big step for me in my continuing journey to recognize that not everything that traumatizes us is violent or abusive. I know a lot of adults who suffer from a variety of mental and emotional issues that are almost certainly linked to insecure attachment who refuse to investigate the possibility because they don’t want to think of their parents as “bad”, or of themselves as “abused”. I argue that we don’t always have to choose between ourselves and our parents. Some parents are abusive, or so toxic that it’s just impossible to keep our own mental/emotional balance around them, but many parents tried their best, and are still trying. Recognizing what happened in the past isn’t the same as “blaming”, but we need to understand because we can’t heal if we don’t know what happened.
The Five Steps of the Healing Journey
Schmelzer breaks down the healing cycle (remember, you have to walk it many times) into 5 stages: Preparation, Unintegration, Identification, Integration, and Consolidation. Preparation is getting to a safe and healthy “basecamp”. Unintegration is taking all the broken pieces out of the box. She deliberately uses the grammatically incorrect “un” instead of “dis” because she wants to stress that it is an organized falling apart, a kind of “controlled fall” rather than an uncontrolled collapse. Identification is the time when we put words to everything, a repeated theme in many trauma healing books. Integration is taking the now named parts and putting them back inside us hopefully in the past where they belong. Consolidation is living with your new self for a while before you start the next cycle. Stages 2-4 are the most vital to have real, trained and skilled help with, and you don’t try to do everything in one go.
It’s clear reading this book that almost everything I’ve done in the last year and a half has been “preparation”. I’ve had a couple very tiny “training hikes” as it were by going through all 5 phases with one small part of my trauma, but the big work is still out there ahead of me. I toyed with feeling down about this, like, “man, I’ve been working on this for 18 months and I’ve not even got past stage 2?” BUT. Schmelzer compares a healing journey to climbing Mt. Everest, and it does actually take 12-18 months to prepare for Everest, and it involves training and practice hikes. It’s important to prepare well. AND. I am actually still experiencing trauma… the same trauma as everyone else on the planet, Covid! Schmelzer points out that we can’t heal from trauma while we are experiencing it, and although my past traumas are finished, I’m still having ongoing defense mechanisms to protect me mentally and emotionally from the trauma of the pandemic, so can I even move forward on any of it from here? I don’t know, part of why I need to findtalk to a trained therapist so I can ask. I don’t really have a happy ending for this book review. It helped me see somethings, but mostly what I see is a lot more work. Good, necessary, and ultimately rewarding work, but wow that mountain is really tall.
More From Gretchen L. Schmelzer
I loved the heck out of the book. I really feel like it helped me to frame my thinking and my healing journey. I especially respected the rhythm of her prose because she would introduce a key piece of information, and then return to it multiple times throughout the book, which is how our memory works to retain information. I enjoyed it so much, I perused the acknowledgements at the back to see where her influences were. She mentioned the viral success of an open letter she had published in a blog, and out of curiosity, I went to go read it. I do NOT recommend that you do, and I will not be linking it here.
“The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write’ may be designed to help struggling parents of willful teens, but it is a HUGE trigger for the teens (or once teens) of trauma-inducing parents. I cried for a good long while after reading it. It felt like a complete betrayal of everything she wrote in the book. To see her console clingy and overbearing parents to “hold on to the rope” and fight with their teens “for love” made me want to vomit. This is not hyperbole, I had a visceral physical reaction in my guts to reading it.
Further reflection enabled me to understand that when she said “hold on to the rope”, she meant the belay rope. In the book, she talks about mountain climbing a lot as the core metaphor for trauma recovery. A belay rope is the rope that secures a climber if they fall while fucking around on the cliff face. Schmelzer relates this to her own experiences of learning top rope climbing, which requires a human partner at the top to help secure and control the belay line. It’s a lovely little metaphor for how we must learn to trust and depend on other humans that may or may not be totally ruined by the very real knowledge that there are automatic belay line techniques which do not require a human partner at all, but hey, we’re trying to maintain a metaphor here, let’s not get tangled up in reality. The point is, that in the book, Schmelzer explains what the belay rope stands for, but in “The Letter”, she does NOT. It’s just a rope, that parents have to hold on to while their children flail around on the other end of, fighting to be free.
