“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege to work with individuals with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; soldiers and military veterans, first responders, RCMP (yes, those who sometimes wear the iconic Canadian red surge uniforms), as well as those who have had to endure physical, sexual, emotional abuse of any kind. All come with stories; painful, precious stories of what they have witnessed and experienced. Stories that at times haunt and torment while awake and asleep.
I know there are a number of well-studied treatments for PTSD however I always seem to come back to what some call ‘exposure therapy’ but which I think of as simply listening. Listening, actively listening requires being present and helping the person tell their story, a story that often has never been put into words.
I’m not so naive to believe that simply telling one’s story makes the pain, the intrusive memories, the flashbacks vanish. Many live with PTSD as a ‘chronic’ condition that medications and therapies cannot fully relieve.
I came across an intriguing TED Talk recently by writer Emily Esfahani Smith titled There’s more to life than being happy. She addresses what she terms the ‘pillars’ that contribute to happiness, the first three being belonging, purpose and transcendence. She goes on to speak of how the the fourth pillar, that of meaning “tends to surprise people. The fourth pillar is storytelling, the story you tell yourself about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you. But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts.”
I believe that helping individuals to articulate their story is also relevant to those who struggle with psychotic illnesses. Illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder profoundly shape lives. The effects of the illness and, at times, the effects of treatment such as involuntary hospitalization, seclusion, restraints – at times necessary – involves traumas often with lasting effects.
It has been a humbling and gratifying role to listen. To those who have shared their stories with me I want to express how honoured I am to have been given the privilege to hear them.