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But there's another reason why I tell my story. And when I think about the issue of health, and what I do to preserve and protect mine, it occurs to me that though I swim regularly and go to a gym, though I eat sensibly and stay away from drugs, there may be nothing I do that more significantly contributes to my sense of well-being than my own work. Telling my story has been, for me, the best way I know to free myself from the heavy burden of secret-keeping and denial.
The experience of writing as I have -- namely, not simply writing about my life, but also making it public -- may be particular to those who do it for a living. But whether or not a person publishes her work, I've come to believe the benefits to be gained are enormous, simply from the act of setting down one's story. (And specifically, doing it on paper. Speaking out loud -- at an AA meeting, or to a therapist, or just on the phone with a friend, is also, doubtless, a highly therapeutic exercise. Just a different one.)
I think it's important to tell your story, even if nobody's listening. But for me, it has been freeing not only to tell it, but to share it too. Probably because I grew up in an alcoholic family, with so many secrets and so much shame, my ability to speak openly not only about my successes in life, but also my struggles and failures, has brought me a kind of freedom and feeling of acceptance I doubt I could have known any other way.
I write my story, I always say, as if I were writing a letter to a friend. Maybe because of that, I've always gotten a lot of letters back from strangers who often ended up as friends. From them I learned that I was far from the only person out there with a less than perfect life, and that my terrible, shameful secrets were no worse than the kinds so many others silently and secretly endured, around me.
For eight years I wrote a newspaper column about my life -- my marriage, my children, my struggles at trying to find a balance between being the kind of parent I wanted to be, and still having some corner of my life for myself. Every Monday morning over the course of those eight years I'd sit down at my computer and think about what story to tell that week. Doing that required not just a reflection over the events of the week just past, but also, on a more visceral level, a re-examination of the feelings associated with those events. Something might have happened -- an exchange with a friend, a disagreement with my husband -- that I had let slip by at the time. But five days later, taking out that episode and re-examining it, I'd discover layers beneath the surface I'd chosen to ignore at the time.
Sometimes when I began to write down these stories, I didn't know myself what they were about. It was the act of laying them out on the page that revealed to me the true nature of the issues involved. And so I'd tell the story of an unwelcome birthday gift from my husband -- an electric can opener -- and , partway through the telling, I'd see that what it was really about was my need to be seen and understood as someone other than a woman who needed to get those cans of tuna fish opened, quick. I'd tell about the grief of one of my sons, at the loss of an inch-long sword belonging to one of his pirate figures, and of my own frantic attempts to find it. And as I spun my yarn (frequently comically), I'd discover that what really made me frantic wasn't the lost sword at all. It was all those other greater losses from which a parent can offer no protection or possibility of rescue. No humor there. And not just our children's losses. Also our own.
Not that I always got to the truth of the matter in my writing about my life, by any means. My stories about marital tussles or the exhausting rigors of caring for three children, six and under, were often written in a humorous style. Even when the feelings I experienced at the time were not ones of amusement but rather, pain. Just because a person writes down a story (in print, or in a journal) doesn't mean she's taking an honest and self-aware look at her life, after all. She may just as well be reinforcing her own brand of denial -- creating the reality on paper that she wishes were hers. She sets up her characters in front of the photographer, fluffs up their hair, holds in her stomach. And waits till the fellow with the camera has gone home to yell at her kids again, put on her corniest country album and get back into her old housecoat. I frequently did that, only the one who recorded the ultimately false images was the same person who appeared in them. Happy Mother of Happy Children, inhabiting a Not-Wholly-Blissful, but ultimately loving marriage. Or so I said.
But there's something about reading a story on paper -- even one you know very well, from having lived it in its original form -- that allows a person to see her own experience in a different way than she did when it was simply unfolding in the pure open space of time Just as it would be different, seeing a photograph of yourself nude, from how it is to catch a glimpse of one's body (or even stare at it for a prolonged period) in the mirror. Writing about your life -- even writing with some level of active denial or self-delusion -- puts a frame around it in ways that simply living that life never can.
These daysit's an increasingly fashionable concept to keep a journal. The word has even become a verb, and a gerund, (as in "I'm staying home tonight to do some journalling" or "That man isn't my type. He doesn't journal..."). The therapeutic effects of all this journalling have been well recognized, and testimony from journal-keepers and letter writers, as to the positive effects of their efforts, are familiar to most of us, probably.
But when people talk about writing their stories, they tend to focus , often, on the writing part: How good it felt to pour all that stuff out. How cleansing. What a release.
All true enough. But I would add, the greatest benefit to me from telling my story has been what followed: reading it. Putting it away, ideally, for a week, or a day, or even just an hour. Then picking it up, as one would pick up a letter from a friend or a total stranger, and reading it again.
I remember something told me once by a friend who has cerebral palsy. Like many people with his particular problem, Tom speaks in a manner that is fairly tortured and difficult to understand, at first. But he never understood what he sounded like, he said, until his sixth birthday, when his mother gave him a tape recorder. And then, hearing himself on tape, he wept.
As for me, I read my own stories about my life, and concluded that my marriage was over. It could truly be said, for me, I read about it in the paper first. And then I realized it was true. And while my discovery -- like Tom's -- was a deeply sad one, and one that brought about terrible, wrenching pain, I can't acknowledge that without adding that like a lot of painful events, it also made possible the series of life-changes that allowed for a healthier and happier life . As well as much better writing.
Of course, writing with total honesty about one's life raises its own set of problems. It's one thing to tell a story on your own self. It's something else to tell one that involves other characters who might not shareyour enthusiasm for openness and self-disclosure. For me, an important part of my own retrieval-of-self, following the end of my marriage, seemed to require a more honest telling of the story of my marriage. But what would have been healthy for me, in the way of unburdening, was not necessarily the same as what would have been best for my children, or their father. So there are stories I don't tell. I'd rather bypass them altogether than tell them partway. And of course, there's always fiction, as a place where a writer can make use of her own life experience, and still protect people she loves or cares about.
I have to conclude that nobody benefits from deception or prevarication. (And that includes our children. Who may not need to hear all the truth of our lives. But who surely do not benefit from lies.) Hard as it may be, to face up to the truth about one's story, to do anything otherwise only allows us to build the structures of our lives on faulty foundations. I think of a man I know, adoptive father of a thirty year old son who has never been told that he's adopted. (I know it. Now you know it. But the young man himself does not. ) And though his father is a loving and totally decent man, who has kept this information from his son out of the most loving of impulses, I have to believe that --founded as it is on a fundamental innacuracy concerning something as centrally important as the circumstances of his birth--this young man's whole life has been somehow thrown out of balance by his parents' secret-keeping.
Now we have an actual, legislated government policy in place -- the one concerning homosexuals in the military -- based on the dysfunctional approach "don't ask, don't tell." Our own government tells gays, "keep in the closet". So why should we express shock and dismay, to learn that our elected officials lie to us, as well?
As for me, I've chosen to follow a simple course: Come clean. And wherever possible, live your life in a way that won't leave you tempted to lie. Failing that, I'd rather be disliked for who I truly am than loved for who I'm not. So I tell my story. I write it down. I even publish it. Sometimes this is a humbling experience. Sometimes it's embarrassing. But I haul around no terrible secrets.
I have always believed there's a connection between my writing and my sleeping. And the fact is, I sleep well every night. Like a baby -- only better than any baby of mine ever slept.
Mine may not be the sleep of the innocent either. But it is, at least, the sleep of the free. My brain is largely emptied of worries. My hard disk is full of them.
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