The Power of Storytelling


The act of listening to and telling stories has saved my life. Literally. I know I am not alone in this experience. Most addicts and alcoholics find their first glimmers of hope in listening to others talk about what their life was like, and what it is like now that they have entered recovery. This first flicker of hope is essential, but I believe the power of story has the potential to create the deeper change necessary for sustained recovery. In exploring this idea, I offer a bit of my own story.  


In April of 2008, I walked through the door of a men’s addiction recovery program in Western Massachusetts. I was 20 years old and consumed by an addiction to opiates and alcohol that had had stripped everything of value from my life. It hadn’t taken long for me to end up here. At thirteen I started smoking pot, by fifteen drinking had entered the picture in a significant way, and after a hip injury at sixteen, I was introduced to opiates. From there, it wasn’t long before my life had gone to shambles. I wish my experience was unique, but unfortunately, it’s not at that uncommon. I’ve met many people who have walked a similar path, especially young people, many of whom find themselves in need of recovery before they are legally able to drink. Fortunately, there is hope for people like us, but in my own experience, lasting recovery has required more than the elimination of alcohol and opiates…and this is where it gets interesting.


There is a reason why detox alone often does not work for people who live with addiction. It’s the same reason why incarceration is largely ineffective in preventing criminals from re-offending. The problem with these kinds of interventions is that removing the drink or drug (or in the case of criminals, taking them off the streets) does not address the problem at its root. This is not to say that there is not a part of addiction that is physical, I know first hand that detoxification is an intensely physical experience. I am also not trying to claim that treatment isn't important. As an alum of several treatment centers, this would be a hugely hypocritical statement to make. What I am trying to say is that the more important layer of addiction rests in that part of ourselves we are left with after the chemicals leave our bodies.


I have come to believe that I ended up neck deep in the mire of addiction because of my inability to see. After the substances are gone, my problem becomes one of perception. As far back as I can remember, I did not perceive opportunity or self-worth. I viewed the world as a hostile place. Even though my peers seemed to like me, I felt entirely alone. I lacked the perspective to understand what had happened to me. Though I did not choose it, the way I perceived my experiences, my place in the world, and my relation to others, was severely limited. The way a person ends up here is complex, but I think it’s important to note that none of this was my fault. I did not choose the way my family and community had shaped me, I did not choose my genes, my traumas, and I honestly don’t even think I was responsible for the way addiction had impacted my ways of seeing. But regardless of how I ended up in this position, my perception is what I am left with after the substances are gone, and my perception was the cage that kept me trapped in my addiction.


When I really boil it down, what I loved so much about substances was their awesome power to change me on the level of perception. When I was loaded, the world didn’t seem so menacing. I felt connected to others, and comfortable in my own skin. Some life changing opportunity seemed just around the corner. The problem was I always came down, and found myself right back where I’d started. Lonely, afraid, angry and hopeless. Sound familiar? The funny thing about addiction is that the problem really begins where the booze and drugs end. My need to get loaded stems from my inability to stand the way things look and feel when I’m clean and sober, and on the flip side of this, my recovery began when I started addressing it from this angle. 


So, what the hell does any of this have to do with storytelling?


Since 2008, I have witnessed recovery happen in the lives of many, many people, and the common experience I have observed is that we have developed new perspectives, new ways of relating, and new modes of seeing the world and our place in it. How does one do this? How does one reshape perspective and perception? Well, this is the place where, in my own experience, story comes into the picture—this is how story has saved my life.


At that halfway house two things happened. First and foremost, I encountered people who had been to the places I’d been, done the things I’d done, and felt the feelings I’d felt. These people spent time with me, they listened to me, but most importantly, they offered me their stories. They said, “Here’s what happened to me, and here’s what it is like now.” Immediately one function of storytelling became apparent. I felt less alone. I began to identify. As I mentioned above, I received my first major dose of hope.


If all storytelling did, at the end of the day, was give us hope and make us feel less alone, I believe it would still be an invaluable gift and excellent activity to engage in, but I believe story’s redemptive power goes beyond this function. As I began to identify with the stories others were telling about their own lives, I also began to see that they perceived their experience through a different lens. By engaging with their narratives, I began to understand that, although we shared many of the same experiences, they perceived them in ways I’d never considered. I began to see that my perspective was not immutable, not absolute, that there were unlimited ways of seeing. It became clear that the way I had been seeing the world, other people, and myself wasn’t working for me anymore. Their stories gave me the power to revise my ways of seeing and relating to the world around me (And as a side note, reading literature has had a similar effect in my life).


Maybe this ability to see situations from different perspectives is a natural ability for some people, but for me, this was a revelation. As I began to revise my perspective and practice seeing others and myself in new ways, I began to piece together my own narrative. I began to find some coherence in a set of experiences that felt fractured. Trauma ruptures the coherence of one’s life, and storytelling offered me a way to put my life back together, to see it as a whole again, and to find some kind of meaning in the things that had happened to me. The world began to look less threatening. It became easier to live in my own skin. I began seeing opportunity in places I’d never thought to look. An interestingly, it became easier to stay clean and sober one day at a time.


This ongoing journey of recovery has been one of constant perceptual revision. It does not take much for me to slip back into those old ways of seeing, and when I start to feel alone, uncomfortable, afraid, or cheated by the world, getting loaded starts to sound like a reasonable option. The hope for me is that I have some choice in how I see things. The awareness of this choice came through listening to the stories of others, and in listening to these stories, I believe I was given permission to begin re-telling my own.