The agony of untold stories

There’s an American researcher who studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. Her name is Brené Brown and she’s responsible for one of the most watched TED talks of all time. Her quotes regularly do the rounds on social media and in her book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’, Brown writes;

“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”

The simple act of reading the words I’ve just typed ties my stomach in knots. Trying to own my story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it’s still a work in progress, if sitting down to a blank page counts as progress of some kind.

The story I’ve wholly bought into and perpetuated for over forty years is one where I’m the villain of the piece. If anything bad happens, it’s my fault. Even with no immediate link between myself and the latest calamity to strike someone I care for, it only takes a few minutes for me to find one.

It never occurred to me that I might be owning the wrong story.

Why would it? My version of events has served me well. Not only does it protect the people I love, but certain times in my life are filled with events that I find so traumatic that blaming myself and filing them under ‘shame’ is far more palatable than facing the reality of what happened.

Two and a half years ago I met my therapist. Week after week he’s sat with me – in a room that’s either freezing cold or so hot that heat exhaustion’s on the cards – and patiently waited while I go over the same ground time and again, fighting even the slightest possibility that there might be another way of seeing.

I think that at this point I’m supposed to write something inspiring and tell you how transforming the process has been. The reality is that it’s the most painful and disturbing period of my life. I regularly wish I’d never started. On good days I can say whatever words are needed to tell myself that I’m not as wicked as I believe, but the words only ever come from my head, never from my heart. On most days the weight of guilt and shame I feel simply for being me is unbearable. The idea that I’m owning the wrong story gets translated into me trying to blame others for the mess I’ve made of my life. It only serves to add to my feelings of self-loathing.

I read an interview with pianist James Rhodes this morning. He’s had a bit of a week. He talks about the assumption of guilt being so ingrained that it’s his first reaction in any situation, but over time – and with the help of therapists – he’s developed a second response that means he can “make my peace with it”. Rhodes talks about what it must be like for people who blame themselves for the horrendous things that have happened to them but don’t have that second thought to tell them “this isn’t real, this was not me, this is not truthful’”. He says;

“Imagine living with that. I did. And it’s not a good way to live. You barely exist.”

Spend a few minutes looking around Twitter or the blogosphere. Read Brené Brown’s research. Watch James Rhodes’ documentary ‘Notes from the Inside’ or read today’s interview. They all point to one thing – there are lots of people ‘barely existing’.

That’s not right, is it?

Rewriting stories takes time. You can’t just tell a person that they’ve got it wrong, nor can you soothe them with reassurance or well-worn platitudes. It takes years of patience from somebody who’s qualified to handle the amount of crap you need them to hear – and there needs to be compassion, empathy and trust. These things don’t happen overnight.

My therapist leaves next month. It’s on the list of things I’m too chicken to think about but just to warn you, CNS may go off-comms for a while – but more importantly that’ll be it. No more psychotherapy available on the NHS, at least not in my neck of the woods.

People will still break under the weight of crap life throws at them, but what will their options be? According to my local trust’s website they’ll be first pointed in the direction of a self-help toolkit and books on prescription. I’m guessing none of my favourites will be available – Jude the Obscure, anyone? If only it came with the complete Joy Division back catalogue. The next stage is guided self-help with telephone support. At a push, you might be offered 4 to 6 weeks of group CBT and if you’re still struggling there’s a further option of 8 weeks of individual CBT. God knows how pissed off the accountants get at this point.

Eight weeks. It has taken me two and a half years to be open to the possibility that there’s another version of my story, one in which I’m not always the villain. On most days that still feels like a ridiculous notion. The memories I kept locked away are now out in the open and their fear can cripple me day or night. When I sleep, I often wake shouting or in a blind panic. Days are still frequently interrupted by memories that send me running for cover. I honestly don’t know what to do with any of it; the only vision of a future I can see is not one that I want to be part of. But I’m lucky, however much it feels otherwise. The seed of doubt that suggests ‘this isn’t real, this was not me, this is not truthful’ has been planted. I might not be able to access it for most of the time, but it’s there, and in that I am so much better off than those of us who have yet to realised that we’ve been reading the wrong script all along.

I hate my story. I want to rage against a world that let it happen and for most of the time I don’t want to engage with that world, such is my anger towards it. But I know what my story is and I know it’s up to me to write a good ending. I don’t trust myself one little bit.

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