Narrative therapy and neuroscience: Blogging and the storying of infertility

Even the word infertility can be re-storied: “Infertility issues” or “fertility issues”? It all depends on how we are looking at it. I’ve hated the word “infertility” from the get-go, and when I use the word “fertility” instead, I feel lighter, healthier, more hopeful. A cynical person might say that is because I am snowing myself, and it’s pathetic. I think when we scold ourselves with “realistic” talk in an effort toward self-protection, we are protecting ourselves from that harsh designation, by ourselves or others, as pathetic, desperate, blind fools.

But what exactly is foolish about believing in our capacity for positive outcomes and happiness, no matter what happens?

What is “realistic”? What is reality? Who is to say?

I think we are.

One of many reasons I write this blog is to story my experience. And when I story it, I try to develop my reality in a way that highlights strength and love (while not ignorning despair and its partners). To synthesize and make sense of my experiences in ways that lead to health and wellness, no matter what outcomes I face. Even when I fail horribly, which I do regularly, the effort benefits me and all of the people in my life who care about me.

I know I’ve shared with you before that I think of blogging as an act of narrative therapy. But I don’t think I’ve told you yet about one of the most mind-blowing (pun intended) effects of narrative therapy: it changes the brain physically. Writing this blog has a direct physical effect on the cells, neurons, and axons in my mind, which in turn changes the way my brain tells my fertility-story…not just to others but to myself.

This blog isn’t just a space for me to emote. It isn’t just a space to give and receive support, or give and receive information. It’s a space where I’ve been reshaping my brain for the better—and I might even dare to say toward increased fertility. Or at least toward increased belief in my ability to become a mother. I do this by highlighting positive body-image, resilience, what’s working in my love relationship, utilizing my research-capacities, and so on. I keep telling myself and showing myself the good stuff (without ignoring the bad). And it’s not Pollyanna bullshit—this process is actually necessary for me to move on in my life and meet new challenges.

I was very interested in narrative therapy during my MSW program and I’d like to share with you a paper I wrote (below) about my sessions with one particular patient I call “Sherry.” Sherry was 84 years old. She had struggled greatly with infertility in her day (remember the Margaret Sanger clinic? She went there to get her “tubes blown,” as they used to call it).  She also underwent a traumatic abortion when abortion was illegal; two abortionists came to her home with table and tools.

I won’t go into the details of her story here, because you can read all about them in the paper itself, but suffice to say: She suffered greatly during her childbearing years, and she has carried around stories about herself her entire life that reinforce a self-image that has caused her to suffer even more. I used narrative therapy with her in an effort to help her find alternate “unstoried” material in her past and present that highlights what is strong about her, and to help her see the ways in which she already is able to overcome acute anxiety.

Sherry told herself that she was “sick” and “weak,” over and over. Just like women in our boat tell ourselves certain negative stories, again and again. I am infertile. I am defective. I can’t have babies. I am missing out. I will never be okay. I have wasted so much of my time and money. I am damaged. Etcetera. Every time we think a negative thought and reinforce it with a negative story, we physically reinforce and grow the same neural networks in our brains, over and over. The axons then get bigger, stronger, and thicker and eventually create something that can be thought of as a “negative super-highway.” The negative super-highway is made up of thick axons that network our selected (and reselected) neuron clusters in the brain. This isn’t a winding country lane; it’s an eight-lane freeway that carries traffic day and night.

This stuff fascinates me. “Negative thinking” sounds so intangible. But it’s tangible, it’s physical, it plays out on a cellular level and shapes who we are and how we live our lives.

I definitely have a negative super-highway in my brain—I think everyone has their own version—that is reinforced by each loss, each trauma, each experience of my child’s absence. But when I write out of my negative super-highway on this blog, I am sometimes able to find a gap in the traffic, so to speak. I’m not fooling myself when I do it—I’m just finding new “un-storied” territory and giving it a story. Giving it voice. By revisiting this alternate story, again and again, I begin to strengthen and thicken associated axons and neural networks, and in turn erect an alternate highway that will not be automatically squashed by the negative one.

I hope this doesn’t sound like shallow power-of-positive-thinking cheerleading. I’m not for that. Negative thoughts and emotions are not wrong, and of course shouldn’t be avoided or stomped on with forced positivity. The alternate stories don’t even have to be positive—they can simply be neutral. But the alternate stories do have to have substance and be connected to authentic emotion for them to have a meaningful effect. The negative super-highways are loaded with very, very strong feelings. So the alternate stories have to be connected to their own very strong feelings, as well, to counterbalance negativity’s tyranny.

Sometimes we can tame negative emotions simply by naming them. Blogging and talk therapy give us a space to name the thing that is hurting and how. When we retrieve a memory, and then put it into words, on the page or out loud, we put it back into our brain-storage altered. So sometimes simply describing what happened can help us understand and better synthesize it.

Here is my paper on narrative therapy and Sherry, complete with hand-drawn anxiety map. I miss her and wonder if she still has my card pinned to her bulletin board (this is explained in the paper). I hope she has found a new therapist she likes, and that she is still managing, some days, to put on her red track suit and pull the blinds open. (I wish I’d had more space in this paper to write about her love affair in the Catskills—it was like something out of Dirty Dancing. Talking to an 84-year-old woman about her insatiable sexual desire was such a beautiful thing.)

Sherry-A Narrative Therapy and Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach

 

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18 Comments

  1. I love this. I love the idea of even just changing my vocabulary from “infertility” to “fertility.” You are absolutely right…it feels more hopeful.

