Losing the Plot

Lost your life story? Narrative-based therapies can help.

Posted Apr 18, 2019

Image by John Lindner for Pixabay
Source: Image by John Lindner for Pixabay

“I’ve lost the plot” is a phrase we tell ourselves when we are seriously depressed. “I just can’t see the point in anything,” we say. When people go through a mid-life crisis, leaving a partner or a job, we tell ourselves that they’ve “lost the plot”.

As a novelist, writing fictions for a living—and as someone who has seriously lost the plot in life more than once—I believe that narrative structures are immensely important to our psychological wellbeing. Just as made-up heroines and bad guys need plots to act out, so do we. In my novels, every time I create a character who has "lost the plot", I find that the following things happen to them:

a. They go round in circles, repeating their actions, getting nowhere.

b. They end up inactive and are pushed around by goal-driven characters who use them for their own ends.

c. They become secondary, then tertiary characters, who eventually drop out of the story completely.

It’s a pretty good description of how a depressed person feels and acts. From my own experience, I know that the times when I’ve suffered from severe depression, are the times directly following the collapse of a project I'd built my life story and ambitions upon. Being depressed, we feel we’ve been ejected from the big story that other people are living in so effortlessly. Then the daily minutiae of survival-without-a-plot overwhelms us. Why eat? Why wash? Why speak to anyone? Why try? What is the point?

Describing depression, we use metaphors that imply a failure of narrative progression: “He's stuck in the mud,” “I'm just treading water,” or “She’s going round in circles”.

Often, depressed people find medication or addiction as a surrogate for their collapsed life-story. Both have mini-narratives of urgent need and fulfillment, that make up for the lack of a larger life-narrative. “Take your Prozac at 5 pm” becomes the daily survival narrative. "Find some alcohol before lunch," is another.

In our psycho-pharmaceutical era, we tend to think of depression as being biological in its origins, and we treat it with antidepressants, dismissing the emotions that arise as little more than symptoms of dysfunctional serotonin levels. But we're not listening to the narrative truth behind the symptoms. We’re not treating the cause, and we’re ignoring what depressed people keep trying to tell us: That living without a sustaining narrative plan for your life, is a kind of aimless, wandering hell.

The more effective, and more difficult cure for depression is, I believe, to reconnect to a life-story.

Different schools of therapy and counseling have been developing ideas about “the narrative structure of the self.” Most recently there is Narrative Therapy, which, still in its infancy, is rooted in the conviction that identity is formed by the narrative of a client's life” and that “the narrative and the interpretation of the narrative influence thinking, feeling, and behavior.” The stories people tell themselves about who they are and what role they have in society are important for emotional constancy and wellbeing, and so are the symbols and metaphors of their life story thus far.

Professor of Psychology Dan McAdams' work is pioneering. His theories on “The Self as a Story” and the eleven-book series which he co-edited, “The Narrative Study of Lives” provide substantial evidence that our species orientates itself through narrative structures. As he says, “We make ourselves whole, through stories, by constructing internalized life narratives…they provide our lives with a semblance of meaning and purpose.”

This may be because the human brain itself seems pre-wired for storytelling. Evidence from MRI-based studies in Spain now shows that, not only are the language processing parts in our brains activated in storytelling and story-listening, but other areas of the brain, that we would use when experiencing the physical events described by the story are activated too. When we hear the words ‘cut’ or ‘soda’, the parts of our brain associated with wounds, and drinking soda become active.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor,” claims influential social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to Haidt, we use “grand narratives” to reduce the chaotic world of experience to moral stories we can live by.

The existential therapists explored the role of life-narratives in mental health; a theme also of great importance in Logotherapy. While elements of narrative psychology are also found in CBT and are REBT. In these, the therapist leads the client to understand that they are constructing false or damaging narratives about themselves. For example, a client might complain: “I’m doomed to end up a failed, lonely, divorced dad who never sees his kids.” In fact, this was a narrative, that I told myself for quite some time, and my CBT therapist encouraged me to see that this story was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and that I could change my own behaviors if I gave events a different narrative interpretation. Your life is changed by altering the life-story you tell yourself. In my case, this worked.

My current therapist, a reverse therapist, cured me of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME using some elements of narrative-based therapy within the reverse therapy program—and in a future article, I’ll talk about how I believe that the onset of CFS/ME is connected to the collapse of the life story.

Another breakdown in the narrative of life is the midlife crisis (another horror I, and most of us above a certain age, have survived). Your life, after all—if you live according to what you're wired to do—is a story with a coherent beginning, a motivated middle, and a satisfying end. The mid-life break; which has people running off to start new careers from scratch, to have affairs, to experiment with their sexuality, to escape from their family and responsibilities—can be understood as the self breaking from its original story and desperately seeking a new one to latch onto. Some of these events can be dramatic "conversions"; like the single media executive who became an organic farmer and had three kids in quick succession, or the married atheist academic who got divorced and became a high-ranking member of the church. In each case, great distress is endured until a new life story is found.

It would be trite, however, to propose that all solutions to modern mental health issues lie with the individual "shopping for a new life story." In fact, such temporary fixes are part of our modern problem. The sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman was deeply concerned by the collapse of the narrative-for-life in modern societies, caused by disruptions in employment and in our love-bond and family structures. Not only are we atomized from each other, he claimed, but we are beset by “short-termism” at every turn: The “job for life” is vanishing, as is the “partner for life” and the “life-long belief.” Instead, we seek short-term personal fixes to all our problems. However, our repetitive jobs no longer offer growth or promotion, and technological innovations are destroying many career paths, replacing them with “temp jobs” and "gig economy" labor. We are uprooted and cannot make long term plans or commitments. As Bauman said, modern consumer living has become a series of tiny, repetitious, precarious narratives of instant gratification, without the over-arching narratives that would make our lives meaningful.

It is no small wonder that antidepressant usage has increased by almost 400 percent in the US over the past two decades, with dramatic increases in most OECD countries. We’re using pills to get rid of the symptoms caused by the fracturing of our life stories.

The task then, for us today, and for narrative-based therapies, is an increasingly difficult one: To attempt to create enduring life stories for ourselves out of the fleeting fragments of a world that may have, itself, lost the plot.

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