“Holding Steady in Unsteady Times: Working in Contexts of Ongoing Traumatic Stress”

Riverside Trauma Center’s 9th Annual Conference

Friday October 4th, 2019

Conference Description:

No moment exists in a vacuum – each moment occurs within a particular cultural context and brings its own social justice dilemmas. This reality impacts mental health professionals, the people with whom they work, and the relationships between them. This year’s annual conference will focus on how professionals understand and make meaning of their trauma work in the context of what’s happening in the world, and how that affects what they bring into the room in a meaningful and effective way, which both supports the people they serve and sustains the professionals.

“Helping Shape Narratives: Working with News and Newsmakers When Responding to Community Tragedies”

In the aftermath of a community tragedy, public narratives about the event play a key role in the acute and long-term response to such events and often have a significant impact on survivors and the clinicians working with them. Yet little training exists for the public, clinicians, and other public health responders on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to work with journalists and respond to the news itself. This presentation will review controversies, evidence, and best practices to facilitate effective collaborations and consultations with journalists. There are many actions that professionals and the public can take in working with journalists to help shape the public narrative and understanding about traumatic events. These practices and lessons learned have implications for creating healing narratives in social media and even in clinical work. For professionals, engaging with the news media, while understanding and implementing their rules of engagement, can itself become the path of advocacy. Speaker: Elana Newman, PhD

“Healing Ongoing Traumatic Stress”

Highlighting Riverside Trauma Center’s understanding of self-care as an ethical imperative in human service work, this presentation will talk briefly about and provide examles of skills for the “3Rs of self-care”: reflection, regulation, and relaxation. The majority of the presenation will involve experiential learning with an EMDR Early Intervention technique called EMDR Integrative Group Treatment Protocol Adapted for Ongoing Traumatic Stress. This technique was initially developed to assist people living in times of disaster and war, but is now also being used to reduce distress among human service workers of all kinds. Additionally, participants will have the opportunity to reflect on and build personal skill in their own trauma stewardship. Speaker: Marlene Kenney LICSW, MA

To learn more or register for this conference, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/holding-steady-in-unsteady-times-working-in-contexts-of-ongoing-traumatic-or-toxic-stress-registration-61291892701

To learn more about the trainings and services Riverside Trauma Center offers please visit https://riversidetraumacenter.org/

Fear Not the Bite of Doing Right

Dear Fellow Rescuers (you know who you are),

It does not matter if you rescue abused dogs or wounded humans, some things are the same.

If you are going to be a rescuer, which is a most noble cause, expect to be bitten. We all know that if an animal is scared and has been abused, regardless of our intention, he may bite us. This is not a reflection of the creature, it is a reflection of the fear. It also is not reflection of us.

But we must be prepared.

I do not rescue dogs or cats but I have been around them my entire life. In theory, I, like many of you, “rescue” human beings and sometimes they bite out of fear too. Yet most people do not understand that scared, battered human beings sometimes behave in much the same way as abused animals. Perhaps it is not their teeth they bite with but rather their words and actions, which can hurt just as deeply.

So if you have been bitten, clean your wounds. Wrap them and protect them so they can heal but do not question if trying to rescue the creature was right. It was. Even if you made mistakes, it was right. And just because he or she bit you, does not define the efforts or the outcome. It was a moment. It was driven by fear.

With that said, if you have been bitten by someone, it is ok to choose not to keep putting your hand in front of their mouth. As rescuers, we often feel that we have failed if we walk away but unlike when dealing with animals, the person you are trying to help does have some accountability. No one should expect you to self sacrifice over and over again. Try not to be mean but know that it is ok if you have to walk away from someone.

Of course I don’t really “rescue” people, at least that is not how I see it but I do see the similarities. I do try to help whenever I can. Sometimes it backfires. Sometimes it is painful and hard. Yet I have never regretted doing what I believed was right. Never. Even in the times I was bitten (which has definitely happened many times).

Be Brave. Be Well.


On Terminal Uniqueness

“Terminal Uniqueness/Personal Exceptionalism is the false belief that the situation a person is facing is unlike anything anyone has ever faced before. …. It is called terminal because this delusional thinking that leads to a refusal to get help and the denial that consequences … apply to them, is ultimately self destructive and relationship destroying.”

Bloomie, Out of the Fog

This is a concept often used in the context of substance use disorders, but I have observed well beyond addiction. I’ve seen this impact victims of sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, other forms of violence, child abuse, mental health issues, suicidality, grief, health issues, and much more. It is common in people from all walks of life and in all situations.

