On Healing and the Power of Storytelling

I was overwhelmed by the reaction to my blog post last week on grief, loss, and healing. That post has now reached more people than anything I’ve ever written. Besides reading, many people reached out to say that my post had spoken to some part of their experience. I was touched by everyone who said my post made them feel less alone.

Sometimes we just need someone to let us know that we’ve been heard, understood, and validated. If you’re in grief, I see you. I hear your pain. If you need someone to support you in what you’re going through, I would be very honored to support you in whatever way would help the most. If you need me to just sit quietly with you while you’re hurting, I’ll do that. You are not alone. (Seriously. Drop me an email and let me know if/how I can best support you.)

Clearly, there’s some need to make space to talk about the difficult feelings that accompany personal and professional transition. We often don’t talk want about the ugly stuff, like the shame, grief, fear, and anger and yes, trauma, that accompanies our (often involuntary) exit from academic life.

If you’ve experienced trauma and loss before, the loss of walking away from academia can trigger all of that other stuff. Loss of professional identity suddenly triggers all of those other losses, particularly those unhealed, childhood ones. You might experience an emotional avalanche made up of all the unhealed parts of you. You may start doubting your own sanity. Don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking that your loss doesn’t somehow count or shouldn’t hurt. It’s real. People who lose jobs and identities experience depression, health problems, and other effects of traumatic loss. It ain’t no joke.    

My day job is in crime victim advocacy. I help pull people through some of the worst moments of their lives. Because of that work, I’ve made this discovery: I’m not afraid of people’s emotional pain. Sometimes it’s hard to see people hurting so much. But I am not afraid to sit with people while they’re hurting and witness their pain.
And I’ve also learned that people can heal. Healing, however, doesn’t happen automatically. People like to say that time heals. It doesn’t. Some people carry emotional wounds for decades. When you’re done grieving (and there’s never any time table on that), your primary job becomes one of healing and moving forward. This will likely be a slow and almost imperceptible process.

In my last post, I wrote that healing isn’t a matter of “getting over” anything. We never “get over” loss. Healing happens when we start telling our story in a new way that acknowledges the loss, but also empowers us.

Healing doesn’t happen as long as we’re still telling the same story that goes “X thing happed to me. It was awful.” Don’t for a second think that I’m saying that your loss or experience wasn’t awful or traumatic. It was and it is. Walking away from the part of your life you love most is traumatic. It’s a huge loss. Lots of us thought that we’d get tenure track jobs. And then lots of us didn’t.
 However, telling your leaving academia story as a random bad thing that happened to you isn’t very empowering. In fact, it’s a story of victimization. Telling the story not getting an academic job as a thing that happened to you makes that experience the centerpiece of the story. The editor in me would like to call your attention to the fact that this story is also in passive voice, which I don’t think is an accident. You as a person have no agency in that story. Something happened to you that you had no control over. You were powerless to change it.

This was my story for a long time. As a recent refugee from academia, my PhD story was very much one of victimization. I blamed academia. I blamed other people. I blamed myself. My story went something like, “I got a PhD in history. Then I couldn’t find a job because the job market collapsed. And no one would hire me. So…here’s my resume.” It was self defeating.
This is an entirely true academic story. But it’s not the only way to interpret the evidence.

Other true stories exist to tell about your PhD journey. Healing happens when you can start telling the story in a new way.: “X thing happened to me. It was awful. And then I chose to do Y.” This story acknowledges the awful thing that happened to you. It doesn’t take away from the bad thing that happened. X was awful and it still hurts. But in this story, you’ve got agency. You’ve got power. You’ve made some choices.

This is what people mean when they talk about telling your PhD story in a new way.

When you start telling the story with the awful thing that happened to you, but then you chose to do Y, you’re drawing on your power, your agency, and your creativity. You’re changing the meaning of it. In fact, you’re giving the story the meaning of your choice.

So my story now isn’t, “I got a PhD in history. Then I couldn’t get a job.”

My story now is one like this: “I got a PhD in Latin American history. Then I didn’t get an academic job. So I chose to do some rethinking and decided that what I really wanted to do was live in Mexico and write and help other people use their own creativity to heal through writing.” [The Mexico part hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still time.]

And it’s equally true as the self-defeating story. But now there’s space for my own agency and power. Sure, some stuff didn’t work out (probably for the best), but then I decided to go do something else with my life that sounds more meaningful than sitting in a faculty meeting.

Writing is a powerful vehicle for changing stories. Looking back at my blog, I see the development of my new story, little by little. I’ve used my own creativity and power to reframe the story and move forward. Learning to tell my story in a new way hasn't happened overnight. As I move forward and start seeing new possibilities, those ideas become woven into my new story.

If you’re currently in grief, please continue taking the best possible care of wonderful you. Don’t even think about this mysterious thing called healing yet.     

If you think you’re getting to the point where you’re ready to start taking a few wobbly steps forward, you might think about how you tell your personal and professional stories. And then tell them.

Stories are powerful. The way you tell yours matters.