I recently spent some time reflecting on my father’s childhood. His was a traumatic one, to say the least: physical and emotional abuse, hunger and poverty, running loose in Austrian refugee camps, and the deaths of his parents in the aftermath of World War II. I knew the basic story-line, but dad never really talked about it. I realized as he was turning 82, that I would like to know more details. So I asked him if I could interview him about his childhood and write it all down in a narrative format. I wondered what he remembered that he hadn’t already shared. And what would the interview process be like for both him and me?
My father is a unique individual. He is funny and confident, warm and positive. He likes hugging people and owns a clown costume that he once wore crossing the Canada-US border. Most people who have met him over the years wouldn’t guess he had such a fractured past.
The trauma my father experienced as a child, never really showed. But the loss of my mother in 2006 marked a shift in my father’s well-being. He began to worry more, and was more unsettled. His sleep became fitful and he started taking pills for anxiety. He really hasn’t seemed like the same carefree father that raised my sisters and I. So I wasn’t sure how he would react to revisiting his past with me. I did not want to risk re-traumatizing my father!
When I introduced the idea to him in September of last year, he seemed indifferent but willing. So I rented some recording equipment and headed to his place in Listowel. I pressed record and started asking him questions. I made sure we had frequent breaks and I would check in – “how are you feeling?” “Oh fine, fine. No problem. I don’t feel anything.” So I would continue. I did that several times over 2 months.
As the fall progressed, he didn’t seem upset or distraught about the project, but he did seem more engaged. He called me often with a detail he remembered, and would call one of his cousins for verification. And he seemed more enthusiastic about the interviews.
In the first weekend of December, I stayed at his place to put it all together into a book format. He was doing the final proof-read and I was sprawled out in his living room with my laptop. At one point, I casually asked him how his anxiety was doing and his reply surprised me. “I don’t have it anymore, since doing this book. It’s like a big weight has been lifted!”
Really? Could the process of telling his story have lightened his load enough to resolve his anxious state? Being in healthcare, and watching many of my patients struggle with anxiety, I wanted to learn more about just what had happened with my father. So I did some digging…
As defined, storytelling, either oral or written, is a way of making sense of the world around us. Every culture shares stories to entertain or educate the next generation on heritage or moral values. Movies and books largely play that role in North America, but there is renewed interest in more traditional storytelling too. One of my favourite podcasts is called The Moth, where people get up on stage and share personal stories live, without notes. Each week, it’s a mix of stories, all different, all personal. And I’ve noticed that in the very best ones, the storyteller is showing his or her vulnerability.
Brene Brown is a researcher on vulnerability and shame. You may have seen one of her popular TEDtalks Brown suggests from her research that telling the story of “who you are” is all about being vulnerable. And that vulnerability allows for a deeper connection between the storyteller and the listener. She says vulnerability is at the core of shame and our struggle for worthiness, but is also the basis for joy and belonging and love.
My father and I shared an unforgettable experience that brought us closer together. He opened up about his past in a way that maybe he never had before and I was a witness to it. Keeping Brown’s research in mind, I’m wondering if dad had some shame around his past that was released when he told his story – and when he was seen fully by someone close to him.
Author and folklore scholar Elaine Lawless believes there is real therapeutic value in telling one’s story. She studied the stories of homeless women who had escaped domestic violence. Says Lawless “…this process provides new avenues for understanding and identity formation. Language is utilised to bear witness to their lives”(Elaine Lawless. Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative, page 123)
Dr. Lissa Rankin is a physician and author who also writes of the therapeutic value of telling one’s story. From her Psychology Today article: “Every time you tell your story and someone else who cares bears witness to it, you turn off the body’s stress responses, flipping off toxic stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and flipping on relaxation responses that release healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins. Not only does this turn on the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms and function as preventative medicine—or treatment if you’re sick. It also relaxes your nervous system and helps heal your mind of depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and feelings of disconnection.”
Very interesting! It looks like there are a few researchers out there who would validate my dad’s experience. The act of telling his full story, to someone he cares about, was not only an expression of love and connection, but may have triggered a neurochemical alteration that decreased his anxiety.
I’m curious to learn more about therapeutic storytelling because I think this field has the potential to really expand our treatment tools for those with anxiety. Above all, I’m grateful for this powerful experience with a remarkable man I’m lucky enough to call dad.