Brenda Smit-James ~ Memoirist, Author, Presenter

Bottles of beer, representing owning all of our story even the shameful parts

There is only one way to tell our story and that is simply and honestly. When we stop presenting ourselves as better than we are, and when we tell the nitty-gritty of our lives, simply and honestly, we get to see our stories more clearly.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked to speak at a social luncheon for people over the age of 55. Before I had even given thought to what I would say, I was asked to give the title of my talk. I opted for my calling card topic, The Healing Power of Story, because not only do we all have stories, but we can heal from our difficult stories when we bring them into the open and talk about them.

So, with my title settled, I didn’t give my talk another thought until the week before the event when I sat down at the blank screen, prayed, and started to type. My opening was a little weak but that didn’t bother me. I know that I can always tighten the opening later and give it some extra punch. What was of greater value was simply to start writing. It’s important to start somewhere and, many times, anywhere will do so that you can find your stride and, more importantly, unearth the story that is ready and waiting to be told.

As I wrote, my story gained traction and I noticed that my talk was going in the direction of telling the stories that we hide, the ones that are shameful to us. Now, it would be nice if my talk could have been something general and focused on my audience rather than on me. However, my mandate for the talk was to tell about how God has worked in my life. And so, I talked about a story that I have either hidden in my life or tried to present as more pleasing than it is.

The story of alcoholism in my family.

I always knew that my father liked to drink his beers, but it was much later in life that I came to acknowledge that he wasn’t just a heavy drinker, he was an alcoholic. As I told my story to myself, I once again experienced the insight that comes when we tell our story simply and honestly, and when we let our writing take us to the story that is waiting to be told.

About eight years ago, in researching alcoholism for a piece I was writing, I came across an article that discussed common traits of adult children of alcoholics. For the first time, I not only recognized many of those qualities in myself, but I also realized how being raised in a dysfunctional family had helped them to take root – characteristics such as perfectionism, low self-esteem, harsh self-criticism, a lack of boundaries, and even an addiction to drama.

I wasn’t surprised when, as I prepared the content for my talk, I came across the same piece I had written eight years previously. I knew that this was not a co-incidence. No. It was time. This was a story that wanted to be told publicly – not just for my healing’s sake but also to impact my listeners. And so, I wove the telling of those characteristics into my story, identifying how they impacted choices I had made, particularly in my late teens and early twenties.

As I explored that story, another story surfaced – the story of generational alcoholism in my family. I had always thought that alcohol and drinking was my father’s issue and so I isolated it from anything else that went on in our family or our extended family. Yet, as I wrote and trusted the process of telling the story waiting to be told, I joined the dots that alcoholism was present on both my mother and my father’s side of the family, and that it went back at least a couple of generations, probably even more if I actually knew the history of my family.

I had never realised that before. Yes, I knew that my mother’s father drank quite a bit before he sobered up. I had heard the story of my father’s uncle, Reggie, who drank a bottle of brandy a day and lived to be 81. I remembered the story of my father jumping on a train as a child to escape my grandfather’s bad temper. But we never asked why any of that happened.

Instead we focused on the funny side of the stories, like laughing at the story of my father having to get off the train when the conductor noticed that he hadn’t bought a ticket and, as a child, his having to wait for the next train to take him to the town where his grandmother lived. Our stories connected us and gave us a shared identity, but we never stopped to go deeper and ask why we had them or talk about how they affected us and ask if we should live out different stories going forward.

Until I wrote my talk, none of this had ever even entered my mind. It was the process of writing my story that brought clarity and a new way of seeing an old part of my life. I realized that it wasn’t all my father’s fault. Even though his own father didn’t drink, my grandfather was so impacted by his father, my great-grandfather’s drinking, that it showed in angry ways that negatively impacted his son, my father.

I have no idea what life was like for my great-grandfather. What caused him to live his life as an alcoholic? Did he too grow up in an alcoholic home? Did he have an abusive father? I don’t know his story because no-one wrote it down.

But this I do know.

As I wrote and gained clarity and insight into our family’s generational dynamics, compassion and understanding for my father, for my grandfather, and for myself grew. We were three generations living out the effects of alcoholism in our family.

Joining the dots of my life didn’t nullify the craziness and hurt in my life. But it did give me a new paradigm through which to view my story. And it gave me the opportunity to decide which story I want to live out for the rest of my life. When we understand and own our stories, we can change them. And when we tell our stories openly, we can heal from them. This then, simply and honestly, is the healing power of story.

Do you have a hidden story in your life? Do you have a story that is waiting to be told? Is it time to write your story? Yes? Then…

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Here are some other blogs to inspire you:

Write a Memoir and Find your Voice

Gift Yourself, Write a Memoir

The Healing Power of our Stories

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Here's to telling your story!

Brenda Smit-James

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