“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
Telling the story of how you overcame serious emotional difficulty is always good for you. Taking your story public is good for a lot of people, but not necessarily for you. Here are some tips on how to tell a good recovery story, and decide whether to do it in public.
More and more people today are telling their stories of how they recovered from severe mental health difficulties and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been telling mine, and training others to tell theirs, for almost 15 years. People say it gives them hope for their friends, clients, and themselves. They call me courageous.
NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program, which I started and coordinated in New Hampshire for four years, is their most effective anti-stigma, pro-recovery program, according to the evaluations they get from everyone who attends a presentation by someone who is doing well in recovery. They’ve trained hundreds of survivors all over the country to tell their stories to other consumers, family members, clinicians, policy-makers and other professionals. Many who attend IOOV presentations say it’s the first time they heard people with mental illness could get well and stay well. They believe it, too, because they see two people in recovery and talk to them.
Other organizations like the National Empowerment Center – near the opposite end of the political spectrum from NAMI — collect written and spoken recovery stories. Corinna West, creative director of Wellness Wordworks, one of the most original voices in the mental health recovery movement today, says it’s time to go beyond collecting stories, and start making use of them in research, recovery education, and advocacy for system change.
I think all survivors should write or tell their recovery stories from the beginning to the present, whether they go public with it or not. Whether to go public is a separate issue. Writing and telling, especially writing, forces you to focus your mind, and make yourself clear to an audience, even if the audience is only one person you know and trust. Without an audience of at least one, nothing forces you to be clear and coherent.
Choose Your Framework
Before you start assembling your story, choose a suitable framework or design. The three main ones are chronology, topics, and “what helps and what hurts.”
Helps/hurts is particularly useful for people trying to learn to be better helpers, family members, clinicians, and other professionals who deal with people with mental health issues in their work. I find it effective when I train police officers or court employees, for example.
You simply go back through your experience, and pick out specific things that helped and hurt your recovery. Hearing what helps is more useful to people than what hurts. People get defensive and stop listening to a long litany of what they do wrong. Hearing what helps encourages people to do more of it.
Chronology is simply what happened, what happened next, and what happened after that. The trick is knowing what to include, exclude, or summarize. If you’ve been through a series of abusive relationships, don’t give the details of each one. Tell why you got into that rut, why you stayed, and how you finally got out of it.
I like the topic outline: dark days, acceptance, treatments, wellness tools, and successes, hopes, and dreams.
. Summarize the dark days. Getting stuck in the dark days is what’s wrong with many recovery stories. The best recovery stories emphasize the recovery, not the pain and suffering. Those are the stories that do the writer/speaker and the audience the most good. In fact, you can go back into your dark days and get stuck there. That can be painful, and is almost never helpful. Don’t talk about anything that is a continuing source of pain, except with your therapist.
When did you realize you needed to recover from something? How did you react when people suggested you get help, or the first time someone mentioned medication? Was acceptance easy or hard for you? Did it happen quickly or over a long time?
Treatments and Wellness Tools
Treatments are things people have done to or for you. Which ones were most helpful? Wellness tools are things you do for yourself. Medication and psychotherapy are treatments. Exercise, enjoyable diversionary activities, and spirituality are wellness tools. What about support groups, peer support or 12-step programs? Are they treatments or wellness tools? Who cares what you call them?
Successes, Hopes, and Dreams
Your successes, hopes and dreams are the most important parts of your story, even if your successes don’t feel like a big deal to you. Make yourself say why something is a success, give yourself credit, and it will be a big deal. People like us don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do. Doing something you could not have done a year ago is a success. Pat yourself on the back for it.
Going Public or Not
This is a completely personal decision. Don’t do it just because someone says it’s a good thing to do. You have to figure that everything you write or say in public will become known to everybody you know. Don’t do it if you’re worried about your family’s reaction, or discrimination on the job or among your friends.
Do it if you want to give your suffering and recovery meaning by using them to help other people like you. Stories of successful recovery give hope as well as information, and recovery is impossible if you don’t think you can, and have supporters who think you can.
You’re the top expert on your own experience. As long as you stay within yourself, using “I” statements, and avoiding generalizations, no so-called expert can challenge what happened to you or how you felt.
Do it if you want to fight stigma and stereotypes. In all my hundreds of presentations, nobody ever called me weak or crazy, or blamed me for my problems. In my four years at In Our Own Voice, my 20 speakers did 250 presentations, and they never experienced stigma either. People will respect you and call you courageous.