I recognize that in her mind, the image of the (belay) rope is one of trust and safety, but that is not at ALL what it made me feel. I feel rope nets holding me down, chains shackling me, and sticky globs of giant spiderweb clinging to my skin. The rope is NOT a comforting image to me. It didn’t bother me in the book because she was so careful to talk about it in terms of mountain climbing gear that I didn’t even notice. When I realized that all my mental and emotional images of “the rope” of relational attachment are GROSS and ensnaring, enslaving things, I had to have another look at the section on attachment theory, and now I feel like I am going to need to spend some time focused on that. The visceral stomach churning, gagging, skin crawling feeling is definitely my body telling me a thing.
I wrote to Dr. Schmelzer about The Letter (after I did the calm down and reflect thing) and shared some of my feelings and perceptions, and she actually wrote back. I’m not going to put the whole thing here, but some key phrases that I think helped me to understand more:
“The Letter” is not only for parents of teens, but “for anyone to understand why they may need to pull away or feel angry at the people who are helping them.”, ” for people who have experienced trauma what I describe is more what you may experience with a therapist than with the parent who raised you”
This is a good way for me to look at it, but I can’t help but wish there were some intro or postscript to the letter itself that expressed as much. I recognize that I do pull away from help, and I’m very aware that my sister may at any moment pull away from me if my helping becomes too uncomfortable. I just don’t know that I’ll ever agree that “fight me” is the right way to help. The Letter focuses a lot more on the fight than on the willingness to continue to love and support in the aftermath of the fight, and that doesn’t seem like the correct balance to me.
“Parents who think they are always right and make themselves a victim or a martyr would find validation anywhere they looked or dismiss the information if it doesn’t validate their view…That they could use or twist my words is a given, that is what they do, and I have no control over that.”
This is a thing I also understand. We can’t stop narcissists from living in their own little world. That “healing fantasy” was addressed for me early on in this reading process with “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents”. There’s no way to write anything that will fix this problem, but we can and should put some effort into making sure that our words are not easy to misuse. It’s hard to place “The Letter” in context the way it is written and presented on the website, and it feels a little bit like a cop out to say “I can’t control how people take my words” when you literally can choose to just write a short disclaimer, or context clue at any time.
A Journey Through Trauma is likely to stay one of my top 5 trauma healing books. I’m not going to agree with everyone about everything and that is totally normal. Being triggered by her attempts to address an important and difficult issue does not negate all of the positive things I said about her book, her insight, and her writing style. I highly recommend the book to anyone struggling with trauma, and I plan to add it to my re-read pile. Additionally, I’ve subscribed to the blog and hope that reading her regular reminders of the healing journey will be a useful tool. On the other hand, I’m pretty confident I’ll always feel at least slightly uncomfortable if not positively outraged every time I see or think about “The Letter”, and that’s ok, too. The path to healing is not “one size fits all”, and we are never under any obligation to follow advice that is not helpful.
Thank you Gretchen for all your hard work.
Thank you for reading and continuing with me on this exploration. It’s summer “vacation” for me, which means no classes, but for the second year in a row, no travel either. Outside the US, vaccines are scarce, and restrictions are common. I’m pretty safe, and my uni has started the process of registering the profs for our shots, but I stare into the abyss a lot. These days my goals include: sleep a healthy amount (not less than 7, not more than 11 hours), eat healthy food (fruits, veg, low fat proteins, whole grains, not more than 1 dessert serving/day), move the body (30 min minimum on the VR dance game or similar activity), socialize (at least one day a week, leave the house and interact with humans). These are tiny, tiny goals compared to some of the literal and metaphorical mountains I have climbed in my life, but they are what will keep me at my “basecamp” until the skies clear. Even the Black Death only lasted 4 years, so while my hopes for a resumption of normal life by 2022 may be a little unrealistic, I know there must be a light at the end of this tunnel for all of us. Persevere.