With Fear and Trepidation:
Storytelling for Whom?
It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough – now you want us to break them down for you?
—Julianna Britto Schwartz
“Hi, my name is Janet and I’m an addict.” I have uttered that statement more times than I can count. Sometimes, I say it jokingly. After all, that’s not all that I am. But, at other times, I have said it with a sense of defeat. It is the truth. For many years, I was addicted to heroin – and I have the stories to prove it.
Ironically, my stories have been my salvation. Without them, I wouldn’t have gained entry into the world of recovery and would never have become drug-free. In the addictions-recovery world, sharing stories like mine are what keep us alive.
The necessity of self-disclosure has been drilled into me since the first time I attended a 12-step based meeting when I was 19. In any 12-step based group, the first step is to admit that one is powerless over χ and that one’s life has become unmanageable (because of χ). Our mandatory greeting facilitates newcomers’ completion of the first step: an admission of defeat, of powerlessness. The mandated self-disclosure (“I am an addict/alcoholic”) is designed to help individuals realize that they have a problem but know they aren’t alone. Everyone at the meeting, as one learns when people introduce themselves this way, is or has been where they are now.
For the reasons above, I never feel like I am disclosing something precious about myself when I utter the greeting in a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. Yes, it is mandatory, but I know why I am saying it, and, in some sense, I feel good saying it. In NA, I am amongst friends and fellows, and disclosing myself as an addict is a way of keeping myself on the road to recovery. It reminds me of my past just enough to keep me on the path to a better future. It is genuinely beneficial – for me and any listener.
When the meeting starts and everyone talks about addiction or what is going on in their lives, there is no need to assess the risks of storytelling. Everyone is in the same boat. Everyone protects each other’s right to anonymity and recovery. It is a genuinely communal healing process.
Storytelling beyond the church walls of NA meetings, however, is quite different. In the outside world, it isn’t always safe or wise for me to disclose my past. And, as a matter of fact, outside of NA meetings and the addictions community, I rarely disclose my intimate familiarity with heroin. I always pause to consider: is it safe for me to reveal my past? To whom am I telling my story? Does this person care about me? What’s in it for them? What are the consequences of sharing my story?
Storytelling, I have learned, must be done with caution and careful consideration. When we share our stories with others, we invite them to see us as we see ourselves and our world (Lucas 2019). It can be a dangerous activity because we make ourselves vulnerable to others. Our listeners’ reactions can either reinforce or tear apart our identities.
As I tell people who know of my past, I have to make a calculated decision each time I share my story. I don’t always know why I am being asked to self-disclose or how I should self-disclose. The seemingly innocuous “Do you identify as someone with lived experience?” question on scholarship or grant applications paralyzes me every time. Just what are my faceless, potential patrons looking for? What kind of story do they want to hear? My worry is that my story will somehow be used against me. I fear that I will be made into a caricature of an addict. I am terrified that I will be excluded from certain areas of academia. I am scared that who I am will keep me from becoming the researcher I want to be.
My concern isn’t a novel one; feminist theories of narrativity have shown that identities and agency are mutually constituted in and through the stories we tell to others. As Seyla Benhabib puts it, narrative identity is “an ability to make sense, to render coherent, meaningful, and viable for oneself one's shifting commitments as well as changing attachments” (1999, 347). For Benhabib, our identities are disclosed through conversation and storytelling. Agency is enabled when our identities are supported, that is, when the stories we communicate are listened to and respected. Benhabib also gets right that narrative relations are inherently fragile; fruitful storytelling can only occur in a “solidaristic community” (ibid.).
This fragility offers a potential for feminist politics. Solidaristic communities can tell “counterstories,” to use Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s (2001) phrase, which resist and reframe dominant, oppressive master narratives. Resistance narratives can repair identities, both individual and collective, that have been damaged by oppression. The NA meetings that I attend are examples of this. Each person tells a story, disclosing who they are and what they have done. Then, supportive others encourage that person to continue pursuing a beneficial direction or help them find an alternative path. The solidarity in these meetings helps members fight the dominant narrative that addicts are morally bad, psychologically damaged people. In each other’s presence, we find solace from addiction stigma and develop the strength to keep recovering in a world where addicts are often perceived as ‘write-offs’.
