A Better View: The Power of Stories We Rewrite About Ourselves

I’ve been having lots and lots of thoughts and epiphanies about recovery lately. About who I am, about the way I tell the tale of my life, and about the future I hope to have. Really, this is a post about storytelling and recovery and identity and life, and where all those fun things intersect.

Last September, I took a trip to the woods. It’s a beautiful, serene park, a place I started going to in the spring when things were at their worst for me. Just before the summer began, I sat on a hill in those woods and hurt. Ached. I felt so raw, so much agony, because I was heading into an era that I truly believed I would not survive. At the same time, I was losing someone who mattered really deeply to me. I felt so alone and in pain and unsure. 

When I left those woods, I promised to the sharpening golden light, the fallen limb, the evening air, that if I survived all that I was about to go through, I would come back.

And I did survive. And I came back to those woods, that September. I came upon the same spot I had sat in a few months before, in all that blinding, drowning hurt. And I did sit in that spot again, for a little while. Taking in the impossible fact that I thought I would not live and yet I did anyway. 

But after a bit, I stood up. I started walking up that hill. I sat on a crest just above that spot, and the view changed. I was still hurting. I still felt lost and unsure, and I had to deal with everything that had happened over the summer, and all that was still coming. But the view changed. I could see where I had sat last summer, and it reminded me of where I was now. There was a cool breeze where I was, and I felt safer, taller. A better view.

The Stories We Tell Can Trap Us

All of that struggle and loss, set in those woods months, changed the way I see things, the way I tell my stories about myself, the way I give power to a perspective.

Not so long ago, I read a great article by Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie about the stories we tell ourselves. He wrote,

If being human means anything, it means telling stories. Everything we do is tempered and directed by the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and nothing can change a life more thoroughly than discovering a new story in which we find ourselves…

And he’s right. There are a few stories I’ve been living with – living under – for a long, long time. The most obvious one is Christianity’s story of who I am and who humanity is. Of what the good life is, and what my future can and should be.

As a Christian, I was told the story of broken humanity. That being human means being inherently wicked, and weak, and selfish, and damned, and blah blah blah. The good life, I was told, meant being God’s slave and damn grateful for it. Of course, in much nicer code, but that’s what it was to me. This blog is obviously the product of years and years of undoing the damage of those stories.

Taking the Power Out of the Story (and Writing It Back In)

I’ve been realizing that there are larger stories about who I am, what a good life is, and what my future can look like that I’ve been buying into too. These are not religious or personal. These are cultural.

For instance, I’m thinking about graduating from university early. And the reality of that has made me think about what life after college might look like. What do I want it to look like? I have a pretty good idea of what that would be, and it’s tied right into how I imagine my recovered self to be.

The thing is, I’m really not into the typical stories of living out your life in a modern Western society. A 9-5 job, an apartment or a house, getting married and having kids, retiring. It sounds like something – something familiar, and thrilling, and ancient – is missing. I don’t want a simple life. I have no idea what that means, but I know it.

Last night I, uh, kinda sorta read an 83 page thesis on alternative perspectives of recovery from mental illness (Alexandra Lynne Adame, University of Miami, 2006). I know, I know, not exactly my idea of a Saturday night activity. But I was curious about what recovery could look like, if there were any other options for me.

And what I read was fascinating. Basically, in the 60s and 70s, lots and lots of people who had been abused and traumatized by the mental health system formed a community. They called themselves “psychiatric survivors” and “ex-patients.” They redefined what mental illness and recovery meant to them.

It was no longer about reducing your symptoms, or giving so much power to a diagnosis label. It was about holistic wellness, finding community and peer support, and seeing how your environment and systems of disadvantage could be responsible for your disorder (re-termed struggles, extreme emotional states, and crises) just as much as your brain chemistry. Recovery is not just about having an individually happy life, but making the world a better place for others who are being affected by the same structural issues you were. 

And I really dig that. I really dig the concept of taking power out of a story. For psychiatric survivors, there was so much power held over them by the medical model of illness and recovery that mental health professionals had given them. They were told that their illness was all in their brain, and that while they could come to function better in society, they’d never fully recover, making them dependent on meds and therapy and treatment that traumatized them for the rest of their lives.

So I can see how activism, community, collectivism, holistic wellness, and rewriting the story could be really empowering to psychiatric survivors. I’ll be adopting parts of the way they see their illness/struggles and recovery/wellness myself.

