An adapted excerpt from Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD
In her waiting room, my therapist had a flat basket of small rocks and stones. When I first started in therapy I thought this was awesome because I was a therapist (in training) who also had a flat basket of small rocks and stones in my waiting room. I took this as a sign of validation (Look! I am a cool therapist too!). And the similarity and familiarity gave me the hope that I could feel at home there. The rocks in the flat basket in my office were stones I had picked up from the coast of Maine—all different shapes and colors; most were different colors of granite and many had a big stripe of white in the middle, rocks that my nieces and nephews called “lucky rocks.” The rocks were something that the teenagers who came to see me could take with them if they wished—reminders of the work that they were doing or talismans to give them strength. The stones in the flat basket in my therapist’s office were more polished, but there was one larger flat rock that I quickly decided to use as the base of a small cairn.
Now, cairns are traditionally piles of large rocks usually placed along trails as trail markers. I saw my first cairns hiking in the White Mountains when I was a teenager. On the first day, in the bright sun- light of a summer day the cairns looked totally unnecessary. The trail ahead seemed obvious; it looked like there was no need for a giant pile of stones every twenty yards to mark the way. But when I woke up the next day to fog and rain and couldn’t see more than twenty-five feet in front of me, the purpose of the cairns was bright and clear—cairns are beacons. Hiking from cairn to cairn was the only possible way forward.
If you are hiking in the White Mountains in fog, you have to love cairns. That summer I traveled for two whole days above the tree line only ever seeing the way to the next cairn, which taught me the lesson that you don’t have to be able to see the whole path ahead of you in order to keep going—you just need to be able to see to the next cairn.
There were times over the years in my therapist’s waiting room that I would pick up a rock and place it on the flat rock. Then I would put one more small rock on top and sit down in the waiting room chair, pleased with my effort and my miniature cairn. I never said anything to my therapist about them. Actually, there were times I barely said anything to my therapist about anything. There were many times that I found it really hard to talk. As someone who had failed self-control in second grade because I couldn’t stop talking, I was stunned to find myself unable at times to find words—any words at all. As Bessel van der Kolk says, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. . . . The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.” And what I found was that it takes an enormous amount of bravery, effort, and patience to keep working to find the words that may help you remember. There were many times it felt like I didn’t have words. But on those days I had those stones. And with those stones I built cairns to find the path forward.
The cairns in the basket of rocks were a source of play—they gave me the feeling that I could move forward and not feel stuck, the way I felt stuck with language. Sometimes I would come into the waiting room and the stones would have been moved. It felt like a conversation— a back-and-forth—without any of the pressure to know words. Over time, the play with the stones in the basket made its way from the waiting room to the office—with metaphor, with poetry, with art. And all of these cairns slowly helped me find my way forward, to words and to myself. Cairns are a perfect reminder that the whole way forward doesn’t have to be clear. You don’t have to see the whole path, you just have to be able to make it to the next cairn.
The Identification phase is about moving along the path from cairn to cairn, sentence to sentence, memory to memory, forging a trail that you can follow. Sometimes the markers are small, sometimes they are big, and sometimes you have to go over the same parts of the trail again and again. Robert Moor, in his book On Trails, states that “every trail is, in essence, a best guess.” Even in the situation of the most primitive trail making, an ant or animal finds food—something that they want to return to—and leaves a preliminary trail. The next ant or animal be- hind them will take a different, usually slightly smoother route, cutting off some of the sharper edges or turns. Over time, with many passes along the same route, a trail is made that one can consistently follow. “Trails,” explains Moor, “extend backward—and paths extend for- ward.” The trails we are creating or re-creating are our history, our full trauma history—and by creating that trail, we can locate that history in the past, where it belongs. Trauma may have happened in the past, but until it is integrated, the trauma tends to exist in an ever-happening present. Trauma obliterates the past and the future and leaves you in a state where it feels like the trauma is always currently happening or you are always trying to protect yourself from it happening again. Healing gives you back the full range of time, but you have to do the work first of clearing the trails of the past so that you might find the openings to the paths of the future again.
What helps you tell the different aspects of your story in the Identification phase? What gets in the way? One thing that trauma survivors struggle with is finding words, or telling their story and worrying that it’s not some perfect form of the truth. Sometimes it can be hard to put into words what it is you are trying to describe—the words can seem too small for the emotions that you are describing. The words true and truth can sometimes feel too big. I like to remind myself and my clients that when I use the word truth in terms of healing from trauma, I am talking about truth with a little t, not a capital T. When you are trying to tell your story, you are not on a witness stand—even if it can sometimes feel like it. You are not trying to tell everyone’s truth, or some version of an objective truth, a truth that everyone would agree on. You are trying to say what is true for you, in this moment as you tell it. I have found that the most important work of the Identification phase can be saying one true thing at a time. One true thing to get you started. One true thing as the cairn. It can sound small, but it isn’t. It can sound easy, but it isn’t—saying one true thing can be really hard.
Adapted from Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Avery, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.