Storytelling Meets Recreation Therapy

Delivered at Bay Area Therapeutic Recreational Association (BATRA) in 2013

Once upon a time long ago in the 1950’s many adults in my life began to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. How many of you were asked the same question. How many of you answered Recreational Therapist? Nor did I answer Storyteller. I had no idea such a profession existed until I was well into my thirties. But from here, looking back in time to the treasure chest that is my and your life experience, I can see many teachings that led me here. I will share three short stories.

In 1972 I was hired to be a housemother at Indiana Girls’ School working in the Maximum Security building. At that time I was both the youngest and the lightest-weighted woman to be hired. I met the conflicting needs of the management perfectly. Some were turning toward juvenile justice and wanted my two years of college educational background. Some detested the idea of juvenile justice and wanted to use me as guinea pig to prove that I would be pummeled by the teenagers under my care.

I was raised by a family that used words in many ways. Among them was the sharp spear of sarcasm. The ability to win by words was a high art. I those days I didn’t understand that this family trait related to ethnicity and economic class. I took my sarcasm into Indiana Girls’ School. I also took my ability to listen.

When I used a sarcastic comment a girl would say “don’t go rolling your eyes at me”. I didn’t know what that meant for awhile, but learned that it came my way when I gave the sort of double message that sarcasm is. Since then, I do not use words in this way. Why? Prison is a very scary place. Sarcasm added to the fear. This world we live in can be a very scary place. I don’t want to add to such fear by giving mixed messages on purpose.

I got in trouble with my supervisors because I would listen to the girls tell me the stories of their lives. “ You’re not fool enough to actually believe what they say are you?” was the challenge. I could say at the age of 22, “If the story is not true the hopes and fears within it are.” I still believe this. Both teachings guide me in my everyday work as a storyteller.

Jump ahead to the day I was in the doctors’ office with my 8-year-old daughter whose fever went from 102 to 105 in ten minutes and I heard the terrifying words, “We have to admit Martha to the hospital right now.” While the staff got a gurney, I heard in my head my mother’s voice. “Don’t show your fear.” But I was afraid, so I said to Martha, “This is pretty scary. Let’s make a deal right now. I will tell you the truth about what is happening and you will do your best to do the same. The look of relief in her face was so soft and filled with yearning, that I have never forgotten it.

A few days later a clown came into the room to entertain Martha. He looked ridiculous to me and I felt intruded upon by foolishness when in this crisis, but I stepped back and watched this man talk to Martha and make her laugh. I remember nothing about what he said, but he gave her three fake golden coins. I thought that was corny and useless. I was so very wrong.

Martha not only relaxed under his attention, but she has carried those three golden coins ever since; to college, to France, to Africa, and they sit in her jewelry box still. One day I imagine she will tell her newborn son the story of this gift. I look back from this place and know he was a recreational therapist or had been hired by one.

I have kept these two teachings ever since. One — I could trust my 8-year-old to tell me her truth as best she could, if I stood in my truth. Two — a story or a song can be a relief from pain and fear. The clown reminded Martha that she was still Martha, an 8-year-old child, and not bed #4 in Septic Shock.

The third—the first time I walked into Adult Children of Alcoholics filled with shame and fear among strangers and sure that no one would know me. I sat and listened and realized for the very first time that my personal story was not so personal at all. I was both humbled to realize this, and, over time, relieved to learn that alcoholism in a family was not my fault, and that my habits for survival worked for better or worse in my childhood, but were not helping me anymore.

This is called Horizontal storytelling—where people share what they have in common with others. I have used the AA rules of no cross talk in my workshops and storytelling ever since. I learned the value of deep listening to others there, and the strength that can be made by sharing with others in a safe place.

I also learned the problem of learning to be safe in a familiar victim’s role. Sometimes telling the same story over and over again about a trauma actually feeds the trauma more than the healing. Or for me to look directly into the headlights of my past experience froze me like a deer in headlights.

And this leads me to the traditional stories I am about to tell and how leaving the personal narrative completely has helped me not take my own biography quite so seriously. My story is part of the universal story, as is yours.

When you hear the opening line, “Once upon a time?” what do you think that last line of the story will be?

This means that between beginning and end of this kind of story, no matter what obstacles the main character faces she will live happily ever after. The FORM itself is both a journey and a container.

Within the fairy tale form is magic. I am often asked if I believe in magic. I answer “Yes”. If magic is the power to transform, I trust that deep listening can be magic, and that the release of a personal story also has the power to begin transformation.


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