For several years I have been working on a book about Military Mental Illness—that fat collection of diagnoses, which includes “Battle Fatigue”, and “War Trauma”, and in our era, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
One of the books I return to over and over is Jonathan Shay’s book, “Achilles in Viet Nam”. Shay is a psychiatrist who treats and writes about Vietnam era veterans, and he is a compelling analyst of how PTSD is created and how it can be treated. He writes beautifully about the importance of narrative as healing.
As soon as I read his work on narrative for vets I knew he was absolutely right. The story must be told—over and over, and it must be heard by engaged and compassionate listeners. Those two ingredients enable healing.
In AA we tell our stories over and over, and over. We joke about it sometimes and imagine that, at least in our home groups, people have heard our story before and must surely be bored. But that is very rare. It might seem like our story doesn’t change –for the most part the details are the details--but if you have been around for a while you realize that your story --and other people’s stories --are actually changing. That’s the reason we can stand to keep hearing them over and over.
If you think about AA’s stories you realize that what was told as tragedy in early recovery can gradually become a comedy. And what was told as comedy (those funny stories about what I did or what someone did to me) can slowly, over time, be revealed as a tragedy. It might even be true that we can gauge the quality of one’s recovery by how their story does or does not change.
The Twelve Steps help us shape our stories. As we work through them one to seven, we learn about ourselves, our motives, our underlying characteristics, and as we proceed through eight to twelve, we are stretched and tugged and persuaded and surrendered to further growth.
By this work our narrative develops, and we are healed by our own story.