By Annie Robinson
I met Denise last spring, in a 6-week Narrative Medicine course I co-taught for social workers. She stands out in my memory of the group in many ways: her outfits were always exquisitely coordinated; her eyes sparkled and often glistened with tears; she easily offered humor, truth, and consolation. She always made comments that illuminated the texts we read together in ways I had not previously considered. Perhaps most striking of all was how profoundly the workshop seemed to impact Denise: “It was a monumental experience for me, in my life, as a clinician and as a person.”
For 28 years, Denise has been serving victims of trauma in Brooklyn and Queens. Although she considers herself strong emotionally and mentally, she inevitably experiences vicarious trauma through her work. Narrative medicine - a field based in the belief that effective clinicians must know how to receive, interpret, and help craft their clients’ stories - offers her a means to work through some of that trauma: “(It) is a healing measure that I can tap into that will keep me grounded, keep me available, keep me conscious. To never ever find myself in a position of ‘Oh, I’ve heard this, I’ve seen this before…’ No. Each time is my first time with that person. And (narrative practice) helps with that.”
As traditional narrative medicine occurs in a classroom, the course consisted of closely reading and discussing a piece of poetry or prose every week. Then each participant, facilitators included, composed a brief response to a prompt related to the reading, and shared our writing aloud with one another.
Denise has always used writing to sort out her experiences. But the practice of narrative medicine expanded her appreciation for the power of the written word: “Reading someone else’s writing and trying to make sense of it, how I might interpret it, and then using that to be able to reflect and write about a personal experience I’ve had – that blew me away.”
Denise models how clinicians can incorporate narrative practice into both their personal and professional life. She finds it helpful to do on her own during a busy day at work: “Sometimes I’ll have to sit in my office and close my door and start writing a thought that I had about an experience I just had with someone, and it’s safe. It’s in a place where I know I can go back to it. I can ground myself. I can be in a place of objectivity instead of subjectivity.”
Denise also introduces her clients to their own narratives during therapeutic encounters, by asking: “What was the first thing you thought when this happened to you?” She observes how an invitation for them to tell their first-hand experience of the trauma “allows them to push everyone else to the side. Often people don’t think about their first thought, their first emotion. And that gets them to a place where they can write a (first-person) narrative.”
She guides them to develop their story, through writing or speaking: “Some write a paragraph, some only write three sentences. And those three sentences we can talk about for weeks. Some of them choose not to write at all, but instead to record their own voices. And they save those recordings in their phone, and they (listen to it) every so often.” Some of her younger clients even choose to narrate through rap.
Once they begin writing - songs, lyrics, poems, any genre - Denise sees them “healing and moving forward towards closure. They’re experiencing and developing or recognizing skills they had but suppressed or pushed to the side, because they didn’t consider it important. But it’s that very strength they have in them that draws them to a place of healing.” There is a sense of ownership, mastery, and pride that they gain from becoming authors of their life experiences.
Denise encourages her clients to see themselves as she sees them: individuals who have experienced traumatic events, not victims whose stories can be lumped together in domestic violence tropes. She discourages them from telling their stories as: “I’m a victim of domestic violence and this is what we victims of domestic violence…” Denise instead tries to help each client realize, through crafting a unique story, that “You’re an individual. This is what you went through. How did it affect you: your thoughts, your body, your emotions? I want them to be able to write that out. That narrative is so crucial.”
Denise recognizes, in herself and her clients, the radical changes that narrative practice can cause: “It keeps you from being stuck and unmoveable, to a place where there is mobility, and there are choices. And those choices can be so powerful that it can get people to move from A to B, but in some cases all the way down to Z (where they) find closure.”
Denise vows to carry onward in her clinical practice and personal life using narrative medicine as an unparalleled resource: “This story practice…I don’t think that there’s any medication that people can take that does the particular piece that this work does. On a cognitive level, physical level, emotional level – it’s not anything that can be replicated anywhere else.”
Below is a poem Denise wrote in honor of her clients and their experiences.
Out of the Darkness
Wounded outside in
I felt as though I have sinned
Wounded inside out
Oh how I wanted to shout
But there was no way out
Confused by the tormenting of my mind
It often told me to flee
And escape this life of mine
These intrusive thoughts
Powerful and fierce
Lead me into a world of
Self-affliction and fear
In the shadow and secret nights
You told me I was your Queen
Once you called me wife
Confused by your touch
Why did you love me so much?
Your hands strong and mighty
Forming a fist that would crush my body
So, still I stood, unaware of my own breathe
Somewhere in the corner of my mind
Wondering when will the night terror end
The story is out now and my song is strong
No longer will I hide in the corner of my mind
No longer confused and afraid of the midnight air
It stops here
Listen to my story loud and clear
I am free of the misery and constant fear
No longer vulnerable or invisible I am here
I will sing loud and strong for the courts to hear
What you have done to me over the years
It stops here.
The table has turned now
Hide in the shadow and behold your fate
As you will spend the rest of your years
Fearing those who have heard my song
More about Denise Briales:
Denise has worked in the field of social work for the past 28 years servicing victims of trauma both from secular and sectarian backgrounds. She herself has been exposed to many traumatic events that have made powerful imprints in my personal and professional life. Denise has long used journaling as a therapeutic tool. Since being exposed to narrative medicine, when she reads back her written words, she attains centering, grounding, awareness, and healing from the experience of vicarious trauma that affects caregivers in mental health professions.
More about Annie Robinson:
As a patient, and as a caregiver in the role of a doula supporting women through birth, abortion, and miscarriage, I have experienced the power of stories in healing. I recently graduated from the Narrative Medicine master's program at Columbia University, and will begin at Harvard Divinity School next fall to explore the borderlines between ministry and medicine.
I also curate an oral narrative project called “Inside Stories: Medical Student Experience”, for which I interview medical students about their experiences in medical school with the intention to provide a platform for their own person healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories. You can listen to their stories on iTunes podcasts or here: http://in-training.org/inside-stories.
Over the coming year, I will be working as an intern for Health Story Collaborative and writing a series of blog posts that profile remarkable individuals committed to honoring and making use of stories in health care. If you or someone you know might be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.