Why do people tell personal stories, tell them to strangers, even when the victorious conclusion to the struggle is nowhere in sight. Why tell stories when tomorrow sounds as if it will be no better than today?
Last week I hosted an alumni forum at my daughter’s school. All of the returning students were “diverse learners,” which means they received support through an IEP or a 504 plan when they attended high school. The case manager and I invited them back to share their post-high school experiences with current students and their parents. Since the alumni were volunteering their time, I expected this self-selected group to share a common story arc: They would have faced some challenges moving into a college setting, suffered a few setbacks, matured through the learning curve that brought them to their preferred major and, for those who graduated more than six years ago, conclude with a comment about their successful matriculation and current job—a job both satisfying and remunerative enough to support their independence. After all, these were supposed to be the alumni who had chosen to come back and tell us their stories of triumph over adversity. And through their testimonials, we parents of students who are struggling through school and adolescence would be able to rest easier, knowing our children’s lives will also follow this narrative. Such was my expectation.
Instead we found ourselves with a panel that mirrors the most frightening statistics about adults with mental health challenges, with autism, and with severe ADHD. To be sure, a few of the alumni found themselves an identity at college and have settled into good jobs, but the majority continue to struggle with substance abuse and/or debilitating depression. Most still live with their parents and do not hold full-time jobs, if they hold jobs at all.
A man in his mid-twenties told one of the most poignant stories. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school. College did not go well. He has spent years struggling against his diagnosis, and he has now reached a place he calls “radical acceptance.” When I asked what he does now, I expected him to report an occupation. “I take a nap every day. My meds make me sleepy, so I take a nap every day. Naps are good, and I accept that.”
Why did these graduates return? Theirs were not the success stories I craved. Just like the Grinch when he heard the Whos down in Whoville singing on Christmas morning, I have been puzzling and puzzling ‘til my puzzler is sore. These alumni’s lives still look, from the outside, to be bereft of packages, boxes and bags.
One answer might be that these alumni, like all people, enjoy talking about themselves. A 2012 study by two Harvard researchers, Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, demonstrated that when people tell stories about themselves, three parts of their brains are activated: the medial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), both parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system. The mesolimbic dopamine system is the area associated with reward, and pleasurable feelings, the same brain region activated by sex, drug use, and good food. What’s more, Tamir and Mitchell discovered, activation of these brain regions increases when study subjects believe that their stories will be shared with an audience. Human beings, unlike other species, are wired to talk about themselves, perhaps to encourage reciprocal relationships through self-revelation or perhaps to enhance intimacy.
But the audience at my alumni program will never again encounter these raconteurs; forming or cementing relationships was never part of the agenda. Another explanation may lie in the psychological research about narrative. Studies by Dan McAdams of Northwestern University show a strong correlation between telling stories of overcoming hardship and reporting greater happiness as well as a greater inclination toward generative behavior, i.e., the desire to make the world a better place.
If only the stories told at my forum had traversed the redemption story arc all the way to a lovely rainbow at the end.
So I am left with two viable explanations. One is that the speakers’ agenda never coincided with mine. I wanted to hear about success, but they may have come with other motives. People tell stories for all sorts of reasons. They may be trying to destigmatize their condition. They may be providing a sense of order to their own life stories by weaving them into narratives. They may hope to feel valued and respected for having a story to contribute (Feedback from parents and students confirms that their contributions were appreciated much more than I initially realized.) Or they may, finally, be publicly proclaiming their authentic selves. Perhaps this is what the man in his mid-twenties meant when he spoke of “radical acceptance.” He was present to declare himself as bipolar.
The other possibility is that my definition of success is too restrictive, and telling their stories represented a victory. Summoning the courage to stand before a group of strangers may be a step in the upward trajectory of their life narratives. Jonathan Adler, a psychology professor at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA, investigated the stories of 104 adults in outpatient therapy and found that the strongest predictor of ego development and an improved sense of well-being was whether or not the patients placed themselves at the center of their own stories. Adler found that people began feeling better after they began telling stories in which they took control of their lives and their recoveries.
As I left the alumni forum, I vowed not to repeat the event. Too disheartening. But over the last weekend, I have been shocked at the responses both participants and audience members have shared. Some of the alumni want to film a documentary about themselves. One of the parents said that her daughter, a high school freshman, was thrilled to hear stories from people who validate her own experiences and do not conform to this college-prep school’s vision of success. Teachers raved about the program. Why did they tell their stories? Honestly, all I have figured out is that I have a lot to figure out.