Book & Author Review: Gretchen L. Schmelzer

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Attachment Disorders

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.

Follow-up:

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.

Finally, This kid. This 15 year old kid who wants love and comfort, to be seen and heard, and found the letter and went, “this is not what your teenager would write if they could”. This one teen comment in a sea of relieved and self congratulatory adults. Is fighting with your teen inevitable? Meh, probably, all people fight in personal relationships sometimes, but I think a lot of the typical teen/parent struggle is on the parents. I know if my niblings wanted to do crazy drugs and drinking binges the answer would be “no”, but I like to think that we could talk about what’s going on that makes them want to, and why moderation in consumption is important. A teen with strong self worth and a good attachment shouldn’t have the impulse to dive into self destructive and pain avoidance behaviors. Experiment and test boundaries sure, but If you raised them right, you should be able to have a conversation and not a fight.

Fight me.

In Conclusion

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.

A Trip Inside: Where I Went in 2020 (1/?)

TW: sexual assault, abuse. There are NO graphic details, but I don’t want to take anyone by surprise. I hope that those of you who are able will take the time to read this, and those of you who feel you are not will get help with your own trauma soonest. You deserve to heal, too.

In early 2018 I experienced a(nother) sexual assault. I talked about it to some friends, and I pushed it away so I could start my new job. I thought I was going to be ok. Then, in late 2018 and into 2019 I began to experience severe panic attacks. I didn’t recognize them as panic attacks at first. They didn’t present like the typical media depiction of a panic attack. I didn’t even see it as a pattern until the third one. When I started to try to understand what was happening to me, I discovered the role of the amygdala in panic attacks including it’s tendency to shut down the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain where all your thinking lives). I began to understand that I was experiencing an amygdala hijacking of my brain. I tried a few things to help like grounding and meditation exercises, but what I really needed to do was find out what was causing (and triggering) my panic attacks.

I thought seriously about the events that preceded each one and I discovered that it was happening in response to a feeling of having my clearly stated boundaries ignored and trespassed or of feeling trapped in a painful situation with no escape or relief. I thought more about where this was coming from. Where was it rooted? Triggers are events that involuntarily force us to relive past traumatic events, they aren’t the cause of the feeling, merely the catalyst. I realized that I hadn’t properly dealt with the trauma of my assault. Then in working toward a healing process, I uncovered a larger pile of unprocessed trauma relating to previous assaults and an abusive relationship. Although I had spent some time on each of these, I had never finished processing them, and they still had hooks deep in my subconscious, controlling my involuntary fear response and amygdala hijacking.

In 2019, while trying to work through some ongoing conflict with my mother, her behavior induced another panic attack. In the months that followed, I realized (with much pain) that she was unwilling to take any ownership of her role in our conflict and I imposed a cessation of communication with terms. In simpler language: Because she was unable and unwilling to even try to find a mutual solution, I had to stop talking to her until such a time that she would be willing to engage in healing work. As of this post, she has declined to make the effort. I’m not going to go through all the horrible things. You can think I’m a “bad daughter” or that she is a “bad mother”, but reality is rarely that cut and dry. In the present, I can see that we are two hurt people who (without understanding) sometimes have allowed and still allow our pain to cause us to hurt others. The nature of our relationship has changed from parent – dependent child to parent – adult child, which could allow us to examine, understand, and heal if we both work at it. I am working on that in myself, but I can no longer safely engage with her until she is willing to do the same. I also have to accept that day may never come, and that I have no control over it.

The upshot/side effect of all this is that I was working hard to understand myself, the origin of my trauma and how it was impacting my quality of life and treatment of others by the end of 2019. The advent of Covid-19 and it’s isolating effects have given me a lot of time to read and think. Along the way I have come to understand that it was not only the traumas of assault and abuse I experienced as an adult that were hanging around my neck, but also those of my childhood. I’ve learned a lot about trauma: causes and responses, PTSD/CPTSD, conflict, abuse, toxic behavior, misplaced blame, blame vs responsibility, shame vs understanding, and hopefully … healing. I am by no means finished, but this has been the journey of my last year, and as this is the place I share my travels, I thought I’d write this one too.

