By Allan Erickson
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 20 seconds
As part of their therapy, my father would often give his patients “jobs” to do. The jobs were highly varied. Often one could easily see how the assigned job was a necessary first step for a patient to take in order to heal his or her problem. For example, over the years, my father had several women patients who believed they were so homely no man would ever want to marry them. My father had one woman go to the bus station (at the time, the major port of entry into Phoenix) and for three days meet all the arriving buses. She was instructed to watch for people more homely than herself and observe if they had a husband either greeting them or traveling with them. Of course, she found many and was very happy at her next appointment.
Other times, it was not as clear why the patient was assigned a particular task. Because our living room was also my father’s waiting room, I often became aware of the job given to the patient. I remember once, a woman who had just come out of the office, was complaining that she had to walk to her residence. I told her I would walk her to the bus stop (which was only about 150 feet away) and show her where she could catch the bus. She told me Dr. Erickson had ordered her to walk and not take the bus. I then found out she lived closer than my grade school, which I walked to every day, and thus, I lost any sympathy I had for her.
Sometimes the jobs were very simple. For example, I remember one’s person’s job was just to walk to the bus stop. Sometimes the job was to do something very unusual, like the time a patient was assigned to sit in our front yard and count how many shades of green he could find in the grass.
Other times, the patient would have to work up to their job. I clearly remember Mister F’s job. He was a thin person bent over at a 90-degree angle at the waist. He wanted an operation to straighten his back, but the doctors would not operate until he gained weight and had better muscle tone. His job was to walk home from our house. I remember him walking farther each day. I also recall when he first made it all the way to his house. He was so proud of his accomplishment that he engaged me and told me all about it. He even told me his address to show me how far it was (about two miles). He encouraged me to ride my bike to his house to measure the distance. (This was before I could drive.) I actually was impressed at how far he had walked bent over and most likely told him so.
Sometimes the product of a patient’s job would suddenly appear in our house. One day, a life-size anatomically correct plastic skull made from a kit appeared on a small table in the dining room. It had two holes in it about one and a half inches in diameter; one at the top and one at the bottom. Additionally, there was a wooden dowel just the right size to fit through holes. Of course, I asked my mother what on earth this was. She said that it was a model of what had happened to Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had had a “tamping iron” (a rod to tamp down explosives into a hole) blown through his skull in 1848. He never lost consciousness and immediately spoke. He then rode upright in a carriage to his boarding house three-fourths of a mile away. Gage lived for 12 years after his accident. It took my sister and me many years to figure out that this was most likely the job given to the patient who was to undergo a radically new (cutting edge for that time, which was the early 1950s) surgery on his brain to cure his epilepsy.
My mother’s and my favorite job that Dad gave his patients was the following. First, some background is necessary. My mother and I loved (and I still do) Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” The last line is: “For the Snark was a Boojum you see.” One day when an Englishman was exploring Baja California he looked through his binoculars and said, “That is a Boojum, by Jove!” He had just viewed and named the Boojum tree (which looks like nonsense—a large gray upside-down turnip is the best description). So my father’s patient’s job was to go to the Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens, and without asking anyone or reading any signs, to correctly identify the Boojum tree. When the task was first given to the patient, it sounded impossible, but every patient who tried correctly and easily did so. It does not take a genius to see how this could be the first step in healing—give the patient a job that sounds impossible but turns out to be simply accomplished.
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 32, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.
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