When you get restless in body and mind, and nothing seems to soothe, what do you do? You could turn to something different — stories.
Myths, narrative therapy and fairy tales might be unusual remedies, but they each pack the healing power of story. Incorporating tension and release, conflict and resolution, stories can show the way from separation to integration, from distress to transformation. Placing character and action parallel to the drama of our daily lives, stories tell the tale of being human.
The longing for story likely coincides with the origin of human consciousness. How long can you stay away from movies, TV shows, novels, a country song — or a good gossip?
Kim Duckett, Merri Beacon and Gordon Smith are three Asheville practitioners who know there’s more to story than random entertainment: Story carries the possibility for deep healing.
“Myths are big stories, passed down from generation to generation,” says Duckett. Holding a doctorate in transpersonal psychology, she teaches the Sacred Mystery School for Women, a three-year course in women’s spirituality. She’s also co-founder of Our Voice, the rape crisis center that’s been serving Buncombe County for more than 40 years.
Duckett asserts, as famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did, that myths validate a culture’s moral order.
“Myths are teaching stories,” says Duckett. And myths must change to keep pace with changing times. “So it’s important to ask: What are they teaching?”
In the first year of Mystery School, women explore the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s descent to the underworld. In doing so, Duckett says, participants empower their own health and healing.
Initially, she presents the conventional version of the tale: Hades snatches the maiden Persephone, rapes her and imprisons her in his underworld realm.
Applying insights of transpersonal psychology, Duckett guides women to update the myth and make it personally relevant. With dance, poem-making and playwriting, they create a contemporary version: Persephone chooses to descend, to journey inward. Her dark underworld is a womblike place for rest, renewal and ripening. In this place, Duckett explains, she meets not Hades but Hecate — the wise woman within.
One session in the yearlong process is Deep Calls to Deep. In circle, women acknowledge that, like Persephone, they need to deepen, to be with their inner wisdom. “If we don’t do this voluntarily,” says Duckett, “Hecate will grab us.”
She elaborates: “If there’s been abuse or any kind of harm, or there’s a conflict we’re not dealing with, sooner or later it’s going to affect our lives, sometimes in devastating ways. So Hecate grabs us — meaning our own internal wisdom is saying, ‘You need to take some time to look at this.’”
The women each choose three issues to explore. In a circle of mutual support, they move toward clarity, vitality and renewed sense of purpose. “It’s healing to go inward in this way, to re-collect and re-member ourselves,” says Duckett.
She observes that, as women descend into their core wisdom and return into creative community, they generate a self-affirming, culture-renewing myth of Persephone.
They each create a mythic guide to their own wellness. They each realize: I am the myth-maker.
Fairy tales and remedies
Stressed, stuck in the mental fallout of traumatic events, Merri Beacon heard herself saying, “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.”
She began writing fairy tales to soothe her mind, starting with the story of a woman who let others take advantage of her kindness. This tale led to many more. They’ve served as self-healing remedies resolving anxiety and depression, Beacon says. They’ve released her from pain.
“The process is buoyant — fun, creative, enriching,” she says. “I tell my story in the third person, giving myself a new name. I rename the person who’s been abusive. That character often becomes a composite of several antagonists.”
She continues: “Placing events in a different time and place, a magical realm, I create safety. Distancing myself from difficult memories, I avoid retriggering trauma and, at the same time, I’m in the story as it unfolds.”
Beacon looks beyond trauma for source material. Her theme can be any issue — a tangled relationship, a disappointment, a desire. Even if she doesn’t know how to reach it, she knows the resolution she’s seeking. And she knows how to focus her body awareness as sensations translate into insight-rich visual images.
Penning the words “once upon a time,” Beacon lets characters arrive as needed: orphans, wizards, sages, pirates and the like. Together, they enact the issue’s intrinsic conflict.
If action stalls, Beacon keeps the story moving by changing locations, introducing a new character or adding an element of surprise. Inevitably, the story traces the protagonist’s discovery of, and developing trust in, her inner wise self.
Beacon’s tales have yet to include any elves or brownies, but they do feature turtlebats.
The first one appeared as Beacon noted a sensation in her solar plexus that felt like flexible armor. Then her dogs took up barking at a huge turtle in her neighbor’s yard. Beacon’s subsequent doodling yielded a turtle with batwings — a shielded creature capable of flight.
Turtlebats now enter Beacon’s stories as guardians, messengers, rescuers and steeds. Physically and emotionally, they transport the protagonist to safety and well-being. “They’re loving,” says Beacon, “in a reptilian way.”
To share the feelings of freedom, choice and self-worth they evoke, Beacon posts her stories on her website, fairytalemedicine.com.
A visitor to the site, taking inspiration from Beacon’s tales, might write her own story — in which a queen, with magical help, rescues herself by descending to meet the figure of her inner wisdom.
Narrative therapy and changing tales
Narrative therapy is one of several treatment modalities that Gordon Smith, licensed professional counselor, offers to the children and adults he sees in his West Asheville office. (Smith also serves on Asheville’s City Council.)
The premise of narrative therapy is challenging, says Smith, posing “the simple idea that you are telling yourself a story that’s defining your reality.” The approach is helpful, he says, when people identify themselves too closely with a problem such as depression, anxiety, anger or difficulty in a relationship.
As he listens to and reflects a client’s story, Smith creates space between person and problem. “In that space,” says Smith, “you can examine the beliefs structuring the problem in the light of your own values. You can pull away from limiting social, cultural and family constructs and build your own story — not live someone else’s.”
Finding exceptions to the client’s story-as-usual is key, Smith says. “The exception undermines the story. It redefines what happened in the past. It opens up new possibilities for the present and future.”
Take, for example, the monsters in a child’s bedroom closet.
As his young client tells him about the monsters, Smith notes that she says “scary“ several times. He asks, “What’s stronger than scary? What beats scary in a fight?”
A crocodile, she replies.
After discussing possibilities with Smith, the child takes a toy crocodile to bed with her. The monsters don’t budge. She puts a poster of crocodiles on the wall. Monsters remain.
Her parents get the child pajamas that double as a crocodile costume and she wears them to bed. Suddenly, the closet is monster-free and the child sleeps soundly through the night.
Later, Smith asks her: “How did you do that?” The story the child is telling herself changes: She doesn’t need to be afraid of monsters because there’s something stronger. The croc pajamas soon go to Goodwill. The girl herself can disappear fear.
An adult’s monster-in-the-closet might be the supervisor in the front office, the loan officer at the bank or the in-laws moving next door. For adults, there’s “a redefinition,” Smith says. “Rather than believing ‘I am fearful,’ they realize ‘I’m someone who can overcome fear.’”
Narrative therapy derives from evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy, which the National Institute of Mental Health considers an effective treatment for depression and other disorders.
Studies cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness have shown that CBT changes brain activity, which suggests improvement in brain function. The implication for narrative therapy? Change your story, change your brain — and change your life.
In relational terms, the process asks clients to take responsibility for what they believe to be true. They each come to understand: I am the storyteller.
When you know you’re the one telling the story of your life — whether through myth, fairy tale, or narrative therapy — you’ve got what it takes to authorize your own well-being.
A Year and A Day Sacred Mystery School for Women