I’m also thinking about how I can apply this lesson to the bigger stories I’m hearing about a good life. A 9-5 job, a house, kids. I can be more skeptical about what I’ve always been told about the good life and who I am. By reshaping common cultural stories of life, future, identity, purpose, and spirit for myself, maybe I can find power. A better view.

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Stray Thoughts in 2017: Being a Person, Community, Unexpected Good, and Loss, Like a Peculiar Fruit, Like Something Burning

Hey, we’re officially two months into 2017! So far, it’s been a mixed bag. A lot of great. A lot of no good, very bad nights and days, with the kind of trauma plot twists that are so horrific that all you can do is laugh. And a lot of unexpected good in between.

I thought in this post, I’d just mention a few things on my mind lately. Because there’s no one huge topic I want to write about right now – just a couple competing issues orbiting me like moons…

Just for some context, 2017 is a big-ass year for me. I’m now working 3 jobs (it sounds like a lot, even if it’s only 6.5-10 hours a week, and all very chill). I’m involved in leadership and community on campus like always. And I’m also taking the enormous step of trying to recover – from situational mutism, from depression, from Christianity, of trying to turn on my heel away from everything that has shackled me for so long and just peace on out into a better life. One that is both hell and heaven to make.

Been thinking lately about how to be a person. It’s probably no surprise that with everything I’m doing lately, I burned straight out two and a half weeks in. Right now, I couldn’t tell ya what kind of place I’m in, but it’s not where I was. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to relax, have fun, and casually exist. So my life right now includes a lot of me saying “nah” to commitments I would’ve jumped on before. “Fuck it” is the power phrase of the day.

Been thinking lately about belonging to a communityFor quite a few nights, I was really messed up (we’re talking suicidal), freaked out that the communities I’m in now would turn out to be toxic just like my church was. That I’d lose this home too – the first home I’ve had since I lost my church, everyone I loved and trusted, and the person I was. And that I’d just keep going through life finding and waking up to and losing homes. 

And then I realized that I’m thinking about people and communities all wrong. Can you guess who the culprit is? (That’s right. It’s Christian indoctrination. Gold star.) I guess if you grow up being taught that people are divided into groups of goodness, joy, love, and safety vs. wickedness, blindness, deceit, and danger, well. Let’s just say I never explicitly realized that humans are not whole good or bad.

But they are flawed – sometimes inexcusably, sometimes not. And that’s up to you. You decide who you want to stick around, who you want to stay the fuck away from, who you enjoy for the time being. Just because someone turns out to have fucked up, or to do something wrong or that you don’t agree with, doesn’t mean you have to shun and condemn them. All this time I thought I did. But instead – you trust your heart, but keep your eyes and ears open to the person in question, to other people’s experiences with that person, and to your own blind spots. Love wisely. 

Also been thinking about unexpected goodnessThe first week back in college was amazing. Recovery felt like it was going great. Then came the second and third weeks, and just… WOW. No. They were horrible on my mental health. But the Monday of this week, it was unexpectedly so easy to be a person and to work toward recovery, it felt like. And quite a few people care about me, it’s been revealed to me, in ways I didn’t expect, from places I didn’t expect. And I’m taking note of that now. I’m lucky and I’m glad.

And I’m thinking about how what I’m going through now is survivableI know that to other people it might sound crazy, but in the end, it’s chill. Just today, for example, I found out that the church that I have to go to in order to keep my family thinking I’m still a Christian? Yeah, it was founded by a former cult leader. And that’s just the most recent plot development with this situation. But my response was to just laugh. Honestly still is.

Thinking, last of all, about loss. So strange, going through hell yet knowing that you would not exist like you do now if you hadn’t. I lost someone, and I miss him in many ways, but they are littler and fewer and easier to breathe through as time goes on. I know that his sudden leaving was something I had to survive for months and months, that left a mark which shaped the body of the spirit I have today.

And I will always miss him and wish he hadn’t left and hope by some chance he’ll come back to work here, but I also have learned in the raw agony of losing him how to love and let go in a dozen different times and ways, to do life while knowing he’s out there doing life too, and that hopefully he’s happy-healthy-safe-secure as he does it —

And one day, maybe as we do life in separate parts of this planet, our paths will cross and we will do a little of our lives together. I know he’d like that. I didn’t make what he said up. I won’t forget it. And when that time comes, I’ll come look him up.

Strange, how the loss of another person will morph and ebb in you as time goes on, how it changes shape and taste and shrinks and rubs away at the edges, like a peculiar fruit, like something burning.