The Stories We Tell – by Dr. TANSTAAFL
When our boys were little, there was always bedtime stories. We bought tons of books for them, but they picked the stories they wanted every night. Afterwards, in a ploy to stay up later, they asked questions about the stories, and we discussed them. How we framed the stories for them taught them what we thought was important, and how we viewed the characters and their motivations. The Little Engine that Could kept trying when the going got rough and wins in the end. Love You Forever was about family love and relationships. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel was all about work and problem solving.
During their childhoods, there were stories about the family, emphasizing different characteristics. Snippets of information about our ancestors and how we came to be. A great-grandmother who overcame cultural sexism to become a legislator, a great-uncle who fled the old country for aggravating the rich family in town, grandparents brave and adventurous enough to emigrate around the world for a better life for their children. The stories continued as we raised the children; almost running out of gas near the Canadian border, getting lost and then unlost on hiking trips, falling out of the raft right in front of the rapids. Some of the stories were active, a gestalt of our reactions to different events. What do you do when the call is bad in a peewee soccer game, how do you react to a bad grade, how do you solve a travel crisis, how do you treat people who are not doing what you need? How we chose to look at these events and frame them into the larger picture of who and what we are has a huge effect on our happiness and success in life.
Why do some people shake off bad news and keep smiling? How does something that happens to all of us, derail some individuals? Is it all genetics? Is it all luck? Is it parenting? I think part of the difference is in the stories we tell ourselves. Our internalized stories give us the blueprint for our reaction. I can’t fold to a misogynist because great-grandmother stood up to them. Dad never whined when the call went against him, so I can’t either. I can find a solution because our family is good at thinking outside the box. If I get lost, I will be found again, and this is what dad always did.
Part of being a physician is sometimes giving good news, sometimes bad news, and hopefully not too often, terrible news. The stories people tell themselves can be a source of inspiration not just for themselves but to those around them. Or the stories can help set people up for failure or pull them to a place nobody wants to go. One patient was sure that since all the males in his family died young from heart disease, that he would also. So he kept smoking and refused cholesterol medicine, because what’s the use. One mother who was the eternal optimist, always thought her child was doing great, despite her handicaps, and raised a child who thought she could do anything, because mom said she could.
What is the story we are telling now? For the last 3 months, it’s been DOOM, DOOM! Stay home, it’s not safe, millions will die! The world outside your house is not safe. An invisible killer is stalking you. You or your loved ones could die. You have no control over any of this, and your fate is in someone else’s hands, perhaps the person who walked by you without a mask, or the “experts” who can tell you when it will be safe to live. What are the stories children are hearing now? You may die and the people you depend on, your parents, have no control over the danger out there in the world. This is how the world has to be now.
Recognizing and treating psychiatric disorders is part of our training. Generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, agoraphobia, depression. Today’s news seems to have come up with a way to induce these disorders. This is not something we have ever seen. The stories being told are an effective way to create psychiatric dysfunction in a large percentage of our population. Even worse, in the children, the stories are too immediate. They have no lengthy novel of normalcy to fall back on. The current short stories are all they remember. Will we raise a generation of neurotic, agoraphobic, depressed children?
Individually, within our circle of family and friends and within our larger communities, we have a choice. We can echo the stories of DOOM, or tell a different story. The story should be there have been epidemics before and there will be again. We are endlessly creative and will figure out a way to treat this illness, or prevent it eventually. We all are mortal, and how you live is as important, if not more so, than how long you live. We can figure out ways to protect the individuals at risk, and Americans are the most generous people in the world, and can support people who are hurting as needed.
This is not the end times, unless we choose to tell ourselves it is.