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The Wounded Healer

by John C Hughes, D.C.(Cantab)(more info)

listed in people, originally published in issue 5 - April 1995

The name Milton H. Erickson stands pre-eminent above all others in the development of hypnosis into an effective therapy for stress and the ailments resulting from its various forms, and for many other conditions stemming from psychological traumas-even some that appear to be wholly physical in origin.

He also exemplifies the old saying that the best physician is the one who healed himself. Stricken in his teens with severe paralytic polio, and already afflicted with some congenital handicap, he overcame them all and went on to acquire the extensive education necessary to prepare him for his life work of hypnotherapeutic healing.

Erickson continued to be troubled with various physical problems throughout his life, and suffered a second attack of paralytic polio at the age of fifty one – a very rare occurrence, as normally one attack confers immunity. His resilience of both mind and body, and rejection of all self-pity, enabled him to surmount this too, and to carry on the role of 'Wounded Healer', as he sometimes referred to himself. The degree to which he succeeded in transferring this attitude to those he treated generally determined how well he was able to heal them, or help them accept what could not be healed.

Erickson was born in 1901, and died in 1980 while still busy on his unfinished memoirs.

Erickson's father had lived in Wisconsin trying to make a living from farming combined with working in a mental hospital. He decided to pull up stake and move his family two thousand miles across the Plains and Rockies to a silver mining camp in western Nevada. There they lived in a log house with mountainside for a back wall, and hard packed dirt for a floor. This is where Milton Erickson was born and spent his first years. In these harsh frontier surroundings, young Erickson learned how to turn adversities and barriers of poverty into strengths of character and into extraordinary abilities to relate to the needs of others. His father gave up on striking it rich in silver ore, and returned with his family to farming in Wisconsin.

Erickson, even before his encounter with paralytic polio at seventeen, was red-green colour blind, totally tone deaf and in the beginning severely dyslexic. His overcoming of the latter handicap was in a way indicative of his possessing an exceptional ability for using self induced trance.

At the age of six, as his frustrated teacher was trying to get him to see the difference between the letter M and the character 3, he experienced a sudden, momentarily blinding visual flash of illumination, in which the individuality of each was so vividly made plain to him, that he never again had difficulty with them or any other letters in the alphabet, or numerical characters. This was a self hypnotic phenomena; his cortex was focusing so intently on finding the answer to the problem presented by his teacher – without being aware of it – he self induced a trance in which he was able to to arrive at the correct solution with such suddenness that it took the physical form of a flash of light.

He had thus demonstrated an unusual aptitude for self hypnosis, though it would really be years yet before he came to realise its practical value in hypnotherapy.

There would be a repetition of the flash of illumination in his sophomore year in high school, when in a similar sudden and intense moment he rid himself of a remaining reading dysfunction, that of inability to use the alphabet as a sequential tool for finding words in the dictionary. Until then, he had always to go laboriously through the columns until he reached the wanted column. "But just think,' he would say later, 'how immense an amount of knowledge I acquired from encountering all those words through so many years!'

At seventeen, the attack of paralytic polio left him totally disabled physically. He could not see and move his eyes; he could speak, but only with difficulty; his hearing, strangely, had become very keen and acute, but he could not move any part of his body. In that era there were no rehabilitation facilities, and he might well have resigned himself to a life of hopeless invalidism – but he determined to start his way back through using to the utmost the faculties he still had left.

He concentrated at first upon employing his newly sensitive hearing, by identifying all the sounds in the house and from out of doors, and determining who was making them, and how far away, and what they were doing and in what mood. Next he scanned the windows with his eyes, moving them from side to side, both in bed and in the rocking chair into which his family would lift him. Again, without realising it, his intense focusing on the window and self suggestion that he would be able to reach out and look out, were inducing an autohypnotic trance. One day he noticed that his body was actually starting to act on what he was telling it to do. It was beginning to rock the chair, moving it ever so slightly toward the Window.

He then began to recall intently exactly how he had used his fingers, hands, toes and feet, in grasping tools, in climbing trees, in walking. He told his limbs to start doing the same movements again, and gradually they did. He watched his baby sister learning to stand and walk, observing how she used the various parts of her body to balance herself and to put one foot in front of another. In eleven months Erickson had regained the ability to walk (though still needing crutches) and to speak clearly, and to resume attending classes in high school.

