Some time ago, on my general blog, I told the story of a friend of mine, that illustrates another aspect of working with story. He had suffered from adult-onset epilepsy. The medication he was given had an unfortunate side-effect. He started to suffer from troubling flashbacks/daydreams. These were all of a similar nature. He would remember some past encounter, of a trivial nature, with someone whom he had only met once, when the encounter had ended unsatisfactorily from his point of view. Many of these dated back years, and he had not consciously thought about them since. One example was a time he had been stopped by traffic police and one of them had been unnecessarily sarcastic, some twenty years ago. But what troubled him was that each flashback ended with an imagined scene in which he beat up the other person. Needless to say, he is not given to violence, nor even to violent fantasies. So he found these flashbacks/daydreams very troubling, and at one stage was having several a day. He went for a couple of counselling sessions, and his counsellor suggested a very simple idea. He should re-visit each of these encounters in his mind, and re-write the story by imagining an ending with which he would have been satisfied. So in the case of the police, for example, he imagined that he had had a word with the non-sarcastic police officer about the other's behaviour. He further imagined that the non-sarcastic officer had returned to the patrol car and given his colleague some uncompromising feedback about his sarcastic behaviour.
As he was telling me this part of the story his wife chipped in, to say that she had been extremely sceptical of this idea when he returned from that counselling session. It sounded too easy, too simple, to be effective. Yet effective it was! From the moment he imagined a better ending to each of these stories, which I suppose must have been lurking unresolved deep in his unconscious mind for years, the flashbacks stopped.
Since I wrote that original post, I have had a further conversation with him, and he added a bit more detail. He finds this approach works really well when the unfinished story is about someone else behaving badly; and frequently he only has to think through his new ending once, for the unfinished business to be resolved. However, two other things have become clearer since he first told me about all of this. One is that as he deals with some stories, others emerge from the recesses of his mind: again, they are typically incidents he has not thought about for many years. The second thing that has become clearer is that if the unfinished business is about an occasion when he behaved badly (rather than someone else) it is far harder to lay the story to rest.
I do not know why that might be, though of course it is tempting to speculate. But I recored it as it is interesting.
But overall, both he and his wife remain delighted and surprised with the potency of the approach his counsellor suggested. And that approach seems to me to underline the importance of the stories we create for ourselves, the necessity of a satisfactory ending, and our power to create endings that work well for us, and the positive results that flow from doing so.