Tell your story

Tell your story


I apparently talked a lot when I was young. And sang a lot—long, nonsensical riffs my siblings still tease me about. A babysitter once offered me a gift if I’d just be quiet for ten minutes.

I was a very happy, creative kid. I mean, it was Santa Fe in the late 1960s! I refused to comb my hair, had just one ear pierced, and wore this huge purple tie-dyed shirt over hippie skirts and bare feet.

And then, when I was 11, we moved to another state. I went to a tough inner-city school. I’d lost my crazy hippie and Catholic New Mexico friends, a world and culture I understood, and things stopped making sense. I stood out for having a funny accent (I was even asked, “did you need a passport to get here?”), for not knowing organized sports, for being short, and especially for being smart. It didn’t take long before I learned that it wasn’t okay to be smart and vocal, especially for a girl.

So I went undercover. Silent. From sixth grade until my last year of PhD coursework, I never said a single word in class unless called on. Even then, I’d blush and mumble some version of “um-I-dunno” just to get the spotlight off me. I’d absorbed—or created—a message that silence = safety, and held onto that for decades.

Except I was wrong. And that mistake cost me. So dearly you don’t even want me to count the ways. Let’s just say that when you’re silent, you end up expressing yourself in a multitude of other ways, and they’re not usually healthy.

Fast forward thirty or so years. I was still shy, though now I was also an over-achiever. I’d healed in some ways, become more broken in others. I still kept my emotions and my stories very much to myself, and had almost daily migraines. My (now ex) husband and I were English professors, teaching at Stanford. Since few actual mortals can afford to live in the Bay Area, we also lived (with our two sons) in a dorm to save money. We played dorm-mom and dorm-dad to 190 freshmen each year, helping them make the ginormous transition from high school to elite college. It was a pressure cooker.

And that’s when I realized I had to open up.

There’s a crucial moment when, after the freshmen’s parents help them squeeze far too many things into their cramped dorm rooms, you convene the families and say, “okay, parents. Time to get out your Kleenex, hug your kids goodbye and have a good cry. And then you need to leave.”

And then we had this whole group of brand-new freshmen to ourselves. Tender, impressionable. Scared shitless. Waiting for our words of wisdom.

What do you say at a moment like that?

The only thing that made sense to me. I told my story—the stuff that happened after I went silent and things went haywire.

I said, “let me tell you about my freshman year of college. Imagine Pocatello, Idaho (which of course no one had heard of) in the early 1980s. I never made it to the first football game because I’d been doing shots of Everclear. Straight. I woke up the next morning with vomit covering the quilt my deceased grandmother had hand made for me. I had my heart broken for the first time, decided to fall in love with pizza and donuts instead, and gained fifty pounds in six months. That’s right—fifty. I dropped out halfway through spring semester. In fact, I dropped out of college twice and transferred twice. So, whennot if—you run into trouble this year, come talk with me. Chances are good that I’ve done something similar, or even dumber, than what you’ve done. I won’t judge you. But I can help you.”

They did come by, one by lonely one. At least fifty students, maybe closer to a hundred. We’d talk. They sensed they’d find another human in me, someone they respected but who’d made mistakes too. They needed permission to be imperfect too, and reassurance that things would turn out okay and maybe even well. I helped them humanize what they thought was “failure,” put it into perspective, maybe even laugh about it, and move forward without secrecy, shame or fear.

That’s when I learned the power of telling your story. It helps you process your own trauma, for sure—you realize you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. You begin to own your story, instead of it owning you. But it also helps others. When you share your experience—with one person or hundreds—you’re helping them process theirs. They realize they’re not crazy, and they’re not alone.

And that’s why I spend my days now helping people own and tell their stories. That’s where real healing lies. For us all.

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