He graduated at eighteen and then took a year to work at a sit down job in a cannery to earn money for entering the University of Wisconsin. In 1921, at the end of his freshman year, he still felt physically weak and had not been able to lay aside his crutches. Deciding he needed toughening up, he embarked on what he told his parents would be a two week canoe trip down the Wisconsin River. He was gone for ten weeks and had made the trip upstream as well, at a total of 1200 miles – he was no longer using crutches and could paddle vigorously with both arms. He came back robust, self confident, proud of himself and eager to proceed with preparation for what he decided would be his profession; that of a doctor.

Increasingly, Erickson felt himself drawn to the study of the ailments of the mind and psyche, besides those of the body. Had not his own experience taught him how the body could be mended through the suggestions of the mind? He did not yet understand that he had been very effectively using autohypnosis, but it became clear to him after he began studying hypnotism under Clark L. Hull, who would later be noted for his hypnosis courses at Yale.

Hull was, however, of the old school of hypnotists; he regarded his subjects as inanimate laboratory objects, without sensitivity to their differences as persons, and expected them to respond equally to induction. Erickson quickly saw the fallacy of this, perceiving that people responded in a great number of varying ways to induction, and differed just as much in the degree of trance they could be put into and how they would follow the hypnotist's suggestions – or commands as Hull called them. He determined that when he began using hypnosis himself in his own medical practice, it would be in a 'naturalistic, permissive and indirect way', to use his own terms.

As Erickson came to see it, the subject should not be intimidated by an authoritarian, domineering, therapist, but be led to accept hypnosis as a totally natural method of getting a grip on whatever was ailing one's self. The best results, he found, came from induction achieved in a round about manner, while talking about something else unrelated to the problem.

Two examples in particular from his later clinical practice are illustrative of this: A cardiac specialist sent him an elderly man who was having frequent severe attacks of anginal pain, even though his heart condition was not of a serious kind. "He is having this frequent angina because of his fear of it," the specialist explained, "not because there is anything physically causing it – and he's killing himself, needlessly, because sooner or later one of these anginal spasms will trigger a real, perhaps fatal heart attack. See if you can hypnotise him out of this pattern of fear."

Having first informed himself that the man was Jewish and a devout practitioner of his faith, Erickson received him with a long harangue on the godlessness of today's world and how the younger generation was forgetting all about the religious beliefs of its elders. It was good anyway, he concluded, that some people – like you are still keeping up with traditional observances. Taking part in the Sabbath service at sundown on Friday, he further remarked, was really so important that one would not give any attention to anything else at that time.

With that he dismissed the angina sufferer, who was nodding in agreement, and not even realising that nothing had been said about his condition. The suggestions had nevertheless been implanted that during the observance of the Sabbath, he should not allow his worshipping to be distracted by anything, even angina. And he did not have an attack on the Sabbath that weekend, or for a day afterward. When he commented on this to Erickson on his next visit, the latter then suggested that perhaps he could start concentrating on the Sabbath, to the complete exclusion of everything else, in the middle of the week. This time he went through almost a whole week without anginal pain, and soon was completely free of it. There had, luckily, been another topic even more important to him than the angina, and Erickson had succeeded in transferring – though hypnotic suggestions – his entire attention to it.

The second instance was one in which the alternative topic was not immediately obvious, but Erickson spotted it. A young woman whose mother, grandmother, and great grandmother had all died at twenty two of heart disease came to see Erickson saying that she would be twenty two herself in two months and was, of course, fated to die in the same way. Erickson did not argue with her or try to reason away her belief. (He had, while in medical school, seen a man die at exactly the moment he said he would, without any physical symptoms.) He told her that he assumed she had come to see how he might help her in making the necessary preparations. "What," he asked, "had she already done it that way herself?"

