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I have always been a storyteller. When I was little, I would fill small notebooks with my stories, creating worlds and reporting on what I saw around me. Storytelling is in my blood; my father is a great one. Our family dinners were lively as he told tales of growing up in Queens or what he experienced that day at work. 

But stories are not unique to our family. The storytelling instinct lives inside EACH of us – it’s humans’ oldest way of communicating, of passing down wisdom and insight, of entertaining each other, of sharing. Stories give us a way to make meaning, to make sense of what’s happening or has happened, and sometimes even to offer redemption. 

Here’s a story I tell often: When I was in graduate school, I found myself overcome with intrusive, obsessive thoughts. My typically friendly mind became a landmine. My university was in Manhattan and I was suddenly terrified of everything: the subway, the streets, my dorm, the world. If my pen fell to the floor in class I would leave it there because the floor felt too contaminated to retrieve it. I would throw clothes and books into the garbage chute because they too became irretrievably dirty. I could barely concentrate on my classwork, instead waiting to get out of the class to wash my hands. One day I was riding the crosstown bus and my umbrella fell on the floor. Oh god, I thought. The floor where our shoes step, where there could be poop, blood, pee, who knows what. It was pouring rain, but that didn’t matter. I got off at the next stop and tossed the umbrella in the garbage. 

Contamination fears were not all that plagued me. When I was home visiting family, I would drive somewhere, only to be wracked with thoughts of accidentally hitting someone with my car. If my shoulders brushed someone as I walked on train platforms I worried they had fallen onto the rails because of me. I felt like I was losing my mind.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Before long I realized these intrusive, swirling, painful thoughts were because I had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I made an appointment with the university psychologist. Then I went to the bookstore, walking down the aisles looking for stories of people like me. In the mental health section I found a book by renowned psychologist Dr. Edna Foa, called Stop Obsessing: How to Overcome Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I flipped to the back of the book where there were little vignettes, short stories, of people suffering:

  • A mother who couldn’t cook anymore for fear of stabbing her family with kitchen knives. 
  • A person terrified of dirt and germs, spending hours in the shower each day. 
  • A child who struggled getting out the door because of needing to feel “just right.” 

I read of their suffering and then of their recovery, and I wept. There was a way out of this hell. Their stories showed me the way.

The way out of OCD is paradoxically leaning into the things you fear most, accepting uncertainty, and refusing to use a compulsion to diminish your anxiety. It’s a therapeutic technique called exposure and response prevention (ERP) and it’s the gold-standard for OCD treatment. ERP calls for you to expose yourself to your fears and, when you are faced with the terror of anxiety, don’t use a compulsion to whisk it away; instead, sit in the terror. It is excruciating, but living with uncontrollable OCD is still worse. I used to say to myself: this is already torture, I might as well torture myself towards healing.  It meant doing things like riding the subway, holding onto the cool metal bars, and then rubbing my face with my hands. Finding a crowded lobby and taking the contents of my purse and laying them on the floor while people walked by, nearly stepping on me, and then using the objects without cleaning them. Driving somewhere without turning around. 

Each time I did an exposure my brain slowly learned new ways of handling anxiety. I could withstand the onslaught of thoughts. I did not need to check or wash them away. I started rewriting my story of how I approached anxiety, of what my life could be. Every exposure was a step out of prison and I wanted out.

I did get out. That was more than 10 years ago now and although I have had seasons where my OCD has ramped up, I have the tools to handle it. When I am feeling afraid I know I have to walk towards it. The more I avoid something, the bigger it will become. These are good skills for everyone, not just those with OCD. 

The other skill I have when my obsessive thoughts come creeping in is storytelling. Like the soothing bedtime routine of childhood, I tell myself stories. I remind myself of what I have lived through, of what I have overcome, and that I did it then, and I can do it again. My story heals me.

 I have made a living as a writer and now I am working to become a therapist. I am interested in how our stories can heal us or, in some cases limit us … if we let them. In many therapeutic approaches, the therapist is paying attention, not only to the content of the stories told by a client, but also how they tell it. Are they always the victim or the hero? Are they joyful, or sorrowful? Can they laugh? What do the stories we tell say about ourselves?

 This is something you can take with you. Think about the stories you tell yourself about who you are and what you have lived through. Are there ways to rewrite these stories? To find some glimmers of healing even in the hell? There wasn’t much healing when I was throwing my umbrella away, or Cloroxing my room for hours, but my stories about that time help me continue to make sense of it, to help me look back at the pain and see my growth. My intuition says storytelling lies within each of us. I see it every day in my own life and the lives of those around me. I now see it in my children.

The other afternoon, as cool fall weather began to settle in, I watched my five-year-old sit under the maple tree in our yard. The leaves draped around her majestically and she made up stories, talking to herself about the brown curling leaves, and bugs, the little fairies she had propped up around her feet. 

“I’m telling a story, Mommy. Don’t interrupt me.”

 I won’t, my love, I thought. Go on storytelling. Let the stories fill you and heal you when you need them to.

Nicole Falcone

Nicole Falcone

Nicole Falcone is a writer and storyteller. She runs a storytelling agency, Gather&Create, which specializes in telling audio and narrative stories about innovation in education. In 2020 she published her first collection of poetry on motherhood, Sitting By The River in the Sunshine.