Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Telling Stories

I went into psychology, in part, because of my love of stories. When I engage with people through hearing their stories, there is this instant where we connect—a moment where I get a glimpse into the story through their eyes. Sometimes, these stories are hard to hear. Sometimes, I come away and the stories feel like they are more than I can bear. I don’t take this business of holding stories lightly. Our stories are central—they are the core of who we are, where we’re from, what makes us up. Our stories are uniquely us. I am fascinated and amazed by the stories we choose to tell. The stories we choose to keep locked in our closets behind the winter coats, sealed in our kitchens beneath the knives and lidless tupperware, hidden in our bedrooms under the bed where it only comes out at night. I am fascinated by the timing of telling our stories, who we tell, who we don’t, and why. I am intrigued by what we tell ourselves about the stories. The stories we create to make sense of our stories. It’s fascinating.

Of the parents I have seen in the past few days at my internship site, about ¾ of them came in with the same surface story. “My kid,” they tell me. “He cries. He screams. He throws himself on the floor. He won’t listen to me, ever. He hits his head on the ground and on the wall. He throws things. He bites me. He hits his brother.” I come out and write the same goal for each client: “Decrease tantrums with aggression and self-injury.” But each story is different. One child’s mother became teary because she thought her 2 year old tantrumer would never be able to sit still and learn. Another expressed anger that her 4 year old tantrumer disrespected her when he wouldn’t listen. Another said she could deal with the tantrums and self injury, if only she could get her three year old potty trained. One family is nearly homeless again. Another drives two hours to come see me. The last one brings her 3 kids and her nephew on the bus to come to session. One has been incarcerated. Another works the night shift. The third is an unemployed single parent. The first child’s behavior is likely due to prenatal drug exposure. Another child’s behavior is due to severe receptive and expressive language delays. Another child’s tantrums are related to his lead exposure, or perhaps the family history of autism, or perhaps another reason altogether. One mother had to take her child to 4 pediatricians to get a diagnosis. Another knew what the problem was because he was just like mom’s brother. The third went straight to one of the best developmental pediatricians in the country. There are so many stories. I ask each parent similar questions, trying to understand the cause of the behaviors, how we can best get them under control, make them more manageable, understand the function of them, get to the root of why they’re continuing, why they’re increasing in intensity and frequency. But parents don’t think in those terms. They don’t want to answer those questions. They want to tell me stories.

“What typically happens right before Kiddo has a tantrum? Have you noticed any pattern to it?”

“Well…there was this one time….”

“Remember, we’re looking for patterns. Something that is the same every time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes parents notice that maybe their child always has a tantrum right before they leave to go in the car, or maybe it’s always when they ask him to do something…can you think of anything like that?”

They pause. “Well,” they say slowly, “there was this one time…”

And I listen to the story.

I saw a really fantastic kid the other day. His mother expressed concern that he might have autism.

“MOM!” he exploded, embarrassed. “I TOLD YOU! I DON’T HAVE AUTISM!”

Mom continued describing her concerns, and I listened. Later, mom mentioned it again.

“MOOOOOM! You’re not listening to me! I told you! I DON’T HAVE AUTISM!”

The third time this happened, I stopped mom and turned to Kiddo.

“You seem pretty angry when mom says that she’s worried that you might have autism.”

“Yeah!” he said. “Because I don’t have it. I don’t. I don’t know what my problem is, but I know it’s not autism. It’s not that.”

“What does it mean to have autism?” I asked. He paused.

“I don’t know.”

“What have you heard about autism?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He paused again and I waited. “It’s kids who are retarded,” he said.

“You know, that’s something that I’ve heard kids say before. Where did you learn that?” We had a fantastic conversation about what autism is and is not, about what other people think autism is and is not. Ultimately? No, he doesn’t have autism, and we discussed that, too. But if I had just up and said, “Kid, you don’t have autism,” it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Instead, I stopped and uncovered the story: what does it mean? Where did you learn about it? Who taught you that? What do other people say? What if it’s true? What if it’s not? The fear became three dimensional. It became a story, start to finish. It became part of his story. I became part of his story, just as he became part of mine.

I saw a family, too, that is so burdened with stories, so heavy with the weight of everything they have to bear, that the stories couldn’t even be told. There was no animated, “well there was this one time,” or “the other day, you know what he did?” or “Let me tell you…!” There were facts that leaked out of tightly pursed lips into the room that suddenly felt far too small. Facts that were hints at stories that are too dangerous, too real, too shame-laden and difficult to bear. Those stories don’t get told, but are hinted at as I’m tested for how much I can handle, and perhaps, how much can they can bring themselves to tell. These aren’t even stories of the deepest darkest secrets of the family. These stories are the stories they are living now, and we both know my privileged, white, educated self can’t even imagine the reality. We both know there’s nothing to say but, “wow, I imagine that’s so difficult,” when really, I can’t imagine it at all. And that’s all part of the evolving story.

