Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

The Story Teller
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

During my first encounter with a client I often begin the session by saying, “Tell me your Story.” I do this because I believe that once I know their story, it will help me make sense of what is troubling them. I frequently encounter clients who say to me, “I don’t even know who I am.” This would seem odd to a normal person hearing it from a friend, but since I have made an entire career of hearing people say odd things, this particular sentence seemed quite normal to me. It seemed normal because I have spent a life time listening to stories people tell me and have become quite good at picking out clues from what they tell me. Who am I is a quite significant question. It has do to with an inner sense of core identity, “the real me!” How can we not know this real sense of self, our core identity? How is it possible to not know this inner, ongoing core personality? Daniel Siegel tells us that: “Telling stories is the way we have of making sense of our external and internal worlds and is a means of communicating with others.” These three components are essential to healthy functioning in a complicated world.
Our story helps us make sense of the world, connect us with others, and provide an inner sense of solidity and coherence. It is very much like getting to understand the plot of a novel. There are several reasons for people not knowing who they are. 1) They are psychologically unaware, 2) trauma has disrupted the personal narrative, 3) early disruption in the family (family chaos), and 4) multiple placements in the foster care system.
In the early history of mankind, oral tradition; story telling was what held the tribe together and gave the individual a sense of belonging: an identity. “I belong to the tribe of Moab and we are from a certain place in the desert.” Hence identity was easily established: identification with a place and community. Today with our high mobility most of us are no longer associated with a place of origin. I no longer think of myself as a kid from Mabton, nor do I have many ties to my family of origin because they are all dispersed or dead. So how one hangs on to a sense of personal identity in this very complicated technological world is more difficult: a world with more connectivity but ironically less community. Because of mobility and living in anonymous city groups we are becoming rootless. Technology claims to connect us now, but I am an analogue person in a digital world which seems to make me feel even more detached. I no longer have a sense of ties to a tribe, but I do have strong feelings about where I live. In spite of all this ambiguity I know who I am.
Siegel tells us there is a part of the brain that is partially responsible for our autobiographical memory, this is the Hippocampus, it is in charge of the implicit and explicit narrative. This because of early experience shapes the themes of our lives. As we grow, a “narrative flow, a plot, becomes organized, becoming a cluster of self-episodes across our life time: the Hippocampus selects and weaves together our life narrative. It is responsible for making sense of experience: and when traumatized, making meaning out of madness. Thus it lends itself to integrating experience, giving us a coherent sense of self, and a linear continuity to our life. I once saw a movie about a man who had no memory, he woke up every morning and looked in the mirror and did not know who he was. In order to function, he had to write things on his arms, legs and hands to serve as visual clues to where he lived and who he was. Imagine what that would be like, to not recognize you when looking in a mirror! This narrative function happens in the first years of life when our story is being created; the wiring network is established early by interaction with others. It is further elaborated in late childhood and is expressed more completely in late adolescence: the time when our identity is coalescing. We are largely unconscious of the role the “narrative” plays in all our interactions. It is not until early adulthood that we begin to develop a mature sense of self and go through a process of discovering that inner identity.
My Doctoral committee asked me during my oral defense of my dissertation: “So, Gary, who is this self that writes about knowing himself and is telling others?” Since they were just having a good time with me, I answered, “That was not part of my study.” But nevertheless, the question was significant. Yes, indeed, who is this self that knows that he knows and can tell others about it? I have discovered finally, it’s me, I am the story teller.
This can all be changed by a single incident. My rather conventional narrative and inner sense of solidarity took a very large hit when my youngest daughter died suddenly of SIDS. That changed the whole narrative. Everything I believed about life including myself was shattered. Nothing made sense. All certainty was lost, life became arbitrary and random. I felt victimized, helpless and betrayed. I could not make sense of this senseless and cruel event. It took me many years to make sense of this and integrate a new sense of self and world view. That’s what trauma does. It changes you forever in the blink of an eye.
