Heroic Journeys


For nearly 10 years I’ve led a weekly group for women whose children have been taken by CPS. (Child Protective Services) The women are in recovery, most of them ordered by a judge to attend this program. The group format is unusual in that I tell the women a myth or story which they apply to their lives. While this might sound frivolous, it can have profound impact.

This week as I strode into the musty living room, I was greeted with, “It’s the storyteller!” A voluptuous blonde in flannel pajamas beamed at me. “Remember me?”

                “No,” I confessed.

                “I was here in 2010.”

                “What brings you back?” This is my standard question, and it usually leads to an involved story and often tears. This was no exception.  The blonde, I’ll call her Deb, relapsed after two years, when her ex left her, and she went back to the guy who first hooked her up with meth. She knew she shouldn’t have. She wished she hadn’t. But she couldn’t help herself. At this point she wept copiously, berating herself because her three year old is now enmeshed in the foster care system.

A similar story could have been told by most of the women in the program. 

My work, as I see it, is to help the women re-frame their narratives, so instead of seeing themselves as helpless victims, condemned to perpetually screw up, they see themselves as the heroes of their own lives. I point out that traditional stories often start with bad situations: Hansel and Gretel are left in the woods; Cinderella is abandoned by her father and mistreated by her stepmother; simple Jack has to face down the ferocious giant. But the hero always sets forth, willingly or unwillingly; receives unexpected help; perseveres through the obstacles; and gains the prize. This is the classic model of the hero’s journey, and it’s a pattern that has endured for millennia.   

When I introduced this week’s story, Deb shrieked. “I wanted to hear that story again! It’s about the goddess who hid in the cave but came out!”

                “Yes. Amaterasu.”

                “I went to the tattoo parlor to get her tattooed right here. The goddess coming out of the cave.” She pointed to her forearm. “But I didn’t have enough money.”

I sat open-mouthed, floored by her attempt to have the story tattooed on her body.  And later, when I explained the exercise of reflecting back each other’s positive qualities, Deb rattled off the list of positive qualities she’d been told four  years earlier. “I taped it on my door,” she said sheepishly, “and read it every time I left my room.”

As I drove away this week, I was flooded with the familiar ambivalence and paradox. Yes, the session had been powerful and beautiful. Yes, there had been tears, insights, vows to change. But the odds were against lasting change.  Almost all these women had been raised in foster care or by mothers who were addicts. The cycle is deeply entrenched and difficult  (in dark moments I think impossible) to break. I do this work as a volunteer, and I frequently ask myself if it’s the best use of my time.

Recently, I took a four month break from the program. I wasn’t sure I’d go back. But I kept thinking of the women, and not out of guilt or obligation. I missed the vitality I felt while with them.  The women in the house are fighting a life-and-death battle. It’s just so real. Their courage and tenacity are an inspiration, and their challenges are humbling. It’s a privilege to be given intimate glimpses into their lives and to offer sustenance for their journeys, which are radically harder than my own.

See my website for more information and articles about healing story.

The painting above is Travelers on A Wooded Path by Henri Joseph Harpignes, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.