Well, she replied, she was making sure she paid all her bills before the fatal date. She sure wasn't going to die without paying all her bills. Erickson then commenced a long discussion of the bill collecting practices of various firms, and how greatly they differed. Some like to be paid on the first of the month, some on the 15th, some at the end of the month; and some gave you a shorter, some a longer period of grace before considering the bill overdue. He then went on to ask if she agreed that whoever renders a service has a right to specify the date when that payment ought to be made. She agreed it was right and proper.

"My bill for this visit," Erickson concluded, "will be due 14 months from today. You are to come here in person – alive – not as a ghost, and pay it on that day."

And she did exactly that. She went on living past the 22nd birthday she had expected to be her last, because he had implanted a strong suggestion that she could not die until she had paid his bill on the date specified. Of course, having lived past twenty two, there was no reason for her to die, and she went right on living and may still be alive today.

But we have got ahead of the story a bit. Erickson was still in medical school, when at age 23 he entered into his first marriage. It was a mistake; the isolation of his early years, and that later imposed by his physical handicaps and the paralytic polio attack, had left him somewhat naive and lacking finesse in human relationships. (He had developed during the time he was immobile and crippled, a talent of cadging favours from others, that led to him being nick-named 'Milton the Badger' at college; it was a poor approach to marriage.) Even so, he did his best to make the union work; it lasted for ten years and three children resulted from it.

During those ten years he matured professionally. In 1929 he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with an M.D. degree and also a Master of Arts Degree. Over the next six years he occupied medical and psychiatric positions at state hospitals in Colorado, Rhode Island, and Worcester, Massachusetts. At the latter, he published his first paper on hypnosis; it sought to show that it was a safe and useful technique. He also rejected the then current attitude that hypnosis was a form of cortical inhibition – the cortex went into more or less deep sleep during trance.

Quite the contrary, Erickson argued; the cortical state in trance was one of intense focusing and concentration, and vastly heightened, but narrowed concentration. He was also discovering that while he was talking with patients, he was going into autohypnosis, enabling him to concentrate on them and their problems with a penetrating intensity that shut out everything else.

In 1934 he terminated his connection with the State hospital at Worcester and at the same time brought his marriage to an end through divorce. He was awarded custody of the three children and was now faced with bringing them up, while handling his new position as Director of Psychiatric Research at the Wayne County General Hospital in Eloise, Michigan, near Detroit. Within a year he had met and married Elizabeth Moore, who became the mother to the three children and bore him another five, besides assisting him as fellow researcher and records keeper.

Erickson remained at Eloise, Michigan for fourteen years, during which span this country entered the Second World War. He was called on to assist in the war effort through studies, in collaboration with Margaret Mead, of the Japanese national character and of the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. (Already, in 1940, he had assisted Mead in her study of the spontaneous trance induced by dancers in Bali.) The wartime studies are still considered classified by the Government and remain unpublished, though justification for such protracted secrecy would seem to be slim.

He also did volunteer service in interviewing men registering for the draft, and gained many insights into their motives, fears, and outlooks, that were to help him in his further development as an analyst of the human mind and psyche. After the war, in 1948, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, hoping the warmer and drier climate would relieve the muscular pains and spells of dizziness he thought might be caused, or at least made worse-by the chilly damp Michigan weather. After a year of clinical directorship at the Arizona State Hospital, he resigned to set up in private practice in Phoenix. It was now that his most productive period began. Even though sidelined for a while with the second attack of polio, in 1952 he entered into a many faceted programme of popularising hypnosis, of acquainting doctors and dentists with it, of associating with other students of the mind to bring about a wider application of hypnotic usages, the forming of national organisations to carry on the efforts he was initiating.

Many fruitful co-operative efforts were entered into by him in this intensive phase of his life. Aldous Huxley, then gaining prominence as a pioneer of the study of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by hypnosis, worked closely with Erickson in a number of experiments, and they planned the joint authoring of a book on these. Sadly, the notes and manuscript data for it were lost in a fire that destroyed Huxley's California home. Even so, Erickson reconstructed, mainly from memory, a fascinating paper on one of his hypnotic sessions with Huxley.

The distortion of time as experienced by the hypnotic subject became a particular topic of interest and investigation for Erickson. Dr. Linn Cooper co-operated with him in this and together they published two editions, in 1954 and 1959 (the second one amounting to an expanded and revised work) of their book Time Distortion In Hypnosis, which still remains a standard authority.

