A few days ago, I finished reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottshcall. In it, Gottschall presents a unique theory–that stories assist humans in navigating the complex social problems we encounter throughout our lives. Likening storytelling to flight simulators, which allow pilots to learn while on the ground, we live out a multitude of situations through the landscapes of make believe which are later applicable to our reality. Storytelling has evolved, he argues, in order to help keep us alive. There are many aspects of this book which I found fascinating–linking narrative to psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Not to mention, highlighting instances where a story changed the course of history (think Wagner’s Rienzi‘s influence on Hitler, Uncle Tom’s Cabin setting the stage for the most terrible war in American history, and the economic impact of Jaws on coastal vacation destinations).
There is another link, however, between narrative and mental illness. After the passing of yet another beloved performer, artist and storyteller who suffered from depression and addiction, the implications of this connection seem exceptionally pertinent. Gottschall points to the psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s study of mental illness and creativity which found far higher rates of psychiatric disorders in artistic fields than say political, scientific or business. Perhaps, the book points out, those with mental disorders are drawn towards creative outlets because of the stories they can create there. Stories which can give structure to what is going on inside their heads. Sometimes these stories are what bring us The Starry Night or Mrs. Dalloway and sometimes these stories go terribly awry. At times, there is a tragic cost for having storytelling minds.
So, what does that mean for us? In the wake of Robin William’s passing, diminishing the stigma of mental illness is again on the minds of many. Helping those suffering is a cause worth fighting for and believing in…but how do we do it? Personally, this is something I’ve been trying to find the answer to for some time. And one passage in Gottschall’s book really stood out to me. While it speaks to the success of psychotherapy, I found it an interesting analogy to help me better conceive of depression and it’s effects on the affected brain and person.
According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with…A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonists again–suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.
We each live the story of our lives. Our stories change and intersect, get written and edited and re-written…and sometimes we need reminders that we are the heroes in our own stories. And so that is how I am resolved to help, to continuously write chapters into my own story in which I name the heroes of others.
(Painting via here.)