Tales of the Unbroken

for mumI am not (what is) broken– the title of an upcoming conference addressing mental health in the Black, South Asian and Muslim diasporas. Most days, I know this – that I am not (what is) broken – but there are also other days when it’s not so easy to remember.

The internalisation and privatisation of problems has become a dominant (and accepted) narrative, and this makes it easy to feel broken. To feel anxious is to be broken, to feel depressed is to be broken, to be broke is to be broken. Worse still, as we locate the brokenness firmly inside of ourselves, we conclude that these are problems that belong to us as individuals. My anxiety belongs to me. My depression belongs to me. As the owner of the problems I am also responsible for managing them, and preferably – given that they are signs of ‘broken’ – fix them. It’s a tough call. Is it any wonder that problems individually owned in this way can so very quickly come to own us?

In my world, not being the thing that is broken is a story worth telling. I use the words story here, and narrative (above), deliberately. In my work as a therapist I use narrative approaches partly because they insist on making clear distinctions between the problem and the person experiencing it. Allowing the problem to have an identity of its own can create just the space that we need to be able to view it more clearly and tease out its favourite storylines. These stories, while they may well depict us as broken characters and, in that way have a significant impact on us, are not us.

Working with narrative means embracing a performative account of identity. This means not basing our identities on an internalised psychological structure or set of components (self, ego, id, inner child, true self, etc.) but rather, understanding ourselves as beings, continually creating our identities as we live. Our identities are then, the stories that we tell, and perform. Given this understanding, what stories are you, or for that matter, am I?

What can I tell you? That I am a woman, a woman of colour, a middle-aged woman of colour, a middle-aged woman of colour and a parent, a middle-aged woman of colour and a parent, who works as a therapist? How interested are you in the headlines I’m offering you? Should I go on? How about if I add that I once attempted suicide, or that a few years back I found myself on a wall outside a secure psychiatric ward, weeping as a bemused psychiatric intern looked on and finished her bar of chocolate? Are these stories more engaging or less? I wouldn’t blame you for being more curious about my difficult times. We may not be what is broken, but we are certainly interested in what is, not, I think, because we are unsympathetic or ghoulish, but because broken is a way in. Broken is the trigger that so often marks the beginning of a story, a crucial piece of the narrative arc, a crack through which the light breaks in. If we can navigate the shame (‘Shame’ is an epic tale, with seemingly infinite chapters) the broken places create openings and provide opportunities for connection.

I appreciate the authors who have shared their stories (http://iamnotbroken.light-inc.org) precisely because of the opening, and opportunities for connection that they offer us as readers. I am reminded that stories can serve different purposes and can, for example, inhibit, or subsidise, a sense of possibility. These are stories that hold hope, but also show how the stories that other people tell of us, or of who we should be, can work to make us feel less hopeful. We do well to remember that words are important and that, as well as being descriptive, they are also intentional. Words do more than simply describe what is; they also determine what it is possible to know. We can use them to expand – to tell stories differently, starting from different places, exploring new territories and including other perspectives. What happens, for example when we view mental health journeys as victories, rather than defeats? We can engage in therapeutic storytelling using different mediums – conversation, writing, art, movement, or other creative means of expression – and all of these can function as tools for being with, and being curious about, whatever might feel broken.

Writing and storytelling have served me well as therapeutic tools and I do draw on them in my practice, but even outside of the therapy room, I value and encourage narrative conversations. Narrative conversations – collaborative and interactive journeys taken with ears open for gaps between words (what isn’t said) and talk that sings (phrases that resonate or evoke curiosity) – can also happen in everyday life.  Narrative conversations view people as the experts on their own lives and they don’t aim to find solutions or give advice (e.g. get more exercise/a divorce/a counsellor). They are instead, gently and genuinely curious. They aim to identify some of the stories that could be told and invite, if so desired, various tellings.

Author Chimamanda Adichie speaks beautifully of the danger of a single story, referring specifically to the ways in which this marginalises Black people. Certain metanarratives (‘Big pictures’) promoting stereotypes and presumptions about groups of people, contribute heavily to the plot of the stories we live, as people of colour. We are right to challenge single stories – not only when others try to shoehorn us inside them, but also whenever we are tempted to do this to ourselves. It is all too easy for a dominant story such as a diagnosis of mental illness to become a single, central story that scatters whoever else we are to the margins, and alienates us from our many-storied-selves. The best way to resist the single story I find, is to tell more stories. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to not-being-what-is- broken, we can never have too many reminders.

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