As an undergraduate I spent my senior year preparing to go to graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist. In that year I took at least twelve hours of classes geared specifically toward therapy and the theory behind it. While we did study other theories, it was primarily focused on cognitive therapy. I was briefly in counseling about three years ago and there are a lot of things that I believe should have been addressed but were not. These were things like finding a new direction in my life, dealing with severe disappointment and feelings of failure that were caused by someone else’s actions. Perhaps this is more a statement about the quality of the therapist I was seeing, but I felt like the only things that were being addressed were my present circumstances, not my past and certainly not the direction of my future. Cognitive therapy did nothing to empower me over the problem that had paralyzed my life. When I was taking fundamental counseling classes I felt those same limitations again.
So why am I studying storytelling here at ETSU rather than finishing my degree in Family and Marriage Therapy? My professor, Dr. Morris said to us on the first day of class that every person had a story to tell and that their story was really what was of primary interest in counseling. (I am thinking about e-mailing him to ask if he knows anything about Narrative therapy because I feel like it would be right up his alley.) That statement is the primary reason why I wanted to become a counselor. I believe that everyone does have a story and that in that story is the key to understanding them and helping them.
However, that still doesn’t answer the question. To answer the question you have to back up about six months of my life to the first play I was ever in. I had never done Theatre until I transferred to a different school and I was living with my younger sister, a theatre major. She convinced me to audition for a production of The Yellow Wallpaper and I somehow got a lead role. I had been in counseling because of a very messy relationship that ended in a painful breakup, instead of a marriage, as had been expected. When I was acting in Wallpaper I knew that the woman I was portraying could have been me very easily in the sense that I came very close to having a nervous breakdown. By telling her story I was able to recognize the value of my experience and how very capable I was- much more than I had previously believed. I started to look at my own story as more than “The Summer Michael Left Me.” Instead I started to look for the context of my life, the way I had to do with the character I played. In that context I saw why I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, and I started to see the life I wanted to live.
So why storytelling? Well, that goes back to the summer I was twelve and I saw a storyteller, but it isn’t that integral to this paper. The point is that I started to realize that I didn’t want the responsibility of being a counselor as much as I wanted to help people by telling them stories. People respond to stories much the way I responded to the story I was telling in that play. By understanding other people better, we begin to understand ourselves. Stories unite and demonstrate in ways that other modes of expression don’t seem to be able to touch.
When you tell a story to a crowd of people they take that story with them, and some of them may connect with one small part of the story and learn some small thing about themselves- or maybe even a lot about themselves. You never know the impact of a story. Telling a story can bear with it great responsibility, but also great opportunity for growth and outreach. That is why I tell. Because one story did for me what cognitive therapy was unable and unprepared to do for me.