Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever had:
All I ever had:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.
I get asked to tell my story fairly frequently. About six months ago I spoke at a large event. There was a woman in the room who, coincidentally, had been present the very first time I told my story in recovery, right after my first sober anniversary.
She approached me afterward, reintroduced herself, and remarked that the story I’d just finished sharing was a very different story than the one I’d shared the first time. She said that the first time she heard me speak she walked away thinking about how dark and painful my life had been, but that she didn’t feel that way after hearing me share it three years later. I laughed and wondered aloud if I’d lied the first time. She said, no- that the details were the same, but that the way I told it left her with a different feeling this time.
I kept thinking about why that would be. How the facts could remain the same but the story could be different and have a different impact.
I don’t think it’s so much that my story has changed as it is that the way I understand my story has changed.
I think that’s what redemption looks like. In my friend Matt’s book, Finding God in the Ruins, he reminds us that redemption requires an exchange. You know when you redeem Starbucks Rewards points and in exchange you gain the will to make it through morning traffic or a meeting that should’ve been an email? Like that. You give up something old in return for something new. You exchange one story for another. I think redemption is coming to accept the facts of your life, coming to understand your story differently as a result, and then using your story to help someone.
For my story to be redeemed, I needed to cast off the mantle of shame and in order to do that I needed to organize the facts of my life into a different story – because shame is never a fact. Shame’s a story.
Shame is a prison guard. Its job is to convince us that on the other side of the walls built of our secrets is disconnection. Shame tells us, “If people knew this thing about you, they would leave. They would judge you. They would hate you.” Shame convinces us that our secrets are the only thing keeping us safe, that the real danger lies in speaking our truth.
My God, it is SUCH a LIE.
When you tell your secrets people meet the real you, sometimes for the first time. That’s the path to connection and love. The reason we feel lonely in our shame is that when we are hiding behind secrets our people cannot SEE US.
Every time I have been in despair in my life it has been because I was either fighting a fact or embracing a shame story.
My abuse, my childhood, the demise of my marriage, my alcoholism – all facts I found unacceptable. I railed at the unfairness and desperately tried to negotiate a different past or present for myself. The despair inevitably followed because I was fighting an utterly unwinnable battle.
My inherent unworthiness, my complicity in my abuse, my belief I could drink like a normal person or that I did not deserve love or fidelity – I clung to those stories like a life preserver after a shipwreck, but they weren’t keeping me afloat, they were dragging me under.
We all get dealt a set of difficult facts in life. No one, absolutely no one, escapes this life completely unscathed. Maybe it’s your family of origin, maybe it’s geography, maybe it’s illness, maybe it’s poverty, maybe it’s violence and trauma. Maybe it’s all of the above.
The facts of the story you’ve already lived are fixed so you can’t fix them. Facts are not negotiable and as Wesley in the Princess Bride once said, anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.
The facts are the things that happened. They exist. They are. They can’t be destroyed, they can’t be altered. In particular, our stories of harm are insistent. They won’t be ignored and usually cannot be forgotten. Viola Davis put it beautifully when she said, “Memories demand attention because memories have teeth.” Redemption doesn’t change what happened, it changes how you feel about what happened and what you believe about yourself as a result of what happened.
Redemption feels like a gift, but the reality is, our stories are subject to change if we are willing to do our work. Redemption of stories of harm usually comes on the other side of a hell of a lot of trauma work. I want to be really clear about that. For most people with serious trauma, simply telling your story is not enough. It’s an important piece of healing, certainly, but just one piece.
Trauma physically changes your brain and even that can be healed. A good trauma therapist can also teach you coping mechanisms and grounding techniques so you aren’t held hostage by ghosts. There are things you can do to process your pain, but pretending it doesn’t exist is not one of them.
When women attend our Say It, Survivor workshops they are almost never there because of the facts of their abuse. It’s actually quite rare for someone to delve into the details of their abuse itself. Their enduring pain is nearly always due to the story that has been built around the facts.
What stories were they told about what happened to them? What stories did they tell themselves to make sense of the unimaginable? What stories did society tell them about what their abuse meant?
When I work with survivors we spend a lot of time doing what we call untangling the narrative. What if there are some aspects of your story that you’ve accepted as fact and they’re NOT? What if some of the conclusions you drew based on what happened to you are just plain wrong and you have been dragging around those heavy things for all this time when all you need do is let them go? What if you could travel lighter? Are you willing to consider your current story about your trauma a rough draft?
Pain and trauma are intergenerational. So are stories. The greatest stories in the world, the ones we love and pass down from generation to generation, without exception, have hard, dark chapters. That’s because the stories we gravitate toward usually have something redemptive about them – well, guess what? You don’t get to redemption without pain.
The truth is this- if you want to have a different story, you’re gonna have to write it. You might be thinking that your story, the facts of your life, could never lend themselves to a beautiful story. I felt that way at one point, too.
Let’s do this: Imagine you get an assignment one day. The teacher says, go write a story – the only rule is, you must include this set of plot points – how you do it is up to you.
Here you go:
The main character is a young boy. There’s something different about him. He’s special. The powers that be consider him a threat. He lives in hiding for many years but eventually resurfaces. People are drawn to him and consider him a leader. Forces who are afraid of what he represents galvanize and kill him – but he comes back to life.
I am referring to Harry Potter, of course. Also, Voldemort. Also, Jesus.
It’s all in the story you write. When you come to understand your story differently you can put it to use. You can use the facts of your life to help people feel less alone in their pain and you can use the your redemption of that story to give people hope that they, too, can heal.
The stories I guarded the most closely, the stories I was sure were what rendered me separate and broken and unlovable are my greatest sources of connection now. When I tell those stories people gravitate toward me. When we come to understand our stories differently they become a map for other people and we become a north star. Here is the path. This is what freedom looks like. And that’s all healing is, really. Freedom.
Toni Morrison said, “your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else.” I wish we could just free other people from shame, but the best we can do is shine brightly ourselves and hand out a hell of a lot of maps.
What light can you shed by sharing your dark places? It is time to give your pain purpose.
Time to put work boots on it.
Send it out into the world. Give it a job.