Monday, August 15, 2011

how the story goes

I spend a lot of time hearing stories. Leaning back in my chair, I listen for clues of emotive content steeping beneath the surface--the song beneath the song. Waiting for the pieces that make sense of it all. The pieces that tie all the lines on the face together, wrinkling seamlessly into one another. The pieces that make my patient’s choice seem, the most logical thing of all to do. The point in the story, where I think I might have done the same thing, responded in some similar way, that place where I’m caught up in the moment of the story and thoughts of what-to-have-for-dinner, or if-I’ll-make-it-to-the-bank-before-closing, recede into the background. The place where I stop having to say, tell me more about that, because the story spills out like the yolk of an egg, my patient and I seemingly second string teammates on the sideline, watching the game. Almost as if the story breathing a life of its own, flows like current toward the falls.

This is the place, I intuitively struggle towards. The place where all the psychologists say good blending occurs and one manages to catch understanding. For me the moment is about finding the features that fit an appropriate homeopathic medicine.

But I’d be amiss to say that the moment is only about finding the most appropriate medicine. In many ways, the moment is part of the medicine.

Telling your story is powerful.

Most of my patients tell me so and mental health literature bears this idea out. Many of them tell me, I've never told anyone this... Much of the time, they feel better just telling the story out loud. If the story is particularly dark or messy, the telling of it seems to be even more valuable.

Indeed, telling your story is powerful.

A good friend of mine recently wrote on her blog about the act of writing, itself. Wondering aloud on the feed, she asked,  why do I  write, anyway? Not ready to quit her day job, and not really wanting to she blogs her own unique story. She doesn't think she's all that good at writing. Incidentally, she is--but that isn't why her story is so powerful. I think her story is powerful precisely because she writes to sort out the messiness of life on the page. To process honestly, sometimes painfully, the details of a struggling daughter or an elderly, Alzheimer toting adult with erased memories.    

James Pennebaker wrote a book entitled, Opening Up: the Healing Power of Confiding in Others. In it he discusses research demonstrating that talking about your problems—or not talking about them as the case may be—can have profound effects on your physical health. That’s right—physical health. According to Pennebaker, talking, even writing about our problems, our struggles, our traumas heals us.  And conversely, not talking about our junk harms—not merely psychologically—but physically. Of course, we know it's all connected, anyway. Chronic inhibition and suppression of our emotions and feelings, in particular anger, leads to increased risk of all sorts of physical diseases—heart attacks, hypertension, cardiovascular problems, asthma, diabetes, and cancer.  

For some of us, letting go and telling our story is more difficult. Parading our shadowy sides scares us. Climbing into the boat and letting the current take us places, makes us feel vulnerable. What if my friends think I’m complaining? What if I’m labeled “whiny?” What if they think I have a mental illness? What if my children don’t like who I really am?

And so we bind ourselves up. Thinking somehow, that we are protecting ourselves from the inevitable isolation of rejection. Telling ourselves that it’s the good, Christian thing to do. Telling ourselves we’re becoming better people by hiding our struggles, our griefs, the badness of our story wrought with flaws.

The truth is we do manage to protect ourselves. We do manage to cut ourselves off from venues of possible rejection. We do manage to protect ourselves from something that might get out of control--something that might take on a life of its own--sticky, messy, and difficult. In not sharing our story, we effectively cut ourselves off from the larger communal story, with its unique power to transform and shape our own story into something more. And that's how the story goes.

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