“Ill people are more than victims of disease or patients of medicine; they are wounded storytellers. People tell stories to make sense of their suffering; when they turn their diseases into stories, they find healing.” James Swanton, in forward to The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (1997).
My girls love when I tell them scary stories. Not the overly gory kind, never with bad endings, but definitely the kind with those spooky “just around the corner” monsters that, in the end, are shrunk, tamed, made nice, or were never really monsters in the first place. One time, I told them about a dare I took as a child, with a friend who lived on a street with a derelict mansion at the end of it. My friend dared me to climb the wrought iron fence (you know, the kind with sharp points at the top) and go with him into the house. Just when I had made it all the way up the fence, he yelled and told me to look in the window of the old parlor, not 20 feet from where I clung to sharp, pointy, iron. A face, pale and gaunt, looked out at me. I immediately screamed (my girls ask “like a girl?!” to which I reply that they are clearly being sexist in thinking only girls scream, well, so high-pitched). Then I fell, backwards, from the wrought iron fence, the sharp barb of the top guardpoint tearing my thumb wide open as I fell. Blood poured out of my thumb and there, less than 20 feet from me, still stood an old, empty house.
My girls stared wide-eyed, as I just let the story drop there. “What, daddy! What happened next?!” I smile and say “That’s all. I got what I came for. We went home. But I was different.” They ask me why, and I explain that I was different because, even though I was scared, I tried; I climbed the fence, and I learned my lesson. The face in the house, looking out at me, was my own. It was a bright day, and my reflection had stared back at me, scared, pale, wide-eyed. I frightened myself.
Sometimes telling stories of our worst moments is really a way to take power over them. We don’t always know it at first. But we have a chance to organize and put into words what happened, how we felt, how things ‘ended,’ and when we do we realize we’re still there and still standing, but now someone is beside us, listening, supporting. We’re changed by this, in at least two ways. First, we realize we don’t have to be alone in our suffering, powerless and scared. Second, we have learned things; things about ourselves, our strengths, what we needed help to get through, and what we survived. Much research is out there that supports this. Whole treatment programs, like childhood interventions for children who have been traumatized, are focused on the story of ‘what happened’, and actually teach children how to tell their story and take their power back. Some writers make their whole living telling the stories of their own lives, in transformative ways. They transform the world around them by helping others understand their struggles and triumphs. And they transform themselves by organizing their own learning process, their own memories, and gaining power over them in the telling.
Tell your story.
Chelf, J., Deshler, A., Hillman, S., & Durazo-Arvizu, R. (2000). Storytelling: A strategy for living and coping with cancer. Cancer Nursing, 23 (1), 1-5.
Clark, L.F. (1993). Stress and the cognitive-conversational benefits of social interaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 12 (1), 25-55.
Ezzy D. (2000) Illness narratives: time, hope and HIV. Social Science and Medicine 50, 605–617.