The experience of telling your story: liberation and therapy

Being heard is a fundamental human need. Story telling is a fundamental human drive. One of my favourite items in the British Museum is located close to the main doors, and it didn’t take me long on my entry there to find it and be so entranced that I didn’t really see anything else in my stay there. Every time I go back now I look for the little figure of a pregnant Stone age woman, used as a burial companion, and speculate on the story behind her life that led to that image being used in her grave. Story telling, and validation through communicating something of the elements of our lives, is not a recent phenomenon. But it is one that has proliferated in recent years, through the wide variety of forms in which we can now communicate our stories. The accessibility of video and the You Tube generation is only one marker of this. I’m sure I remember when doing English Literature reading some disparaging remarks made by an early Victorian gentleman on the popularity of diary keeping among young ladies. To deny people access to a means to tell their story is to dismiss the significance of their lives, and to place a value system on the relative importance of experience is clearly a wrong headed approach.

So how does this apply to the field of mental health? Story telling in mental health fields has historically been that of telling the story of ‘the other’. Even some mental health literature written by service users falls into this category, Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan for example is the story of a very mad service user told through the eyes of a service user who is ‘less mad’. Objectification is an almost necessary side effect of telling stories of madness, to tell them in the moment is to be mad at the time, a lot of what we hear is post hoc and on reflection, by necessity the service user is telling the story of how they once were, not how they are now, and as a result there is an element of telling the story of ‘the other’ even in the act of telling the story of oneself.

However, this aside, I would argue that for mental health service users, there is even more of a compulsion to story tell and to be heard outside the confines of the therapy room. Indeed, there is a whole strand of therapy, narrative therapy, which is all about the stories that we tell about ourselves and how to move beyond habitual patterns. First however, the initial stories need to be told. I would argue that it is highly helpful to have them recorded, either on paper, audio recording, or even more potently, film. My experience as a mental health service user film maker is that people I have filmed telling their stories have universally commented on the validating effect of being heard by an interviewer and a camera. Equally, in my experience telling my story on camera, most notably for the Channel 4 series ‘Animated Minds’ and also telling my experience of post partum psychosis for Channel 4 news, I have found that the experience of making an object out of my experience is one that leads me into a position of power in relation to the events that have happened in my life; I am empowered to reflect upon them, to use the experience of recording to effect change in my relationship to them, to utilise them in another way in my life. Even when the experience has not been complete, in that for example not all my rushes are used, or bits are chosen that I wouldn’t choose, or in the case of the interview that I did with writer Abi Morgan on my mental health experience, no screen play emerged, there was still the sense of making my experience useful for other people and thus transformative for myself.

It is this kind of experience that has been a driving factor in my work, and continues to be so in the development of my next project, Mental Snapp. The desire to enable and facilitate others on their story telling journey, to redress the balance between the examined and the examiner, to allow everyone on a mental health journey, no matter how previously disempowered, the privilege of living a life examined, is the driver. And I hope will continue to inspire me and the team we have gathered as partners and co-producers on the journey as we travel hopefully together.

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