Why we (should) share our stories

Many stories by Elli O on Unsplash Edited

It’s world mental health day. In the midst of all the global conversations on the issue, let’s move closer home and take a minute to share our own story of mental illness or receive someone else’s.

We could write our own, maybe in a diary, a blog. We could reach out someone we love, a neighbor we don’t know, a coworker we’ve been curious about, a child, the help in our homes. Ask them how they’ve been. Or we could read about someone’s narrative of personal experience with mental illness.

Whether reading, listening or writing, we have to remember to be compassionate, both to others and ourselves. We have to remember it’s hard to share, and even to receive difficult stories. We have to remember to be kind.

Making sense of experiences of mental illness in our lives is a difficult process. We carefully choose who we share these with, and often only do it with people we know will be supportive and have constructive sympathy for us. These are people we trust will judge us the least, and will make an effort to understand us in the way that we want to be understood.

When it comes to the idea of publicly sharing such intimate stories, it brings with it several additional layers of emotional, social, familial struggle. It involves putting together our lives in a way that makes sense to ourselves and to others. It involves an anxious process of pouring our lives into words which always seem inadequate. Most often, the stories involve and sometimes implicate our family members – those we love dearly, despite them likely appearing villainous to the reader. We feel like we’re betraying them by talking about them to people who really have no business knowing what goes on in our families.

And yet, we write.

There is a need to release the narrative from existing solely within us.

There is a need to let that story go. It’s a catharsis into the unknown – maybe it’s received with love and understanding, maybe not. We stop controlling who knows our story, how they transform it and incorporate it into their own lives, and how they give it back to us, if at all.

Eventually, hopefully, we feel lighter for it.

But there can be one other motive for sharing, or perhaps it’s a happy side effect: others can find an anchor in the stories we tell.

Those who have written for an audience know that the process of making sense of our lives is an extremely taxing one. There is palpable psychological work that goes into putting our thoughts and emotions into a coherent sequence. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to be able to expend this energy.

But how amazing that we could have each other, that we could rely on the story of another to provide us with a possible structure, a narrative sequence, a point of departure, where we may join in by adopting it for ourselves and adding to it the unique and personal musculature of our lives, and making it our own.

How reassuring that we can depend upon this skeleton to do some of the heavy lifting for us. It can guide us, orient us, structure us. And we can take responsibility for the musculature, flesh it out with our own details. And in doing so bring closer to ourselves a body, a story, that mimics our life experience.

As yet another bonus, we learn that we are not alone, that our story is not alone. We come to learn that there is a larger fabric within which thousands of stories come together and at the same time, at least one person understands us. As our story fits with the author’s, we connect despite never having met them.

We’ve then joined a network of stories that are each feeding into a structure that is meant to support each of its nodes, each of us.

To be able to reassure someone that they’re not alone is a powerful and remarkably simple effort. If all it takes is all of us sharing our stories, being in it together, it seems worthwhile to crawl out of our shells and talk, listen or read.

It’s world mental health day. Today you can choose to read or write, and do so without judging or fearing judgment. You can choose to write about your experiences with mental illness and know that there are at least some of us who will receive it with love and warmth, and that you will do a great service to us by providing a possible skeleton upon which others may depend to connect themselves. Or you can read about someone else’s story with respect, and extend that resource to someone you know who is looking for this narrative skeleton.

Today, and every day from today, you can choose to talk about mental health and illness with an open mind, ask questions, find answers, for yourself, for ones you love, knowing that you are contributing to strengthening a network of support for those who are living bravely with mental illness.

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