Each day, we humans participate in a common activity—the ancient craft of storytelling. Reading the daily paper, watching movies, or catching up with friends—sharing or listening to stories is at the heart of our nature. But can telling your story have benefits for your health? “Yes, most definitely,” says Paul Browde, actor, psychiatrist, and narrative therapist, “it made all the difference to my health and life."
Sharing the healing power of storytelling is a narrative exercise that Browde and his fellow actor Murray Nossel, an academy-nominated documentary filmmaker, have engaged audiences in for the last 14 years through Two Men Talking, a live unscripted performance that has been showcased to acclaim in New York, London, and South Africa. On stage, the two men explore a variety of stories: growing up white, Jewish, and gay under apartheid in South Africa; homophobia; racism; AIDS; and most importantly, their friendship and the passage of time.
"We found that audience members would come to us after the show and wanted share their stories,” said Browde. Nossel and Browde came to recognize the need for spaces for storytelling and also guidance on storytelling technique. They created methodology to help participants discover their stories and empower participants to establish new relationships to the problems in their lives. Among the many arenas in which their organization, Narativ, has conducted workshops, the use of narrative work in supporting one’s health is a connection that is most striking.
Browde shared an example from his counseling practice of a woman with a rare form of cancer that requires lifelong chemotherapy. The doctor’s narrative of the case depicted her as being cured in remission; her experience was of being sick every three weeks due to the chemo treatments. “In our narrative work, we helped her reconnect to the narrative that she is an activist, and not only a cancer patient, and that she has a life-long story of advocating for others. It helped her to explore ways
she could advocate for herself and find ways she can live with her experience,” he stated.
Browde advised that there are two critical aspects narrative work in health care. The first is the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. “When we listen to the whole story, or multiple stories that patients may be struggling with, it impacts what patients may tell us and secondarily, the interplay between both listening and telling leads to dialogues that are central a patient’s wellness. I think such dialogues could broaden the definition of what treatment is—it may be more than chemotherapy—to a dialogue of the pros and cons of facing such a treatment regime for one’s whole life. In such a case when the personal experience, narrative, of the patient becomes part of the focal point of the treatment, it may enable the patient to face the problem (cancer) and continue the treatment,” he stated.
The idea of multiple stories or a hidden narrative—being an artist, activist, gardener, writer—is central to narrative work; there are multiple possibilities or parts of ourselves to explore at this moment. In Browde and Nossel’s work, this idea is a practical, tangible technique in their storytelling work and has guided them in health-related global projects they have undertaken through Narativ.
In South Africa, they used storytelling circles to assist persons with HIV and non-affected family members to understand what is like to have HIV in that culture, addressing issues of secrecy, testing, and stigma. In Senegal, they conducted storytelling workshops with HIV educators, enabling women to build a community of support around the challenges of being a sole educator in a particular area. In Croatia, Narativ conducted narrative training for an organization that was assisting with the de-institutionalizing of persons with intellectual disabilities. The narrative work was used in a media campaign to educate the public on how such persons can be reintegrated into local communities and the meaning of such an opportunity. In all of these projects, narrative work led to a new idea, perspective, or social option.
“Stories don’t only reflect life,” said Browde, “they also shape life.” The impact of narrative work on health is one that Browde knows personally as well. In 1985, at age 25, he was diagnosed with HIV. “At the time, the only narrative that I knew about HIV was that I was going to die in two years time,” he said. In the 80s when little was know about the virus, there were few models of how he could envision his life. With the support of a number of influences, Browde went public with his story at an annual American Psychiatric Association meeting with a presentation An HIV infected psychiatrist, “I remember from that day forward, that a line of demarcation from others dissolved and I was able to reconnect with the support and open dialogue I needed.”
In the health-focused narrative workshops, a common theme is how one can use narrative technique with the daily coping of a health condition. Browde shared his own example, “I recognized that the virus had become a part of me and I could not ask for it to be eradicated. The metaphor of battling HIV gave me a feeling of being at war with my body. Instead, the narrative that emerged was of living in peaceful coexistence with HIV. That does not mean that I don’t have hard days or struggle with the impact of side effects of medications, but I keep coming back to that narrative of peaceful coexistence—with diet, exercise, stress management—with the condition.”
Browde encourages others to discover narrative work. “It gives life a unique hue for me. One can read a million articles or textbooks on what it is like to have a particular medical condition, but for you it’s the first time, your own unique experience. Everyone has a story… it’s your birthright.”