I’d like to share a list of the books that have helped me so far, along with a short description of the main ideas each one brought to me. I highly recommend and and all of these book to everyone because even if you yourself are lucky enough to have no trauma, I guarantee you that someone you love is carrying their past around in painful ways, and understanding them may help you both.

(caveat, I read A LOT, and my brain operates on an “absorb information until critical mass causes transmutation of thought” principle, so some of the things that I’ve been thinking/working on are a result of all the things I’ve read, including the 2019 long list of history books, any number of random TED Talks, and the ongoing sci-fi fantasy background reads. I can’t possibly include them all, so this list is very focused on books which I think of as “breakthrough books”)

Educated, Tara Westover

I did not seek this book for help with my trauma. It was recommended by a friend, and since I’m a teacher, I thought that it was about … education. It turns out to be autobiography of a young woman who was raised in a closed off, survivalist minded, fanatically religious family and her process of waking up to what was happening to her. There’s a lot of baggage that gets shoved onto this. When you read the synopsis or reviews you see a lot of focus on the physical abuse (present but not a dominant theme), or on the nature of the religion itself (Mormonism, but also going to Brigham Young University is what helps her), or the “crazy” things her parents believe. A lot of people react with “how could she not know?” and shut it down, preferring to believe that she is lying or exaggerating or anything other than the idea that an intelligent, well loved, and compassionate person might be unable to recognize abuse when they are stewing in it.

When I read it, I was also curious how she could not know, but instead of dismissing that possibility I tried to actually understand the answer. I knew already going into this book that I had been unable to recognize my “bad” relationship as real abuse until a couple years after I was out, some legal battles, and some therapy. I experienced a lot of shame about it, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually terrifyingly common for intelligent educated people to become trapped in abusive situations. In Tara’s case, it wasn’t the few instances of physical abuse from her brother, or the content of her father’s beliefs that were the real problem. It was the gaslighting, the control, the neglect and failure to protect.

I was told my whole life what “abuse” looked like and I had been wrong about it in a romantic relationship. Reading Tara’s experience, I knew that the details that happened to us were different, but I began to realize the feelings we had were eerily similar and maybe I needed to take a good hard look at my upbringing. The fact that I was several months into not speaking to my own mother, and many years into an uncomfortable estrangement with my father at the time this book compelled me to have this thought is just more evidence and how good we humans can be at justifying, ignoring, or minimizing the damage caused to us by those we love and who are supposed to love us.

I was unprepared to think about my parents in terms of “abuse”, but I was willing to explore the idea that they had unintentionally damaged me due to their own psychological issues. I was (am) still suffering pretty hard from a pile of trauma related symptoms, and the only way to get at those is to find the roots. I wanted to start trying to understand what had happened to me and how it was affecting my adult life, and I wanted to find some tools to help me communicate with my parents and finally get a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling adult relationship with one or both of them. This seemed like a good book for that.

The book itself doesn’t focus on what is or isn’t “abuse” which I think was helpful for me where I was. Instead it talks about behaviors that can cause painful feelings and lasting behavioral problems, how to recognize them, how to heal from them, and even how to cope if you are stuck in a situation where you can’t avoid or reconcile with the parent(s) in question. It very much confirmed for me that many of the feelings and thoughts I have that I find damaging are directly connected to my parent’s behavior.

People get hung up on the idea that if you had your needs met, and weren’t being beaten or regularly shouted at/called names, or (worst case) sexually abused as a child, then you are FINE and STOP WHINING. Of course those thing are terrible, and the children who experience them most likely have varying degrees of lasting trauma, and they have very valid feelings of anger. I felt a lot of conflict about coming from a middle class family that provided for me, even above and beyond my basic needs in terms of food, shelter, education, healthcare, and opportunities for creative and intellectual outlet, yet still feeling like there was something wrong, something so bad that it was a dark painful secret I could never talk about, never tell anyone I was hurt from.

