The Work of My Life: A Story Workshop Experience

piano and sheet music

The Allender Center’s core belief is that we are best known—and our stories best seen—in the company of others. One of our signature expressions of that belief is the Story Workshop, a four-day journey that includes teaching, group work, and one-on-one sessions that all invite you to learn to tell your story in bold, beautiful, and life changing ways. Here, Maddy Miller writes about her own experience in the Story Workshop, where she learned to engage stories that had long been buried by shame. If you’re interested in pursuing this journey in your own story, we still have seats open for our next Story Workshop, August 15-18 in Seattle.

My first year at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology was fraught with invitation to expose parts of myself that I had kept hidden. I worked hard to give my professors and peers what they wanted. By working hard, I mean I suffered through the immense anxiety necessary to get something, anything, on a page. I told my truths in practicum, read the assigned material, shared my papers out loud. Tenacious tears (my practicum leader named them) longing for words to anchor them into my intellectual being. Looming close was the realization that my whole self was being called into this graduate school work. I had lived so far from me that a felt sense of who I am did not exist. My intellect had created what I thought was the perfect cover.

Evidence of anxiety came in ways that surprised me. I could not read through a page without the words bouncing around. I read every sentence several times, trying to connect my mind to the words. I cried through one-on-ones with my practicum facilitator, her face reflecting my unknown self to me. There were no words for the flood. Trying to keep up academically while protecting myself emotionally caused me to go blank in important moments. The blanks scared me. By the end of the first year, I thought I was mentally ill. I had heard that the second year was even more challenging, if that was possible. To better understand myself, I applied to the Story Workshop at The Allender Center.

As a participant, I was invited to submit five stories, picking one to write in detail—as close to myself as I could get. The trauma of my life was not direct abuse but rather neglect, which turned my natural need and want for love and belonging inward, towards shame covered by anxiety. I had very few experiences I could draw close to, as I was unfamiliar with being close to myself. The one story I knew intimately was sneaking cookies from the cupboard when no one was looking. This was an art that I perfected. It was easy to enter into this story because it was repeated several times a week, every week of my childhood.

During the opening session, the familiar shame of being not good enough descended. The story was supposed to be about trauma. My cookie story hardly seemed traumatic. I was so caught up in the anxiety of this, I missed much of our first small group. I was trying to pray, trying to be present, trying to get out of my head. The trying was exhausting me. During the break I wandered into the chapel for the first time. I walked the perimeter attempting to calm myself. There on the keyboard, in the middle of August, were the words O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. During summer semester, I had written a paper in Old Testament about Israel’s captivity, which I could only make sense of in regards to my own mind. My mind was Israel, and my creator God would do whatever necessary to rescue me from the enemy I faced daily. This was the moment. In my flood of tears, I felt the presence of God and myself for the first time since the workshop began.

My creator God would do whatever necessary to rescue me from the enemy I faced daily.

I entered my story group for real. I acknowledged my absence of presence and my experience in the chapel. Tears streaming, I read each word of my cookie story. Together we teased out orphan themes of abandonment and neglect, the need for love and comfort being replaced by the sweetness of the cookie. My group leader extracted the sensual, even sexual ways I had written about this experience, which led my second story to an assault I experienced as a young teenager—an assault terribly confused by my need for love. I remember being deeply moved by the honesty of the other participants, in their reflections of me and in their own story work. They applauded my strength and the courage it takes for one so small to bravely take what they need. The cookie story has come up more than once in my own therapy. It has proven to hold important clues to me, including my most recent realization: not only did I have to steal the love I needed, the contempt that haunts me is enmeshed in my desire for love.

Participating in the Story Workshop allowed me the time necessary to process through anxiety, through shame, to arrive in my own presence. In my presence and the presence of others, the safety necessary to let myself be seen occurred. As my neediness was met with human love and honesty, a real me began to form. A me that is getting to know herself. A me who no longer always needs to hide. A me who is learning. I named this new little me Gloria. She is helping me to slow down and pay attention. This is the work of my life, and I am becoming more and more me each day. I am bravely heading towards what I believe is my desire. Two steps forward, one step back, stumbling towards myself.

Today, I am learning to embrace anxiety as the alarm that sounds when shame is wanting to stifle the me still growing inside. Anxiety tells me there is something I need to pay attention to, to give voice to. I no longer need to hide, but rather, continue the exploration and let myself be known in the light of safe others. As a clinician, working in my story has made me aware of the unmet needs of my clients. I cue into the simplest stories of making toast, hanging onto mama’s skirt, dragging home a drum. I recognize my clients’ need to be seen and their desire to be known and loved. I feel their courage as they take small steps towards themselves. I see myself in them, in this beautiful work.

I am forever grateful for those who joined me in my story that weekend, who bravely shared their stories with me. Dear friends around the country, whose voices continue to bring comfort, healing, and the courage necessary to press into the story of me unfolding today.

Maddy Miller is an MA in Counseling Psychology alum of The Seattle School. “People are my passion” has been her mantra for many years. She has recently become the passion of her own life, coming to believe that knowing and loving herself well is her gift to God, and therefore the world. She is the proud mom of three married children and grandma to two beautiful foster children.