Parts of this have been sitting around for a week now, and I really want to finish it. I hate leaving things unfinished. I have a lot I want to say. But I can’t say it. So I’ve been sitting on this for a week, thinking about it on the drive to work, thinking about it on the metro coming home, thinking about what I know I want to say in the quiet moments before I go to bed at night. And then I sit down to write it and my inner critic goes wild with “NO WAY! DON’T SAY THAT!!!” So I get up and wash dishes or walk the dog or pack lunch for tomorrow and sit back down and think, “okay NOW. NOW is the time for me to write it.” I stare at the page. I type a few words and erase them. “Just tell the story, Laura. Just say it. Just tell the story. Tell the story of why you’re having a hard time telling the story. Make up a story. Just start getting the words on paper, and the story will come.” But it doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

This story I want to tell needs to be an interactive process. I need to be sure that as I say it, as I type it, it’s heard. I need to make sure I hear this story, because I don’t know that I’ve listened to it. I am pretty sure it’s not something I have written about even in my “for my eyes only” pile of writing. I can’t. I need someone to witness the story, to hold it in their hands like a baby bird or a lightning bug—something fragile, it is something that should be cupped gently. Speak in a whisper when you’re around it. Don’t startle it or scare it off. This is why it can’t be told: I’m scaring off my own story.

I keep telling myself there’s no point to write it as a blog post because “there’s no point” to it. There’s no larger take-home message. No big epiphany or wise thought. It would be storying a story purely for the sake of storying it.
After that line, I was stuck again, so I read back what I’ve written (aren’t you thrilled you get to read this entry-without-a-point, complete with the author’s writing process annotated into the text? I knew you were). One line sticks out to me, sticks with me: “There were facts that leaked out of tightly pursed lips … Facts that were hints at stories that are too dangerous, too real, too shame-laden and difficult to bear.”

Some stories are untellable. Sometimes, they feel too dangerous, too real, too shame-laden and difficult to bear. Sometimes, even if they are stories that have been told before, things change and they become dangerous and real and shameful once more. Or maybe it’s a tiny part of the same story that becomes a story in its own right, that makes everything new and different. But even if it’s a tiny thing; part of an old story; a tiny, old story without a point, it doesn’t make it easier. It just doesn’t. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s all part of the evolving story.

It’s all part of my evolving story.

What are the stories you tell others? What are the stories you don’t? Where do they sit in your body? Where are you holding your dangerous, real stories? Are they shame-filled? Are they angry? Are they sad or beautiful or depressing? Where did you learn they were untellable? What would it take for them to be told?


  1. Hard work. And lucky parents that you listen and hear their stories. It's the hearing that matters. Remember those stories belong to them. You only hold them for a little while and then you give them back. You let them go. Hear me?

    I'm holding a story in my stomach right now. I wish I could tell it, but sometimes a story has to be told to only one person and that person doesn't want to hear it. Stories are way more complicated and cause way more problems than we give them credit for--especially the most honest ones.

    Keep writing.

  2. Stories have a way of staying in the vault for a long, long, time. Why? Who knows. I sure as hell don't.

    When I got out of the Navy back in 1955, my first job was in a big bank in Detroit working in the Cash Division. Sounds impressive -- but it was the first step of my years of hiding behind my story. The Cash Division was a place in the basement of this bank where the armored cars would come in to drop off their bags of money. My job was, along with others, to count it all.

    I began to realize if I could make my way in the banking business, I could bury my story forever. No one would ever know. I could become a big-ole mucky-muck banker and my secret could die with me.

    I carried it off, too -- until I started to get old. The damn story was still there eating away at me. I'd fooled people for over 40 years. I'd succeeded in creating this new person. But the story ate away at me. I couldn't find true peace. I couldn't manage life. But I was going to keep the story tucked far away deep within me, no matter what!!

    Hah! The one person I couldn't fool was me. So, about 10 years ago I decided I had to let the elephant out of its cage.

    You know the rest! To this day I ask myself why I had to wait so long. Would I have been happier and healthier if I had told my story sooner? Would so much of the baggage I now carry have been eliminated if I had told it sooner?

    Just sayin' ...

    And also -- what Reticula said -- "keep writing" -- please!!

  3. I love stories too!!! And this post as well, especially the last paragraph ;-) Of course, you know that already though... Keep writing!!!!

  4. Carol, I hear you. It's not easy to let them go. It's not easy to hold them either. It's just the really heartwrenching ones that stay with me at this point. Like you said--it is all so very complicated.

    Ron, stories do that too. Eat away at us, I mean. There is power in the telling, but sometimes stories just can't be told until the world around us is ready to hear them. It's such a complicated's a wonder any of us ever tell anything, ever!

    Sarah--I know I told you already, but I am still so amazed by your thesis. I was thinking the other day after reading it about all the pieces I have written--and the ones I would like to write--that could create a work inspired from what you did. It would be hard work, painful work--and it made me admire what you did all the more.