Terminal uniqueness is a belief or feeling that your experiences are so unique that no one else can possibly understand what they were like or how you reacted. It’s a dangerous mentality. People who suffer from terminal uniqueness not only believe that they are alone in their experiences but also that no one else can understand or help them process the things that they have been through. They invalidate all suggestions and insights with, “You can’t speak to this if you haven’t been through it yourself.” While it is true that a person cannot 100% understand something that they haven’t lived, that’s not why people think this way. They think this way because their ego has come to rely on the belief that they are unique in their struggle. Their sense of terminal uniqueness often becomes a part of the way they identify and understand themselves. Letting it go means learning to view themselves differently.

This thought process leaves people feeling isolated and alone. It has also created a belief that mental health providers who haven’t experienced something (although this is an unfair assumption) can’t help. When no one can help, and no one understands, what is left in life?

This thought process can kill.

Think of it this way. The greatest cardiologist in the world cannot know what it feels like to have a heart attack if he hasn’t had one. He may understand the symptoms, but he doesn’t know how it feels. With that said, he doesn’t need to know exactly what it felt like; he is extensively trained to provide complete, competent care.  

Likewise, a heart attack survivor knows what it felt like to have a heart attack. But they “know” what their heart attack felt like. It doesn’t mean they know what anyone else’s was like.

Which person would you trust with your care? The cardiologist or the heart attack survivor?

The answer is both because both are important.

Peer Support and mental health treatment are not inherently at odds with each other. Getting good care will save your life. Being able to talk with people who have been through it will help you feel less alone. You can learn how others recovered and healed.

Let’s go back to this idea of terminal uniqueness. It becomes a part of a person’s self-perception. They invalidate all supports and push themselves to feel more and more alone. They sometimes engage in competitive trauma or hardship as well, which fuels these feelings more.

I speak about this mentality not only as a clinician that has worked with it for many years in many environments but also as someone who has overcome a sense of terminal uniqueness.

You could say I am both the cardiologist and the heart attack survivor.

With that said, I would like to point out that most cardiologists don’t tell their patients if they have had a heart attack or not, so it is dangerous to assume that they haven’t. In fact, most people in general don’t walk around announcing their life experiences so I think it’s unfair to assume anything at all.

I share this with you in the hope that my lived experience will assist you in breaking free from terminal uniqueness.

The first step is recognizing you have a problem.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do I compare my hardships to other people?
  2. Do I minimize their experiences?
  3. Do I feel like I have had it harder than most other people?

The next step is figuring out how to address it (I’m making that sound way easier than it is).

  1. Can I make a conscious effort to catch myself when I do this?
  2. Who in my life can I talk to about this?
  3. Will it help to talk to a therapist about it? (Hint: the answer is often Yes)

The last step is following through on whatever plan you have created. It may seem difficult but I know you can do it!

Be well. Be Brave.


Mistake? Nope. Just Learning.

A deep thought:

I’ve made a lot of “mistakes” (not at all bragging) in my life, yet I don’t really regret any of them. I’ve had friends that people warned me against. Those friendships taught me about who I want to be, what I am capable of standing up to, the depths of my loyalty and the dangers of passing judgment. They taught me about loss and joy.

I chose a stressful and sometimes painful career path with horrible pay (welcome to the world of public service). My job has taught me to be grateful for my life, my friends and my family. It has taught me to not take the basics for granted and the difference a kind word or gentle hug can make.

I have been involved in social advocacy that often times make me feel discouraged. It has also taught me how many amazing people are out there and the difference we all can make. It has taught me to think critically and to challenge my own beliefs. Perhaps most importantly, it has taught me that when people join together, their voices can be heard.

I have been very public about my life and my beliefs and at times criticized for it. This has taught me that sometimes people you think are on your team are not and sometimes people you wouldn’t have guessed were, are. It has taught me that there is a price to pay when standing up for what you believe in but that the liberation of being who you are and accepting others’ responses is worth it.

I have learned that there are very few mistakes we make that cannot become learning experiences. I have learned that standing by my principles has made me a person I am comfortable with and most days proud of. I have learned that in order to truly be loyal to others, we must start with ourselves.

Be well. Be Brave.

Chosen Words

At one time in my life I did not speak up. Then I went to the opposite extreme and said whatever I wanted, to whoever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Some may be very surprised to learn that what I say now is intentional and thoughtful. But it is.