This book gave me permission for the first time to acknowledge that what happened was NOT OK. That I (and every child) deserved better. That my feelings were valid, and that my trauma was real. That there are things which happen when a child is totally dependent upon one or two adults for everything in life that do not fit the current social understanding of abuse, and yet do comparable lasting damage which can even be measured with an MRI, or even worse damage because the survivors don’t feel like they can ever get support for their experiences and feelings or even be able to acknowledge the root cause of their pain in later life.

There’s a lot of useful stuff in this book, but one more thing that really dinged for me was the idea of the Healing Fantasy. Dr. Gibson gives some advice on how to interact with such parents after we become adults, and most of it is “avoid/minimize contact”. I really did not want to hear that. I wanted to find a solution. I wanted to fix my relationship with my mother. I missed her and desperately wanted to restore a loving relationship. I needed to know what I could do or say to reach her, to help her, to make things better, and Lindsay told me that I had to let that go. She told me about the Healing Fantasy:

“In addition, [some adult children of emotionally immature parents] are secretly convinced that more self-sacrifice and emotional work will eventually transform their unsatisfying relationships. So the greater the difficulties, the more they try. If this seems illogical, remember that these healing fantasies are based on a child’s ideas about how to make things better. … Their healing fantasy always involves the idea It’s up to me to fix this. What they can’t see is that they’ve taken on a job nobody has ever pulled off: changing people who aren’t seeking to change themselves.”

There was a lot more on the Healing Fantasy, but this was dead on ME, and the book really made me own the fact that I cannot be responsible for healing my mother, or my father for that matter, because they both insist they do not need to change in any way. I cried a lot. I went through a very real grieving process, I had dreams about my mother the way I have done in the past when someone I love has died, but instead of nice conversations and happy times, these were dreams of my mother behaving as she always has, as I now recognized as unacceptable and damaging, and me standing up to it over and over until I wrenched myself awake as if from a nightmare. I suppose it was. I am pretty sure I’ve gone through all the stages of grief about this multiple times (the acceptance doesn’t reliably stick either). It’s slowly getting better, and I couldn’t have started the rest of my healing journey without the “ah hah” moment offered by this book.

Definition of CPTSD as paraphrased from the book:
a more severe form of PTSD, different from PTSD in 5 main features: emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self abandonment, a vicious inner critic, and social anxiety.

I stopped writing and went back to read this again because it’s just that good. The main things that I got from this book the first time around were the “four Fs” and “emotional flashbacks”. The second time through felt like a deeper layer, a more nuanced understanding. The basic ideas were no longer a shock, I wasn’t fighting against certain healing concepts anymore the way I had been last year. I don’t know if I’ll reread it every year, but I think it should probably go in a not more than 5 year rotation.

The Four Fs are an expansion on the “fight/flight” premise. All humans (and really most animals) have a response to fear or attack known as “fight/flight”, but more extensive study reveals there are 2 more options: freeze and fawn. Most people are familiar with freeze as “a deer in the headlights”, and fawn is when the being feeling in danger sucks up to a bigger stronger threat to placate it or gain protection, perhaps an example in nature can be seen in dogs who grovel to bigger dogs or their owners when they are being scolded. These 4 Fs can manifest in a LOT of ways in humans that are not super obvious, like fight doesn’t have to mean yelling, screaming, punching walls (although it can). It also manifests as narcissism, passive aggression, and controlling manipulation. Flight may look like perfectionism, workaholism, or OCD. Freeze can be lethargy, daydreaming, reading/playing videogames, or even dissociation. Finally, fawn can look like caretaking, people pleasing, co-dependency, or never expressing one’s own opinions/needs. There’s a longer explanation on his website:
http://pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm

