My Blog

Do You Own Your Story or Does Your Story Own You?

We live in a culture that encourages us not to take our own suffering seriously, but rather to make light of it or
even to laugh about it. What is more, this attitude is regarded as a virtue, and many people--of whom I used to be one--are
proud of their lack of sensitivity toward their own fate and particularly toward their fate as a child.
—Alice Miller, Prisoners of Childhood

It's the wee hours of the morning at a party, and the remaining guests are gathered around the table sharing tales of being abused as children. One relates how when ten, his mom thwacked him over the head with a cast iron skillet. Another talks about how she had to kneel on rice as punishment, and a faux serious discussion begins on the best rice to use—brown, white, basmati? The storytellers, along with a bottle of wine, manage to make us all laugh at their pain.

It would seem that these storytellers have put it all behind them. And while joking about a beating or extreme punishment does demonstrate some mastery over trauma, it doesn’t mean that the pain has been chased away for good.

“Living to tell the tale” can become just that, a survival strategy that attempts to protect the teller from what’s occurring inside—flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, accompanied by terror, rage, nausea.. When you are locked into your own private screening room of traumatic memory, you do not own your story, it owns you.

When your story owns you, it can be difficult to think clearly when you get triggered by a sound, smell, interaction and are suddenly thrust back into the worst moments of your past, or at least a feeling of that instance.

As a result, trauma survivors may turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever works. Dissociation can become a default. In the face of a trigger, traumatic memory or even the social stress of a party, survivors simply “disappear.” In their place, storytellers emerge.

So while telling your story can make you feel like you’ve mastered your trauma, telling it repeatedly becomes a distancing trick to avoid real connection and communication: You want to know me? Here’s my story. The “story” becomes a cover story.

“If you no longer try to deny your past you are more free to trust your emotions,” said psychologist Alice Miller when interviewed. “Making feelings available to consciousness means setting in motion a process of growth, assuming responsibility, and beginning a movement towards consciousness.”

For survivors who want to move past the simple recapitulation of trauma, there is no real substitute for good therapy, journeying back into your story with a trained and compassionate listener/witness/companion. Although this person must attend to the story’s specifics, its “gory details,” she is really more interested in the person trapped within the story. A good therapist is dedicated to getting to know, see, take in that specific individual, his or her unique history, strengths, style of coping and yes, humor.

The risk of going down that road with a trusted therapist/witness/companion is that while your story may not change, your feelings about it probably will, as will your feelings about yourself. As author and crime survivor Terri Jentz writes in her stunning memoir Strange Piece of Paradise, “The self can’t be reconstituted in just the same way. The pieces fit back together differently…”

The self that emerges during therapy may no longer be able to find humor in the story, or conversely, may discover a dark humor previously repressed in the telling. When you own your story, you’re capable of feeling and communicating both things. Your story is more complete, and so are you.