'Journey Through Trauma: A Trail Guide to the 5-Phase Cycle of Healing Repeated Trauma' by Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD
This is a book is about the importance of stories, the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves. It is about how these stories protect us but can sometimes keep us stuck, and how they also have the power to help us heal. The author, Gretchen Schmelzer, a psychologist and a trauma survivor herself, outlines 5 phases of the healing cycle that a person can move through when healing from interpersonal trauma.
The book starts with an explanation of the archetype of ‘The Hero Journey’ as emblematic of the trauma survivor’s healing journey. The hero’s story starts with their first step into the unknown, a step taken despite knowing they may face a multitude of obstacles along the way. The hero’s journey is never neat and linear, but full of hills and valleys. It is a road paved with both triumph and despair. All of this resonates for her, both in her work with clients and also from her own personal experiences of healing. Schmelzer points out that it is not the experience of trauma that inspires the metaphor but rather the experience of healing, which takes immense courage and resilience.
She describes the importance of telling your whole trauma story within the context of a safe enough relationship of some kind, in order to heal. The construction of a trauma narrative allows one to build thematic and causal coherence in order to build a whole self out of the pieces of one’s experience. All of the pieces that have been wounded or broken, whether they reside in the domains of relationship, emotion, language, or story, deserve to be honoured, witnessed, and mended together.
She notes that, “trauma shatters time” and throughout the book she underscores how stories are dependent on time, in that they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. She writes that, “our stories depend on time so that we can understand cause and effect. And stories and our sense of our selves depend on time because time is what gives us the experience of continuity – of having a past, present, and future.”
Without a sense of time, the future gets lost and can be perceived as dangerous and layered with potential trauma. She explains that this is why people will sometimes hold on to false narratives about their trauma, for example, that they are to blame, because having a narrative, even a false one, can create a sense of control, a sense of causal coherence.
Schmelzer’s ‘5-Phase Cycle of Healing Repeated Trauma’ includes preparation, unintegration, identification, integration, and consolidation. The preparation phase is akin to stage 1 work in Judith Herman’s 3 stage model, and Schmelzer does a nice job of really underscoring how foundational this work is in order to build a solid enough base to do the difficult work ahead.
The unintegration phase is a slow and deliberate dismantling of one’s defenses and protections, as well as ways of seeing self, others and the world. This part of the work can be very uncomfortable and intense, and sometimes the past can seem to come alive in the present. The identification phase is about exploring the more specific pieces of one’s trauma and can involve sitting with emotions, body sensations and thoughts, in the context of a healing therapeutic relationship.
The fourth phase, integration, is about further building a coherent narrative out of all the pieces explored and elaborated on in the prior phase. Both mourning and new beginnings occur in the integration phase. Schmelzer writes that, “some of what needs to be mourned must be found, not just through our story of the past trauma but also through new experience. Sometimes we can feel what was missed only when have finally felt it in the present.” And finally, the consolidation phase is about solidifying gains and exploring life as one starts to reach the end of the trauma work.
She highlights often that people cycle through the 5 phases and that everyone’s healing journey is unique. This important message is foundational when working with clients who feel shame and despair at finding themselves back in a phase of work they thought they had already worked through.
Another important message in the book is that in order to approach healing, we need to understand the context in which the trauma occurred. This means that we need to, “be aware of what was shattered, in what context, and at what developmental level, and apply this information to the right level of system: individual, family, group, community, country.” This idea is worthy of a book of its own and I hope that Schmelzer will write more about it. In the meantime, this book will be at the top of my recommended reading list for both clients and colleagues. Wherever people are in the process of understanding and telling their trauma story, this book is full of hope, understanding, and experience that can help shine a light on the path forward.