I have recently been at a conference talking about the work of Here/Hear. And when I’m at conferences, people naturally come up to us and talk about their experiences with mental illness, their loved ones experience with mental illness, and the like. They tell us their stories and I love to hear them. I love to sit and listen to people tell their stories.

The reason that I love to hear stories is that it is empowering for the person who is telling the story. There is something empowering about sharing one’s story with another human being and seeing that person react. When we are in places where our stories are important we feel better about ourselves and who we are. 

Let me give an example.

Here/Hear develops support groups called “Here/Hear Groups” for people. I am in such a group and we have had people in that group who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, including bipolar, borderline personality disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and schizo-affective disorder, among others. In that group, it is important to tell our stories and be honest. It is a safe space where there is no judgment and people can speak openly about their experiences. In this place, in this group, we tell our stories and we encourage each other. It is an empowering place because we are encouraged and built up for who we are and in spite of the illness that we suffer from.

You see, stories have power.

But, there is a limit to stories.

I’ve recently come across the idea that “my story” is something like infallible or inerrant, this idea that no one can question my story or what has happened to me because it is mine. This idea also says that everything that happens to me in my story is ok because it is my story and what brings me to where I am is ok. 

This is not ok, though. Stories cannot be simply rubber-stamped. They cannot just be taken at face value as good because they are “my story.” In doing so, we make it too easy to stay static in our own lives and not try to expand our story, not try to better our story, not try to overcome the terribleness of our story.

Let me share an example.

About 4 years ago, my wife looked at me and said, “I can’t stand to live with you anymore. I don’t know if I can keep doing this.” Her frustration was with the terrible depression and hurt and pain that I was living with and, unforutnately, making everyone around me live with. I responded, “This is just the way that I am. I can’t change anything.” And I said this because I had been on medication for over two years and my depression and pain never got better – it only got worse. And, living in that, I though that was my story. I thought that simply being miserable and dreaming about the ways that I could die was going to be my normal. Up to that point, that was my story.

But, my story changed from that encounter. And I wish that I had gotten help sooner, that I had pushed to see a counselor and a psychiatrist. I wish that I would have entered into recovery from my mental illness earlier. And I realized, my story is not done, it is not over, it is not even just one story. 

You see, my story is not a license to have a life relegated to one of suffering and pain and hurt. There is more to my story than simply what I think there is. And there will be more to my story than I can imagine. My story cannot simply be “my story” because I live with others and interact with others. As well, it cannot be “my story” because I’m not in total control. I do not get to decide what is important to my story because what has happened to me and what haunts me may not even be known by me. For example, my story would have stopped at that moment with my wife, I never would have gone on to discover my bipolar, that life can be lived in recovery, that my mental illness does not have to define everything, etc. And, there is more to that story that I am still finding out.

To end, then, let me encourage you to not let your story limit you. You can be different than your story, more than your story. You can be bigger than your story. You are not your story; you are the interaction of everyone’s stories around you. So, live a good story so that you can be good to others in their story, encourage others. Your story is not the be all end all of your life; it is simply a telling of where you are. Where you will be…that’s the next story. And the next story. And the next……..