Walker says that every traumatized person is likely to have one dominant trauma response trait, and one secondary. We can all end up using any of the four depending on the situation, and there are HEALTHY manifestations of all 4 as well, but the book focuses on how they manifest in unhealthy ways and cause us lifelong mental and emotional health issues. I personally recognized the freeze behavior in myself in another “get out of my mind’ moment. The author self identifies as a flight type and I wasn’t really feeling any connection to what he was saying. Then he started describing freezers, and I was like, excuse me but you don’t have to call me out like that! It’s still hard, but now I can see what has been happening to me for so long, I can start to make sense of it and to notice it when it happens in the present. My dissociative episodes were incredibly strong when I was a child and teen, to the point that I drifted well away from reality, even having hallucinations and fantastical delusions. I was petrified of going to a doctor because I knew in my very bones that my mother would use any diagnosis to control me forever, and I’d never be free. The farther away from her I got, the more grounded in reality I became, but I’m still missing huge chunks of my memory both from my time in her home, and my time in my abusive relationship because my “freeze” nature caused me to simply check out from as much as I possibly could.

The other huge lighting bolt moment of this book was the revelation of the emotional flashback. Just like soldiers with PTSD have flashbacks to the war, CPTSD sufferers can also have flashbacks. However, where PTSD flashbacks tend to incorporate a visual element (sufferers report being able to see/smell/hear as though they were back in the moment of trauma), CPTSD emotional flashbacks do not have any context. They’re all emotion, no visual cue. It can be impossible to identify what is happening because you simply start to feel a strong and terrible emotion. We often end up linking it to whatever or whoever is triggering that flashback, but it’s not the case. A trigger causes a flashback, causes a (C)PTSD sufferer to relive a past trauma. It happens in the “experiencing” part of the brain instead of the “remembering” part of the brain, so it feels like it is happening right now. So when we feel a strong negative emotion, it can be very easy to say that it was caused by whatever just happened in the present. But the present action is merely the trigger.

I’ve found that some of my triggers are things that will never be “ok” behavior, like “don’t violate my consent”. Someone who ignores my “no” and keeps going is never in the right, but my flashback will cause me to have a disproportionate emotional response that may result in a laundry list of symptoms and could take days to resolve. Other triggers are behaviors that are genuinely innocent in most people but were at one point weaponized against me by an abuser. These are much harder because the person in the present didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m suddenly having a full amygdala hijacking. The thing is, realizing that my feelings, my fear, anger, suicidal ideation, and my inner & outer critic were all results of an emotional flashback and NOT based on real present dangers or attacks was mind-blowing.

In addition, Walker provides a very helpful 13 step list on how to handle an emotional flashback when you realize you’re in one: http://pete-walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm

I can’t recommend this book enough. The author is deeply compassionate in his explanations. He offers vulnerability of his own experience, as well as case studies, and references from other psychiatrists whose work focuses on trauma and recovery. There is so much more here like understanding how emotional neglect causes CPTSD, how CPTSD causes us to minimize or deny our own damage if it wasn’t “as bad as” some others, how anger and crying can be used for good, and how we can manage day to day the long process of coping and healing with an appendix full of tool kits.

Please stay tuned for part 2 and more excellent books.

If you are feeling upset, anxious, or find yourself retreating into a trauma response or emotional flashback, please follow Pete Walker’s 13 steps, practice a 5-4-3-2-1 grounding activity, a parasympathetic breathing activity, or other soothing action such as a hot shower, a hug from a trusted person, or a few episodes of your favorite feel good cartoon. Mine is Steven Universe.

A Pandemic Check-In

My title slate says “Teacher, Seeker, Traveler and Adventurer At Large”, but for the last 14 months or so, I feel like I’m only about half of that, maybe Teacher and Seeker at Small”? I haven’t written since October. I managed the entire horrible, cold, wet, lonely winter and have emerged on the other side slightly… better? Still in Korea, still teaching online, still not really able to look at travel without becoming some combination of depressed and enraged, but other things happened.

Also, WordPress changed literally everything about how to use their website and tools so I had to relearn the fine art of writing a blog, and this has delayed my posting by at least 2 months (the time I realized it was all new to now when I finally had the spoons to figure out how to make it dance to my tune). If the formatting is weird, blame the developers for “fixing” “features” that were in no way broken before. *sigh

General Updates:

The intermittent fasting is still going. Down 7 kg now, so I’m feeling pretty good about that. I let it go a few times during the holidays because we actually had a small but lovely (American) Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years dinners with my D&D group, which has since unfortunately dissolved like most “responsible adult” gaming groups. No hard feelings, just terrible schedules.

