Posts tagged Miscellanious
A Voice for the Vulnerable

Elaine Scarry, Harvard English professor and advocate for narrative medicine, said: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”

We can never truly know what someone else’s pain feels like, or truly understand another’s experience with illness or injury.  But we are mistaken if we think that this gives us reason not to try.

As two sophomore Nursing majors and Medical Humanities minors at Boston College, we feel a personal responsibility to give voice to stories of pain—including the suffering associated with physical, emotional, and mental illness and stress we have heard from our peers. We also feel called to elicit and validate the stories of pain which haven’t yet been told. Many suffer silently every day on campus, and our hope is to provide space for these people to share their stories and thus feel less isolated.

“Underheard HSC” (@underheard_hsc), the Instagram account we’ve launched, is dedicated to sharing anonymous short health stories and art pieces by and from college students. It aims to make stories of illness, disability, and loss in college more accessible to the students facing these challenges, to encourage those who aren’t naturally inclined to write about their experiences to share their stories, and to help those who haven’t experienced such challenges to join in conversations about health and illness with those around them.

In college, there is great stigma around diseases or injuries that are considered unusual in our age group. We are expected to be young, strong, and resilient to whatever comes our way. This presumption of healthiness makes it challenging for those who undergo debilitating illnesses to express themselves. When these experiences are under-discussed, it leads to misunderstandings about the reality of being sick, and about how to best respond to and care for those around us who are experiencing these challenges. For this reason, we are particularly interested in reaching college students through our work as interns at Health Story Collaborative.

Our hope is that Underheard HSC becomes a space where young people feel less alone in their pain and comfortable enough to submit quotes or short stories about their own health.

Each of us has or will deal with health challenges in our lifetime. It’s time to start talking about it.  By taking the time to listen to and express care for the stories of our peers, we will not only be showing them kindness, but we will also begin to make space for a kind of storytelling which can lead to emotional healing. Our greatest ambition is to inspire better communication and deeper human connection. We hope that this platform welcomes students to share and serves to validate and honor every health story.

Supporting unique projects and starting new conversations can sometimes be scary, but the barriers to discussing the difficulties of illness which we have comfortably hidden behind until now are the very reason we must take a leap and open our minds to the infinite stories of illness and pain existing around us.  Please join us in taking a small but important step in showing our peers that we care: follow @underheard_hsc on Instagram.

For questions or to submit a story, please email Evelyn and Heena at hscinterns@gmail.com.

Heena Nissaraly is a sophomore at Boston College majoring in Nursing and minoring in Medical Humanities. She aims to become an empathic nurse specialized in anesthesia or hospice care, and hopes to eventually improve healthcare in Madagascar.

Evelyn Caty is a sophomore at Boston College majoring in Nursing and minoring in Medical Humanities.  She discovered for herself the utter inexpressibility of pain when she suffered from undiagnosed back pain for many years, and she hopes to use this knowledge to encourage her peers struggling with health challenges to begin healing through the telling of their own stories. She, too, hopes to use her passion for the medical humanities and for storytelling to become a compassionate and effective nurse.

How Stories Transform Our Lives: A Conversation with Lani Peterson

Lani Peterson, Psy.D.

Director, City Mission's Public Voice

By Val Walker

Everywhere we look, it seems too many people insist on having the last word—on TV (the election campaigns, the pundits and experts), on Facebook, at our office meetings, at our kitchen tables. We all know how it feels to be trying to tell our story, but some “listeners” must have the last word. Those last-word conversationalists take our message and turn it into theirs. They usurp the meaning of our message before we can even finish our story. We not only feel unheard and unvalued, but downright robbed. We may have cynically concluded we’re living in a last-word culture, so we’re forced to be last-word conversationalists ourselves to survive these days.

This last-word problem has been bugging me, particularly this election year. But thankfully, contributing to Health Story Collaborative has become a way to proclaim the sanctity of telling our stories and having fruitful conversations-- free from last-word conversationalists. Through Health Story Collaborative, I’m fired up about the transformative connection between storyteller and story listener when we go beyond having the last word.

To add a fresh perspective on the topic of going beyond the last word, we’ve invited Lani Peterson to weigh in on how sharing each other’s stories—the telling and the listening-- creates meaning for our lives. We are pleased she could join us.

Lani is a psychologist, professional storyteller and coach who specializes in the use of story as a healing art and powerful medium for personal growth, connection and change. Drawing on her broad and varied experience with individuals, teams and organizations in the profit and nonprofit worlds, Lani brings a unique combination of personal stories, knowledge of the theory behind stories, and vast experience helping people use stories to transform their understanding of themselves and others.

Lani is currently the director of City Mission’s Public Voice, currently working with Boston’s homeless to tell their stories for healing and social change.

