Why Share Your Story? During Illness, Storytelling Can Help Healing

In the words of treasured American author Joan Didion, “We tell stories in order to live.” Stories connect us as human beings, and help us find meaning in this sometimes-baffling world. As a patient living with multiple sclerosis, I know this to be true. Stories have sustained me on my journey.

In the context of illness, our stories can help us heal, both individually and collectively.

Sharing is an ‘Act of Courage’

Sharing who we are, authentically and without apology, is an act of courage, a radical display of self-acceptance and self-love. Doing so can definitely be scary, but the end result, when such sharing occurs in the context of a supportive audience, is empowerment, wholeness and connection.

Shame and fear lose power when we give them voice. In telling our stories, we step into them, take ownership of them, and nurture ourselves in the process. And hearing other people’s stories is a gift and a tremendous relief. We are not alone or unique in our vulnerabilities, we realize.

You are not alone or unique in your vulnerabilities, you realize.

My Diagnosis is Part of My Story

We are all human, more the same than we are different, and we are all flawed! Mutual honesty and transparency are freeing for all involved. We can be who we are, without pretense.

I have written previously, in this space, about my initial diagnosis of MS, about how I lived in denial for a long while, and then with shame, feeling angry with myself for being sick. I struggled to integrate this diagnosis into my life, but ultimately, in order to find peace and to heal, I had to accept it as a part of my story.

I had to embrace myself wholeheartedly, messy diagnosis and all. This took years. Slowly, over time, I revised my self-story, and am still revising it today.

Making Sense of My Illness

As I wrote in my book, “The Healing Power of Storytelling,” what scared me most about my diagnosis was that it would somehow become synonymous with my identity, overwhelming all other aspects of myself with the label of a “sick person.” I needed to find a way to make sense of my illness as something that makes me stronger, not weaker.

I did not want to get stuck in victimhood.

I suppose I am wired this way. I have always preferred movement and action to stagnation and inaction. The prospect of getting stuck terrified me.

Shaped by the Stories We Tell

Over time, I have come to understand that I am not powerless in the face of my illness. Central to the social science research on the health benefits of narrative is the concept of narrative identity, the belief that who we are—our identity—is shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves in a continually evolving process.

Yes, what happens to us in our lives matters, and sometimes the events of our lives are beyond our control, but what matters more is how we make sense of what happens to us, the meaning we make, reflected in the stories we tell.

You Choose Your Attitude

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl calls this “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” No one can take this away from us.

And it turns out that how we make meaning—how we tell the stories of our lives—directly impacts our health.

Certain narrative themes—agency, redemption, communion and coherence—have been linked to positive mental health, even in the face of physical health challenges.

Bottom line: we are in charge and we don’t have to get stuck. This is true even in the face of incurable illness. When confronted with diagnoses that seem out of our control, storytelling can be empowering and liberating.

The Good and the Bad

But let’s be honest, being sick stinks, and the hard parts of illness are essential parts of the story and should not be ignored. This isn’t easy. The key is not to get stuck or fixated on the hard parts, while also not glossing over them.

We need to broaden our stories, to make room for the good and the bad, the dark and the light, for seemingly contradictory elements. This is where healing begins. No one said it had to be neat and clean.

Sharing Might Help Others

For many of us (myself included), sharing our own stories can feel self-indulgent. It is uncomfortable to think about how this process will benefit us, even though it clearly does. It is easier to think about how sharing our stories might help others, and indeed, our stories do help others!

Research has clearly shown that listening to other people’s stories can improve both mental and physical health, and perhaps even behavior.

And research has also shown that how the listener receives the story can in turn affect the health of the teller. An attuned, empathetic listener boosts health.

I Value My Own Story

Storytelling is a relational act, an intricate dance in which “tellers, hearers, and stories meet to constitute themselves.” How our story is received influences what the story means to us and how we will tell it moving forward, and our identity shifts ever so slightly in response. And those receiving our story will also be changed, as our story becomes a part of their story, and so on.

I have shared in this space before that I was slow to let others into my health journey. In truth, it took me a while to embrace and value my own story. But once I shared it with someone, someone who was not one of my closest friends or family members, I started to understand its power.

‘I Have MS, Too’

In my role as a doctor, I found myself having to deliver the news of an MS diagnosis to a 23-year-old patient. She was distraught, in tears, convinced that her life was over. She would never work. She would never get married and have children. She would be limited and diminished from here on out.

In that moment, I made an offering. “I have MS, too,” I told her.

“I work. I have four children. I run, ski and play hockey. The future is uncertain, and this is scary, but in this uncertainty there is room for hope.”

While this was a somewhat controversial boundary-crossing in the field of medicine, I feel certain that it was the most healing thing I could have done in that moment. Her face brightened. Possibility replaced doom.

My Diagnosis Can Help Others

There was healing in this for me, too, of course. This experience showed me that my diagnosis is more than just a black mark on my life. It can help me to help others, to do the work of healing that I trained to do as a doctor, but perhaps more authentically and more poignantly.

While I don’t generally make it a habit of sharing personal details about my life with my clinical patients, this experience was pivotal in my decision to create Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating storytelling among individuals navigating health challenges.

