Guest post: First steps on the road of Narrative Therapy. A mosaic of stories.
Hello everyone, my name is Annie. I work at a psychiatric hospital, offering pastoral care in the broad sense of the word: care in terms of creating space for conversations about meaning. In March 2015, I attended two introductory workshops about Narrative Therapy, from which I returned home veritably brimming over with enthusiasm! What surprised me most, though, was that I was able to immediately pick up some “little bits” of Narrative Therapy to help steer conversations in a different direction: naming a specific step; facilitating a rich story about a sparkling experience; digging up more stories in the same vein; placing the problem outside of the person …
I am reminded of Marcel
58 years old. He has not had a particularly nice life: child abuse (the scars of cigarette butts are still visible on his arms), at age 14 he started living on the streets, alcohol and drug addiction … His wife who ‘rescued’ him from that life, died well before her time, and on top of that he got Parkinson’s disease which limits his abilities to an ever greater extent. At some point he told me: I asked my counselor from Sheltered Housing for a new bed, even an expensive bed, so I would be better able to turn myself over. This sounded new to me, an initiative like this, so I decided to ask him, in a very ‘narrative’ way, what name he could give to his action. He did not know.
Hesitantly, I asked him: might it be something like ‘taking care of yourself’?
He resolutely told me: no, it’s sticking up for myself.
– Ah, like that, sticking up for yourself? How so?
– Well yeah, as a kid I got nothing but beaten, and no food; but now I can decide for myself.
– Could you perhaps tell me another story about sticking up for yourself, something from when you were young?
He could not remember anything from when he was a child or a teenager, but when he got married and decided to stop drinking because he wanted to have a good marriage, he considered that as ‘sticking up for himself as well as his wife’. Our entire conversation was tinted by it: how he had readmitted himself after she died, was something he now saw in another light. The fact that he is learning Spanish and English at the activity centre is in the same vein: I never had the chance to study, but now I am doing so anyway. Marcel does not have children, but he wanted to do something for children in need. He currently supports a Plan child in South America:
Besides the storylines of ‘being a victim’, ‘being ill’, ‘being dependent’ there also emerges a storyline of someone who can stick up for himself, and can also take care of others! In my eyes, he walks out of the front door more powerful than ever.
I am reminded of May
She is about 50 years old, and has gone through a whole psychiatric journey. She sees herself as being of little value and of no use. On several occasions, she mentioned she once owned a dog, as well as that she loves her mother’s dog, Blackie, and how he always comes walking up to her when she goes there. But I did not do anything with it, until I was given a few narrative levers. When Blackie was mentioned again, I wanted to see whether I could thicken this storyline:
– May, could you try and explain to me what it is that you have that animals find appealing? As, to be honest, that is something that I do not have at all.
When I ask about other stories about peace and calm and love of animals, it turns out that, as a child, she used to protect the newborn kittens her grandmother wanted to put into the ground, and that she gave names to all the chickens so they would not go into the pot. With a shy giggle, she tells me that her neighbour did not like her, as she used to go over and pull out all of the mole traps.
From animals, we continue to human beings: she took care of her own children with patience, and when she was still working in care, she preferred to be with the senile patients:
I really like to do that, those people moved at a very calm pace, and I was able to care for them with lots of patient and tenderness; that also gave me peace. Most of my colleagues did not have the patience.
And then it turns out that this woman-who-thinks-she’s-worth-nothing has been visiting a mentally handicapped man every week for years now, together with her mother, and here too is able to ‘sense’ what it is that he needs: to have a smoke together, and eat four ham sandwiches. Much more would have been possible with this conversation, but May called it ‘a relief, nice memories of animals, and that I can actually have quite a lot of patience with people’.
I am reminded of Sam
35 years old. Usually, our conversations take only about 10 minutes. Because of his fears and paranoia, it is difficult for him to concentrate, and it takes a while before he says anything. Everything happens at a very slow pace. I knew he liked music, and especially U2, but, well, there the conversation often died out. Here too, Narrative Therapy offered inspiration, and I started to work on Sam and his music. What music does he like to listen to? Retro. Could he name a few groups? Woops, I’m familiar with only just one of those. Where does he find all that music? It turns out that all his CDs and records once got stolen, and he is now trying to find ‘a whole bunch of tracks from the old days’ back through YouTube … And how, or with whom, did that start?
The conversation rolls on: once he was a popular DJ with his own nickname: Spy! And yes, that U2 concert at Werchter, and how Bono picks one person to dance with every time … He promises me to lend me a DVD of one of these concerts one of these days, because I need to have seen that! After 50 minutes, we have to end the conversation. Sam tells me that he has never told anyone as much as now. I have never seen him so ‘clear’ and sparkling (yes indeed!), even though he has relapsed now, and confined to isolation. But this sparkle, at least we’ve had it, and now I can see more in him than just a psychotic man. Now, I can also see the music lover, the DJ, the Sam who says that ‘music saved him’. Next time, I will ask him how music is saving him now!
I am reminded of Carla
26 years old … She tells me about her inferiority complex. I feel inferior, I can’t do anything, I compare myself to other people of my age and feel worthless. I am going to attempt to create a little distance between ‘the problem’ and ‘herself’.
So, I ask her: ehm, Carla, this may sound a bit odd, I know, would you mind putting this Inferiority Complex on the table over there. Now look at it. What does it look like?
– Small and dark blue and sneaky.
– What does the dark blue thing want?
It wants to drag her down, every time she feels good and kind of proud of herself. Then she tells me, apparently without any reason, a story about some girlfriends at secondary school who started to tease her in a ‘very sneaky’ way, who ‘dragged her down’ and messed up her relationship with her first boyfriend. It makes her quite emotional, and angry.
Friends like that aren’t really friends.
But because of the image of the ‘sneaky thing’ she says she is getting more of a handle on the problem.
It comforts her that it is not something within her, but just the voices of the past that still resonate today.
I wonder whether there might be some real friends in her life now, and I enquire after it. And yes, she tells me passionately about her three most important friends right now, how she got to know them, what they mean to her, and what she means to them. A lovely tale of friendship from secondary school suddenly comes to her mind about ‘writing each other notes’ … Together, we come up with the idea that she could ask these three friends to write her a letter, with everything in it they appreciate about her. Those notes she wants to keep close, just in case the dark blue, sneaky thing wants to strike again.
These are just my first few steps on the road of Narrative Therapy; and I am hugely curious where it is going to take both me and my conversation partners.
(*This participant of some introductory days about narrative therapy wishes to remain anonymous. The name ‘Annie’ is fictional and also the names of the patients she writes about)