Lani's professional training includes a Doctorate in Psychology from William James University, and a Masters in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University. She is a member of the National Speakers Association, the National Storytelling Network, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Healing Story Alliance, which she recently chaired for five years.

Perched on a green velvet sofa in Lani's sunny living room in Cambridge, I enjoyed our lively, two-hour conversation chock-full of aha!-moments and astute observations. My mug of coffee was left untouched on her table, as her stories and insights so intrigued me.

I’d like to share the highlights of the experiences that have transformed Lani’s life as well as the lives of the many people she has touched through her work.  To do justice to her wisdom, I’m presenting her “answers” to my questions as inspired stories in their own right.

When did you know in your bones that your calling was storytelling?

Lani: Living in Philadelphia in the 90s, I was a psychologist as well as the mother of four young children under the age of six, two of whom were adopted. Trying to balance both my career and family, I worked for a time as a community outreach worker presenting talks on parenting to a wide variety of groups.  Although I had completed my doctorate in psychology and was licensed to practice therapy in three states, I had put my private practice on hold. I had worked with clients for nearly ten years, but still wrestled with doubts about whether I had enough knowledge, training or skill to truly help another heal.  Self-doubt caused me to relentlessly pursue more reading, training and learning about what practices led to healing, but ironically, the more I learned, the more I doubted my own skill as a healer. Teaching (while simultaneously learning!) parenting skills seemed like the perfect safe road to follow while figuring out what I wanted to do when both my children and I grew up.

One evening, I was invited to speak to an audience of 300 parents on the topic, “Children and Self-Esteem.” So there I was in front of this huge room full of people, telling parents about how to foster self-esteem in their children, all the while not clear in my own gut that I had the right stuff myself.

I plowed through my prepared material anyway, and as I concluded my lecture, I invited the audience to ask questions. After many practical questions about child discipline, one woman bravely spoke up and shared some of her story before asking a question. She had come to the US from India after her husband died, hoping to give her son a better life. But sadly, her son was being bullied at school, and she felt helpless to do anything about this. “Do I stay here, or should I go back to India?” she implored. It seemed the whole room felt her confusion and despair.

I knew I had to say something, offer something to her, but none of the theory or literature I had on the subject felt relevant. Somehow, a story came to mind from a much younger time in my own life. Before I started, I let her know, “I don’t know yet why I need to tell you this story, so do with it what you will.” I told her about a time when I was a student at Smith College, and  asked to fill in at the last minute to do an interview with the famous poet, Maya Angelou. My roommate, who was scheduled to do the interview, had come down with the flu and asked me to step in in her place. She handed me a list of questions to ask and sent me off. After hearing Maya Angelou speak and share her poetry, all the questions I had with me felt meaningless. So when I finally sat down with Maya Angelou after her performance to interview her, I spoke instead about my own feelings of being lost and confused, seeking out whatever comfort and wisdom she might offer me. Maya took my hand, and said, “Let me tell you right now, dear, there isn’t one right path. It’s all about how you walk on the path you’re on. So, if you fall into a hole, let yourself grieve and cry, and when you climb back out—and you will—you can find your way to dance again.”

As I told my own story of being lost and confused to this woman standing alone in the audience, it felt like we were in a trance, in a deep, one-to-one connection, although the room was filled with 300 people. When finished speaking, I simply uttered, “That’s all I know.”  The woman, appearing moved by Maya Angelou’s message, simply said, “Thank you. It is enough.” I watched as the woman left the auditorium that night surrounded by a group of other audience members who appeared to be reaching out to her. I realized that something profound had happened. I realized the act of telling one’s story as well as the act of listening to stories was indeed more than enough to support one on the healing journey. That moment of profound connection between teller and listener provided a revelation for me both professionally and personally: Through stories we can courageously share our vulnerabilities, understand the truth of our experiences, and create new meanings for those experiences. It was a new way of understanding how insight, understanding, and healing could occur.

For me, it was also the moment when I discovered my calling.

What a moment that was, Lani, a moment of truth if there ever was one. And now, as the person interviewing you, your story about interviewing Maya Angelou certainly speaks to me. There are so many layers to any story, and each time we share it with a different person or group, we find a different meaning or takeaway from it. This leads me to ask you, on a deeper level, what happens between the storyteller and the story listener?

Lani:  First of all, we’re all story listeners, even when we hear our own stories. When we speak out loud, our words enter a different part of our brain, the auditory part of our brain, the part of our brain that listens, so we are hearing ourselves in a very different way than when we think only to ourselves. We become a listener to our own story, enabling us to take a different perspective, gain insight and perhaps discover new meaning in what we have said.

That’s so true, Lani. Maybe that’s why I talk to myself so much when I’m alone! And as a writer, I can see why reading my stuff out loud helps me make sense out of all those words.

