Your story works like your skin

by Jerry Waxler

When you cut your skin, you bleed, and if you don’t clean it, infection sets in. Human beings also have another type of skin, made not of flesh but of stories. This skin provides a sense of purpose, of safety, of place in the world. When it’s healthy it is resilient enough to shrug off an annoyance, or a small setback. But the slings and arrows of fortune occasionally break through this skin and then it no longer protects us. In our vulnerable state we must continue to live and make decisions designed to seal up the hole, to protect us from the insult ever happening again. The decisions we make in this state often affect us far longer than the original injury itself. Like broken flesh that develops a life threatening infection, a damaged story can be dangerous.

Take for example the crashing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. We watched in horror as our story of safety was penetrated, and then through that gaping wound poured two full fledged military invasions, and subsequently many more dead bodies and torn lives.

While that incident shows how the minds of millions of people can be damaged, we each have individual stories, and these can be damaged, too. Violence is the bluntest way, but there are others. A lover or business partner cheats, and the world becomes dark, no longer worth living in. Betrayal doesn’t even require another person. You can betray yourself. When addicts start wrecking their lives, they cling for dear life to the story that everything is fine. But at some point, the realization crashes in that they are letting themselves down. “I’m a rotten person” creates a dangerous hole in their story.

During this wounded period your decisions are not made in the clearest frame of reference. The urgent need to patch up the hole, might lead you to choices whose consequences continue to resonate years later. The cry for deliverance often rips people up more than the initial event. The jilted lover, the avenging family, the self-imploding addict, the litigious spouse, the almost athlete or artist, create even more wounds in the name of setting the story straight.

Despite this messy process, eventually we do stand up, ready to move on. And then, when we are calmer and wiser we can regain some of the ground we lost during the throes of pain. Look past at the initial pain, and from the place of safety you feel right now, approach this as a valuable opportunity for review and deeper understanding. How did you regain your sense of self? What decisions did you make, and how did they affect you later? By reviewing the decisions and actions you made during trauma, you can learn about yourself, reduce the pain and backwards suction of those memories, make amends, and find new and higher ground.

When you come upon traumatic moments in your own story, you will probably realize that you have not applied much retrospective wisdom to that time in your life, having naturally fallen into a longstanding habit of pretending it never happened. And this is one of the vast, profound, unsung benefits of writing about your life. By organizing your thoughts and putting them in order, you regain control and understanding over your own story. It’s one of my favorite things about memoir work. The best repair for a damaged story is to tell stories.

However, there are many challenges in retelling the story of old wounds. Foremost is breaking the pact of forgetfulness you had made with yourself. Remembering might feel dangerous. In my next blog, I’ll tell about a trauma I experienced, and how revisiting it has helped me revise and heal my original view.

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