I got to celebrate a lot of holidays in 2020 that I don’t usually get to over here in Korea. American holidays are a bit thin on the ground and expats are usually engaged in travel any time we can. 2020 saw us all stuck in Korea, but also mostly safe with a population that followed mask and distancing recommendations and a very low daily case count. I made it out to view the pink grass (very Instagram thing), but I also got to go to an amusement park for Halloween and dress up, and enjoy the decorations with a friend.

My December birthday plans were totally ruined by a spike in cases and increased restrictions here, but my ACNH islanders threw me a nice party anyway, and when it was safe to go out again, I celebrated with a ridiculous steak at Outback. Giant slabs of beef are an American way of life I may never be able to fully surrender. The spring saw us low enough again for me to feel safe doing some cherry blossom viewing even though the festivals were still cancelled.

I *moved*. I got a much much nicer apartment a little closer to the university (not that we go there). It’s in a new building, it has 2 whole rooms (I was living in a Korean “one room” before), a balcony, and view which includes the mountains and the sky (not just other buildings!). It caused an almost immediate improvement in my mental health after I got settled in. I’m sleeping better, I have a desk to work from instead of my laptop in bed, I have a kitchen counter so I can more easily prepare and cook food (also, not that I do that often, but I *can*).

I also invested in an Oculus which is my new work-out buddy (Synth Riders). I won’t say that I exercise as much as I want to, but it’s much more than it has been for several years, and it’s fun. It doesn’t feel like work or drudge, so that’s a plus. I replaced my soil bound, root rotted plants with a couple of sky plants. My theory being that if there’s no dirt/no roots they can’t die of overwatering or root rot. So far, they are still green. I think that’s a good indicator that they are doing ok.

I’ve noticed a whole different set of issues teaching online this semester. Now that everyone is “used to it”, we’re all also “burnt out on it”. Students have cultivated an attitude that an online class can be done at the same time as another task, so they log in from trains, buses, work, the doctor’s office… I don’t even know. I wish beyond wishing that our university would allow us to use an asynchronous learning style, but the administration has cultivated an attitude that online class is not in any way different from a classroom, and does not need any accommodation or change. In addition, many students are suffering from increased social anxiety, resulting in less participation, less engagement, and less effort. Knowing their lack of effort is a result of anxiety or executive dysfunction doesn’t really help. I can feel sorry for them instead of being mad at them, but they’ll still get that bad grade. I myself am 100% burnt out on teaching this way, which is really bad because I’m unlikely to see the inside of a classroom for another 8-12 months.

Vaccine

I’m so happy these exist, and that my loved ones are getting theirs. I don’t care what gang you’re for as long as you’re pro-vax. Get that Fauci-Ouchi! I’m also insanely jelly that I am not able to play, uh, join… Much like Pokémon Go, I have to watch all my US friends enjoy it before I can even get a whiff.

For reasons that are still unclear, Korea is “going slow” in vaccine distribution. Are they afraid of side effects? Are they worried they can’t manage the distribution? Are they unable to physically get the vaccines they say they have bought? I really don’t know, but they are aiming for herd immunity by NOVEMBER. Healthy adults will not be in line for a vaccine until August/September, so I’ll be trapped here for the summer. Again. And we’ll be online in the fall semester. Again.

Books & Healing

Last time I was on here, I mentioned some books I was reading and how I was working on my mental health & past trauma. Reading my “memories” on Facebook, and using my healing toolboxes, I’ve come to realize just how much these books and my work have had an effect on me.

A series of truly unfortunate events from 2018-2019 crashed me pretty hard into some of the worst panic attacks of my life, and an unexpected but highly necessary parentectomy. The advent of Covid-19 in 2020 and it’s isolating effects have given me a lot of time to read and think. Along the way I have come to understand that it was not only the traumas of assault and abuse I experienced as an adult that were hanging around my neck, but also those of my childhood. I’ve learned a lot about trauma: causes and responses, PTSD/CPTSD, conflict, abuse, toxic behavior, misplaced blame, blame vs responsibility, shame vs understanding, and hopefully … healing. I am by no means finished, but this has been the journey of my last year, and as this is the place I share my travels, I thought I’d write this one too.