Lani:  Yes, we can get perspective on the stories we are creating in our heads when we say them out loud, and even more so when we hear other people’s reactions to them. People can get stuck in the stories that they keep locked inside their heads, plus they convince themselves that there is only one particular meaning to their story. Life is far too complex for anyone’s story to be held hostage to only one meaning.

And because we’re all both storytellers and story listeners, we have the potential and ability to free each other from being limited to any one meaning, especially if it is a meaning that brings us pain, limits our potential or keeps us distant from those we love.

Furthermore, when we are able to find new meanings in our stories, we are using additional neural pathways in our brains. In short, by finding alternative meanings in our stories, we can continuously revise and increase our neural paths. Ultimately, healing comes from expanding our relationships to our stories, seeing how our own judgment and self-concept contained in stuck stories might have been holding us back. 

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You’ve worked with so many groups with various socio-economic and cultural differences, and with marginalized people—all with extremely different judgments, self-concepts, beliefs and values. You're enormously accomplished with bringing people together through storytelling and story listening, especially to be advocates for social justice.

Lani: I worked with City Mission Boston to create The Public Voice Project. Although the program was originally created to help recently released prisoners learn public speaking skills to address issues related to reforming the CORI Laws, I found that examining and telling their personal stories led to huge change and growth amongst the participants. I watched how people could be transformed by building trust over the weeks and opening to explore their more difficult stories. They wrestled with shame and self-blame to gain insight into how their past story came into being, and through that process find self-compassion and compassion for each other. They moved from seeing themselves as either victims or perpetrators, to now being the hero of their story. It was incredibly empowering and healing to own their stories and take responsibility for how they wanted to live the next chapter of their lives.

Since 2004, Public Voice storytelling programs have evolved to train both men and women who have been previously incarcerated, youth at risk, homeless or victims of social inequity. Our storytelling graduates have gone on to speak to lawyers, congressman, churches and schools. The speakers are able to see firsthand how their stories can make a difference in the lives of others, or bring about change within the community through putting a human face on the issues, raising awareness and motivation to get involved in social change efforts.

 Some questions we explore in our storytelling groups include:

  • Who are you in your story?

  • What have been your challenges and obstacles? Who has helped you? What are the inner resources, skills and strengths  you have relied on to get you through the hard times?

  • How does your story guide you in your life?  Does your current rendition of your story sustain you or constrain you as you try to move forward in your life?

  •  Who needs to hear your story?

  • How can you help your audience both hear and understand your story?

  • What changes (both internally as well as for others) would you like to see happen as a result of telling your story?

  • By reaching out and sharing stories with the wider community, not only do participants see that they matter, but they begin to trust that they matter no matter what.

You’ve also worked with healthcare facilities conducting storytelling workshops for providers, patients and families.

Lani: I have brought my story work into several hospital settings, including Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Medical Center, The Greater Baltimore Medical Center and most recently, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY. At the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, I facilitated a story-listening workshop with chaplains, delivered a lunch time lecture on story listening for their medical personnel, as well as worked with the staff who run their Life Recorded Program which had been initially developed by Story Corp. The focus of the Life Recorded Program is to elicit and capture the stories that help patients remember who they are beyond their illness, beyond their identity as a sick person or as a sick person’s caregiver. Additionally, Roswell Park supported a healing retreat for cancer survivors and their caregivers to explore their healing journey towards wellness. Over a hundred patients gathered together for a full day of story sharing. Using Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey model, they shared their stories of:

  • Who was I before I became sick?

  • What have been some of the hardest moments and how did I get through them?

  • Who helped me that I didn’t expect?

  • Who did I think would help, but they couldn’t be there for me?

  • What have been the external resources I have relied upon to get me through?

  • What have been the internal resources I have discovered about myself through coping with the hardships on this journey?

  • Who do I want to thank?

  • Who do I need to forgive?

  • Who do I need to ask forgiveness from?

  • What I am grateful for?

Within my workshops I encourage participants to look at their stories from all different angles, not trying to change their story, but to expand it such that it can hold more of themselves. Patient stories are about so much more than coping with illness; they are about their identity and sense of belonging in the world. Doctors and nurses are dedicated to curing disease, but healing can happen without a cure. Healing is often connected to the stories we (and others) tell about ourselves. The wonderful thing is that we have so much control over that. Whether someone is challenged by an illness, recovering from a trauma, or coping with a loss, the stories we tell about our experiences and the meaning we make of it can be the beginning of reclaiming our lives.

Have you also worked with doctors?

Lani: At UMass Medical Center in Worcester, I consulted with a group of physicians and researchers studying the impact of storytelling on health equity disparity (CHEIR). They were interested in exploring the ways that hearing stories of positive medical intervention could increase the trust in minority communities to engage medical help or follow through on medical recommendations.  Although the researchers understood that story could be an important factor in gaining patient trust, they were in need of support to help successful patients convey their stories in a way that could captivate and inspire others. So, essentially I was hired as a story coach to teach storytelling skills to patients as well as to the physicians and researchers. These stories have since been captured on video and disseminated on radio and television throughout the community. New patients are now being screened to see if the stories they heard had an impact on their decision to pursue or follow through on medical treatment.

