“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”

story-book-lettersThere are few things better or more powerful in this world than a good story. The human capacities of communication, creativity and meaning-making allow for the transmission of individual narratives to be collectively experienced through the similarly remarkable capacities of empathy, identification and mirroring. These gifts can certainly be abused when directed in the service of hate or fear, but I am interested at the moment in the positive potential of the process when it invokes feelings of love and communion through the shared experience and recognition of beinghood. Emmanuel Levinas argued that what emerges through this intersubjective face-to-face encounter with the Other provides the basis for ethics, or as he pithily put it, “For others, in spite of myself, from myself.”

That every one of us can both tell and receive stories is a remarkable proposition. We each carry our own personal story and the longer our hearts beat, the more our stories integrate knowledge and experience, hopefully resulting in wisdom. Yet within the Cartesian paradigm, now manifesting through the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, far too often the voices of wisdom are silenced by the privileged beneficiaries of the current system, who cloak their own self-interested rhetoric in the veneer of logic and rationality. Through the institutions at their disposal, they impose their worldview on others, coercing adaptation and assimilation. For the purposes of this piece, my concern here is how this worldview denies the validity of subjectivity, intersubjectivity and interiority, except when it can be commodified, tokenized or otherwise rendered impotent. Such is its insinuation in our lives that even disciplines dedicated to interiority, such as psychology, more often than not constitute colonized terrain.

As stories and the wisdom they contain are necessarily subjective and therefore non-quantifiable, they are deemed dismissible. This is especially enforced when it comes to the stories that need to be heard the most, from those who are marginalized and oppressed. As an inheritor and beneficiary of many of the unearned privileges doled out by the world system, I often reflect on my own positionality as regards to my story and what to do with it. For reasons yet unclear to me, I feel called to write. In the truest sense I feel it is my vocation. And as my appreciation for the power of interiority grows, my writing becomes more informed by my personal experience. There is a desire to both honor the validity of my subjectivity and hold in awareness a reflexive accountability as to my privileges. All the while seeking to maintain humility in knowing that mine is only one flawed, imperfect story among billions.

Developments in recent years have impressed upon me and familiarized me with the impact of stories, in particular stories about recovery. Primarily recovery from substance addiction, but also recovery from crises of trauma, health, existential/spiritual, and “mental illness.” As pertains to addiction, there is growing acknowledgement in the United States as to the severity of the addiction problem and the complete failure of criminalizing addiction as the solution to the issue. (A solution constructed and enforced along racist and classist lines to begin with.) Within recovery circles, there are ongoing discussions between those who advocate the anonymous, 12-Step route of individual recovery and others who feel that people in recovery should more publicly identify as such and organize themselves so as to better assist those struggling with addiction and to impact policy.

The suffering, pain and loss caused by addiction are immense, making the resiliency found in the stories of those who recover all the more profound. Far too many don’t make it. Only a few days ago, I learned of a man I lived with briefly, who, unable to stay sober and facing the loss of his family and job as a result, took his own life. His story was cut short. The finality of his absence contrasts with the images I still hold of him in my mind’s eye, alive and smiling with his nervous energy. I plead with him to stay, to hang on, that it will be ok. But to no avail, for he is already gone.

I can relate to him: as a fellow human; as someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidality; and, because I, too, have the disease of addiction. I have wrestled with whether or not to share those last few words publicly for a long time. Some have counseled caution, there is no taking it back once I hit the “publish” button. Others have told me to trust my gut. I’ve come to the conclusion that the process of getting and staying sober – which involves much more than just abstaining from the use of substances – has been a deeply transformative experience for me. At the same time, to the average reader, the fact of my sobriety should be of little or no relevance. I mention it, then, for two reasons. One being that as it has influenced my worldview, I wish to draw upon it in my future writings, instead of constantly alluding to a vague “sickness” or “illness” as I have previously done. The second, and far more important reason, being that if someone should come across this page who is struggling with substance or mental health issues, I want you to leave here knowing that it can get better and I want you to reach out if you need someone to talk to. The hopelessness, self-hatred, guilt, shame and overwhelming and all-encompassing despair are not permanent.

When I hear others’ stories, I see myself in them. I have had the honor of sharing my story with others and had that same sentiment reflected back to me. When we give of ourselves, we receive in return. In that spirit, I begin to offer this piece of myself. There is much more to unpack, but those stories will be told in due time.

2 thoughts on ““We tell ourselves stories in order to live”

  1. Really good stuff here, I’m glad you are able to start unpacking that part of yourself – as a fellow alcoholic/addict, I respect that you want to share your experience.


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