by Cardwell C. Nuckols, PhD
I love to tell stories. Recently, a gentleman told me that he heard me speak 20-some years ago in Detroit. This person remembered a story I told about a dog named “Lucky” but little else of what I said that day. This incident and many like it leads me to consider the importance of stories in the process of personal integration and recovery.
I believe that within everyone is a story to be told. Our stories are who we are. This is nothing new. According to Dan Siegel, “Anthropology shows us that every culture on earth tells stories. For the last 40,000 years we, as a species, have been trying to bring what is inside of us out – to make sense of what we see and put it out there for other people to hear”.
At an AA meeting, you hear people tell their stories. These are often stories of great dereliction culminating in hope and gratitude. In group and individual sessions, patients talk about their hopes, dreams, and fears.
Why is telling “The Story” so important? The answer is obviously complex but many researchers and clinicians are finding pieces to the puzzle. For example, Mary Main and colleagues devised an instrument called the Adult Attachment Interview. The interview invited parents to recount their own childhoods. What the research found was that the way that a parent told their story and how they made sense out of (or didn’t make sense of) their life was the best predictor of whether their own children securely attached to them. It was not so much what really happened during childhood but how they came to make sense of it. In other words, a coherent personal story is an indicator of emotional and intellectual integration.
The most amazing aspect of those whose early developmental years were compromised by neglect and other forms of trauma is their inability to tell a coherent story about their past. They often seem to lack the ability to put their feelings into words or get confused about the difference between “thinking” and “feeling”. Somehow their brains have not integrated what has happened in their past. One of the ways that the brain reduces anxiety and helps the developing child/adolescent explain the horror in their life is to install protective defenses. These defenses affect their ability to see their lives in any kind of meaningful context.
What does a coherent story about one’s life accomplish? It allows for the opportunity to attach with our offspring and to start the process of healing multigenerational wounds. When one tells their life story, it causes the brain to perform many simultaneous tasks. These tasks include the bringing together or integration of affect, behaviour, conscious awareness and sensation. During this process, the individual realizes life events, behaviours and emotions in a different, more insightful and healthier fashion.
Integration takes place in safe places, in an environment of caring, consistency and support. A place where an individual can find meaning in their autobiography. A safe place where a person can take risks, knock out a few defenses, and hear a soft whisper in their head as they gain new insight about themselves and the world they live in.
Some may call this an “epiphany” or an “aha” experience. Regardless of what you might call this phenomenon, the person is now more in touch with themselves – more connected and less defended.
“The Story” is never really completed. It is an autobiography with only an earthly ending. The Buddhists describe the self as an endlessly peeling onion. Every layer is a new chapter to explore and integrate.