01 June 2016

Telling Stories and Telling Lies



While waiting for my shrink the other day, I ran across this story in Psychology Today and found it fascinating for many reasons: Rewrite Your Life

It begins with one of the authors (Susan Gregory Thomas) learning her biracial daughter has been bullied in school in Philadelphia. Her daughter has been an emotional mess and when mom finds out, she goes into full momma bear mode. She gets on the phone and gives the school administrators hell. This leads to a meeting with the administrators.

What struck me was what happened when the school pressed the child for names and instances, which is what they all do. It seems that the young lady was, perhaps, very afraid to do that. Then this happens:

I asked them to withdraw so I could talk to my daughter alone for a moment. There she sat, crumpled, shaking, terrified of retribution. But if she did or said nothing, those past few months would stay forever lodged, ruinously, in her psyche (emphasis mine). She needed a victory, to feel her own power. So I put it to her: Today, she, an ordinary girl, could decide to be a hero and change the story for every nonwhite student at that school forever. And she did.

And voila! Her daughter triumphed, gained insight, resiliency and compassion as well.

A happy ending.

And, indeed, I am happy for her.

You know there’s a however coming, don’t you?

Most kids don’t have high-powered, articulate parents who can shake a school like Ms. Thomas. The vast majority of bullied kids continue to be bullied for many reasons. Their parents might not care or see it as a ‘character building’ challenge for their kids. The school administrators, forever seeking to hide bad PR or lawsuits, stonewall parents. Some kids are just not believed by either side. And some of these kids land up dead by their own hand. 

The rest of the article talks about the need to use reframing to turn personal disasters into personal triumphs. This is nothing new but the way the technique is being applied here is more comprehensive than before and outside the realm of formal psychotherapy. 

This is a major reason I’m writing this blog and countless other mental health bloggers write theirs. In my case, I would refer to this as more of a psychological memoir than anything because I’m trying to employ these reframing tactics after decades of firmly imprinted negative coping mechanisms.
The article discusses this problem very well:

"I like to think of story editing as catching people at the early stage of the game, before psychotherapy is called for," (University of Virginia social psychologist Tim) Wilson says. "If we're dealing with someone who's been living with a negative story for years, these tweaks might not work (emphasis mine)." 

What if my daughter had decided against ever standing up to the bullying she experienced? What if she had kept the racist taunts a secret? What would have happened if she instead internalized it and folded it into her sense of self and identity? Potentially, very bad things.

Very bad things, I can tell you.

Just one example: kids seem hard-wired, at least early on, as having a very strong sense of justice. Our culture generally destroys that sense as time goes by as we’re taught to celebrate the unfairness of the world. Most of us (thankfully not all) give up on justice.

When I was a kid, I had a stronger sense of justice perhaps than most. I was placed by my public school teacher mother (another story) into a Catholic grade school that was carved out of a convent. All my teachers from K-8 were habited nuns – the Sisters of Notre Dame. They wore shiny black habits that, for all I know may have come from Hugo Boss. My parents were the second from the bottom on the well-to-do parents list as I was surrounded by the children of professionals and businesspeople.

The nuns treated the children according to who their parents were and how much money/time they gave to the school. They weren’t subtle about it and I was painfully aware of the fact early on. 

By fourth grade, using my mom’s public school teachers’ union activism as inspiration, I began to speak out about what I was experiencing. 

This did not sit well with my teacher, Sister Mary Helen Louise.

One day she saw my dad waiting in the parking lot to take me home. She came over and filled his ear with tales of my ‘willfulness.’

Let me state for the record here, after 40+ years, that she was full of shit.

That felt good.

What didn’t feel good was my father almost giving me a beating in the car. He probably would have if there hadn’t been so many witnesses. 

Literally cowering in my seat, I tried telling my side of the story, thinking my father would surely give me a fair hearing. 

Um, no.

“ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT NUN IS A LIAR,” dad thundered.

Um, no.

During the ride, I prayed (as the nuns taught) that he wouldn’t beat me when we got home. I think my cringing whimpered apologies saved me that day.

And I learned that life was not only unfair, it was often profoundly so. I also learned that adults were not interested in hearing truth from children and that if no one believed you, there was no point in standing up for what was right.

This was the story that repeated itself like an endless tape loop in my head for decades.

From the article:  "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion famously observed in The White Album, and we live "by the imposition of a narrative line, upon disparate images" because of a critical need "to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
 
 And some of us have to tell ourselves a thousand little lies every day in order to live with our formative experiences. I don’t know about “shifting phantasmagoria” but I know where nightmares can come from.

It was during the fourth grade that I became severely OCD and literally shook myself to pieces every night with my elaborate counting and checking the room rituals. 

One never knew where and when danger would pop out so a kid clings to whatever he believes may provide deliverance, even if it is groundless superstition.

Because of my timidity, when I fought authority later in life, not only did authority always win, it did a victory lap.

Every authority figure in my life became my father. Every voice in my head that told me I couldn’t accomplish a goal was a nun (or, sadly, my mother). I struggled to prove I was worthy and, if successful, later self-destructed.

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So, is there a happy ending? 

Not completely. Not yet.

I took my cue on how to be a good father by doing the exact opposite of what my dad did with me (with some regrettable exceptions). 

By remembering how I felt at school, I gradually became more of an empathetic, patient and decent human being – although I still have a long way to go.

It’s a chicken-egg thing whether my mental conditions, which manifested early in life, were caused or, more likely, exacerbated by my experiences growing up. 

Some people carry baggage. I’ve been carrying steam trunks, chained to me as though I was Jacob Marley. After over 40 years, I’ve got to find a way to lay them down. 

For those of us who remember the pain but have never quit – this blog is for all of us –the ones who didn’t have a Susan Gregory Thomas as a parent.