Sunday, January 27, 2013


It was probably 1965 when I did my co op job at  Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown, Connecticut.  This was a huge state hospital campus housing thousands of inpatients from all over the state in need of (mostly) long term custodial psychiatric care.  Although this was decades ago, many of my memories of this time are fresh and crisp.  It was one of a few experiences that shaped my interest in becoming a mental health professional.

The setting, a large institution in rural Newtown, Ct.,  was woefully isolated for two young women in their early 20 's dispatched by Antioch college to fulfill their co-op job requirement. We hung out with some other co-op students from Boston and two male psychologists doing their internship at the hospital.   Gimlets at weeks end with the psychologists were all that was available for “partying.”

There was basically no town in Newtown, as I remember it.   We had to catch a ride into NYC if we expected much fun. 

My memories of the facility where we worked, me as an occupational therapy assistant, my friend J. as an art therapist, are quite positivE, however.  The woman under whom I worked was a consummate professional.  She was highly skilled at creating a program for people who were severely mentally ill and compassionate in her attunement to each individual.  I learned a lot from her.   When I wasn’t working directly with patients, she sent me down to read case records.

On one of those occasions I accidentally discovered that one of the in-patients with whom we worked had come to the hospital  voluntarily, for a short period, had somehow gotten lost in the system and was now a long term resident.  Tommy was not psychotic,  he had come to the hospital for the treatment of depression. Over time he had come to look like he belonged there and did not have anyone to advocate for him. He was heavily medicated, and a physical impairment made him look much sicker than he was.

When I shared this with Madelyn, my boss, she got busy, had him re-evaluated and in short order, "sprung" from the hospital.   Tommy was the poster boy, you might say, for “institutionalization.”  The system had swallowed him whole. It was only a lucky accident that freed him.

Madelyn was not alone among the staff of competent and compassionate employees.  This was a good facility.  Some people got stuck, but most were there because they needed the shelter and the supervision.  Many had nowhere to go.  Larry was an example.  He was in the end stages of Huntington's disease,  a neurodegenerative genetic disorder (the disease that Woody Gutherie succumbed to)  with no cure.     The end stage was often characterized by psychosis.

Larry was a very sweet, bright guy.   He had been a working jazz musician in his prime.  Now he had a hard time walking, controlling the jerky movements characteristic of Huntington’s disease.  And he had psychotic episodes.  He needed the  care that the hospital offered and had few or no other options.  Madelyn was very fond of him and took good care of him.

Patients like Tommy inspired the civil rights activists who felt that the mentally ill were unjustly stripped of their legal rights and were often incarcerated against their will.  They became “institutionalized” and were unable to care for themselves out of the hospital only because they had been socialized to the hospital setting.   In Tommy’s case all of this was true.

But they forgot about Larry, and so many other patients who derived protection from the system, not exploitation and abuse. Sadly, Larry needed the care and protection that the hospital provided.

How strange it is for me to meld my memories of Newtown with current events, in which how to care for the mentally ill is heartbreaking front page news.  My  memory is also vivid for the sweeping policy changes and paradigm shifting of the late 60’s and 70’s that emptied the state hospitals, filled the streets with the homeless mentally ill, and made it next to impossible to care for the seriously mentally ill in any viable custodial arrangements. 

In the name of freedom,  we forsook the mentally ill decades and decades ago.  Instead of re-thinking the system, we jettisoned it, de-funded it, and provided nothing to take its place. 

I join my voice to all the others calling for a humane reconsideration of our responsibilities to the seriously mentally ill.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What Good Can It (Psychotherapy) do?

What good can it ( psychotherapy) do?

The  question above is one that I encounter frequently in one form or another from friends, potential clients, close relatives.  It takes various forms:

  1. What can they tell me that I haven’t already thought of myself?
  2. Life will take its course no matter who I talk to.  My partner will die and I will be alone.
  3. I’m going to die anyhow.
  4. Talking won’t bring her/him back.
  5. I’ll still have cancer/multiple sclerosis/end stage heart disease.
  6. There really is no way out of my marital/familial/work dilemma.
  7. My depression is a result of a chemical imbalance.

I’m frequently not quick enough on my feet to respond thoughtfully, so I’d like to take a moment to do so now.

Therapy, at least the kind that I know about, is not chiefly about finding solutions, i.e., problem solving.  Intelligent people are generally quite aware of a range of solutions to their problems.   They just can’t act on them.  They are frozen.

They  think that no potential solutions are really applicable to their situation or relevant or available to them.  Or they feel, and perhaps this is the  most frequent, that in their particular case there are no real solutions.   Its almost reflexive for the listener, the relative, the loved one, the good friend, the clergy person, even some therapists to offer some thoughts as to possible solutions.  Inevitably they fail.  Its not about that.

Within most adult folks there is an inner wisdom that would offer great assist in resolving the impasses of our life. Therapy is about accessing our inner, innate wisdom, not replacing it with someone else’s.  I can think of many instances where I felt that there were no solutions.  I was trapped.  In retrospect I knew the solutions and just found them totally unpalatable.  I could not end that destructive friendship, it was just too important to me.  I could not resolve a domestic or an economic problem, I just wasn’t strong enough.

So what are the elements of psychotherapy that  enable that inner compass.

  1. the magic of relationship.  When researchers have tried to isolate the “active” ingredient in successful psychotherapies, across many theoretical approaches (CBT, psychoanalysis, mind/body  approaches)  they frequently come up with the same answer:  “it’s the relationship, stupid,” the connection between therapist and patient is the key remedial. 

Neuroscientists have a more exact way of stating this, it’s about “limbic (a key brain structure) resonance.”   Simply stated,  therapy is not so much about the rational, linear, thinking mind.  It’s more like music.  In the best situation the therapist hears the particular melodic essence of the individual, playing softly in the background and is able to tune in and hum along, maybe even in harmony.  Just this tuning in is deeply healing.  How many people in your life have actually heard your “melodic essence”?  Do you think even you have heard it?

2.  A therapist listens differently than other people. I heard a story once of a psychotherapist describe his occupation, at a cocktail party, as one of  listening  “I listen for a living.”

A therapist’s training and experience sharpen and educate their musical ear.  It has been called “listening with the third ear, (Theodore Reik)” among other things.   When things go well, a good therapist hears what others do not, even the speaker.

A therapist may hear anger where others only hear hopelessness, fear where others hear anger, shame where others hear belligerence.   Truly thrilling for both the patient and the therapist is the moment when a door opens and the narrator gets a slightly different perspective, a different way of hearing their own feelings/problems.   “Maybe its not my inadequacy, maybe I am feeling truly alone in this intimate relationship.”  “Perhaps my adversary doesn’t hate me, perhaps they are deeply ashamed of their failures in life and feel humiliated.”  And most powerfully, “maybe there is meaning embedded in my confusion and in my unremitting pain.”   Meaning can set one free.

Certainly there is much more to be said on this subject.  But I will pause here and invite readers, both those who have experienced therapy and those contemplating dipping a toe in, to share their thoughts.

Happy New Year to all!!