Take the Risk: Share Your Story

In that moment, I saw clearly and with certainty that story sharing can heal both storyteller and story receiver. And this became a part of my story. Without noticing, I grabbed hold of agency, redemption, communion and coherence.

Patients and caregivers, you all have stories to share.

Yes, it is scary, but your stories are important and they will contribute to healing.

I encourage you to take the risk.

Start a CaringBridge Site

When you’re going through a health journey, you have a lot on your plate. CaringBridge replaces the time-consuming task of sharing your health news over and over. It’s a free, easy to use online journal for sharing health information with your family and friends.  

Don’t go through your health journey alone.

You can stay connected to friends and family, plan and coordinate meals, and experience love from any distance.

All of this is ready for you when you start your personal CaringBridge site, which is completely free of charge, ad-free, private and secure. Don’t spend another minute alone!

  • Celia Olson

    I was diagnosed in 1996, before symptoms started. I am a pianist, suddenly unable to open my hands wide enough to get 8 keys. Nobody in my family had MS, nor my grandparents. Last year a cousin younger than me had MS, she is 40. I have primary progressive MS. I do not walk for the last 18 years, I was born in 1962. I have had 6 strokes and 1 heart attack.The Rebif (beta-1a) did very little to help me. The medical team did even less. After roughly five unending years of trauma in the family my MS developed into progressive. There have been many changes in the last 3 to 4 years. Many falls, many fractured bones, and three moves all in five years. I have gone downhill. Considerably. We tried every shot available but nothing was working. There has been little if any progress in finding a reliable treatment for Multiple Sclerosis, I started on MS Herbal Treatment from Kycuyu Health Clinic, the herbal treatment immensely helped my Multiple Sclerosis condition, i had huge improvements. My life is back. I Adhere anyone reading this to try natural approach.

  • Eva Grayzel

    Powerful messages here Dr. Brewster! From my experience, I’ve learned there is the boundary with telling your story. You can share too much that turns people off. (details of surgery, how you hate your scar (negativity)) Telling your story has value for others when you can find the wisdom in your journey. Acceptance is the first step, and then making the story not so much about what happened to you, but what you are learning about yourself, about the people in your life, the surprises….These are the stories that can truly have impact on others. It takes time to recognize the wisdom. For me, telling your wisdom story is an opportunity to leave a legacy to those who know you and love you about how to LIVE.

  • Joanne Hense

    Thank you for this great service in educating us on the importance of sharing our personal stories thru support and healing in community.. I am grateful this Thanksgiving Day for caringbridge.org..

  • David Fleming

    Your family photo is a beautiful showing of happiness and good health, Regards David

  • Ally Ladak

    Wonderful resources on this website for online communities

  • Marlene

    Dr Brewster is amazing! I’ve seem her at MGH and she was spectacular! Smart, Very kind and caring. Good luck. Prayers for you and your family❤️

  • Lynne Gardner

    This organization was a wonderful discovery. Everyone at sometime in their life has to face a life adjustment. In my case it was the loss of my husband of 57 years to cancer. It has been over a year and I am still learning to live with my new reality.

  • Helen Styerd

    Praying for you

  • Sally Neel

    In February of 2017 I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer. I had developed a very large tumor on my liver that was inoperable. I was told that they could possibly control its growth for a couple of years, but after that it would likely spread to other organs. Not being willing to accept a pill to control this tumor, an anti-estrogen pill that would keep the tumor from being fed by the estrogen that had been feeding it, I looked into a research hospital in Denver. A team of specialists looked at my scans and reports and determined that I would be a candidate for Y-90, a process that places radioactive beads directly into the tumor, blocking the arteries that are feeding the tumor and killing cancer cells. I have since had two of these procedures and the tumor has shrunk by 6 cm. The goal is to get it small enough for surgical removal. I have been blogging about this on my FB page since I received my diagnosis and have found a huge group of supporters who anxiously await my reports. Many of them have had to face cancer since I began writing down my story and have reached out to me for support. It has been very rewarding and affirming. Thank you for this great article. I hope others will gather the courage to share!

  • Johan Boutella

    After my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis 2 years ago, i stopped all the Multiple sclerosis medicines prescribed due to severe side effects, and decided to go on natural herbal approach. My primary care provider introduced me to Rich Herbs Foundation and i immediattely started on their Multiple Sclerosis herbal formula treatment, this herbal treatment has made a tremendous difference for me. My symptoms including shaking, muscle weakness, fatigue, mood swings, numbness, double vision and urinary retention all disappeared after the 4 months treatment! Their website is ww w. richherbsfoundation. com. Its just amazing!

  • Paul Harman

    Thank you for sharing your story, I am sure it made a huge difference for your patient and others living with illness . You chose to deal with it positively and that makes a world of difference. God bless you and keep you strong.

  • Anne Bauman

    Dr. Brewster is amazing. Her patients are fortunate to have her.
    Doctors get the same ailments as patients do, but of course, they cannot share all with them. We wouldn’t want them to.

    She is very courageous to talk to her patients who have MS. It helps them.

    . But she is courageous to tell her story. I surely wish her well!