Storytelling as Medicine
Originally written for a workshop at Whole Family MD
Sometimes fate knocks the wind out of us and when we catch our breath, the world as we knew it has changed forever and we must find our true selves again. For me it was ten years ago when my firstborn child went into fulminant liver failure and was told within three days of being in CPMC that she needed a liver transplant.
I was a professional storyteller before that day and am one still, but my understanding of story has changed profoundly and I am blessed to have the chance to share such things with my very healthy 33-year-old daughter.
There could not be a stronger advocate for the advances in medicine that saved my daughter’s life — and I can tell the medical story of her body and the diagnosis. But that is only one part. Curing and Healing: how do they go together?
Fairy tales — often called Wisdom Tales so as not to imply that such stores are are only for children — are about this moment of being grabbed by the back of the neck by fate and flung into the unknown forest of life.
The character rarely deserves this and, in fairy tales, must take a journey that will, by the nature of the tale, end happily ever after.
Something happens beyond our control. Hansel and Gretel — there was famine on the land. Cinderella and Snow White — the death of the mother ends life as they knew it and sets them on a journey. Even welcoming a new baby is a universal story of fate.Once upon a time there were a man and a woman who longed for a child, and what is born? Tom Thumb. Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty, a pumpkin, a hedgehog, a camel, or there in the nest is the Ugly Duckling.
These old stories are not about the facts of the matter, nor the moment, nor the bottom-line product. They are archetypes or metaphorical maps for hope and courage in the most challenging of times, told in the language of dreams, of the heart, and of relationship.
My son put this so very well recently. Now 28, he remembers the last soccer game of his senior year at SI, when in a torrential rain he tried to turn to the ball, but his foot was stuck in the mud. In the turning he dislodged his knee cap. That moment was the end of his youthful dream of being a soccer player.
He described going off to college the next year: “On the inside of myself I was still an athlete, but on the outside I could not be that anymore.” Surgery and physical therapy were the medical help he received to restore his health, but they did return him to the before time. Healing his true self, integrating the experience and becoming a new man, was his journey.