Welcome back to Write It Out! I took something like a month off, with a post that intended to take a couple weeks off. We see this sometimes. I’m hoping to get back into the rhythm soon. I also would like to take advantage of Substack’s new feature, which allows subscribers to chat with me and one another on topics I curate. If you’d like to be part of something like that and you haven’t subscribed yet, please do so! But for now, here’s a November story.
It’s November, and my partner and I have landed in Montreal. We’re staying in a neighborhood best described as “transitional.” On the wall across from our kitchen window is spray-painted “NIQUE LA POLICE,” which means exactly what you think it does. At the nearest (and best) climbing gym to us, nobody really speaks English at all. After a rough entry, I…kind of love it? But it’s taken some processing to get there.
“Can we tell the story of what happened this week?” I asked him as we soaked in the big tub together.
It had been a hell of a time between Halloween weekend and sinking slowly into the too-hot water, the promise of relaxation always with a threat behind it. He obliged, knowing how it helps me, and helps him too.
One of my favorite comments on healing from trauma comes from Bessel van der Kolk, however flawed some of his stuff may be. He talks about transforming trauma into a story of something that happened to you a long time ago. Because, he notes, when terrible events become lodged in the body as trauma, they are not stories at all.
In fact, frequently a trauamatized person cannot even recall the specific events, or if they can, it triggers physiological and psychological responses that make it feel as though those events are happening in the present. Often the sense of past events is more like a nightmare than like a movie. It comes in flashes and sounds and smells, and the limbic terror that rides with it. It hasn’t, in essence, been narrativized.
Now please note: as a somatic therapist, I’m the last person to say that telling the story of your trauma is what heals you of it, and that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. Older forms of trauma treatment, in fact, mistakenly stressed the idea that recounting the story would help trauma survivors recover. On the contrary, it often throws the nervous system into disarray, either putting them into fight-or-flight or causing them to dissociate. Perhaps you’ve seen combat veterans speak of their experiences in a flat, affectless tone, or toss off remarks about horrendous things in a casual way. There’s a reason for this: getting deep into the experience and emotional impact of “the story” simply isn’t tolerable.
Bessel’s point is not that telling the story is what heals, but rather that integrating the story and organizing it into the past, rather than re-experiencing it in the present, is one of the signs of healing. Getting there involves many other things, many of them somatic, pre-verbal, or otherwise not really about the story at all.
That said, there is incredible power in storytelling before an aversive experience can become lodged as a trauma.
What is the difference, after all, between a traumatic experience and post-traumatic stress? A vast majority of the time, the difference is about experiencing a return to safety shortly after the event, and a chance to share the experience with a trusted person.
If you’ve ever comforted a toddler after a minor injury, or even seen a decent caregiver do it, you know what I’m talking about. A little kid falls down on the playground. Tears and yowling ensue. Caregiver comes quickly and scoops the child up.
“Oh no! What happened?” says the adult. Usually the kid doesn’t have words yet. “Did you fall down?” The kid, still crying and holding the hurt place, nods furiously. “That hurt, huh?” “Yyyyeah…” wails the kid. Maybe some story starts to come. “I hurt my knee!” “Yeah,” says the adult, mirroring the kid’s tone. “You fell and hurt your knee, huh. That hurts!” “Yeah, it hurts.”
Maybe more tears here, as we’re cleaning up the scraped knee. Once the initial pain and fear pass, often the kid will start talking. “I was playing with Samantha, and then we were on the merry-go-round, and I told her not to push it fast but she pushed it fast and then I fell.” Maybe the story shifts a little. More details come, others disappear. The caregiver will probably hear it again at dinner, at bathtime, at bedtime, until the child is satisfied that the story is sound, and that it’s been heard and understood. The caregiver’s job in all this is to be that safe person, the one who lets the kid know that they get how scary and painful that was, and that it’s all okay now.
I tend to call this practice narrativizing experience, and I am here to tell you it is definitely not just for toddlers.
We all do this all the time, in one way or another. Your spouse comes home from work and tells you all about how awful their boss was today. You come home and your roommate starts telling you all about how her cat barfed in three different places in the house and she had to clean it all. You get in a fender-bender and you’re not hurt but you’re shaken up; for the next 24 hours you tell the story of the accident four or five times, to each person or group of people that’s important to you.
