ReStoried “Survivors”: Are They Trapped In Limbo?

Imagine that you are a troubled person, with a history of mental health disorders, chronic substance abuse, or self-sabotaged personal relationships and serial employment failures.
Imagine that your self-image might be extremely negative – your entrenched belief that you are hopelessly flawed, ‘broken’, ‘crazy’ and worthless, being reinforced by pervasive negative social attitudes toward persons with a life history like yours.

Imagine that you’ve been in some kind of therapy or treatment program before, and perceived similarly negative attitudes about your life history and future prospects from your doctors/ therapists/treatment staff – that your disorders are a life sentence, that perhaps you can be stabilized in the short term, but you will remain ill and cannot expect to ever have a life as fulfilling or meaningful as you might have if you were ‘normal’. This was a common attitude among many mental health professionals in the past, and has been labeled “the treatment paradigm” by reformers seeking to break-out from this model’s dominance in their professions.

[“Until recently, the fact that people who experience prolonged psychiatric disability can grow beyond the limits of their condition and reclaim full lives was rarely mentioned in professional literature, perhaps because the idea of recovery is heretical within the dominant biomedical model”] – “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability” , P. Ridgway

Now imagine that you are the same troubled person, but the professionals you seek help from profess and encourage a totally different attitude – a confident belief not only that most people can and should expect to recover fully from their disorders, but that even persons with chronic, long-term or permanent psychiatric disability can and should expect to recover the ability to lead a better, more meaningful life than they had ever known. Some reformers call this “the recovery paradigm”.

[“People had been told, and came to believe: I have a mental disorder and will never get better. Once the process of recovery was set in motion the core narrative shifted to: I am a unique individual, struggling with a psychiatric disorder, and through my attitudes and daily actions, with the help of caring others, I can and have reclaimed a meaningful life] – “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability” , P. Ridgway

Clearly, positive attitudes of this nature are more likely to inspire hope and subsequent striving to “get better” by the troubled persons who encounter them, but those persons may still need to face and turn-around entrenched negative beliefs about themselves.

One approach to this recovery model is called Narrative Therapy.

[“Narrative psychotherapy challenges people to broaden or change the stories that they tell themselves about themselves, which shape their lives”.] – “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability” , P. Ridgway

That sounds a bit like a key concept from Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.
REBT postulates that people develop irrational and self-sabotaging beliefs about themselves, primarily in their childhood years, and those beliefs are constantly telling them stories about themselves which are objectively false, or impossible, or of no importance in the Real World, but which cause them tremendous emotional anguish nonetheless. Confronting and correcting those irrational stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, is definitely a life-altering and positive endeavor. But is that what Narrative Psychotherapy is about?

[“Questioning and reformulating one’s life story can renew a sense of meaning and possibility” “Deconstruction and reconstruction of one’s personal narrative has been called “reauthoring” or “restorying” the life project.”] – “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability” , P. Ridgway

Questioning and reformulating one’s life story…deconstruction and reconstruction of one’s personal narrative…restorying the life project…surely this doesn’t mean rewriting your personal history, reinventing the person you claim to be from scratch – with a partially or totally fictitious life history?

No. In the hands of properly educated, trained, experienced and competent psychologists or psychiatrists, that’s not what troubled persons would be counseled to do. Unfortunately, there is no end to the varieties of hopelessly under-qualified ‘therapy’ being offered in our society today; pastors, ministers, priests, social workers, nurses, self-help authors, 12 step programs, tv and radio personalities, retired pseudo-therapists who practice “therapy by skype”, and the most pernicious of them all – lay-led Survivor support groups, in real life or via internet forum.

Once again imagine yourself to be that troubled person, with a long history of tragic mistakes, personal failures, abusive treatment from people you naively trusted, substance abuse, psychotic or delusional episodes, etc., that you profoundly wish you could just erase, a life that you would give anything to just do over…

Well, why not? Other people are reformulating their life story, reconstructing their personal narrative, restorying their life – you’ve heard about it on tv, read a bit about it online, your therapist or support group buddies have talked about it. And there’s those weird dreams about your childhood that you couldn’t make sense of, and snatches of memories which seemed to belong to another person which came out during that hypnotherapy session…maybe the life you always thought you’d lived is just a delusion, a fantasy programmed into your memory by the no-good-shits who have been conspiring against you all your life! That sure would explain a lot – you couldn’t help yourself when you did things that hurt your loved ones, you were under mind-control! You’re not crazy, or delusional, no – someone’s been slipping you mind-warping drugs…to make you forget…forget who you really are and what THEY did to you! Etc., etc…

Whatever influences and processes might really be behind it, there are people in our society who have rewritten their life history – editing out documented personal history, altering dates, places, circumstances and events, inserting fantasies and fictions of varying detail and complexity – crafting a fictitious life history and an imaginary new Self, a heroic Self, a God-sent crusader for truth and justice on behalf of equally imaginary SRA and CIA mind-control victims.

They like their new history and new Self – these things “work” for them. They are happier, more socially functional, their lives seem more fulfilling and meaningful, this way. They are going to school again, or holding down jobs – they have new friendships or even spouses. They may still be in therapy, perhaps on some medications, but they don’t feel crazy or broken or worthless anymore. Their life seems better than it has ever been, now that they’ve reinvented themselves.

Until they start hitting the wall.
In therapy, or in their support groups, there was an unwritten law that everyone observed: NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO QUESTION OR CAST DOUBT UPON WHATEVER ANYONE ELSE CLAIMS TO HAVE SURVIVED. But there are people all around them now, in every area of their lives it seems, who don’t know about this law or refuse to observe it when it is politely explained to them. There are people who insist on sdtaring at them as if they had three green heads, when they talk about carrying out assassinations for the CIA under mind control. Acquaintances that laugh uproariously, when they are explaining that the 22 persons inside them have personalities corresponding to the 22 tarot trumps. Co-workers who keep bringing up that: “Mike Warnke was a fraud, you know. He was exposed. And the FBI said they never could find Geraldo Rivera’s International Satanic Cult conspiracy. Ya know…and Damien Echols is innocent, he was railroaded, Johnny Depp is right…”

Doubters and skeptics all around them, who just won’t agree to accept and believe in the New Self they so lovingly crafted, the Self that works so well for them. They can’t be that Self in public, they can’t live openly as that Self the way they wish to. They have to wear a mask over their chosen Self, a lot of the time. They are trapped, in a limbo of their own creation.

Leary and Wilson were right – you really can create your own reality.
You just can’t expect anyone else to agree to live it with you.

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