Excerpt from The Healing Power of Storytelling
Categories: Excerpt Health & Healing New Release
By Dr. Annie Brewster, author of The Healing Power of Storytelling
For me, telling my own story and sharing it in public has allowed me to accept and integrate my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis into my life and to move forward with strength and hope rather than defeat. It has taught me that my story is valuable—as is yours—and it has taught me that I feel so much better when I tell things as they are, with honesty and compassion for myself. It has given me purpose, a greater community, and a new sense of gratitude, as I have seen how my story can help others and encourage them to share. We all feel less alone and more connected when we exchange stories in community. Storytelling makes us stronger, and this conviction motivated me to start a nonprofit, Health Story Collaborative, which provides opportunities for others to engage with and share their own stories and to hear from others navigating similar struggles. Facilitating story sharing has become my life’s work.
In later chapters, you will hear from many individuals who have benefitted from storytelling in different ways. Here, I’ll offer just a few examples:
*Michael, a Health Story Collaborative participant and also an amazing story facilitator in his own right, has attributed storytelling to extending his life. Michael died in January 2020 after living for more than four years with a glioblastoma, the deadliest of brain tumors with an average life expectancy of fifteen to sixteen months. Telling his own story and helping other people tell theirs, he found purpose and meaning. He considered storytelling a regular practice, one that helped him to feel grounded in himself and connected to others. “I want the best medical treatment has to offer,” he said, “but I have a condition that medical treatment doesn’t promise too much for. I need something more, and I want to apply healing stories not just to my physical health but also to my relationship with death and to my relationships and communities.”
*For Betsy, who lost her husband, Chris, to a brain tumor in 2018, sharing her story—first together with Chris, when he was still alive, and then alone, after his death—ultimately helped her to process her loss and heal. Chris and Betsy opened up about his hopes and fears while he was still here, and then, after he died, she was able to move more wholeheartedly and consciously into her new role as a widow and single parent.
*For my coauthor, Rachel Zimmerman, whose husband died by suicide, recounting her story to me over the course of a year allowed her to see more clearly the emotional distance she’d covered from the initial pain of acute grief. We met weekly at my home and recorded our discussions. At first, she was unable to imagine how life with her two young daughters could go on. She was brittle and angry and scared—you could hear it in her voice. Over time, though, as her story evolved and her children seemed like they might be okay after all, she began to experience resilience in action. She started to envision the possibility of a new, reconstructed life and glimpsed a path for her family through the heartbreak. I call this healing.
ENGAGING WITH YOUR STORY
I invite you to consider how storytelling might play a healing role in your life, keeping in mind that healing means different things to different people. At Health Story Collaborative, we define illness as any imbalance in physical, psychological, or spiritual well-being and healing as the process of moving toward balance and wholeness. Similarly, we define trauma broadly, acknowledging that it can be physical or emotional in nature. In health care, we often hear the term trauma used to describe serious bodily injury, conjuring up images of television shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, where trauma victims are rushed to emergency departments with medical professionals standing by to save them. Trauma can also be purely psychological in nature. The unifying principle is that a trauma is an experience, either a discrete event or an ongoing state, that threatens one’s sense of safety and well-being. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is objective or subjective, physical or emotional. Receiving an unexpected and life-changing medical diagnosis is a form of trauma. Trauma can be chronic, complex, and layered, with multiple types of “injuries” to body and mind occurring simultaneously. When it comes to mental health, how we respond to trauma is of critical importance. We have all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that can occur in the wake of trauma, resulting in persistent symptoms, such as reliving the traumatic event and feeling continually on edge. Conversely, the theory of post-traumatic growth suggests that individuals who experience traumatic events can actually grow and thrive in response. How can we encourage such growth? I believe that storytelling and, more specifically, meaning making are central to this process, though we still have a lot to learn in these areas.
For now, my goal is to inspire you to engage deeply with your own story, to craft a version of the story you are living at this moment, and then to reframe and refine it using the tools provided in this book to make it the most authentic and empowering story possible. You can then choose its path out in the world. For most people, the process of writing and rewriting a personal narrative, though immensely challenging, is ultimately a healing endeavor, whether you decide to keep the story private or share it in a public setting.