This past summer I did something I’ve never done before — I was a participant in group therapy. As a therapist, I’ve developed groups and led groups, but hypocritically I’d never actually been in a group. So that’s what I did. I spent 12 consecutive Monday evenings for two hours with a group of four people and a leader — and I worked on some stuff.
One of the assignments we were given to work on between sessions was to write about a story from our childhood that brought us pain and that we believe is still in some way negatively impacting us.
I wrote about a time in fourth grade when:
I got off the bus at my bus stop, turned to wave goodbye and a boy I liked said to me through the window, “You are fat. You are ugly.” My smile and wave dropped, and I turned away quickly, trying to pretend I hadn’t seen it. But I had seen it. I had felt it. It happened.
I also wrote:
The way I think this story negatively impacts me still today is in my distrust that people actually like me. I think I hold back and cautiously wait to find out how they really feel.
So that is what I’d written for my assignment when I returned to group therapy the following Monday.
“Your assignment tonight,” our leader explained, “is to repeatedly read your story out loud to the rest of us for five minutes. Just keep reading it.”
Yikes. My story was kind of short; I should’ve added some context and descriptor words… this is going to be awkward.
But I did it. I read my painful childhood story out loud to my group for five minutes. The first time through, emotion caught in my throat, and I heard little gasps from my supportive group members. The second time through the emotion was still there but less overt — no choking up. By the tenth time reading this story, I was over it! My painful childhood story was getting a little old! We get it already, he called you fat, it made you sad — let’s move on!
When asked to describe what the process of reading my story out loud to the group was like I told them how repeating it over and over again caused it to lose its power. I still felt sad for my fourth-grade self, but the emotions were less complex than before. It didn’t feel like it had as much control over me as it previously did, back when it was privately stored in my brain just for me to feel and fester over.
“We sure do like our stories,” was our leaders response, and I had a vision of Gollum hunched over The Ring, stroking it and calling it “My Precious.” Yes, we sure do like our stories — even and maybe especially our most painful, our most precious ones.
“Final part of the assignment,” our group leader said, “rewrite the last part, and rather than telling us the negative impact, tell us how this story has positively impacted you. You are who you are today because of your experiences, so who is to say that the positives about you right now don’t come from your painful stories? So how has this story positively shaped the person you have become?”
Whoa… wait a minute. I now have to be thankful for being called fat and ugly? What the heck? I knew this was a mistake, I should have just kept leading groups. I don’t want to do the hard work of being a participant. I don’t want to be thankful for this story. I want to be hurt and damaged and bitter — maybe at best somewhat indifferent — but thankful? No thanks.
Reluctantly and because I’m a pleaser, I did the final part of the assignment. I looked for something positive from my fat and ugly story — something to be thankful for. And once I found it, I actually really believed it.
I guess this experience may have had a part in shaping me to be sensitive towards others, to be more aware of the power of words and our need for encouragement from each other. I think of myself as an encourager, so that may be the good outcome from this experience, the part I can be thankful for.
Ahh, sweet. That felt kind of nice. I think that was good for me.I feel… better!
But what does this have to do with anything really? Why am I writing about this? “Laurie resolves some childhood insecurities about being chubby and comes out thankful on the other side.” Big deal.
The thing is, I couldn’t stop thinking about this exercise. Out of 12 weeks of therapy, this was the part that had the biggest impact on me. Especially what the leader had said about our stories: “We sure do love our stories.”
Oh man, we totally do; I totally do. And I have some good ones. Being the mom of a child with special needs, you rack up painful stories quickly. You don’t have to go looking for them or add exaggerations to the real thing; they’re everywhere and they’re bad.
Some of these stories I keep to myself, stroking them like Gollum with Precious, giving bitterness permission to fester with every retelling in my head. Other stories I whip out in situations when I want a reaction from others of shock or sympathy or rage to give my self-righteousness justification to stick around. Wow, I sure do like my stories.
But, I wondered;
1. Is this healthy for me?
Answer: Probably not.
2. Are there any stories I need to take a second look at, like my fat and ugly fourth grade story, and instead of letting it fester with negativity I should maybe try to find the blessing?
Answer: Yes, probably several — but for sure there is one. One obvious one, the big one. My Precious.
I was 39 weeks pregnant with Julia. Scheduled to be induced on Friday morning. I went in to see my doctor on Wednesday for a quick check to make sure we were on schedule. It was the only appointment of my entire pregnancy I went to alone. And the doctor said to me, “She may not be salvageable.”
Not salvageable!? What in the world? What are you talking about? She’s not a Geo Metro. She’s a baby — my baby. My baby I’m going to give birth to on Friday and hold and love and adore. How can you say she may not be salvageable? No one has said anything like that to us up until now. Who uses this awful word?
I’ve held a grudge against this doctor for seven years for saying this to me. He frightened me in that office all alone. He made an already scary situation so much scarier. His words caused panic for all of us that we didn’t need to be feeling at the time.
And I’ve allowed myself to be bitter over these five words. Every birthday we’ve celebrated I’ve thought of him, “Ha, take that!” Every big milestone we’ve hit I’ve wanted to send him a card with a picture saying, “How’s that for ‘not salvageable’?”
Oh, how we love our stories.
OK, back to the assignment. Find the good. Find the good. Find the good in “not salvageable.”
Oh my gosh, it’s right there! It’s so obvious, and I’m such a hypocrite.
The one consistent message I’ve had about life with Julia, (beyond that she’s the best thing that ever happened to us), is that our journey as her parents has been easier than it might have been because we were told to expect to lose her. (Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!) As a result of that warning,
we’ve measured every moment with her as a gift, a gift we weren’t sure we would receive. We’ve never viewed anything about Julia as a deficit; everything has been a glorious, glorious gain!
For seven years, I’ve had these two parallel stories in my head: one about how an awful, insensitive doctor told us Julia might not be salvageable, the other about how our lives with Julia have been better because we dropped all expectations and simply celebrated the miracle of her being here. But I’d never put the two together or recognized how the first contributed to the second being possible.
This story has now lost its negative power. The bitterness has evaporated. I can honestly say now that I’m thankful for it. Thankful for what, in the moment, was painful but led to a greater and more powerful gift. This story is what has been salvaged.
My doctor, in saying those five awful words to me blessed me.
In preparing me to lose everything, he actually set me up to be thankful for everything.
Thank you, doctor. (Please stop using the word “salvageable” when referring to human beings, but thank you.)
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