Telling My Story

"Your heart is greater than your wounds." ~ Henri Nouwen

In November, I will tell my story and answer questions on a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) educational panel for families. That means, I am in the midst of writing and practicing giving my story. This process is painful, to say the least. But doing so is also like passing through a refining fire--on the other side, the story of my journey is shining, whole, different.

I experienced practicing my story this week and being heard with compassion, with understanding, with acceptance.

I felt like the person who listened to me took all the pain and handed it back to me in a different form--as something coherent and meaningful, as whole, with its own integrity. Of course, my story would have its own integrity, whether it was ever heard or not. But I think I am talking about what my therapist refers to as "validation." That is what it means to be heard with compassion.

Of course, writing and giving my story forces me to relive it. I feel raw, like the scab on a wound has been peeled away.

At the suggestion of a friend from writer's group, I am reading Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, writer and theologian, who went to work with mentally and physically disabled people at L'Arche Daybreak Community.

"You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain..." he writes. He suggests stopping asking "Why was I hurt? By whom?" and allowing the hurt to go down to your heart, "the safe place it can be received."

My heart, rather than my head, is the safe place for my pain. In my head, I will only continue to ask questions: "Why me, God?" Maybe the better question, if I am going to ask questions, is, "What good can come from this?"

This process of telling my story forces the hurt down to my heart. I feel it. The numbness that was present for so long is dissipating. I am reconnecting with myself. This is painful, but necessary. I must inhabit my own story. I must own it. It is akin to being comfortable in one's own skin.

When we tell our stories, we create narrative arcs for ourselves. We impose a storyline. My storyline, my plot, is of pain survived and overcome. It is of persistence -- also of mistakes and self-sabotage. I have had to fight my way through my mistakes. But I have shown grit.

God is the ultimate storyteller. He tells us, all our lives long and after death. My story makes coherent sense only in the light of his compassion and grace. I might impose a storyline, but he sees the true storyline -- that of a beloved child being redeemed.

I must trust his storyline for my life. Stop asking questions and allow the hurt to go down to my heart. Only then, as Nouwen suggests, can I live through my hurt.  

When I live through my hurt, I am no longer caught up in the specificity of it: How did I hurt, when, God, and why? Instead, I am able to see the universality of it -- that we all are suffering in our own ways, that we all have our own stories to share.

And that is what this talk is about: Connecting with others who are in pain and offering them some hope by sharing my story of survival.

Living through my hurt will enable me to connect, to empathize. I must allow the hurt to go down to my heart and tell my story from that space. That is a space of true power.



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