“Hope is the only emotion that will keep us going even when all other lights have gone out, even when there is no end in sight, and the world is ending. Hope is what keeps us going each and every day. Never forget that hope is just as powerful as love. … [W]ith love and hope, all events labeled as traumatic can be healed.”
When author Seth E. Santoro was 32 he had overcome more traumatic events than most do in a lifetime. His book, How I Learned To Smile From the Inside, is a genuine effort to help people learn how to survive with some happiness and quality of life despite the unexpected — from serious illness and death of loved ones to accidents and victimization.
I’ve read a number of books in this category because by age 40 I’d struggled through more tough times than I would have ever expected. Given my personal experience with trauma, I can’t help question anyone who claims to have a solution to find happiness that differs from the other seemingly endless tomes on this subject. So it was with some skepticism that I approached Santoro’s book.
Turns out, though, that as trite as the above quote on hope and love sounds, it carries great truth and comfort. Santoro’s method, his way of coping, is realistic, and it seems like it may actually help.
Santoro doesn’t pretend that his method, which he calls S.M.I.L.E., will take away pain or allow you to heal in record time. That would be bogus. What he does instead is lay out the processes we go through before, during, and after trauma in five realistic phases. As for myself, I’m one of those who operates best when I know what to expect — even when I’m facing the unexpected―and that’s what makes Santoro’s approach quite valuable.
Through five of Santoro’s own horrid experiences, he defines how to get through our particular hell and back onto a path that, while forever altered, can help us move forward into the unexpected as we heal. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” Santoro reminds us throughout the book.
The five stages of healing Santoro outlines are: (1) shock, (2) mock-cceptance, (3) overwhelmdom, (4) learning, and (5) embrace. His unique labels for each stage add value because they build on commonly understood steps but are adapted to the challenges that real life presents. It’s not about how each phase would look if everyone just glided cleanly from one to the next, but how difficult trauma can be precisely because its stages are rarely neat and clean. When a person going through trauma realizes that she isn’t sticking exactly to the seven stages of grief or to some other touted process, that can actually make her feel worse.
Shock is what happens naturally, physically, and emotionally when life becomes too overwhelming. Becoming aware of how we handle shock is useful. And because we’re all different, Santoro writes, accepting our particular shock patterns allows us to start understanding our situation honestly. Accepting our own grieving and healing process as we journey through it “prepares the mind and body for the extreme. It is the first important step we all must take to live a more authentic, more content and more solid presence on this earth.”
Mock-cceptance is what Santoro describes as “denied acceptance.” It’s our way of gently moving out of shock and into the horrendous reality we’re eventually going to have to face. It allows us to sugarcoat the truth, which is, despite how it may sound, a critical and incredibly helpful step toward acceptance. We don’t all deal with trauma with an in-your-face, in-this-moment approach; mock-cceptance enables us to begin to acknowledge our emotional and physical trauma at our own rate. It prepares us to get past denial in a more gentle way.
Overwheldom comes next: when our body and mind are physically and emotionally ready to start dealing with the reality we have been facing in our own way and on our own terms. It’s the roller coaster ride of emotion as we experience hurt and anger, sadness and defeat. These primary emotions can be either deliberate or involuntary, Santoro writes. Neither is right or wrong. This phase is painful and tough, but seemingly unavoidable.
Learning comes next—and while nothing is new, it’s putting what you know into play. Learning is figuring out how to accept our mistakes, let go of what we can’t control, surrender to the new reality that the trauma caused.
Santoro nails it: “The moment you see the craziness for the craziness that it is, is the very moment you start the healing process.” Although I’m not religious, my reaction to that is a big “amen.”
The final step is called embrace, and it both sets us free from the trauma and allows us to pick a new path. Embrace reminds us that while we cannot control what happened, we can steer ourselves forward.
There aren’t many people who have gone through inordinate amounts of trauma, and that is a great thing. The tough part is that those of us who have gone through it want to find others who can truly understand. We don’t want our loved ones to fully comprehend what we have experienced, because the only way would be if they, too, had gone through too much trauma. Luckily, Santoro gives us the honesty, empathy, and genuine understanding that trauma survivors desperately need.
How I Learned To Smile From the Inside
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, February, 2013
Paperback, 236 pages