In the early 1980s, Fran Yardley, a member of the Healing Story Alliance executive committee, was living in the Adirondack Mountains with two small children and no outlet for the creative energy she had always channeled through acting and performance.
A friend suggested storytelling, Fran found a mentor who told her simply to start, and within a short period of time she was in front of her daughter’s third grade class every week as the storyteller.
Like Diane Rooks whom I wrote about in my last post, Fran also lived with personal sorrow. Before she became a storyteller her first husband was diagnosed with Hodgson’s disease. Over a period of six years, as he became more and more ill, Fran found that telling stories to others was a healing refuge for her.
“During this time, I learned about a woman who came to the Adirondacks in the 1920s to cure her tuberculosis," she said. "I began to research her story and ended up working on it for 10 years. When it felt complete, I started traveling to hospices in New York State, Massachusetts and Connecticut to tell it.
“Three years after I began this practice, I got a call from a man who was developing an art retreat for women with cancer or chronic illness – and he asked if I would be the storyteller. Today he offers one or two retreats a year, and I’ve been working with him ever since.
“When I first began, I thought I would be the teller and the retreat participants would be the listeners. What I found, instead, was that what the women desperately needed was to tell their own stories and be listened to.
“Now I tell a short story at the beginning of every retreat that allows participants to ‘fall into’ whatever images arise in their minds. In these images, each woman sees clearly the personal story she needs to tell in that moment for her own healing.
“As they tell their stories to each other with open hearts, each woman both gives and receives healing in a way that neither doctors nor pills can provide. Being acknowledged, supported, and listened to at a very deep level without judgment is powerful medicine.
“As I have learned over the years how to create and hold the container for this sacred healing work, I have come to think of myself more and more as a story listener rather than a storyteller.
“Now I define healing stories as opportunities for women to first express and then reframe their experience of their illness. For example, I often encourage a teller to retell her story in third person as an observer instead of in first person as the victim. Sometimes by doing this the storyteller achieves greater clarity around what she is or isn’t doing to support or undercut herself; in this realization, there may be life-enhancing changes she feels called to make that have nothing to do with her physical diagnosis.
“Last year there was a woman at the retreat who had attended previously. It was clear she was struggling, in pain and unable to find relief. At one point, I asked everyone to re-vision her own story in the third person. When the exercise was finished, this woman told me what had happened for her:
As I was thinking about your request, I saw a butterfly land on my shoulder, and it stayed there during my entire experience. I remembered that three times during my life the butterfly has come to me. The first time it said ‘not right.’ The second time is said ‘almost right.’ This time it said ‘now all is just right.’
“She left the retreat at the end of the day with the image of herself as a butterfly. With this new, healing story she was able to see her illness as a metamorphosis, and her path – regardless of physical outcome – as one of joy and light. “
(Fran recently retired as executive director of Creative Healing Connections, a non-profit organization located in upstate New York that provides creative experiences to promote healing and growth. Learn more at creativehealingconnections.org. If you'd like to receive new blog entries as they're posted, please subscribe to my newsletter at www.storypotions.com.)