    Reply
  2. This is so fascinating to me. I’m not really one for airy-fairy “think positive!” sparkly unicorn stuff (especially in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary, like my crappy ovaries!), but the solid science behind creating neural pathways is really intriguing. As someone who struggles with being cynical and pessimistic a lot of the time, it definitely gives me food for thought.

    Reply
    • Awesome! Negativity has its place—but so does neutrality and positivity. I love the idea that we have so much control over the whole drama. Like you, I get annoyed with “think positive,” even though the sentiment is coming from a good place. “Think positive” isn’t quite it. It’s so much more complicated. We have to as strongly connect with our alternate stories as we do to our negative stories and we can’t do that just by forcing a grin. Anyway I’m glad you liked it!

      Reply
  3. I was totally going to say something similar to Aramis! I was reading this and thinking, “oh shit, I am that negative person”. And though I can usually own that, and I’m not going to fake it, till I make it, this was so perfect. You won’t catch my attention with fluffy nonsense about positivity, but science, damn rights!

    Reply
    • Ha! Yeah, I’m fascinated by neuroscience—maybe I should write more about it on here. For me science and spirituality are expressions of the same thing—but the language couldn’t be more different, and science is great because you can see it, test it, and feel like you really can know it. I’m reading right now about our amygdalas, fight or flight response, and even though it puts enormous pressure on me to figure out how to stay calm on “The Table,” I’m beginning to believe that my anxiety and stress could have had a part in my last loss. But if I think of this phenomenon through the lens of science I have reason to believe I can change it by understanding it. Anyway—yes, love science!

      Reply
  4. I named my blog fertility instead of infertility because I didn’t want to be stuck with infertility. I think I have a big negative super highway and I keep trying to use hypnotherapy to break it down. It all started with ‘there must be something wrong with me.’

    Reply
    • I’ve loved your blog name from the moment I first came across it. I’m reading right now that hypnotherapy is probably the best therapy modality for women struggling with fertility issues—I’m looking forward to trying it out with new therapist.

      Reply
  5. This is so interesting! I had never considered some of this. And I like the idea that blogging could actually change some of my brain and pathways.

    Reply
  6. Thank you for posting on this fascinating topic.

    I struggle with my negativity superhighway and from my readings on neuroscience and the mind’s effect on our very cells, I often feel crushed and helpless, not empowered. I’ve been to hypnotherapy for the anxiety experience when pregnant and waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I planned before this last fail to go back and get help re-wiring my bleeping cells because I think/fear the occasional postive messaging or semantic pirouettes cannot possibly override the years of RPL and its effects, let alone my own anxiety and Western medicine’s “you are too old/eggs are no good” messages.

    I want to read one person’s empirical research about how women with RPL, DOR, fertility “challenges”, etc. successfully reprogrammed their cells to conceive and carry to term (or to close enough to birth) a healthy baby. If anyone’s read that study, please share. Not the anecdotal stuff in Schwatz’s book – that’s great and can be encouraging but not what I mean. I want both evidence and a how-to guide. Is that too much to ask?

    In the meantime, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Wishing you good fortune, peace, love and most of all, success.

    Reply
    • Yeah, it’s hard to believe I can overcome the trauma of 6 losses, that is for sure. It would be great if there were a study that tracked recurrent miscarriage patients specifically, using MRIs and tracking pregnancy outcomes. I don’t know of anything like that. But I think for me accepting that thoughts, psychological environment, stress, and so on, all have an effect is a good first step—I’ve been on the side of science for most of this ride, and on the side of all the studies that say “You cannot stress yourself into a miscarriage.” I can’t find any studies linking cortisol to miscarriage, but I can find the opposite. But so much of pregnancy is still a mystery and I’m sure by the time our generation’s kids are adults there will be lots of longitudinal psych/neuroscience studies we could’ve definitely benefitted from. Still, the major research paper I drew my information from (in my research paper “Sherry”) does track effects on the brain via MRI, even though the patients might not be specifically RPL patients.

      Sometimes I think “I’ve got way too much work to do,” when it comes to rewiring, but then I think: Who says it’s too much? Only I can say that it’s too much, and only I can say that it is not too much. How can that work be measured? What sort of scale? What if I say I can work my way through it in a month, a day? That’s where the empowerment comes in for me. I recognize that I get to say, and no one else, what is happening. The empowerment is fleeting, and it coexists with fear and doubt. But sometimes I accept that fear and doubt aren’t enemies and can be the perfect launching pad for empowerment. They’d better be! (: Because there’s no way to excise them, they are with me for life.

      Reply
  7. Clare

     /  January 23, 2014

    I’m terrible. Even when things are going well for me I find a way to tell myself a negative narrative about it. Usually something about how I was going to mess up or some kinda rug is about to be pulled out from under me. You’ve inspired me to pay closer attention to this.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad. Neuroscience and MRIs don’t lie. The trick for me is making that alternate storytelling authentic—connecting it, so that it doesn’t feel forced or shallow.

      Reply
  8. Kali

     /  January 23, 2014

    That’s it, I’m starting a blog.

    Reply
  9. What a great post and description of narrative therapy. I am a psychologist and often find it challenging to explain some of these concepts to my patients – I may have to steal some of your wording :) I have also always hated the word infertility. The prefix “in” means “not” and I refuse to believe that I am not fertile. I call myself sub-fertile. Clearly I need some help, but I’m confident I’ll get there someday.

    Reply
    • I just checked out your blog and love the way it reads and is organized and am now following it! I’m glad you can use any of this, that makes me happy. I noticed on your blog how you make a point to call yourself subfertile, that’s great. I’m hoping the very best for you!

      Reply
  1. What made the 7th pregnancy different from the other six? | the unexpected trip

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