Erickson was becoming increasingly convinced and concerned that most of the hypnotic study being done in America at that time – 1950s – was in theory not in practice. By example and urging, he got therapists out of their academic ivory towers and into day-by-day application of the art to relieve suffering humans coming to their offices. By 1957 there were enough health professionals using hypnosis in their practices for him to take the lead in founding the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He served as President for the first 2 years of its existence, and as the Editor of its professional journal through the first decade of publication.

His energy and the diversity of his interests seemed boundless. He was consulted by athletic teams seeking to improve player performance through motivation, and by Federal agencies on the psychological investigation of aircraft crashes. He developed innovative techniques of trance induction, among them, gesture and pantomime induction, and double bind, i.e. having the subject both deny and affirm at the same time.

His colleagues and other therapists often claimed they were confused by how Erickson got his result. There seemed to be no definite procedure or method that he was following – he would jump from one to another, often in the middle of working with a subject. And he would respond with a grin, "Confusion, that's exactly what it is! My confusion Technique!"

Though he was hard put to define that in any precise words, what it amounted to was that from his own experience of frequent vertigo and sensory disorientation, he had developed ways and means of utilising confusion instead of it being an obstacle. It became, in fact, a major tool in his armanientarium. He employed the unusual perspectives on life that he had gained, together with his superior intellect, to confuse and unsettle the mental rigidities and lifelong thought habits of his subjects, thereby enabling them to let their hitherto submerged creative unconscious emerge and commence the work of re-orientation and healing.

Erickson was, however, fully capable of setting down the formulation of his more conventional modes of induction, and in 1961 co-authored with Drs. Seymour Hershman and Irving Specter, the latter a dentist, a standard textbook on Medical and Dental Hypnosis. Then he turned over most of his working papers to Jay Haley, who from them edited and published in 1967 Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy, and in 1973 Uncommon Therapy, dealing with the more personal aspects of Erickson's work with disturbed persons, couples and families.

The first of the Haley volumes came in 1972 into the hands of Ernest L. Rossi, a brilliant young New York Psychoanalyst who had already published a book on Dreams and Growth of Personality, without any reference to or knowledge of hypnosis. Thus the contents of the Haley book came as a shattering revelation to him. He headed for Phoenix to meet with Erickson personally and seek his guidance.

"I found," Rossi later wrote, "that Erickson had been doing for twenty years the therapeutic work I had myself hoped to do in about twenty years into the future." That was over a decade and a half ago, and the state of general ignorance of hypnotherapy still prevails to a surprising degree. Recently, a study was conducted by the Stanford Medical School and reported in a major feature study in the New York Times, which found that hypnosis could suppress the brain's perception of pain and there was a sound basis for trying it in clinical use. It also found that shifting the patient's attention from the pain was the most effective way to utilise hypnosis.

Why it was necessary for Stanford to reinvent the wheel in this fashion – to present as new findings what Milton Erickson and scores if not hundred of competent hypnotherapists have been effectively doing as routine practice for thirty or forty years now, can only be explained as wilful blindness in the academic community.

Rossi, the author of the ground breaking Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, became the principal collaborator of Erickson in the last eight years of his life. He was already confined to a wheel chair when Rossi first visited him in 1972, and remained in it until his death in 1980. His papers, unfinished memoirs and taped conversations are still being worked on by Rossi, and from them is emerging as a permanent record the thinking, methodology, and achievements of a personality that gave tirelessly of itself for the benefit and healing of others.

Milton Erickson's insights and teaching are still creatively at work through the minds and hands of those who have learned and are still learning from him. We take leave of him by noting that though he was an unbeliever in any form of religion and a skeptic about claimed mystical states, some time before his death he experienced a total dissociation of mind from body and all sensory connections. He told Rossi about this experience, which he said was pleasurable and Rossi concluded had been akin to the Hindu mystical condition known as Samadhi, in which the body ignores all stimuli while the mind remains alert and conscious. This, too, would seem to be autohypnotically induced.

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Journal of Hypnotism The National Guild of Hypnotists, Merrimack, New Hampshire


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