I’d like to share a list of the books that have helped me so far, along with a short description of the main ideas each one brought to me, so the next few posts will all come with trigger warnings, but I hope you’ll share them with me. I want to tell you about the books and what they helped me understand about myself in the hope that it can help you, or give you tools to help yourself or a loved one.

Coming Soon: A Trip Inside – self examination, trauma & healing. I can’t travel the earth, but I took a journey nonetheless. I hope you’ll join me, and that you are doing your best to be kind to yourself and others during this second year of pandemic life.

Hello Bohol: Introductions & Disclaimers

During the Chuseok holiday this October, I took a 9 day trip to Bohol in the Philippines. It’s taken me a long time to get the rough draft out of my head, and it’s going to take even longer to devote time to polishing the words and photos. I’ve broken up the story into small, and hopefully joyful vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. This post is a little introduction to Bohol, and a little explanation about why this story is being told differently. Yeah, it’s another post with no photos… it’s been that kind of fall. If you’re really craving photos, you can go look at the chrysanthemums I found here in Korea last weekend.


I usually take holidays by going to all the places. I can look at my color coded spreadsheets of past holidays and it’s a little bit non-stop. I think the last time I stayed in one place more than a couple nights on holiday (not counting family visits) was in that resort in Egypt, and even then I did a day flight into Cairo and may have done more if not for the food poisoning of doom. Every other holiday has been a whirlwind of exploration, and I love that. I love seeing all the things. But, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last did a “relaxing” holiday, and considering how I drove myself into the ground in Thailand, I decided Chuseok was going to be a single destination vacation.

Even in the spring when I started to look at plane tickets, the holiday prices were already sky high, and my decision to go to the Philippines was influenced by the fact that they were some of the cheapest flights left. After asking a friend who has lived in Manila decades where to go, I decided to spend my time in Panglao. Panglao is a tiny island that’s off the coast of tiny Bohol.

bohol map.png

Some people may look at the tiny island of Panglao and say, really 9 days? What did you do? Especially when you consider I don’t really DO laying on the beach all day, nor do I have my diving certification (the two main reasons to go there). It turns out that there is a LOT of amazing stuff over there, most especially if you can control your own transportation. I didn’t make a spreadsheet for this holiday either (to be honest, I was a little focused on the US trip, and the dental work). I did make some tentative itineraries based on interesting things and geographic proximity, but I did not have a day to day PLAN. I made fewer itineraries than there were days, so that there would be resting time and I would avoid the kind of burnout that happened in January. I was also meeting a friend there and wanted her to feel like she had some room to suggest things and not be railroaded by color coded schedules.

Researching Bohol ahead of the visit was a little tricky since it’s not a real popular stop on the backpacker routes and the tourists listed the same few “must-do’s” over and over without a whole lot of information on them since it seemed nearly everyone who went joined a tour group or hired a guide to make these tried and true tourism routes. I was largely content with the idea of doing the same things, but on my own time and without an awkward guide trying to make conversation, take silly photos, or rush me on to the next thing (it turned out I couldn’t avoid this altogether, but the few times I was forced into it, it made me grateful for the self touring I did the rest of the time).

The posts in the “Hello Bohol” series are not strictly chronological, but more organized into categories:

First and Last – I thought about calling this one “airports and hotels” but I thought, who’s going to want to read that? It’s the story of getting to Bohol, and a rather special experience on my last morning there.

My Own Two Wheels – After Thailand, I realized that I needed to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around SE Asia. With it’s small size and lack of cities, Panglao seemed like the perfect time to try. These are the stories of learning to ride a motorbike and how it felt.

Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers – Two of the most famous tourism attractions on the larger island of Bohol. I visited the Chocolate Hills, two tarsier parks, and a few other attractions nearby.

