Many of us in the helping professions have had situations such as mine, where they might have had a history of illness, such as cancer. Others might have had challenges to their psychological, emotional, or physical sense of well-being. We may be called wounded healers because in helping others, we unconsciously are healing an inner wound of our own. In shamanic cultures the most gifted healers are called “wounded healers” because these people have been called to look deeply into the psyche. They use the pains and wounds of life in an alchemy of healing that is very empowering and has deep purpose. Many writers have used storytelling to help them navigate illness. Some of these include, Audre Lorde, Norman Cousins, Nicole Broyard, Kay Redfield Jamison, and Terry Tempest Williams, to name a few.
Arthur Frank (1995) in his book, The Wounded Storyteller, identifies three types of narratives written by wounded storytellers or those who write about difficult times—the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative, and the quest narrative.
The Restitution Narrative
This type of narrative shares the story of difficult times, but through it runs the idea that, for example, “Yesterday I was healthy, today I am sick, tomorrow I will be healthy again.” This narrative harbors positive thinking and bright undertones and is usually written by those who are dealing with acute, rather than chronic, illness. The focus tends to be on their improved health. The writer of this type of narrative minimizes his or her illness, assuming they will be “back to normal soon.”
The Chaos Narrative
This narrative is the opposite of the restitution narrative in that the writer assumes a position of illness or a problem with no hope or indication for improvement. They write as if they’re doomed. They tend to illicit anxiety in themselves and in the reader.
There seems to be less room for reflection in this type of narrative; everything about the writer’s situation seems urgent and stressful. The perspective is a negative one, and the reader feels as if the writer is in freefall with no hope of returning.
The Quest Narrative
Those who write this type of narrative accept their illness or challenging situation as part of growth and transformation. They meet their problem head on and use their difficulty as a way to forge ahead.
When discussing this type of narrative, I am reminded of my daughter Regine’s comment when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty-seven, and she was sixteen. When my oncologist phoned, I was seated in my home office. Regine happened to be walking past when she saw me hang up the phone with a distressed expression on my face. She knew I’d been waiting for the doctor’s report from my breast biopsy and intuited that I had just received bad news.
She slowly walked toward the sofa where I was seated. She sat down beside me, put her arm around me, put her head on my shoulder and said, “Mom, I think there’s a book in this.” I glanced at her and smiled at her ability to see the good in this potentially devastating news. By writing my breast cancer story, I would be transformed and empowered in the process.
Her comment surprised and delighted me. It was at that point that I realized she truly knew and understood the role of writing in my life and how writing is a way of healing.
Sometimes, writing over and over about a difficult time or a wound buried deep inside can allow us to put that wound in a container and detach from it. It can allow us to stand back and reflect on the wound’s effect on our life, and can provide a perspective that contributes to overall well-being.
Regardless of the type of narrative the person chooses to write, it is natural to incorporate self-reflection into the story. When using reflection, the writer writes what’s happening in both their exterior and interior world. This will help them understand themselves better, which is a key to transformation.
Self-reflection encourages an examination of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs. It might inspire setting intentions. When other people read reflective writing, they might be inspired to engage in their own writing.
James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and pioneer in studying the healing power of writing, believes that although writing can be healing, there comes a point when you might need simply to stop because the writing could be opening up old wounds that have the potential of becoming tender. Sometimes reopening old wounds can backfire. In the end, it’s all about finding a balance in your life as a way to achieve a sense of well-being.
Sharing Stories to Heal
Sharing the stories of difficult times can also guide others in navigating their own journeys, and serve as a road map for those who might feel lost during the process. Sometimes people might be too close to their lived experience to be able to figure out how to handle it.
Most people have encountered some sort of life challenges and observe that telling their stories are a way to heal and survive. Writing our stories activates the narrating part of our minds and thus increasing our sense of well-being.
Viktor Frankl openly shared his Holocaust story in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). When Frankl was asked why he wrote the book, he said that he wanted “to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.” He added that sharing his story would be helpful even for those who were in despair.
In his book Reconciliation (2010), Thich Nhat Hanh says that inside each of us there is a young, suffering child, and that to protect ourselves from future suffering we try to forget the pain. He says that the cry we hear deep in our hearts comes from the wounded child within. Healing our inner child can help heal any negative emotions we might have. It is important to know that wounds exist in every cell of our bodies, in the same way that they house the DNA of our ancestors.
Whether writing narrative or expressing yourself verbally, embracing and acknowledging the wounded child is the first step in the healing process. When we put light in a dark room, we can see more clearly. Walking around in the dark brings with it more problems. You can talk to your inner child and say that you hear him or her and haven’t forgotten that part of yourself.
Some therapists suggested having a conversation with the inner child. It’s about closing our eyes and returning to a time when you felt pain, and being asked to have a dialogue with that child in that place and time using adult sensibilities. You might be advised to tell the child that everything will be okay, and reinforcing that you are loved and adored, and that sometimes wounding is done to an inner child, that it’s beyond our control but there’s a way to move beyond it towards a place of well-being and healing. This can teach us a lot about self-acceptance.
On a personal level, I learned through journaling, reflective writing, and meditation to have more self-compassion for my wounded inner child, and that the wounds of our ancestors are carried in our DNA and being mindful of that is critical. Practicing mindful meditation and paying attention to the breath during different times in the day help us to recognize, heal, and transform inner-child pain. We must remind ourselves that wherever there is pain, there are also seeds for transformation, understanding, awakening, and healing.
In summary, those who have had a history of illness are more than victims of their illnesses, they are wounded storytellers. In addition to telling stories to help others, they are a witness to suffering and tell stories as a way to come to understand and come to terms with their illness.
Frank, A. W. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness, and ethics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Hanh, T. N. (2010). Reconciliation: Healing the inner child. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Lesser, E. (1999). The seeker’s guide: Making your life a spiritual adventure. New York, NY: Villard Books.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions.
New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Siegel, B. S. (1989). Peace, love and healing. New York, NY: Harper.