Sharing And Creating Stories In A Mental Health Recovery Centre


Sharing And Creating Stories In A Mental Health Recovery Centre

© Lillian Rodrigues-Pang

Once a week I offer a storytelling workshop at a local mental health recovery centre. For one hour I share a range of traditional stories from around the world with whoever is able to be there on that day. Traditional tales offer us a huge range of issues, situations and points of relevance in our everyday lives. They also offer wonder, tricksters and twists which fill us all with joy.

When I share these stories it offers us a starting point for conversations and connection. We discover what we have in common, what interests and experiences, what humour, dreams, culture, food, adventures, past, sibling relationships, we have all shared. We also have a safe place – the story, to talk about what we don’t agree on, or what we have never understood or thought of, and the freedom to say; “that is something I have never thought of before”.

Storytelling sessions offer every participant an opportunity to engage in whatever way they feel appropriate. They may want to simply sit and listen, it may be that talk is something they can’t deal with that day, they may be highly creative and inventive with noises, words or situations. Sometimes me hamming it up as an angry rabbit or hysterical elderly turtle gives all of us an opportunity to laugh, with abandon, without anyone judging us or our actions. Those moments are truly beautiful for me, when we are all connected in joy.

I also ask for participation in creating a new story every session. It is always improvised and begins with whatever the participants ask for. They give me the characters or the place to start with and then I continuously ask for input as the story develops and the turning points arise. Again each week the participation level is varied although each week we create a totally new story that I record. Creating a story together allows me to understand the interests and thoughts of the people I am sharing with (which I can feedback to the centre). It allows us to all hear from each other and to experience something jointly that we all enjoy. It is a healing moment for the group as we combine to create something of beauty.


I transcribe all our created stories and print and bind them to remain in the centre for anyone to access as they wish. Often it is our created stories that people ask me to tell again and again. Below is a story named “Cresta and the Willow Tree”. It has been the most requested story in the workshop for the past three months and with some changes is a story I tell regularly during performances. I have included it below for you to enjoy as well.

The words in italics are the inputs from the participants. I have typed it out as I heard it so it is not a final edit /polished story it is more a reflection of our creative space and story in that moment.


Cresta and the Willow Tree

Girl named Cresta
Willow tree

Once there was a little girl named Cresta and Cresta lived in a city and she was one of those kids that knew exactly what she liked. The thing Cresta like most of all was trees. Everywhere she walked if there was a tree she would want to touch it. Well, you know city trees, they are either super, super old, or in someone’s garden or locked away in a back yard or young with a wire cage protecting the bark. She would be walking along and she’d try and stick her hand in the middle of those wire chains to try and get to the trees and try and touch that bark.

Cresta’s mum and dad would take her on walks her big brother would walk her to school and everyone noticed her love of trees. They lived in an apartment in the city and they tried to grow a few pot plants but could never grow a real tree. And Cresta wasn’t so interested in the pot plants. Instead what they did was paint the whole wall of her bedroom as a big tree and you know Cresta’s favourite tree from all of her books was the willow tree. She used to dream of living in a willow tree.

Willow Tree by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef – 1925


They transformed her bedroom. They painted the wall near her bed with a great big willow tree trunk. Cresta said; “that’s not enough. That’s not enough.” So they painted the roof with these hanging branches. And Cresta said; “That’s not enough. That’s not enough”. In the end they painted willow branches from her bed all the way over to the other wall. They painted branches from the base of the wall where her bed was over the roof and onto the other wall they even had to paint the cupboard doors. Branches and branches. Cresta wanted to paint the leaves herself. She got out her little paints and brushes and she painted all the leaves at the bottom of the wall and her big brother painted the higher side of the walls. Her mum and dad painted the roof until the whole family had worked to create this tree all through Cresta’s bedroom and she loved it.

When she went to bed at night she would dream of climbing the branches. She would dream that she lived in that willow tree. She would talk to the tree and she would hear the breeze in the leaves talking back to her and for the first time Cresta felt comfortable living in the city. She was so relaxed and happy now that her room reflected her she didnt feel out of place.

Her Mum and her dad and her brother whenever they walked her to school they would ask her, “Cresta tell us, what did you dream?” And she would tell them how the Willow fairies had come out of her tree at night and they had played singing songs with her and skipping songs and dances and they played with her right through the night.

Then one day Cresta was off at school. Her parents were at work and her big brother was at high school and a big storm raged through that city. There were huge waves and winds and no one was allowed to return to their homes. Whilst in the school shelter Cresta realised she had left the window of her bedroom open. That storm ripped through her bedroom. Wind had torn everything to bits. Rain wet everything.

The storm tore through that place. Weeks later the family were allowed out of the shelter and to go back to their home. And what did they find?

Tree became real
The storm had met that tree. Swirled and whirled around that tree. The water sat in that room and the bark started to grow and those leaves that Cresta had painted – they started to come out of the walls and the leaves that her brother had painted started to droop down and wave in the winds. And the leaves that her parents had painted had spread and grown over the only two blank walls and curtains.

Photo by Ted Rozumalski, 1973

When Cresta walked into her room she gave a squeal. She screamed. Mum dad, brother they all came running in thinking something was wrong. They all walked in to this magical live room where the willow tree had taken over and before their very eyes a rope swing dropped down out of one of the branches in front of Cresta and they all knew that the willow fairies and Cresta were connected and that’s why she had loved trees all her life and had these dreams.

Cresta jumped onto that rope swing, her brother jumped up higher and her father and mother swung them back and forth and you know what. That room was too small for a full tree and a rope swing.

Solution – knock the walls down
The walls start cracking
Flying carpet
That tree grows and grows and grows and all the family had been playing on the rope swing they had all held on and pushed and shoved and heard the building starting to creak and crack and that tree push and grow. They heard other people starting to scream and clear out. But Cresta wouldn’t let go of that rope. Cresta wouldn’t leave the tree and it was growing still pushing and shoving and growing. Buildings and bricks and pipes were exploding left right and centre around them. Cresta hung onto that rope swing and because she hung on her brother was above her and he couldn’t get down and the mother and father they ran towards her and as they touched all together on the rope swing. Just like a magic carpet they disappeared from the city and found themselves on a mirror tree by a river on a big country property with a little house up on the hill. They looked around and there was everything Cresta had every dreamed of. She grabbed her family’s hands and she walked them up to that house.

She said I know this place. This is your bedroom to her brother, this is yours to her mum and dad and this is mine. I know this house. This is where we will always be. So Cresta lead through her belief in her dreams and her tree her whole family to great big beautiful home where they lived happily every after.

Tree of Life, painting by Mary Louise Chown©


Lillian Rodrigues-Pang began her storytelling career in mental health institutions over 20 years ago. She continues to work with stories in her community and abroad. Currently her projects and work is focused on recently arrived refugees, in mental health recovery centres and facilitating Indigenous story gathering and sharing. She also performs in theatres and main stages world wide. CD – Vámonos with Stories. Touring theatre shows available – ‘Señor Rabbit’ and ‘Curious Jac’.

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