Balicasag with the Turtles – I got a spot on a diving boat heading out to the minuscule island of Balicasag, best known as a serious gathering place of giant sea turtles. I didn’t join the divers, but I had excellent snorkel experiences and finally got my own underwater photos!

Beaches – There are so many beaches on Panglao. I didn’t have a chance to visit them all, but I managed to get in quite a variety.

Food & Fancy Restaurants– There is an amazing plethora of gourmet food on Panglao. Everybody has to eat, and vacation is the time to indulge. Vacation calories don’t count, right?

Panglao – things to do and see on Panglao besides beaches and restaurants

Loboc River – a lunch cruise by day and a firefly cruise by night, the Loboc river is another tourism hotspot in Bohol that’s worth the visit.

History & Historical Sites – For anyone who likes history as much as I do, this post includes several old churches, military fortifications, and other historical points of interest, as well as some backstory about the Philippines I didn’t know about before.

Waterfalls – My last full day of the trip I went on a three waterfall adventure quest that took me to muddy back roads and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

What’s going on with me this holiday?

Every time I write, it’s a work of balancing the best story with the actual reality. This is not to say that I make things up, but sometimes I leave things out. Like any good storyteller, I leave out boring details. You don’t want to read about what movie I watched on the airplane or every time I had cup noodles as a snack or how often I brushed my teeth or what book I’m listening to when I fall asleep. These are pedantic details that do not add to the story. Likewise in life, there are small discomforts and dissatisfactions that happen but do not serve to advance the story or to entertain the reader.

Facebook and Instagram have been accused repeatedly of creating false narratives of our lives wherein all our friends look so happy and successful all the time, while we feel like useless failures. Of course, the irony is that everyone experiences the same distortion because we all post our best selves online, right? I mean, who wants to look bad? Well, me, sometimes. I mean, I don’t want to look bad per se, but I don’t want to create a fantasy version of myself that I won’t recognize in 20 years.

So how to decide what bad things to include and which ones to leave out? I have no idea. I’m totally faking it. Mostly, it’s about how much of an impact did that have on me (did I forget it and move on in less than an hour or did it alter the course of the day/week/year?). And the rest is how good of a story does it make? I mean, let’s face it, we love tragedy and schadenfreude so yes suffering makes good stories sometimes.

In many ways, I think of this blog as a journal. I hate diaries and always have, but every therapist ever says that journaling is a very important part of mental health. I do have some blog posts that will never see the light of day because they are just for me. But mostly, I don’t mind sharing, and there’s something about pretending I have an audience that makes me more attentive to the quality and content and frequency of my writing. But times like this I have to remember that it’s not my diary. It’s one thing for me to tell stories of people I’ve met on my journey who will almost assuredly never be identified by this blog, or even to tell stories of people who are identified as long as the story is the kind that makes them happy.

This time it’s harder because something happened on this holiday that is having a profound and lasting effect on me, and it might even be a good story from an external perspective. But it’s not my story alone. A person I care for quite deeply is involved, and I don’t want to hurt or embarrass her by telling this story in a public forum. But there’s no denying that her presence, her actions, and her choices had an impact on the holiday, on me, and on my writing afterward. Re-creating this adventure was an emotional roller-coaster as memories unfolded taking me from happy times to “oh, and then that happened…”. Photos show us smiling and laughing and I cannot help but remember my joy in sharing those moments with someone so close to me, but the gaps between photos speak to tears and hurt and confusion.

At the time of writing this, it seems that this trip spelled the end of our friendship, so this is my compromise. I won’t tell her stories, but I won’t pretend that everything was great. As you read, if there seems to be a gap where the plot jumps irrationally, or where details are less than they might be then those are the scars left by removing each unpleasant yet wholly private instance of conflict.

Once while talking about death, she asked how I would cope with losing her, and I told her that I would be sad, and I would feel grief, but that those would fade and in the end, it would be the good memories we made together that would last and define my feelings. She’s not dead, but it seems that she is lost to me just the same, so I’m hoping that telling these stories will help me process my sadness and cement the good memories that I want to keep forever.