What Is Story Medicine? When the wound becomes a gift.


Our stories can make us free when we use them to heal our lives.  When we use them for stewing, looping, revenge, and getting even, we get stuck in this gooey energy and wonder why we can’t move forward.  Our Indigenous ancestors knew this.  They knew that the stories of humanity, of the human condition would heal the earth and the world.  They understood that our stories hold great power.  They knew that this power awaits our ownership and mastery, that our stories are infinite, and, that they guide us with clear signals letting us know when one chapter or era of life is over and the next is about to begin… 

For example, over the years of my childhood, my grandmother told and retold a very painful story that chilled my nervous system and put me on notice to be on the lookout for more of the same when I grew into womanhood.  Today, I call this a Hard Story.  It frustrated and angered my child’s mind that she had had to suffer in the ways she was describing, that no one had been able to help her, and that she had been a victim for most of her life.  Still, she told this story, perhaps inappropriate for my ears, trying as best she could, to make some sense of what had happened to her, while at the same time, trying to teach me something.  

In this story, she had been betrayed, cheated and devastated by people she loved and trusted, and she never fully recovered from the shock of it.  Still, after much prayerful thought, she responded with saintly love and care, doing what she believed to be the right thing, although unbeknownst to the world, her silent suffering continued.  And, in her mind, this painful thing never changed.  This wound never ceased to deliver its stinging, belittling, dream stealing venom, and although she may have felt some temporary relief whenever she told it, it was still a secret.  

It was her secret, and it was the family secret.   So, for the sake of appearances, she lived with the secret and the pain of it in her sense of being.  Within this secrecy she held her offenders in the prison of her mind where they served out a lifetime sentence.  Mind you, their sentence was not bound to their lifetimes, but to hers.  Today, I know that she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Never in her lifetime did she get therapy or sit with anyone who could help her redirect this trauma and teach her how to take authority over it, over her story, or show her how the pain of her story most likely predated this particular incident.  Or to show her, in a respectful, careful way, that this particular incident was yet another symptom of how she had been taught to feel and had always felt about herself…

But, I, some three generations later in her lineage, became the agent, the one who, after her death, would connect the dots, retrace my pain all the way back to hers, take action and create some change in the way her story’s energy continued to show up as cumulative shock, rage and pain in MY life.  And I did this.  I took this positive action, retrieved my voice and my lost self through story medicine. 

As in everything else in life except for healing, energy moves in a progression from subtle to tangible levels.  From sound, to shape/form, then skin.  In this movement, energy creates the result of itself, whatever that is.  For example, when you plant a seed in the soil, water it and give it sunlight, a beautiful green plant will emerge according to the blueprint of the seed.  This is the same in love, in our plans and dreams.  It is also the same in the cycle of violence.  Violence begins with ideas of power and then continues with words according to intention.  I’m talking about words of otherness, separation and judgment spoken for whatever reason.  

In our country, guilt, punishment and judgment are powerful ideas taking the form of yet more violence that we have yet to fully examine.  Many times we move into judgment almost as a knee jerk reaction against people we don’t know, don’t like or don’t understand.  With lines of separation like class and race, we are uninformed, misinformed and confused about “others.”  Lines of separation keep us from knowing one another.  Separation comes with lies about who and what people are.  We don’t see that class and race and otherness create enemies centered in social identity.

Generally speaking, when black people of my generation or before got an education, we did it to make a difference in our communities.  We studied social work to help people find the needed support in their communities.  We studied medicine to provide access to health care and help ease their pain.  We became teachers to assure a better quality of education.  We studied law to work for justice.  To us, education meant being able, having the power and authority to change the stories in our communities!

Activist black lawyers such as Fanya Davis, Van Jones and Bryan Stevenson studied law with an intention to expose and work to change the justice system in this country.  Fanya is Angela’s sister, and she has worked in California advocating for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. similar to what was done in post apartheid South Africa.  Van Jones worked briefly for the Obama administration and left under the pressure of intense scrutiny from the right wing.  Jones was outspoken as an advocate for green energy, and as a critic of the federal justice system, saying essentially that inmates in this country are tortured.  I remember hearing him talk about criminals being treated so badly, life made continually worse and worse for them that they are destroyed, not rehabilitated.  Bryan Stevenson has worked to help free persons incarcerated in southern prisons who were wrongly convicted.  In the course of his work, he began to tell stories and shed light on the horrors of our system and show that it needs dismantling and then replacing with true justice and mercy.  He has in the process become a proponent of righting the wrongs of racism and apartheid in the Jim Crow south.  He has most recently opened a museum dedicated to commemorating the lives of black people killed by lynch mobs.  Bryan realizes that this is a necessary step to be taken in the journey of healing America, helping us have and facilitating a conversation we have never had, a taboo conversation until now.  

For the truth about slavery and lynching in America has been treated like America’s family secret.  And, just like systemic family secrecy, all of us knew about it, all of us breathed the air coming from it, felt the pain of it, all of us acted like and felt like something was really wrong, but nobody talked about it.  And, we know that as in everything in life, change begins with words.

Silence is lethal when a story needs and begs telling and we have no language, no voice, no permission to speak, and no one to listen.  This makes me realize that not only am I the teller of my story, but, that I am the voice of my grandmother’s story as well, for I found strong, clear language for the enduring pain I saw in her.  My story is the progeny of her story.  My story medicine is proof that she did not suffer in vain.

Just as I have been blessed enough to demonstrate and teach this same technique in the writing of stories with women in Atlanta, with students of all ages  in my classrooms, and with all the folks who came through the story medicine classes, workshops and healing program.  That’s my grandmother’s legacy.

Through this work, her wound made me a spiritual detective, became a gift and, as in homeopathy when you take an attenuated dose of an irritant to help jump start the body’s immune response, we use story medicine to send new messages, images, and merciful pain relief to our nervous systems so that we can interrupt the age old cycles of violence and punishment active within our lives, so that we can finally emerge from the clutches, from the loop of the old, painful story so prevalent in our world today.

What words have you given to your wound?  Have you found the context and generational truths and told the whole story about it?   Have you told the secrets?   Have you found your story medicine?  Did you take it according to the ways of your ancestors, by the way that you tell it, write it, remember it?  Do you realize that your story can save your life?

It can.  I am a living witness that, when you are ready, it can.  When you are ready, you can tell it in a way that honors everyone involved, in a way that everyone in the story showed up from somewhere connected to you to teach you something.  If only you are willing.  If you are willing, the spirit will show you, through ways that you will recognize, ways that are especially meaningful to you.  The spirit will show you how to harvest and take the medicine in your story.  If you are willing.  If you will listen.  If you are courageous, if you truly want to be set free.

I am grateful.

I am grateful.

I am grateful.

Ase’