Best Slowly: A Better Narrative
I think it was Dylan Thomas who said, “There’s nothing I would rather hear than people telling me stories about their childhood. But they’d better talk fast, or I’ll start telling them about mine.”
I’m guilty of more than just childhood stories, but here’s the dilemma: no sooner have I finished telling some story about our childhood in Boulder, than I need to start over, revise, and retell it.
That happened yesterday writing about Duane, Mary, and the infamous wet towel. It bothered me all day, and I went back into the blog and completely rewrote it. It’s hardly the same story.
I would like to say it’s closer to the “truth’, but I know better. Timothy Wilson calls psychotherapy a better narrative, and this revised one worked better for me. Now I could drop it and move on.
Trauma, by the way, is like that.
Many years ago, when I was trying to learn this practice of psychotherapy, we had a supervisor at the Counseling Center who would jump on both Susan and me for wandering far from the presenting problem or chief complaint.
“Now why did they come in?” he’d asked.
He liked to give us grief, because instead of focusing on the symptoms, such as test anxiety, we had talked about their childhood and family of origin for much of the hour.
At this point, we’d hang our heads and appropriately grovel. Groveling was a skill both of us had been forced to learn.
But, just as I did not know what the problem “really” was when I confronted Duane with the wet towel, many of the clients coming in for counseling don’t either.
You ask them, “What’s going on? What brought you in?” They’ll answer, “My roommate uses my towel.” Or, more likely, “She wears my underwear.”
Of course, these are simply the straws and not the camel or the load, and definitely not the destination.
One time, when I was treating the chief complaint, which was test anxiety, I decided to use hypnotherapy as part of the treatment. I was well into the induction when I noticed her hand was making a fist and not relaxing.
I asked her to focus on the fist and suggested it might have something to do with the problem. She almost immediately opened her eyes and said, “It is the problem.”
She was terrified of her alcoholic and abusive husband, and even worried he’d be angry if he learned she’d come for counseling. He hadn’t gone to college and was extremely contemptuous of her dreams to become a self-sufficient accountant.
This was not the story she wanted to live, and it wasn’t the childhood she wanted her children to remember.
Scott Peck ends his chapter on Transference in The Road Less Traveled, with this very tight sentence, “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
Sometimes the revision to the map or narrative is minor, other times it’s life-changing.