The stories we tell ourselves about the past

The concept of narrative captured my interest sometime around 1984 - ironically - because it may have been the Orwell novel with that year's title that prompted my thinking on the topic.

I was interested in written narrative and how Winston Smith established his rebellion and then his freedom through a written form (even if it all eventually led to a horrible end). I was also fascinated by his attraction to the paperweight that he purchased - something that was old - and seemingly of unknowable utility.

What was the purpose of knowledge, or of the past - except that it all did represent a freedom from the drudgery of the present.  So the paperweight meant something to him, just like his writing meant something.

Winston told himself a story about the past.  He created a narrative.

As I am on a precipice of decision regarding our private practice I find myself spinning narratives, perhaps to tell myself a story about the past.  I started telling the stories to my wife - maybe to ease the separation from this present.

If the past was negative, the separation would be easier.  I figured that I could use a convenient narrative.

So I focused on Heath, an impossibly cute six year old with severe learning disabilities that I saw in 1990.  I helped him with writing and motor skills but I remember how much he struggled with reading.  I remember long talks with his mom, who loved him and worried for him and did everything she could to help him.  She drove long hours to make his therapy appointments, across state lines, as the clinic I worked in was the only therapy option for them.  When he was discharged she gave me a picture of Heath, and I displayed it on my desk for many years - because of all the fond memories that it elicited.

I was engaging my habit of reading the local papers of places where I have previously lived and I saw a shocking headline: "32 year old <CITY NAME> man arrested for attempted murder."  The face was not recognizable, but the name was clear.  It was Heath, no longer impossibly cute.

I remember reading a book while I was seeing Heath - the book was entitled Learning Disabilities and Psychosocial Functioning.  The book was full of grim statistics, particularly related to the negative outcomes of children with severe learning disabilities - something that is now popularly referred to as 'special education to prison pipeline.'  Many of the people who end up incarcerated also have some kind of disability - it is a very sad statistic and it is not a particularly good reflection on our system of intervention.  The statistic didn't resonate with me at the time.  How could Heath ever end up in prison?  He was so cute - and his mom loved him so much - and certainly everything we were doing to help him would set him on a positive trajectory for the future.  I cognitively understood what that book said, but I emotionally tuned out.

Failure did not seem like a possibility.

But here I was staring at my failure that was plastered as a front page headline.  I wondered how his mom could have let that happen, and after googling around I found out that she died of breast cancer about ten years earlier right when he was on the cusp of adulthood.  I was also able to trace his encounters with law enforcement from the time of his mom's death up to the present and it was quite a rap sheet.  Larceny.  Assault.  Domestic violence.  Resisting arrest.  Drug offenses.  

How could that happen?  Was it because his mom died?  Did he ever finish school?  WHY?

'Well we were fighting and I got really mad so I grabbed a hammer and I just conked her on the head,' was the explanation that he gave to the arresting officers.  Conked her on the head?  A three year old would say that.  My mind was just reeling at this horrible narrative.

I went to go sit back at my desk, and I started looking around.  There was the lego sculpture from Kyle.  There was the rock from Annette.  There was the impossibly cute smiling photo of Heath.  Conked on the head?  I wondered how many other kids I 'helped' have been charged with attempted murder?

Maybe that was the legacy of a mom's failed effort.  And of a therapist's failed effort.  Conked on the head.  What a narrative THAT was.

It wouldn't be hard to separate from a private practice if that was the narrative.  So what in the world do I do with Heath's picture now?


I stuck with that convenient narrative for a couple weeks.  OT doesn't help children with learning disabilities - they are impossibly cute when we see them in elementary school and then they end up conking people on the head with a hammer.  That narrative made decisions about the private practice easy.

Then another mom dropped a different pink coral paperweight into my email.  It was a counter-narrative - another child's story dredged up from the past and also completely unexpected.

Dear Dr. Chris - I have been meaning to send you a note for a couple of years... my son was a patient with you years ago, I think probably 18 years ago.  I just wanted to let you know how much you helped him and how he has since forged a very successful path in life thus far.

<lengthy amazing narrative outlining this child's struggles and how he overcame them... with lots of identifying detail - he is a very successful young adult now!>... I wanted to give you an update so you knew what a difference you made in his life.  Thank you so much for your expertise that enabled my son to thrive.  He still can't throw a frisbee, but he has come a long way!!!  I am forever grateful to ABC Therapeutics!!!

Well that just blew my other narrative to smithereens.  Why in the world was I sent THAT email at the same time I saw the headline about Heath?


Two different stories about kids seen in the past and who had two very different outcomes. 

Two different narratives. 

Is the past important?  Does it free us or imprison us? 

What narrative do we choose, when both are true?


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