March 8, 2018 | Narrative
narrativizing the self
merits, pitfalls, and non-conclusions
Just over a year ago, my friend S was diagnosed with:
- bipolar mood disorder,
- post-traumatic stress disorder,
- bulimia nervosa,
- and anorexia nervosa.
S’s eyes glossed over the list once, twice, thrice. She held the letters in her palm, pressed them into her skin to see what would happen. She watched as they sunk into the creases of her flesh.
During a manic episode a few months ago, S told me that she thought she might also have narcissistic personality disorder. I fit all the traits when I’m manic, she insisted. It makes too much sense. The other day, she contemplated whether her manic and depressive sides could constitute a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
Another time, she confessed to me that she wished she hadn’t been diagnosed in the first place. Ever since, she has been trudging begrudgingly from one self-diagnosis to the next. She no longer sees a version of herself that isn’t rooted in her suffering.
Last semester, my own fiction came to life in the form of New England Bride, allegedly America’s only monthly bridal magazine. Months before, I had written a piece for some neo-noir-themed assignment in which someone steals a girl’s identity in the most trivial of ways, from subscribing to random literary journals to signing oddly specific petitions under her name. When I spotted my name and address, printed on a cover sticker, it occurred to me that someone might’ve stolen my identity for the most banal cause possible: a shitty bridal magazine subscription.
In my story, the protagonist receives anonymous calls that tip her off to the identity theft, to which she responds with total nonchalance. Of course, all the action transpires in either a snazzy jazz bar or a dim taxi cab, always on a dreary night in Tokyo, the city pulsing to the beat of rain pitter-pattering against glass.
For a second, I was enthralled. And then I took a good look around me.
Instead of a flickering Tokyo rainstorm, I was drenched in a crowd of students in a mailroom in Providence, Rhode Island. Neither femme fatale nor particularly badass, I was thinking about the readings I had to do instead of the Ponzi schemes I had to bust, and New England Bride used way too many sans serif fonts in one page. In that hot second, I had felt the poles of reality and fiction swing so close as to almost intersect, only to swing apart once more.
When I received a mailed invitation to a bridal shower weeks later, I chucked it straight into the recycling bin.
In my abnormal psychology class last spring, Professor Hayden repeatedly emphasized the effectiveness of narrative therapies for clients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the American Psychological Association, narrative psychotherapies facilitate an “engagement in the re-storying of people’s lives and relationships.” More importantly, narrative therapists ground the practice in “the re-consideration, re-appreciation, and re-authoring of clients’ preferred lives and relationships.” The method aims to help clients come to terms with their pasts by building a framework through which they can contemplate their lives constructively.
In Milan Kundera’s Identity, one particularly succinct scene encapsulates the essence of narrative therapies. While vacationing along the Normandy coast with her lover, protagonist Chantal muses over her past—namely, the accidental death of her five-year-old child years before. Suddenly, a surge of happiness overtakes her—she realizes that her relationship with her present lover would be far less absolute had her child not passed away.
She decides to withhold this thought from her lover, who she fears might think her monstrous; however, had she voiced it, say, in a narrative therapist’s office, she might’ve received a laudatory pat on the back, or a smile that implied a goal had been met.
To judge Chantal’s thought as inherently positive would be reductive. Outside of clean-cut narratives, every such feeling sits on one face of a double-sided coin. Feeling happy that something awful happened to you or someone close to you is often followed by waves of regret or guilt. To repeatedly siphon a silver lining out of every tragic pratfall seems too simple of a solution.
Which brings us to mindfulness-based therapies. Geared toward depressive patients, these therapies emphasize emptying or decluttering one’s mind. Viewed another way, however, emptying might lead only to repression, allowing patients to never truly “deal with” certain cognitive biases and deeply-rooted issues.
Of course, the two techniques target drastically different disorders. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering the implications of both types of therapy: one that forges something anew, and one that empties what already exists. Both effective, both lacking—I can’t make up my mind as to which one would work better for me.
To some degree, we’re all guilty of narrativizing our own lives, or seeing meaning where there is likely none. Prolonged eye contact at a party means he’s interested. Your commitment issues mean that you’ve got an insecure attachment to your father, stemming from something he did when you were three. The list goes on.
Most of all, we’re guilty of conveniently construing details in ways that funnel into our oft-chimerical, usually-myopic views of the world. We swim in a sea of biases, and the confirmation bias is probably three oceans combined. If you’re prepared to see everything as a greeting from your god of choice, you’ll probably see it.
Like most people, I’ve tried to weave quasi-literary themes into my own narrative as well. I’ve arbitrarily spun a Kafka quote into at least five incidents from high school. I’ve romanticized almost every feeling I’ve remotely felt, trying to optimize my feeling of the feeling. I’ve written narratives in my journal and retold them to friends and cast them in six different lights and ended up at the same sensational story and thought, This is it, this is probably me, only to be reminded with New England Bride in my face that no, this isn’t it, and it probably never will be.
The urge to read your life like a novel is no novel impulse—in fact, we’ve been writing our lives into books for millennia. Given our predilection for existential traction, this urge often becomes recursive. In AD 397, when Saint Augustine wrote the first de facto autobiography, he did so in the name of Christianity, itself a way in which, for centuries now, people have rendered their lives into something seemingly greater than an accumulation of fortuitous events.
Whether it be the children’s biography series Who Was…? or Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, there’s something alluring about “true stories” and real lives committed to the page, maybe and probably because they feel like substantial contributions to our timeless struggle against oblivion. We drink memoirs and (auto)biographies up like they’re elixir, as if a glass a day might somehow hurtle us toward some semblance of permanence at last.
Nothing distinguishes us from other animals more than our ability to generate and articulate meaning. In that sense, the narrative is probably the most powerful weapon we possess, sans atomic bombs and nuclear weapons. The way you wield it can harm and shield, destroy and heal.
When S and I try to parse through her feelings and experiences, the narrative becomes a cat chasing its own tail. Any coherent thematic stream meets its demise in her newest actions, and plausible motives quickly become archaic. There’s no breakthrough to be found, no moment of catharsis condensed into four minutes of well-lit screen time, as Good Will Hunting might have us believe.
I’m just going to take it day by day, S said a little while ago, effectively ending our conversation on future courses of action. With S, my amateur attempts of constructing her narrative feel more like trying to ripen a rock-hard avocado in a toaster oven.
For a while now, I’ve resigned myself to my own endless production of meaning. I’m trying to take it day by day, as S suggested, and I don’t know whether that’ll take me in the direction of a narrative thrust I can foresee, or if my future is yet another subject to the universe’s whims.
“In the end,” Paul Auster wrote bleakly, “each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.”
He’s really not wrong, but I don’t think we are either.