These words were spoken to me by my partner in one of our small group exercises. I just got back from the Medical Narrative Workshop at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City and in one of the workshops directed by Rita Charon, the task was to think of a difficult story about yourself that you want to tell–something that you had to undergo. We paired up and while one person told, the other listened. Afterward, we both wrote, the teller about what it was like to be listened to and the listener about the story that she/he heard. Then we switched roles. The experience was powerful; my turn as storyteller was transformative.
I told of coming to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons at 168th St. for emotional help back in 1974 when I was a 22-year-old student at Barnard College/Columbia University at 116th St. I saw someone who I remember to either be a psychiatrist or a psychiatrist-in-training who spoke with me briefly. Had he asked me if I was allergic to any medication? To my shock, he handed me a vial of Elavil and told me to come back after thirty days. End of appointment. Just outside the office, I tossed the pills in the trash.
A bit of background. As a transfer student at Barnard, I was having a difficult time adjusting and the summer after my first year, had become very depressed. Unbeknownst to me, I was suffering from Valium withdrawal. Early in my first semester, I experienced headaches and jaw pain. I was diagnosed with temporal mandibular joint disorder (TMJ). The treatment included taking Valium, which the dentist said was “just like Aspirin,” four times a day and whenever needed. Why didn’t the dentist know that Valium was addictive? After a friend told me that the Valium was a dangerous drug, I threw the pills out. Thus I tailspinned into confusion and anguish, a result of stopping the medication cold turkey. Trying to help, my classmate’s sister, who worked at the psychiatric clinic at Columbia, said she would fit me in. The irony of being prescribed drugs to deal with withdrawal from drugs. As I said, I threw out the Elavil and in desperation, took other pills: over 100 extra-strength Bufferin, which landed me in an ICU.
How is this all related to infant surgery and to the transformation I experienced in the workshop? My emotional challenges began as a young child. After being diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, I underwent surgery (likely without anesthetic) at 3-weeks-old, was separated from my mother for two weeks and sent home with my mother who was terrified by the surgeon’s admonition: if she cries, she will die. Not only my crying was stifled 24/7 but all strong emotion. After recovering from surgery, I remained emotionally shutdown, harboring the secret fear if I cried, I’d die. It wasn’t until I was 26-years-old that I began to find my way to wholeness, accompanied by the perfect therapist, Lee O. Johnson, who helped me explore why I was so terrified of feelings. I had been a prisoner and with her, I found release.
Facing my fears of returning to an institution that dismissed my pain at a critical juncture in my life is a major triumph. When I decided to take the workshop at Columbia’s medical school, I was not seeking to heal of this old wound; rather I was seeking my place in the medical humanities community. In order to attend, I had to muster courage. Could I succeed in the workshop or would I fail, victim to an old role? All would be well, I decided, and went ahead with the plan. In our small group, after telling my story to an astute listener, an oral historian herself who in a sense midwifed the story, she said, “It’s like a spell has been broken.” Yes.
The storytelling exercise gave me palpable evidence of how far I’ve come since those days at Barnard. I felt grateful for the life I’ve created—my deep personal relationships and meaningful work. This exercise also taught me the degree to which stories are co-creations. Had I not been listened to so wholly, could I have told the story? Could I write this blog without the ears of my audience? To tell a difficult story and have it heard or write a hard story and then have it read completes the healing. A circle is closed.
The full healing came just after I read aloud the narrative of my story to the group. Inside, I heard the voice of me now (age 56) say to the me at age 22, I’m sorry. In 1974, I could not access power and clarity, and so desperation took over. In 2009, my older, clearer, wiser now self expressed compassion for the younger me who had suffered. I felt complete and wholly embraced. This transformation was the result of the group bearing witness.
As the Workshop weekend came to a close, I asked Rita to sign her book, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, which she had generously given to all who attended the workshop. She wrote: To Wendy–she of the courage and eyes to see new stories in the old. The triumph is not far behind the pain. Thank you, Rita; thank you, Elisabeth, my listener; and thank you to each member of my small group for bearing witness. And thanks to the Medical Narrative Workshop participants and community at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who are making a profound difference in the way that health care gets done in the 21st century.