Human’s are interpretative creatures which means as we move through our lives we create meaning. This steady accumulation of meaning, is articulated to us, the protagonists, in the form of stories. We have a host of stories about ourselves. A story about our relationships. A story about our work. A story about our time at school. The stories we tell ourselves come to define who we think we are. For myself, and for many other people who have struggled with stammering, the lens through which we have viewed experience has been unforgiving. The Stammer ends up the centre piece, a key character in a host of vivid and impoverishing stories – what narrative therapists might deem a ‘problem saturated narrative’. From the short story of our appearance on stage in a school play, to the ongoing story of our interactions at work, this narrative commands us, in some ways it defines us and governs our thoughts, actions and aspirations.
Narrative therapy looks at stories. Born in reaction to medicine’s empirical and instrumental lens, it looks to address issues of meaning, subjectivity, power and ethics in the lives of those it helps. Narrative therapists study how language and meaning, which are largely inherited from our social and cultural environments, help forge our interpretation of our lives. They help clients by ‘enabling them to separate their lives and relationships from those knowledges and stories that they judge to be impoverishing, assisting them to challenge the ways of life that they find subjugating, and encouraging persons to re-author their own lives according to alternative and preferred stories of identity, and according to preferred ways of life’. It has been used in a variety of fields including therapy for alcoholism, eating disorders and child and adolescent mental health problems.
In some senses I stumbled across narrative therapy, but in other ways, I had been walking towards it for a long time. In my third year as a medical student, my studies involved a project on the use of the arts and humanities in health-care. I read that narrative therapy had been used in a number of disciplines, and I came across a few papers exploring how writing, reflecting and creating in the context of narrative therapy can help people who stammer. I had been interested in the post-modern, post-structural approach found in narrative therapy for a long time. I wrote a dissertation for a Global Health degree critiquing medical and psychiatric methods, with a particular focus on discourse and language as a mechanism of cultural oppression. I knew that at the heart of this dissertation was an anger at how stammering had been managed by the medical profession. I had been barking up a tree for a long time, and narrative therapy told me what the tree was and gave me the tools to climb it.
My experience of narrative therapy was not a normal one. I did not work with a therapist – my experience of it lay in reading papers, understanding the theory, having an affinity for reflection and being deeply motivated. My approach consisted of using a diary to reflect on my own experience, before employing some of the techniques proposed by narrative therapists. A technique like ‘deconstruction’ allowed me to be critical of the stories I told, uncovering hidden biases and the loaded meanings in terms I used. ‘Thickening’ allowed me to add vibrant detail to stories that held particular importance to me, that represented a New Approach that encapsulated the ideals I valued.
The narrative approach for me did not stand alone as a process for change. Simultaneously, I was attending the well renowned stammering course at City-Lit, London. My reflective diary served to accentuate the internal shifts happening within me as a result of the experiences I had on the course. The power of using narrative should not be underestimated. Without an awareness and appreciation of those internal shifts, how impactful and longstanding would they have been? The repeated journeying from mind to pen and paper, created a space for decision and action, bringing clarity on what I wanted and the values I cherished. It created a space for consolidation; fantastic terms like ‘creating a stammering aesthetic’ and ‘civil disobedience’ – terms I discovered at the BSA conference, were now inscribed into my bones.
I cannot hold up any proof that narrative therapy works. I continue to stammer. But there is a little evidence, hidden away, naturally, in the narrative of my life. In July 2016 I wrote to the medical school wanting to drop out – fed up with my speaking, exhausted by its demands. In the September following the City-Lit course, I gave a speech at the BSA conference in Manchester on my experience with narrative therapy. Later that month I spoke with Ed Balls on BBC Radio North about stammering. I continue to attend a person-centred group in Manchester every month, which provides a personal insight into a way of being that has long been alien to me. It became clear to me that this steady accumulation of new narrative – filled with positive, proactive and empowering stories – was starting to precipitate in my life, in the choices I made, the conversations I had, the people I’d meet. My life’s path had veered vehemently towards congruence – relinquishing impossible ideals, and creating a life that suited me.
What have the lasting effects of narrative therapy been? Bringing my experience and subjectivity to the forefront of my mind was a serious deviation from my traditional medical school training. I had dealt in facts and figures all my life, but suddenly I learnt that my subjective experience of living can matter just as much as what materially happens. Bringing a magnifying glass over my stories has shone a light on my voice. I discovered that I have a voice. A voice! A simple but monumental realisation. At City-Lit we were taught to use ‘I’ when we talked about stammering. I was struck by how many people, myself included, struggled with this, using an impersonal ‘you’ or ‘it’. Owning our own stories, developing a voice, gives us power. The power of choice; freedom to choose what we want, stammering related or unrelated. Only people who have felt a slave to stammering will understand how liberating this realisation was for me.
It seems to me there is a tension between social and individual therapeutic approaches to stammering. An individual approach risks pathologising a person and reinforcing the negative stereotypes set by normalising medical and societal standards. The social approach risks pointing the finger at the world and willing it to change – an ideal approach but not a short term and pragmatic solution. Narrative therapy seems perhaps a more helpful marriage of the two. Narrative therapy has an individual approach, facilitating individual change. However, there is a focus directed outwards at the social, empowering individuals to be liberated from dominant societal understandings, to select systems of knowledge that nourish and support rather than scourge and subordinate. In doing so it brings a locus of control to the individual without oppressing people and assigning blame.
For those interested in narrative therapy I can only recommend what I have done. Read scientific papers if you have access (many I have included are in an accessible pdf format). Bring both a reflective and focussed mind. Like any therapeutic change, motivation, focus and a willingness to engage and take risks, are absolutely necessary. Begin writing today! Let the chapters build and soon perhaps you’ll have a book!
- https://www.pdpseminars.com.au/images/NARRATIVE_-_2016.pdf 7
- (Tina) Besley (2002) Foucault and the turn to narrative therapy, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 30:2, 125-143
- Weingarten, K., 1998. The small and the ordinary: The daily practice of a postmodern narrative therapy. Family Process, 37 (1), 3-15.