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  • Mark Brafield

Telling the story (continued)

The other day I was talking to some friends and we were discussing the television programmes we were watching and, in particular, how everyone seemed to be hooked on boxed sets at the moment. One friend confessed that she had, to her horror, watched four episodes of Game of Thrones back to back, completely unable to tear herself away.

We all love a good story, but why is this ?

Recently, a client came to see me feeling trapped by a traumatic incident that happened when he was a child and was involved in an accident. The funny thing was that he only had a very disjointed memory of the experience, the before and after, but not the experience itself.

On the other hand, he had a recurring dream - the only dream he ever remembered - in which a ball got trapped in a maze but then managed to find its way out and continue on its way.

I was struck by the contrast between these two narratives; the traumatic memory that was disjointed, and the dream that told a coherent story. In trance I encouraged the two parts of his mind to communicate with one another so that his subconscious mind, with its story of finding a way through the maze, could reassure the traumatised child deep inside that a way ahead could be found.

It is, in fact, in the nature of trauma that it is not remembered in the form of a coherent sequence. It may be recalled as an image, a flashback or a confusion of memories. In the words of T S Eliot, 'we had the experience but missed the meaning'. It is the role of sleep and, in particular, rapid eye movement sleep to process such memories overnight and to turn them from a memory charged with emotion, into a memory that follows a clear sequence which can then be assimilated into the pattern of experience without distress.

And we can encourage the process by telling the story to ourselves, or to another. Nowadays, it is fashionable in films to play with the expectations of the viewer by interrupting the chronological sequence of the story. Alternatively, the viewer or listener comes to a new understanding by unravelling the story themselves. It is no coincidence that both Paradise Lost and Star Wars start in the middle of the story and work backwards.

A friend of mine is a novelist. If he feels that there is a problem in his writing, his editor always asks him to 'just tell me the story', at which point my friend unfailingly realises what needs to be changed. And when treating phobias, the last phase of the treatment is to allow the client to anticipate a situation which used to be traumatic but in a coherent narrative right from getting up in the morning to going to bed at the end of the day.

We all love a good story, with 'a beginning and middle and an end'. And perhaps this is why.

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