Journey into darkness: reaching the heart of therapeutic storytelling

‘Journey into darkness: reaching the heart of therapeutic storytelling’ blog article was written by Skye Bekaert, Therapeutic Specialist from the Therapeutic Services Tasmania team at Australian Childhood Foundation.

The power of storytelling to help children to heal from difficult experiences is something I believe in deeply. Australian Childhood Foundation recently published Bella’s Story, which I co-created with a young person whose therapeutic journey led to her testament on the power of story for our children and young people:

“Now Bella can tell the whole world her story. Then she can get more help and people will understand her. Bella thinks that this story will help other children to tell their story.”

Bella’s Story is about finding a pathway out of the darkness and learning to live in the light, providing a narrative structure to take that journey. But I would argue that to help a child fully embody the light, we must first have the courage to journey into the darkness with them and support them in reclaiming and integrating what hides beyond consciousness.

The significance of stories and metaphors

The psychoanalyst Winnicott referred to the creative space of play and storytelling as a space of potential that occupies “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute”.

The stories that resonate with us connect us to our inner worlds while also reaching outwards into our social worlds, creating a bridge between the two. Children find the safety to meet with themselves in this space. They can remove themselves from the sometimes confronting, first-person narratives of their immediate realities. They are connected, through metaphor and symbolism, to a deeper sense of self without becoming lost there.

The power of metaphor and symbolism to provide a safe vehicle into the depths of consciousness has long been documented by psychoanalysts such as Jung. The field of neuroscience has demonstrated how the creative application of metaphorical landscapes helps us in accessing interoceptive awareness. Psychiatrist Siegel writes:

“Living creatively, allowing new, spontaneous combinations of experiences to emerge as we live our lives, may be all about freeing our bottom-up processes and allowing their emergence to blossom.”

Creative metaphor is a child’s natural language – they naturally make sense of the world in this way and find joy in exploring imaginary realms. Engaging in creative storytelling is to speak their language. However, we also know that for children who have experienced trauma, they may become cut off from their creative instincts as their brain focuses on survival. Re-connecting children to their natural creativity helps to free bottom-up processes of the brain.

Darkness: processing experiences of trauma

We know that traumatic experiences that have not been integrated stay alive within the body and can come to permeate every part of a child’s existence. These memories, banished from consciousness due to their scary and overwhelming content, become stored in fragments in the lower brain. To meet them, we must travel to them. As we journey through metaphor into these dark spaces there is the possibility to find the fragments of a child’s trauma, help them to piece these together, and free themselves from the hooks that have been placed in their nervous system. The child finds new life as they meet themselves in this space.

The creation Bella’s story is demonstrative of this process. My co-author said:

“Bella wrote her parts of the story from the light side looking back. She felt very scared to tell her story … because she was on the dark side and had never told her story before. For Bella telling her story was surprising, some of the surprised feeling came from the mix of feeling both scared and happy….”

The creation of Bella’s story began with me telling a story about a bear who lives in a dark and scary world, and, with the addition of a bit of magic, moves towards the light. The story resonated deeply with my co-author and after hearing the story she had an automatic instinct of what she needed to do. She asked to paint. I wanted to keep her body free and mobile to facilitate regulation, so I put butcher paper up on the wall. She divided the paper in two and painted black on one half of the paper. Across several weeks, we travelled into the darkness together. We asked questions – how do we know what the cave looks like when everything is so black? How do we find form and substance in this darkness? What is out there? We explored how our bodies felt in these moments of emptiness, fear, suppression and searching.

Storytelling is a whole-brain, whole-body experience. Multiple areas of our brain are activated at the same time when we share in storytelling. This enables us to feel an emotion, explore its sensation and reflect on it. By travelling into the darkness, we could begin to integrate supressed experiences and create a calming response to the limbic systems recall of their memories. When this work was done, there was a shift in my co-author who told me: “We need to finish this black quickly”.

Light: integration and moving forward

It was time to step into the light. In the story, Bella is cared for by her ball of light which carries her into the safe arms of her Aunty. Bella’s story reflects the importance of relationships in helping children to heal. When sharing a story, both teller and listener experience similar brain activity and body sensations. A child can “feel” your sense of understanding and empathy – they know you are travelling with them. As your nervous systems meet in this place, there are opportunities for co-regulation that support them towards nervous system integration.

This is why it is important to stay with the child in the metaphor – listen to the sounds and the silence, feel the frozen weight of darkness, and support them as you search for a way through it. If a child is narrating their own story and seems unable to mobilise themselves out of dark of spaces, we can explore the feeling of being trapped and claim the sensation to explore pathways out together. We can support the child in taking the fragments they gather in the darkness and add narrative structure to the experiences by encouraging the meeting of heroes, magic, and wisdom – a meeting of the parts within themselves that will help to carry them forwards.

The goal is never to cut the child off from their darkness. They must be allowed their monsters, dark caves, and black rivers – these are part of them, and the metaphors offer a way to explore the interoceptive depths of consciousness. The goal is building the ability to explore the darkness, befriend it, and know how to exist, embodied, in the light.

Storytelling helps us to make sense of our world. We create in stories, and we are created in the realms of story. Storytelling is a space of possibility to reclaim the old and reinvent the new. It is a space in which repressive structures are evaluated and the child’s voice can be given precedence. It is a space where new connections can be made, and the child can begin to feel accompanied on their journey. This holds the potential to provide an empowering and healing experience, especially for any child who may feel trapped and alone in their experiences of trauma.

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