Like Benhabib and Lindemann Nelson, I affirm the potential of solidaristic communities to support stories of resistance to oppressive and dominating forces. Yet, I worry that these solidaristic communities are, in actuality, quite rare. Moreover, even when solidaristic communities do exist, they may not be powerful enough to shield or reverse the dominating forces of other groups. They may still be at the mercy of their oppressors and even be subject to storytelling exploitation.
The 2018 Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy Consultation
In September 2018, the Government of Canada conducted a 90-day national consultation “to gather ideas on potential next steps under the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy” (CDSS) (Health Canada, 2019). More than 1,600 responses were recorded. Many of the responses came through a “tell us your story” tool “which allowed Canadians to share their personal experiences with drug and substance use” (ibid.). On the consultation’s public website, the Government of Canada claimed that the collected stories would be used to inform new policies for “reducing stigma around substance use[;] improving access to comprehensive, evidence-based treatment services[; and creating] innovative approaches to harm reduction” (Health Canada, 2018). All in all, the consultation promised “to update the CDSS to more effectively and compassionately address substance use in Canada” (ibid.).
The report produced after the consultation, however, did little more than reiterate its stated claims. According to the report,
“many respondents [shared] that stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs act as barriers to effectively addressing substance use issues in Canada,”
“there is a need to improve our understanding of problematic substance use by strengthening the evidence base and conducting more research on underlying causes,”
“there is no ‘one-size fits all approach’ to addressing substance use and that services need to be better tailored to meet the needs of individuals and groups.” (Health Canada, 2019)
What was lacking from the report was an explanation of how the stories shared by respondents were interpreted to generate the post-consultation report. Also lacking was an accounting of what new approaches were inspired by the stories. Scrupulous readers can suss out two clues towards the end: the stories have provided policy makers “with practical suggestions to make inroads into this important issue.” These professionals “will closely review and consider the ideas and experiences shared through this process … [as they] move forward with a public-health focussed approach to problematic substance use under the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy” (Health Canada, 2019). Nothing further is provided.
This is storytelling exploitation. The consultation’s organizers put out a call to Canadians with lived experience of addiction to share their personal stories under the promise of supporting them, but failed to explain how their information would be used and why their particular stories would be relevant or necessary for the project. Unlike at a 12-step based meeting where self-identification and disclosure of personal stories actually fulfill a known (and tested) healing process, the consultation only alludes to some far off potential healing. Storytelling here serves no purpose in itself. Rather, storytelling is only a means to an end.
The consultation was exploitative because it preyed on the hopes of those affected by addiction and, in so doing, lured them to disclose their stories with no real payoff. The respondents, for example, were not compensated, nor did they have the liberty to frame their stories as they liked. Instead, tempted by the prospect of contributing to a new and helpful national strategy, people had to spend time and energy to ensure their story fit the constraints set by the consultation’s organizers. For example, in order to participate at all, one had to read a comprehensive 30-page background document and make sure their story either addressed or aligned with what the government, in that document, claimed were objective facts. This is no easy task. It is, in fact, “unrecognized, uncompensated, emotionally taxing, coerced epistemic labor” (Berenstain 2016, 570).
The central harm of storytelling exploitation is that it is not mutually beneficial; storytellers do not get what was promised to them before the narrative exchange, and certainly do not get any benefits they were seeking. As the post-consultation report makes evident, storytellers did not get to make the CDSS more innovative because their stories merely reinforced what the policymakers previously believed to be most important. Moreover, how their stories will actually inspire new policies remains a mystery. Even a year later, respondents have not been made aware of any upcoming changes to the CDSS.
Consider how this differs from my experience in Narcotics Anonymous. In 12-step based meetings, I share my experiences because I am explicitly taught (by a sponsor and the members of my home group) that repeatedly identifying myself as an addict to myself and others helps me stay drug-free. Sharing my stories with others breaks down the isolation that results from problematic substance use and keeps me connected to those who can help me if I relapse. It helps to create and maintain a solidaristic community. My storytelling, in short, serves a purpose; I know why I am asked to share and others help me to understand how telling my stories will benefit me (and others). No leaps of faith are required.
