The Puzzle Pieces of My Life: More on Narrative Therapy

My family has always told stories. In my mom’s struggle to get a voice for her fellow nurses, she orated her story of being a nurse for 35 years; she told of the babies she has delivered, the parents she has congratulated, and the couples she has consoled. In my dad’s role as a father, reiterating tales of his youth are few and far between because of the maltreatment he received as a child and young adult. However, he has re-narrated his childhood; he has re-membered it. He turned it from one of abuse and neglect to one of choices to be different from what he knew; choices that he himself will not make and roads that he will not go down.

I stole my theory of life from my sister Lauren. She has Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder, and happens to be especially adept at doing puzzles. Lauren can flip the puzzle to its reverse side and complete it only looking at the blank cardboard shapes without the picture to guide her. She is able to see at a glance how each little piece fits into the larger puzzle. Sometimes she does edges first. Sometimes she starts from a random point and works her way out. Sometimes, still, she starts many different areas and in the blink of an eye has found the links that fit them together perfectly. Lauren’s gift with puzzles led me to my life’s theory.

I was about thirteen when I realized that my life was made up of a sequence of events; my life was an unfinished puzzle. All of my stories that I have told are pieces of it that don’t always seem to fit together in the right ways, but, I have reasoned that this is because I still have more pieces to be found, shaped, and created. In this puzzle of life, there are many different ways to look at an event. I could take the single event as an isolated occurrence, or I can, as I so often do, fit the piece into a larger narrative.

This has made sense for many things that have happened in my life. The small routines of playing songs on Grandpa’s jukebox and then towards the end of his life, Grandpa picking his own song on it to which he and my mother danced. Falling in a lake and having a dramatic (not) near-death experience, taking swimming lessons to prevent this from happening again, and then joining the local swim team where I started my stint as the athlete that I would soon become and forever be. Wanting to quit basketball so many times, sticking with it, then quitting in college and feeling lost. Being able to find and join the Crew team where I found my place. Sustaining a career ending back injury, losing crew, having to become just a student again, and then finding the time to be there for the people who needed me most, including myself.

My stories at first are isolated events; individual pieces in my puzzle. Then, later, I contextualize them in the narrative of life. My life. I have the power, like my father, to re-narrate those stories as many times as I would like. I choose to put on a different set of lenses than the first time around when re-looking at a certain piece in my puzzle. I reimagine that piece as the beginning of a different story ending at present day or I fit that piece into the middle of a series of seemingly unrelated, but on second glance perfectly connected, pieces to my puzzle.

We can always re-member what we need to in order to give our lives meaning. A bad day can turn into a learning experience or a laughing matter within just a few days. A car accident can be a wake-up call or a chance to get your dream car. Any way you look at an event, it can tell a different story. As for the events in our stories, we are the authors. We are in control of placing our pieces of our puzzles in the right places. The places that make the most sense for right now.

This is why I love hearing people’s stories: I can hear them placing, arranging, and making sense of all of the different pieces in their life. This is why I will always ask to hear how someone got to where they are, or how they met their partner, or spent their week, month, life. People deserve to be given the chance to place their pieces over and over until it gives them the most meaning—and I intend to give people that chance.

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Narrators of Our Own Stories

This is something I figured out at age thirteen: I get to write my own story. I don’t know if it is because I knew my father re-narrated his childhood; he turned his upbringing of maltreatment and bad parenting into his guidelines for what he never wanted to become. Maybe it was from watching my brother: watching Kevin pave his way as an educator in a Tae Kwon Do studio, then at a day-care at his alma mater, and now as an applied behavioral counselor for children with Autism. Who knows what is next for him. I don’t even think he really knows. But he knows he has a past that will support him.Or maybe it was my watching my mom transform from a hard-working nurse who showed up to work every day to an advocate for nurses even at a time when that is not a popular thing to be in her working environment.

And of course my sister Lauren. She’s the one who gave me my analogy when I was thirteen. She loves puzzles. Her feat is that she can do the puzzles without looking at the graphic side. Yep, she just sees how the pieces fit together. Lauren is lucky. Her world, at times, is in black in white. Mine is not. My pieces to my puzzle get strewn about. They shift every time I move. I lose pieces. Lose connections. Lose my spot. And then I have to change the way I’m looking at the puzzle. I step back and take a different approach. I alter my narration. I retell my story. I re-member something differently. I put my pieces back together in a different way than before and I create meaning.

Why did I have to hurt my back while rowing? It wasn’t clear then. And maybe my feelings will change, but now I see it as having allowed me to do my grad school search my senior year without having to stress about missing practice or regattas or letting down my team. Obviously, I didn’t hurt my back thinking that I needed an out… but it sure does make you believe in something bigger… or in yourself. In your own power to narrate your own life story. In your own power to make meaning out of things that at first just don’t make sense.

This is a type of psychology called Narrative Therapy which I explored at the end of reading “Helping College Students Find Purpose.” I have been doing this my whole life. It just makes me realize that it is a tool that I can use in my paraprofessional and soon to be professional work to help others find their own narratives. Stories have the power to move people. When we tell our stories and someone reads or listens to it, we are validated. Everyone deserves to be validated as a person.