As a psychotherapist, people entrust me with their most private thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I hold that trust as sacred. Not because of strict confidentiality laws (which I uphold), but because I regard the safety and protection of these people as my highest priority.
So where do my stories come from?
First, when I tell a story about someone other than myself, either in a lecture to a group of people, or in a written piece for this blog, I change names and details, such as genders, jobs, amount of children, places of origin, and anything else that could possibly identify the people involved.
Then I go an extra step so that a subject of my story can never know for sure that I might be talking about them. How do I do that?
I choose the stories by how often I’ve heard a similar story. If I tell a story about someone conceiving a child during an extramarital affair, it means that I have heard not one, but several, of those stories. I combine the people in those different stories. I make up other details.
My stories come from my own life, from acquaintances, and from the practice of my profession over the years. My stories about my own friends and family are true, except for some name changes.
Occasionally, when I’m giving a lecture, someone will shout out, “Hey, quit spreading my secrets.” Or, “I know who you’re talking about.” It gets a good laugh from the audience.
Of course, that’s not possible. The people I talk about don’t specifically exist. So are those stories true? Absolutely.
I wrote a mini-play about a husband and wife who have a vicious argument. I perform the part of the wife, and a colleague performs the part of the husband in the course of a lecture I call, “How to Kill A Relationship in 10 Easy Steps.”
I’ve thrown in lots of insults I’ve heard spouses hurl at each other, sometimes in my presence. “Stop nagging me about my drinking. I’m not a drunk like your father.” “Go have another beer, so at least you’ll have an excuse for not getting it up again tonight, darling.”
Invariably, someone in the class will quip, “Have you bugged my kitchen cabinets?”
There are some stories I will never tell.
Those stories are so unusual, so once-in-a-career occurrences, I would never take the chance that the people might recognize themselves. There is no way to change these stories or combine them, because I’ve only heard them once.
Why do I say that my stories are true if they’re so heavily fictionalized?
Because they’re universal. They’re true the way Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are true about adultery. They’re true the way David Copperfield (not the magician) is true about poverty, child abuse, and self-discovery. They’re true the way Harry Potter is true about traumatic loss and evil.
Stories are the only way we can learn about ourselves, connect with others, and feel comforted in the knowledge that strangers experience pain, hope, and laughter, just as we do. But differently. Which makes it all wondrously interesting.
So if you think you’ve read about yourself here as a client, I assure you, you haven’t.
Unless you’re every-man. Or every-woman.
And who isn’t?