Now the question of boundaries and emotional labor around this kind of unloading is important, but it’s a question for another post. What I’m trying to point out here is that human beings are story-making creatures, and we make stories because it’s a huge part of how we make sense of the things that happen to us. To go back to Bessel’s remark, when we can’t make a coherent narrative out of our experiences, things get overwhelming fast, and everything can start to get stuck in a kind of eternal, infernal present tense.
I lowered myself slowly into the bathtub, letting my skin pinken and my nerves adjust to the heat. “Well,” my boyfriend began, “we both left town last weekend. You drove down to Philadelphia…”
We continued, exchanging narratives. How we’d left the terribly uncomfortable apartment in Ottawa for a weekend apart, him with a friend, me at a conference in the States. How the conference was great for me but I couldn’t sleep. How we came back to Ottawa and had to immediately pack and move on to Montreal, which was wonderful in some ways but was still yet another move. How Montreal was rough when we arrived, and we thought about moving apartments because of how hostile the neighborhood initially felt. It had been a week of stress and upheaval and separation and triggers galore for each of our various traumas, and before too many more of them stacked up, we needed to unload. To narrativize. To tell the story.
I recently reread David Abram’s classic The Spell of the Sensuous, and I was reminded of how powerful oral tradition has been, and still is, especially for cultures without written language. We use stories very differently in modern society, but stories, told orally, were the only way to pass vital information and wisdom for a great deal of our history. If you think about modern media, storytelling is still clearly the most powerful and important way humans have for talking to one another, and especially for talking to a mass audience.
But even more primordial than that need is the need to tell the story for ourselves. We need to tell stories as a way to literally make sense of our experience, to remember the sensations we felt and put it in order, to calm and organize our nervous systems, to take what lessons we can get from it. By doing so, we can keep the experience from getting stuck or stopped in us. We feel the empathy of the other person. We let the story literally resonate in our bodies as we speak, and resonate in another’s as they hear.
It’s not that talking is the be-all end-all; Freud’s so-called “talking cure” certainly wasn’t the end of therapeutic thought. But as much as somatic therapists work to help their clients get “out of the story” and into their bodies, I believe it’s vital to know the place and the importance of the story, too. The key is in the body and sensory metaphors we use when we tell them: “That made no sense to me.” “I just had to get it out of my system.” “I was really turned around about it.” “Can I just get something off my chest?” And the listener’s responses are full of these, too: “I see.” “I heard that.” “I feel you.” “That seems fishy to me!”
As our listener mirrors our feelings, making a face and saying “Ew,” or “Gross!” if we’re talking about a disgusting thing that happened; gasping in shock and widening their eyes as we tell them about something terrifying; receiving and vibrating our stories through their nervous systems, something miraculous happens. The load is shared. The burden is, not passsed to them, but dissipated. And the events, however difficult, become a story rather than a wound.
“Whew,” I breathe out. “That was a week.”
I’d like to start using Substack’s chat function for my subscribers, but until then: how do you see this idea showing up in your life? Let me know in the comments!
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What a dense and chewy essay! I have three thoughts:
1) One of the treasures of my life has been the opportunity to forge new relationships with former romantic partners--not with all of them, but several. And in that process, I have twice gotten to have conversations in which we share *and agree* on a narrative of our splitting up that makes sense to both of us, in a process that I have found incredibly healing and positive.
2) Jason and I don't really have an engagement story. It was kind of a gradual, mutual process without any concrete moment of decision. While I'm very happy with how it worked out, that lack was painful for me for many years, which mostly just seemed to confuse and irritate Jason. Until one time we got to witness someone else's public proposal and on our way home Jason said that he finally understood
that what he had denied me was a story to tell and that he'd never before understood what that meant to me. His understanding released my anger and while it still makes me sad not to have that, it's a much softer, easier emotion to navigate now.
3) I got to see Wakanda Forever this past weekend and the thing that impressed me most was how Ryan Coogler managed to craft a collective mourning experience for millions of people to process our grief at the passing of Chadwick Boseman, in a respectful way, making his death part of the vast epic story of the MCU. I think it is a moment unprecedented in movie history and I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for how it was managed. It makes me think of other public narratives and how (and by whom) they are crafted--a rich vein to contemplate.
Thank you for inspiring these reflections and all the others that I'm sure will follow.
Wow this is super helpful for a lot of things I’ve been thinking about! I can also see how narrativizing one’s own experience can also result in a split from someone else’s experience of the same events -- for example, I feel that my parents often have wildly different narratives for the same situations, and those narratives are reflective of what each of them values, feels insecure about, etc. Very cool post!