The key difference in these kinds of storytelling is the power relations that connect the storyteller to her listeners. At an NA meeting, my audience are my peers. In mandating self-disclosure at the beginning of each meeting, everyone engages with each other as equals. It is rare for social power imbalances to keep us from becoming mutual beneficiaries. Our race, gender, or class may be different but we all come to NA to get sober and to stay sober, and according to the tenets of NA, we have to help each other to do that. For that reason, we interact with each other openly and transparently. No one side withholds valuable information.
On the other hand, the consultation conducted by the Government of Canada reflects a power imbalance. Self-disclosure is required from the storyteller, but the listeners remain anonymous as faceless consultation organizers. There is also no interaction between the two parties and, consequently, no transparency about how stories will be interpreted, utilized, or even why they are necessary. As such, the organizers get to hold a dominant position. The consultation is theirs; the narrative exchange is theirs; and respondents merely get to participate if they follow the rules. The consultation is heinous because its respondents are seduced to tell their tales with the vague promise of better (access to) addiction treatment.
I want to be clear: it is not my intention to disparage the efforts of the Canadian Government. What they have tried to do is vital work. In their own words, “Canada is currently facing the most severe public health crisis in recent history, with annual mortality rates from drug-related overdose deaths exceeding those seen at the peak of the HIV epidemic” (Health Canada, 2018). However, we will fail to know what “more can be done to better meet the needs of Canadians, their loved ones and their communities,” if the research meant to facilitate this process is exploitative (ibid.).
If we are to do better, if we are to avoid storytelling exploitation, the inherent fragility of narratives must be safeguarded. This can only be done if we give due recognition to the power relations that are always a part of storytelling. For the storyteller is vulnerable in narrative exchanges. She is the one who must, in sharing a story, expose herself, her experiences, and her place in the world (Lucas 2019). Her listeners hold power over her and can exploit her – by depriving her of the reasons or justifications for her stories and obscuring how they will be used. But instead of taking both her stories and her power, we can empower her. As listeners, we can tell storytellers why we need their stories and allow them to have a say in how they will be heard. The CDSS need not have acted alone. The consultation organizers could have invited people with lived experience to the consultation and consulted with them on how best to collect and use their stories.
Narrative exchange, that is, storytelling, especially for social change, should always be an exchange of information and power. Storytellers offer themselves, relinquishing their power, and their listeners must, in turn, relinquish theirs and engage collaboratively with the storyteller. In other words, the listener must, at the very least, provide the why and the how of storytelling to the storyteller or, ideally, share with the storyteller the why to figure out the how. This is the only way that the storyteller can safely engage. This is the only way that she can ensure that she will get what she is seeking from the narrative exchange. This is how we can avoid storytelling exploitation.
 Writing this article, therefore, was a real moral dilemma. I went back and forth on the benefits of my self-disclosure for this piece but, ultimately, I decided that this was a safe venue and pertinent to the theme of the journal issue.
Benhabib, Seyla. 1999. “Sexual Difference and Collective Identities: The New Global Constellation.” Signs 24 (2): 335-361.
Government of Canada. 2019. “Federal Actions on Opioids – Overview.” Last modified June 13, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/federal-actions/overview.html.
Health Canada. 2018. “Consultation on Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues.” Last modified September 5, 2018. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/programs/consultation-strengthening-canada-approach-substance-use-issues.html.
Health Canada. 2019. “What We Heard: Strengthening Canada's Approach to Substance Use Issues.” Last modified July 9, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/healthy-living/what-we-heard-strengthening-approach-substance-use-issues.html.
Lindemann Nelson, Hilde. 2001. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
Lucas, Sarah Drews. 2019. “Loneliness and Appearance: Toward a Concept of Ontological Agency.” European Journal of Philosophy 27 (3): 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejop.12432.