Narrative is the overarching link with ongoing experience. If working properly it brings openness, harmony and engagement with the outer world. It enables us to live with enlightenment, compassion and coherence. It is open and fluid. And it also enables us to connect with others with a sense of freedom which helps us to feel connected, integrated, and as if our lives make sense. Self-concept is one way narrative shapes our actions. It may because of trauma limit the shape and scope of our lives because of fear and perpetuating beliefs of threat and dread based on inaccurate narrative. We tell ourselves stories about what happened because of trauma that may keep us stuck in the trauma. Or if we are able to create a new and coherent-integrating narrative it will help us survive and live with a sense of confidence and freedom. Examples of self-talk: narratizing. I heard the father of one of the Americans captured by Isis say of his daughter’s death: “I know she is in God’s hands and that there is a reason for everything.” This was his way of making sense of a tragedy that appears brutal and senseless. That is the function of narrative: to make sense of madness by maintaining an inner coherence, explaining what happened (making sense of madness), and maintaining our connections with our tribe which supports and sustains us.
Siegel says: “We can move from being a passive recipient (victim) of painful events to becoming the empowered authors of our own life stories. This is the power of narrative to integrate our lives and free us from the prisons of the past (Interpersonal Neurobiology, pg 4).
It is not easy to regain the narrative when it is violently and randomly disrupted. To regain it in order to be able to recover is the task of self-discovery and regaining a feeling of congruence and certainty of our own inner self. The answer is always the same. Awareness, mindfulness, directed consciousness, these words all point to the process of noticing what is going on inside of us. There are clues which if we pay attention to them will lead to integration and healing. Trauma causes a rupture or a break in our relationships: with self and others. This rupture if not repaired leads to hostility, blame, self-disgust and alienation from others. This lack of attunement with ourselves and others if not repaired leads to chronic depression and disruption of primary relationships. Attunement between mother and child is the basis of all attachment relationships; this is also true in adults. It is crucial to emotional regulation and the ability to make sense of traumatizing events. Focused attention increases mood stability and emotional integration. The brain circuits disrupted by traumatic shock may be healed through attunement which promotes brain integration and crucial linkages which have been disrupted. Meditation, the process of sitting down and stopping our busy worlds will lead to a calming of the inner turmoil of anxiety, shame, self-doubt, and fear caused by trauma. If focused awareness becomes your primary mode of being in the world it will lead to actualizing integration and self-compassion. As you go deeper into your self-awareness, you will come to know not only who you are but also how you came to be. Making sense of our personal histories and dealing with whatever ghosts are left over will also solidify your narrative and make it more coherent. It is like one client said to me; it is like dumping a 1000 piece puzzle box on the table and assembling the pieces one at a time: seeing which ones fit until a picture develops.
What do you see, what is your story telling you? Do you like the emerging picture, the story you are telling yourself? The great thing about this process is that it is fluid, you are the story teller; you may change and rewrite the script. It is always an evolving story; it need not be controlled by rigid themes from the past. Trauma causes chaos and it also may cause us to be frozen in time when the trauma occurred. This requires careful and often painful work to heal this type of wound. Avoidance and denial are often the defenses used to cope with this kind of pain. That is why careful observation, focused attention and persistent work discovering where we are stuck is necessary to change the narrative. If you don’t know who you are, the only place to look is within. Nobody is going to tell you who you are, or much worse, there are plenty of people who are willing to impose an identity on you, their notion of your best self. Facades and masks are too easily worn at the masquerade ball we call life. To know who you really are is the only certainty that can lead to a life well lived.
Rebuilding, reconstructing the narrative is painful and at times requires grief work because loss affects our narrative. Each loss, each failure, each disappointment, each rejection requires that we make sense, create an explanation for why it happened and how it affects our view of ourselves and how we fit in; our place in the larger story. Story telling is an ongoing process, we write our stories on the fly. We incorporate new information and reorganize our story to fit new experience. If we are made rigid by anxiety and fear, then we find it difficult to give up old notions of ourselves and cling to perhaps an identity that fits like an old worn out suit, comfortable, but not functional. Who am I? Who am I becoming? You are the story teller here; look for the clues in your own history, perhaps you will discover a hero in your narrative and a plot that begins to make sense. Make sure you tell your story to others.

Leave a Reply