What's Recovery Storytelling?
“Recovery Storytelling” combines the craft of storytelling with the advocacy and messaging of the recovery movement. I discovered the potential of this marriage of art and advocacy in 2016 at my first Moth Story Slam competition. In front of hundreds of people drinking alcohol at a comedy club, I stood alone at the microphone. I spent weeks carefully crafting a true, five-minute personal story on the assigned theme of “Risk.” Being a risk-taker my whole life, I broke both arms riding horses, risked everything for the next drug, and eventually took dramatic risks to find my way into recovery. Usually, I felt comfortable sharing my story of substance use and recovery with strangers, but not like this. Not in front of inebriated people with no interest in recovery. Not as an art form, or in a competition. When I finished, my heart trembled in my chest. I waited for the crowd’s response. After a very long few seconds, the audience stood and burst into thunderous applause. I won the competition! People came up to me afterward and shared their relationship to substance use and recovery, or that of a loved one’s. Many simply congratulated me on a good story. I knew I stumbled into something powerful.
Storytelling is the oldest art form in the world, from paintings on cave walls to ancient religious texts; from traditional songs to family gatherings on porches retelling family lore; from ancient mythology to today’s books, social media, and TV. Storytelling conveys cultural norms, belief systems, and history lessons; helps us process internal and external challenges; creates space to learn from one another, and gain help; and reinforces community bonds within social groups. It remains fundamental to human culture and survival.
For these same reasons 12-step fellowship and other pathways of recovery are grounded in storytelling. Stories create community through shared experience, strengthening and building the group while generating loyalty to the common cause of supporting one’s own, and the group’s, recovery. Many of us can attest to the powerful feeling of belonging in recovery.
Science helps us understand storytelling even more. MRI imaging reveals we’re not just sitting and passively listening when we hear a story, but experiencing it together. The same parts of our brains light up at the same time for both the teller and the listeners. The same hormones get simultaneously released in the body, including dopamine, cortisone, and oxytocin (the “love hormone”), and clearly demonstrates how stories create a shared mental, physical, and emotional experience. Stories unite us through the universality of the human body and the human condition (the landscape of the heart).
At that first story slam, I shared a positive message of recovery to a group of people who didn’t expect one. I’d powerfully connected with them, despite the story containing experiences foreign to most of the crowd. The addition of creativity and craft elevated the impact of the story and made it more relatable by being centered in the human experience, and shared through an artistic lens.
When we utilize Recovery Storytelling and skillfully bring together the art and science of storytelling with the art and science of recovery advocacy, we create stories based in a more universal landscape that transcend traditional societal boundaries. These stories convey a positive recovery message to unsuspecting listeners and connect more deeply with those outside of our typical audiences. Recovery Storytelling can be practiced by anyone directly or indirectly impacted by substance use disorder, or a myriad of other challenges. Stories reside in us all. The perspective of loved ones and allies may harbor even more potential for societal and systemic change. The possibilities of this art form in advocacy are immeasurable.
A few things I’ve learned about the craft of Recovery Storytelling...
1) Be authentic. The best stories are short, honest, intimate, humble, and full of heart. They don’t need embellishment, scintillating details, or unbelievable feats. They don’t need self-promotion or manipulation to make the protagonist heroic. The truth of recovery stands powerfully enough on its own.
2) Choose just one story. The vast experiences of our lives weave into a beautiful tapestry of many stories. A single story can’t possibly contain the whole scope of our journey with substance addiction and recovery. A long, drawn-out story becomes so broad that we lose sight of the true meaning, and distracts from the emotion we want to convey. A deeper dive into a particular experience or aspect of substance addiction or recovery - a single thread from the tapestry – holds more power.
3) Focus on a turning point. The crucial moment in a story contains the turning point or climax, when we see our hero win, lose or experience a big change. The change can be external or internal; the moment the teller knew something ended, or got back up and tried again, or lost something important, or realized they possessed everything they needed. Look for universal moments with emotional or internal turning points.
4) Show us, don’t tell us. Help the listener feel like they’re in the story with you. Rely less on narrative summary (“Telling”), such as, “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” Try “Showing,” as in, “The sun burned my face as I wearily trudged through the sand…” Showing is active and specific, utilizing imagery and details like sensory information, setting, and dialogue. Showing captures a particular moment or a scene in time, rather than a larger span of time. For example, think of watching a scene play out moment by moment in a movie versus listening to a newscaster summarize a news story; the movie imparts more emotion and potency.
5) Know your message. Be deliberate about the recovery messaging in your story. If you have 3-5 minutes to make an impact, you want to know where you’re going. Consider these questions: What is the story about? What is the most important thing in the story? What do I want people to know or feel when they hear it? People’s minds are most often changed through their heart, so look for an emotional point to end with.
6) Find the heart of the story. Stay close to it. Seek the deeper meaning of the events or turning points in your journey and share them from your heart. Peel back the layers of the onion. Emotional, spiritual, and philosophical challenges constitute the lifeblood of good storytelling. They embody a universal language. Some people may not relate to being incarcerated, but just about all of us can relate to feeling powerless, hopeless, or lonely.
Recovery Storytelling, a powerful tool for advocacy, also serves as a pathway of recovery. The next article in this series will discuss how participating in workshops and connecting with the Recovery Storytelling community enhances and strengthens individual and community recovery, using creativity to unlock new perspectives about ourselves and helping us build connections inside and outside of recovery.
If you’d like to see examples of Recovery Storytelling, check out CCAR’s “Videos” or CCAR’s Facebook page. If you’d like to learn more about the craft of Recovery Storytelling, sign up for a class at https://www.meghannperry.com/course-registration