Telling my story is something I do a lot of now through talks, group work and in this blog. I’ve been asked a few times how to go about it, especially for people who are getting involved in Peer Work. Peer Workers are people who have a personal experience with mental illness, and who use their experiences to connect with and encourage other people dealing with mental illness. Knowing how to share those personal experiences safely and constructively is really important! It’s one of the most powerful things you can do, and it can also be one of the most stressful! I certainly find it so.
First of all, although it’s often called “Telling your story” I never think of it as that. If I tried to tell my story we’d be here all night! Any time I feel that sharing part of my personal experience would be helpful, there’s a point I’m trying to make, or an outcome I’m hoping for. I may be aiming to humanise mental illness, to encourage someone who’s feeling hopeless, or to share a strategy that works for me. Once I decide what it is that I’m trying to do, I will then draw upon a few incidents in my life that will best accomplish that. I’m not trying to tell all of my story, or to sum up my life – because frankly I can’t! I’m just using a few personal experiences to communicate something important.
Never share anything you can’t handle. All of us deal with a certain level of stress around feeling exposed. Some of cope better with this than others, and some things are easier to share about. Some audiences are also safer to share with than others. Similarly, some things are easier to hear about. Be really careful with including highly sensitive personal information when you tell your story. You should never feel under pressure to share anything you don’t wish to. This is about keeping yourself safe. And you need to be mindful not to overwhelm your listener – this is about being constructive.
Now, I’m not talking censorship here, and I’m not at all trying to stop you from sharing the real heart of your story, the black places that make accomplishments and recovery so much more remarkable. But I am saying that in most times and places, you shouldn’t be sharing gory details. Too much detail can actually traumatise your listener, especially if they are another person with a mental illness who is already feeling stressed. A lot can be alluded to without giving out more information than is needed. You can say things like “I had a difficult childhood”, “My teenage years were rough”, “I was abused by someone outside my family”, “I was in an abusive relationship”, “I tried to kill myself”, “I developed issues with self harming”, “I became aggressive and frightened my friends”. No more detail is needed or helpful in most instances. We get it, and we fill in the blanks.
Arrange a time as soon afterwards as possible to debrief. You may not need it – and it’s always great when that happens. It’s also great to have it already arranged if it turns out that you do. I almost always do! It’s hard to predict how telling your story will be received. Sometimes people ask awkward questions. Occasionally people are inappropriate and you will have to tell them you’re not going to respond. Sometimes people share very personal information in return, and that can be overwhelming. There’s a lot that can happen that can leave you feeling a bit wobbly! I find I’m wobbly after sharing my story, and that’s true for times it goes incredibly well, and for times it’s harder work with left-field questions or challenges. So I always schedule in time afterwards to touch base with someone I feel safe with. I have a drink with a friend, chat with my supervisor, call my sister. This really helps me cope with the ups and downs and feeling exposed.
Play to your strengths. If you’re telling your story to an audience, learn about public speaking, and find ways to make your talks interesting and unique. I share art or poems in mine. You have talents and skills that can help you share your story in a really unique way. Experiment until you find a style that suits you and your audience responds to. If you’re sharing your story one-to-one, most of those approaches wont be appropriate. But story telling skills will be. Good story tellers have a point, they stick to it. They don’t get bogged down in tiny little details or irrelevant aspects. They notice if they’re losing their audience and tailor their talk to keep the audience interested. And they use layman’s terms and metaphors to make ideas easier to understand.
Great Peer Workers are passionate, empathic, and really good listeners. You can’t take away what another person is going through but you can walk along side them so they don’t go through it alone. Great Peer Workers are human, people we can relate to. They share their challenges and skills, but are always mindful that everyone has to find their own path, so they don’t push what works for them onto others. You can be a fantastic Peer Worker, all of us who are willing to share our stories, we show that just as there are many different mental illnesses, and many different paths that lead to our darkest moments, there are also many different ways that we find hope and healing. Thank you to all of you who also share your own struggles to inspire hope.