Using Story with Aquired Brain Injury

By Meg Gilman.

I develop storytelling programs for people with ABI (acquired brain injury) and for clinicians who work in that field. While there are common problems and struggles for people with ABI, the unique nature of the brain and it’s response to trauma begs that anyone telling stories to survivors, for any purpose, be aware of a multitude of possible needs and responses. Stories need to be adjusted and adapted to allow for inclusion, regardless of physical, mental or emotional ability. Attention span, focus, memory, emotional control and behavioral problems, mobility and/or ability to speak (among other challenges) may be issues, and trust is always an issue.

These two stories are used primarily as introductions to a longer program; they are ‘icebreakers’ of a sort. I’ve found that brief, humorous stories provide an opening, a space for people to breathe and relax into a process with which they may be unfamiliar and about which they may have some anxiety concerning their abilities to participate. Though simple, these stories stimulate discussion and sharing because of the survivors’ identification with the content. Initially most responses will be of the head-nodding in agreement, the “I’ve done that” comment.

The first story, ‘The Memory Clinic’ is in the form of a joke. It puts people immediately at ease; everyone recognizes the tone of a joke, and yet this particular joke addresses through humor the problems and strategies that people with ABI confront on a daily basis. People laugh, then there’s the “me too” response, and then the sense of ease which follows on the heels of recognition.

The second story ‘Tyndal and the Priest’ is a short folktale (paraphrased here), and there is always a sense of pride when the listener ‘gets it’. Confusion and difficulty with generalizing strategies are common problems among survivors of ABI.

These stories trigger memories, increase self-awareness and self-acceptance, decrease the sense of isolation and prompt the sharing of personal stories about challenges in ABI recovery. Participants are encouraged to share their responses and their stories, no matter how brief.

Once participants have settled into their comfort zone, other usually longer stories can be told, both listening stories and audience participation stories. I find that stories which offer hope through the naming and acceptance of loss to be very effective. These stories can provide the listener with a heartfelt moment of connection with their own process and their own story.

The Memory Clinic

Two elderly men were sitting in the living room having a conversation when one of the men asked the other, “Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?”

“Great,” Fred replied. “They taught us all the latest psychological techniques like visualization, association and repetition. It was worth it.”

“Well, I’m thinking about going. What was the name of the clinic?”

Fred’s mind went blank. He thought and thought, but couldn’t remember. Then a smile broke across his face and he asked, “What do you call that flower with the long stem and thorns?”

“You mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

He called to his wife in the kitchen, “Hey, Rose, what was the name of that memory clinic?”

(Use of association … rose with Rose to remember wife’s name, but obviously the clinic had limited benefit!)

Tyndal And The Priest

This is a Moldavian tale about a man named Tyndal who goes on a journey. When he spends the night at an inn, he shares his room with a priest who does not want to be awakened as early as Tyndal. So Tyndal dresses in the early morning dark and mistakenly dresses in the priest’s robes instead of his own clothing.

As he goes on his way, the sun comes up, and he notices the priest’s robe instead of his own coat. “Now I’ll have to go all the way back,” he cries. “The innkeeper woke the priest instead of me.”

(Confusion, inability to identify real problem)

These are short, funny stories which allow the opportunity for identification with a problem and for discovering humor in solving it or living with it. These stories serve well as an intro to a longer program by ‘breaking the ice’ and creating a safe judgment-free space, a space where those present can feel a sense of community which welcomes sharing in the healing process.

Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001


Meg Gilman came to storytelling via an MFA in performance art and interrelated media, a deep love of language, and a strong spiritual connection. After multiple ‘careers’ as a performance artist, photography teacher, film/video producer, audio tech, and research consultant, she became involved in healing modalities (hypnotherapy, guided visualization, focusing) and was initiated as a Conductor in the Sufi Healing Order. She tells stories to all ages, for fun and for education, and she designs and presents programs for the use of storytelling (both as a teller and as a facilitator for others to create and share their stories) as a healing art in various environments.

Meg Gilman
e-mail: meggart@aol.com


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