Patient’s challenges, seen through their stories of their cultural and social predicaments, not only encouraged other people struggling with symptoms to seek out medical help, but also helped doctors to communicate with their patients with more patience and empathy. One of the things that I am most excited about, is that researchers are also beginning to explore the impact of storytelling on the storyteller.  What does it mean to share your story with another, knowing that it could perhaps ease their medical challenge, if not even save their life? How does that change how one feels about themselves as the storyteller? Sharing stories is not a one-way process. Both the teller and listener can benefit from the interaction.

Something that’s been on my mind: How does living in the digital age affect how often or how deeply we share our stories? How much do you think our digital world is affecting us?

Lani: I remember that even when I was a little girl sitting at the dinner table back in the 1960s, the TV was on with the evening news blaring across the room. Media and its ability to steal attention from relationships is not something new. Over the past several decades, we’ve all gradually grown accustomed to letting media direct our lives, leading to distraction, multi-tasking, short attention spans.

There are well-documented accounts of the rise of addiction in the indigenous populations in Alaska during the 60s and 70s when family storytelling traditions were replaced by television. As children no longer sat through long evenings listening to the stories of their elders, certain life lessons and values were no longer handed down. The effects were not felt for years, but  researchers now make connections between the decline in family storytelling and loss of family cohesion. But fortunately for all of us, storytelling has been making a comeback.  Not only for children, but people of all ages are being encouraged to tell their stories as well as listen to the stories of others. Story Corps and the Moth are good examples of how storytelling is re-entering our culture, leading people to take a deeper interest in listening to each other’s stories as opposed to interacting with a device.

One of the problems is that social media tends to lack the depth of story that nurtures us. Facebook certainly seduces us with story, but these stories are often void of depth, values, or learning, causing them to lack the nourishment that stories can give us. It’s sort of like junk food—an addictive junk story to fill us for a while, but we feel hungry again very soon.

Yes, Lani, I’m glad you said that a story needs depth, needs the time for the whole story to unfold. I admit it’s the depth that I miss so much in my conversations these days with friends and loved ones. I just wish we had more time for sharing our stories, and finding more meaning from them—together.

Lani: I hope you can advocate for making the time to share stories more deeply.

I certainly will. In my work with elders as an activities specialist at assisted living communities, I’ll be thinking about you when I lead discussion groups and storytelling sessions. You’ve already motivated me to be a better story listener—a deeper story listener. Thanks so much for your time, your generosity, and your wisdom.

Afterthoughts: Lani’s Beautiful Takeaways

Four of Lani’s quotes were so helpful and wise that I couldn’t resist doing a quick recap of her stand-outs. These takeaways are worth savoring on their own:

“Life is far too complex for anyone’s story to be held hostage to only one meaning.”

“Healing comes from expanding our stories so we can find more than one meaning in them. We can see how our own judgment and self-concept has locked us into one meaning that might be holding us back.”

“By reaching out to the wider community, not only do we see that we matter, but we begin to trust that we matter no matter what.”

“When we own our story, when we are accountable for it, we don’t need to isolate ourselves with it, but we can go out into the world with it. This story has helped me, and it can help you. It’s not a one-way process to tell our stories.”

Resources

Lani Peterson's site

Boston City Mission

CHEIR at UMass Medical Center in Worcester

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Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com

Scabs

Your scabs are elegant because they are outward signs of you mending and regenerating, creating soft new skin without even thinking about it. While you’re busy being angry about your inability to finish a task for work or dreading calling  someone back, while you’re regretting the choice you made last month, without even knowing it, you’re subconsciously reconstructing yourself, and your ‘big’ worries are trivialities compared to your body’s own constant maintenance of what is vital, what keeps you alive.

I’m not going to tell you to find someone to hold your hand even when it’s callused or scabbed. You’ve already been told that, and that doesn’t mean it always goes well, or will provide what you need. Instead, I’m going to tell you to learn to respect your own scabs, to find elegance and utility in the way your calluses grip your coffee mug. To not think twice before wearing shorts when there are chain grease stripes, scabs and bruises on your legs.

It’s far too easy to fear someone else’s split-second judgment about your scars or calluses or the shape of your muscles. But, while someone else may shake your hand for five seconds, you wear and carry it always. You are the one who watches your

fingers nimbly hop the keys of your keyboard as you type, lift the spoon in your breakfast each morning, and gently comb out your hair each night. As you work to modify yourself with your mind, recall that your body is doing the same, and respect it. Respect your scabs.

Annie Harvieux is a senior at Harvard College, where she is an English major.