Working With Narrative in Recovery
Virginia Graham outlines how the narratives of Holocaust Literature offer Spiritual and Therapeutic Perspectives within the context of her Counselling Practice.
My work as a counsellor involves listening to many stories. Clients narrate their circumstances, and through counselling come to a better understanding of their inner world in relation to those stories. Listening to the stories of others can also be particularly significant in the development of identity. This is well documented in Twelve Step (TS) groups that strongly rely on the examples of other successful, now-sober, fellow-addicts. What I have increasingly found in my own work, however, is the significance of stories that touch on something beyond the concrete experiences of addiction. A good example is the fiction of the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel. His stories of suffering and oppression resonate with the otherwise radically diverse lives of clients. For Wiesel there is a profoundly spiritual horizon to the fiction he writes – it is tied up with his experience of God. Here too we find an echo within a specific strand of addiction therapy emerging from TS; God, or some underlying principle that moves the world, is a crucial part of making sense of oneself as a recovering addict. The significance of spirituality for therapeutic healing is something that psychotherapy has taken increasingly seriously in recent years.
Elie Wiesel is a Jewish Romanian Holocaust survivor now a writer based in the US. Wiesel has written about his camp experiences at length in his early work and its impact is still discernible in his later fiction. I believe his work is of therapeutic value, including his biography Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), The Night Trilogy  <#_ftn1> (1987), and Conversations with Elie Wiesel (Harry J. Cargas, 1992). In terms of transformation, Wiesel’s narrative is clear that he chooses not to let his suffering make him a victim of circumstances, but allows his experience to transform him into a spokesperson for the Jewish people. Wiesel tells US writer Harry James Cargas that his writing ‘means to give testimony, to bear witness. In the Jewish tradition the witness is a kind of messenger. The witness says that is how things are…my function is to transmit what I have received and then to try to understand it; to communicate visions that other people cannot have or cannot express, either because they have not had them or because they were too afraid to acknowledge, understand or receive them’ (1992).
Pain is transformed into a vehicle whereby critical life lessons can be learned. Wiesel believes ‘that suffering is not the answer, suffering is only the question. What do we do with it?’ (1992). He emphasizes pain is inevitable ‘I want you to get the meaning of the pain not the pain’ (1992). For Wiesel, pain pushes his choice to write so the camps are never forgotten. ‘I knew the story had to be told. Not to transmit an experience is to betray it’ (1978). For several clients these words help them remember that they too have a choice (whether to choose abstinence or not, often being the first). Years of addiction may have destroyed their belief in choice, as the latter stages of addiction involve feeling that using drink or drugs is not a choice but rather a necessity. In addition, this narrative helps them to think about the meaning of their pain and learn that pain is a part of life rather than life treating them unfairly (an excuse which has fuelled relapses for some clients).
In terms of spiritual development Wiesel is inspirational to some clients because of his brutal honesty about the pressures placed on his relationship with God by his life experiences. In Night (1981) he is clear that ‘never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which destroyed me for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust’ (1981). Many clients feel so defeated by their experience of addiction that they believe God has abandoned them or is a myth altogether. Thus Wiesel’s words are a relief for them; they know they are not alone. Wiesel is clear that his process of transformation was marked by feelings of angry rebellion, ‘for the first time I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless his name? The Eternal, the Lord of the universe…what had I to thank him for’ (Night, 1981).
Wiesel discovers as do many of my clients that religious tradition does not work for him. I encourage clients to openly express their rage and disappointment in God; these powerful rebellious emotions require expression before we can start exploring possible solutions. Wiesel’s rebellion against traditional Jewish Theology led some commentators to conclude that he did not believe in God, yet Wiesel writes ‘I have never renounced my faith in God….sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the nonbeliever so be it’ (1995). Angry rebellion in this case does not mean destruction which is what many clients fear, but the potential start of a new and changed world view which is what many clients need.
I will now consider what I believe to be of therapeutic value in Wiesel’s work. As discussed Wiesel demonstrates a willingness to learn from pain, and he freely shares this with us so creating a powerful example for the recovering addict attempting emotional fluency. Night (1981), Dawn (1987) and The Accident (1987), all describe what historian John K. Roth describes as Wiesel’s dark ‘night of the soul’ (1978, p.59). Wiesel ‘chooses to describe rather than explain’ this choice notes historian Michael Berenbaum (1979), he does not demand or order but simply tells his story. This is inspirational for clients who have usually suffered at the hands of others telling them what to do; a story allows them to make their own choices. This may be a slower process than force or coercion, but my work reveals it to be an effective one. The positive change holds because it has been chosen not forced. As Berenbaum explains, Wiesel’s work proves ‘experience speaks louder than explanations and cannot be silenced by answers’ (1979).
The therapeutic value of Wiesel is also discernible at the end of Night (1981). Wiesel hardly recognises himself, ‘from the depths of the mirror a corpse gazed out at me’ (Night, 1981). The corpse does not succumb to the grave, but takes responsibility and rises from the ashes to tell a story that he feels he has to tell. ‘If we envisage literature and human destiny as an endeavour by man to redeem himself, then we must admit…the overall domination theme of responsibility, that we are responsible for one another’ (Wiesel 1992). Wiesel’s suffering does not break him, quite the reverse ‘from this particular story (Wiesel’s life) that I try to dram a story with universal lessons’ (Wiesel, 1992). Wiesel’s suffering has created a commitment to witness his own truth which contains a message whose themes of justice, self-responsibility, and integrity are of immeasurable value to my practice. When these qualities are incorporated into an individual’s program of recovery I see how they facilitate the creation of strength, and self-esteem which are terrific antidotes to the self-loathing that feeds active addiction. Wiesel’s congruence is a powerful role model to clients, because as he concludes it is only through his being true to himself ‘that we teach others how to be what they are, and find some universal message of hope for us all’ (1992). There is no doubt in my mind that when clients break free of the shackles created by addiction, and start practicing being their real selves that within the challenges of daily life there is a potential for freedom and joy.
Wiesel’s work was created by his need to speak of his experience and find answers is of value for clients searching for answers through counselling. Wiesel’s adherence to writing about his real self means he is unencumbered by the heavy burden created by the weight of other’s expectations, and as clients have discovered neglect of this self makes them more vulnerable to the demands of these others. Wiesel’s narrative reveals how through rage, questioning, and writing he finds some answers. Wiesel does not force his views on the reader, but his narrative encourages the reader to find their own solution. It is exactly this process that I endeavour to mirror in my practice, whilst simultaneously creating a safe space for clients to explore their own emotional and spiritual narratives. Our work will potentially dilute previous emotional toxicity (fuelled by addiction) and allow the possibility of a new sense of self and spirituality to be realised. Thus the relationship between narrative and counselling is a close one. My practice has been unequivocally assisted by narrative and its revelation through example (rather than demand) of how a patient can enrich their own therapeutic and spiritual perspectives.