I have understood for sometime that I have to decide what my motive for speaking up is. Is it to fill my desire for self expression? Is it to promote change? The answer determines what I say and how. Of course, I still do both.

With that said, my job in suicide prevention has shed light on the value of the words we use. For example, we ask people not to say “successful suicide”. There are many things we want people to be “successful” at but suicide is not one of them so why would we ever put those two words together? Think about it. We don’t say a “successful homicide” do we? Why would we say “successful” in the context of something we do not want to have happen?

We also encourage people not to say “failed suicide attempt”. I think most of us can agree that someone trying to take their life is feeling pretty horrible. The last thing they need is to have it said that they “failed” at something else. Not to mention that generally “failing” is negative but with suicide it is in fact positive. We know for a fact that most people who survive a suicide attempt, will never attempt again (90%). This is good!

How we say things matters immensely. It effects judgment toward others and justifies discrimination. Fear of judgment and discrimination (notice I am not saying stigma) is what prevents so many people from reaching out for help or being willing to learn about uncomfortable topics.

So why not “stigma”? Because who owns that? The person impacted by it or the person/people causing it? Or does it exist freely outside of the people both impacted and doing? According to dictionary.com, Stigma is a “mark of disgrace or infamy, a stain or reproach”. ( https://www.dictionary.com/browse/stigma) But how did the mark get there? Did the person who has the mark put it on themselves? Or did society put it on them?

Clearly I (and honestly many others in the suicide prevention field) believe that the mark has been placed upon people by others so basically, lets make them own it. It is about judgement and discrimination. It is not something that exists freely from individuals who are actively judging and discrimination against others.

So with this I challenge everyone of us to ask, “Am I speaking out for me or for change?” And then allow that answer to help guide us in the way that we speak out. If we are speaking out for change, to save people’s lives or raise awareness about important issues, our language matters. The words we choose impact how other people hear us and whether they listen at all.

Be Brave. Be Well.


It’s finally here!

I am delighted to announce that my first novel, The Price, is now available on Amazon!

The Price uses storytelling to demonstrate the intersectionality of several issues such as trauma, domestic violence, substance use, sexual violence, suicide, and grief while also providing paths of hope and healing. It was designed specifically to bring to life the lessons of psychology courses that can help clinicians, peer supporters, family, and friends understand how suicide comes to be an option: the risk factors, warning signs, and protective factors. It also demonstrates the complexity of grief from multiple perspectives and experiences. This book combines a Master’s program, 10 years experience in the mental health and suicide prevention field, and the experiences of a suicide loss survivor wrapped into one gripping novel.

I have tried to put all that I have learned about life and death into a work that will help people understand how one of the greatest tragedies – suicide – comes to happen and the incredible complexity and impact that it has.

My goal is to leave the reader not with despair and sadness, but with hope and inspiration.

Here are some quotes from forewords and Testimonials:

“In this exquisite and poignantly written story, we walk beside those left behind in the wake of suicide. Day by day, minute by minute we experience many points of view – and varying slices of truth – from the survivors. Their truths are not easy, and this book may be difficult to read for many, but the different perspectives validate the complexity of our suicide grief experiences and why healing from suicide is often so tangled and formidable.”

Sally Spencer-Thomas, United Survivors

“After reading “The Price” I could not stop thinking about. I thought about it for days and wondered why was I so invested in the story. I know the subject matter is near and dear to my heart but there was something more happening. After several days it became clear to me that the characters and what they were dealing with was the answer. Each character touched me in a different way and it was them that I continued to think about. It felt like I knew them all. To bring these characters to life the way Sarah did and have the reader truly care about them is a gift.”

Deborah Louis Ortiz, Code9Project

“There is no greater reading delight than a wonderful debut novel. It’s often an amazing work of fiction, that has been trapped in the mind of the author demanding to be released to the page, and “The Price” by Sarah W. Gaer is no exception. It grabs the reader by the lapels and refuses to let them go until the final period. It had best seller written all over (and through) it. Enjoy.”

Frank King, Suicide Prevention Speaker & Trainer

I am a brand new author and have worked very hard to make sure I provide you with an excellent product, but I am human. If you have questions or find mistakes, please feel free to reach out to me so that I can answer your concerns and correct any errors.

Sincerely and with gratitude,

Sarah W. Gaer

Author, Speaker, Thought Leader