13/10/2014 09:54 BST | Updated 11/12/2014 05:59 GMT

The Stories We Live By


We tell stories. Sometimes they're short, forgettable flash fiction accounts of how our morning went, or what we had for lunch and where we had it. But there are other stories we tell that we define ourselves with. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, we've usually told them a little of our childhood, of our job and what it entails, or we are entertaining them with mischief we once got away with. When we do this then, we're defining ourselves with those stories, we're saying that those moments are us.

But what if the only stories we find ourselves wanting to tell are all the bad ones? Isn't there more to us than a difficult childhood, a hard break-up, our unemployment or our seemingly perpetual loneliness?

My sessions of talk therapy back at university helped my story telling. Every week, I'd walk through one of the colleges, past the restaurant where students were sitting and laughing with each other, past the duck pond where the college cat was watching hungrily from behind the bushes, to a door tucked away behind a wall -- Counselling. I'd push it open, hoping no one saw where my short journey was headed, and sit down in the waiting room, listening to the radio that sat amongst the magazines. In those weeks, I successfully avoided eye contact with members of staff, student union reps and fellow students -- none of whom I'd ever imagined I'd see in this place.

"Joel?" She'd round the corner and ask, "Would you like to come through?" Fighting the reluctancy to follow, I would. We'd sit down, opposite one another, and then the silence would start. It was my job to begin, Once upon a time...

I told her all my big stories, the ones that rested on my shoulders wherever I went, in the first few weeks. These were the ones I'd usually squeeze into a single conversation, maybe two, with anyone who would listen. I'd do it with a smile and I'd make it sound like a joke, but I wasn't joking really. Those family fights, that restrictive religion, the loneliness, the time my dog was put to sleep, the most recent break up and the fear I had that I'd lost my closest friends in the process. She listened to them all, with great interest, care and compassion. One even made her cry for a moment.

And we worked through them, we discussed what those moments in my life had meant and how I had felt, deep down, on a basic binary code of happy or sad (which is helpful, by the way). She simplified the bad stories, the ones I'd been kept awake by every night, the ones I couldn't make sense of, into narratives I could understand. Most importantly, she explained it was okay to be sad, to be angry, to be scared, there was no right or wrong to a mere emotion. If it is a tragedy, you're allowed to want to cry.

The sessions lasted only six weeks every academic year and so I took another six when September rolled around. It was much of the same, but with more telling of the small ones rather than big ones. And by the end of twelve sessions of having the characters, the themes, the motifs, the beginning, the middle and the ends, all being laid bare, explained and re-explained, had it really changed anything?

In that last session, I came the closest to shedding a tear I had so far when I thanked her, "I don't have to tell the bad stories any more."

We never really stop defining ourselves with our history, it's natural. It's when all we see, all we remember, is the sadness, the pain -- that's when it becomes a problem. Because you are more than your failed relationships, more than the way the bullies made you feel, more than the low grades or the low pay; more than the loneliness, more than the fear, the confusion, the harm and the self-harm. You're the protagonist of the stories no one else can tell.

Sad stories need to be told, they explain and they heal, but they don't have to be the big stories that you live by -- instead, they are ones you lived through. And you do get through it, you can, that's the point, that's the really big story.

It goes without saying, you do not need a waiting room or a counsellor in front of you. If you need to just let it out, there are people who are there to listen. To name only a couple: