By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes, 3 seconds
Milton Erickson was undoubtedly a master technician, but the humanistic element he added to his therapy made it even more powerful.
When I first visited Erickson in 1973, he was working with a patient I will call John, who probably had been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic when he was hospitalized. *Erickson used brief therapy with John, in that it was strategically targeted, although the therapy took place over the span of several decades.
John was the only child in a well-to-do family. At first, John was able to drive to appointments and maintain a job. But as his psychosocial problems increased, John stopped driving, and he eventually quit his job. Mrs. Erickson helped John find an apartment within walking distance from the Erickson home.
Erickson’s goal with John was not to cure him of schizophrenia but to keep him out of an institution and give him a purpose, which would bolster his self-esteem.
One of Erickson’s first interventions with John was to separate him from his parents, because the family dynamic was troublesome, and often led to quarreling. Erickson decided that the family was not workable as a unit, so he encouraged John’s parents to establish a trust fund for John, which would give him independence, and limited contact with his parents. John’s parents provided a minimal stipend for John’s therapy. Erickson had the habit of “adopting” some patients and students, so John became a regular part of Erickson’s family life.
Another early intervention Erickson made with John was that he encouraged him to get a dog for companionship, specifically a mutt from the pound, a dog that would be saved from deterioration, hopelessness, and perhaps death. And note, this was parallel to what Erickson was trying to do with John who might have had a grim future if not helped. Erickson asked Kristi, his youngest daughter (now a physician), to take John to the pound to find a dog. At the pound, a little Beagle won John’s heart, so they got him, and John named him Barney.
However, it soon became apparent that John’s apartment was too small to house a dog. So after some deliberation, it was decided that Barney would stay at the Erickson home. But Barney was John’s dog, and this meant that John would have to go the Erickson home at least twice a day to care for him. Subsequently, John was invited to watch TV with Erickson and his wife in the evenings. Erickson ended formal therapy sessions, and instead used the dog and watching TV to affect John’s therapy.
Through his interactions with Barney, John’s role was subtly redefined. As his caretaker, John bonded to Barney and eventually served as the dog’s protector.
I witnessed Erickson masterfully building this relationship between John and Barney and using the relationship to indirectly communicate with John, thus tailoring to John’s oblique communication style.
Erickson also devised a way to strengthen the relationship between John and his dog. While watching television, Erickson would use pliers to break dog biscuits in half, even though he had little manual dexterity due to post-polio syndrome. He would then give half the biscuit to John, who in turn would offer it to Barney. But whenever Barney came around Erickson, Erickson would beep a loud horn that had been purposefully fastened onto his wheelchair. Or, he would shoo Barney away, gruffly shouting, “John’s dog!” so that the dog would not attach to Erickson, but rather go to John for safety and affection. Essentially, Erickson strategically promoted “paranoia” in the dog, so that the dog would feel safety and security with only John. With this, John was subtly moved into bonding and attachment and eased into the role of protector.
Erickson’s approach was experiential and evocative. He became the persecutor and Barney was the victim so that John’s assumed role would be the rescuer; a role would be elicited by the circumstances that Erickson created.
As part of the therapy, Erickson also wrote letters from Barney to John. And he wrote limericks and poems from or about Barney. Since John did not communicate in a straightforward way, Erickson communicated similarly to John.
Erickson used words like Beethoven composed music, or how Spielberg directs a movie. Erickson’s communication was precise, and his themes were strategically developed.
The following letters and poem exemplify the experiential nature of Erickson’s work, which was oriented to developing conceptual realizations. Note how he implies John’s strengths; how he intersperses and reframes concepts related to “crazy”; and how he teases about “fear,” by circumscribing it in an exaggerated way toward Barney and away from John.
These letters and poems were written in longhand, which was quite difficult for Erickson who was debilitated from post-polio syndrome. The cast of characters in the letters are Erickson, “the old codger”; Mrs. Erickson, “the lady of the house,” Erickson’s son, Robert and his wife, Kathy; and Erickson’s daughter, Roxie. The designations for Dr. and Mrs. Erickson were ways that Barney referenced them.
I got up early this morning. It was such a nice day, but something puzzles me. Saturday, Robert was telling [a story to] Kathy, and the Lady of the House was listening too.
It was a story about some Old Codger who advertised for a wife and he got a letter of application. He went down to the airport with two saddle horses to get her. On the way to the preacher’s place, his horse stumbled, and the Old Codger just said, “One.” Halfway there, the horse stumbled again, the Old Codger said, “Two.” Just when they got to the preacher’s place, his horse stumbled again and the Old Codger got down from the horse, unsaddled him, and said, “Three.” Then he shot the horse dead right there. The bride-to-be said, “That’s outrageous to shoot a horse just for stumbling. The Old Codger just said, “One.”
I didn’t hear the rest of the story, but I did hear the Lady of the House whisper, “Be sure you don’t tell that story to you-know-who.” What does that mean, John?
The next day there was another letter from Barney:
You know how I feel about that wonder girl Roxie [Erickson’s second to the youngest daughter]. She didn’t come home this weekend– didn’t even send me a small bone to comfort me. I got to feeling so bad that I tried to comfort myself. I quietly slipped into Kristi’s bedroom. I was really getting to feel good, dreaming wonderful dreams about Roxie patting me on the head and giving me a nice juicy bone and, wouldn’t you know it, the Old Codger came and saw me.
I was enjoying my dream so much I didn’t hear his wheelchair. It was awful. Just awful, John. He came in with that terrible horn of his. In a most ominous threatening tone of voice, he said, “One.” Then that horn turned my bones into quivering jelly. I trembled and shook so bad, so awful bad, that I couldn’t run out of the room. I just trembled and finally, I slithered out and the Lady of the House kindly opened the back door and I sort of fell outside. It took me over an hour to get my tail out from between my legs where it got stuck to the jelly that awful horn turned my lovely snake belly into. [Erickson’s name for Barney was “the Snakebelly Beagle-mix Hound dog.”] It took hours to get it into wagging condition.
John, it was the awfullest experience of my whole—that is, I just thought it was. Now, John, you know how I am plumb loco about that girl, Roxie, and Kristi sometimes drives me out of my mind with her nice ways. And the Lady of the House can make me careless and abound with the joy of life and you had made me so aware of the Majesty of Dogness with that Bay Rum bath you gave me in your apartment and just being Your Dog, your very own dog. Well, John, all these wonderful things you have brought into my life sort of made me off-balanced after what the Old Codger did to me. I got to thinking how anybody so nice as the Lady of the House ever let herself get tied to such a thing as the Old Codger and, well, it must be that I wasn’t thinking too straight and somehow I wandered into the bedroom where the Old Codger sleeps but I was beside the bed where the Lady of the House sleeps–I just desperately needed some comfort. And the Old Codger caught me again. In an awful, awful way, he said, “Two,” before he started with the horn. I thought that the first time was terrible, but I know now what sheer stark devastating terror is. Lucky for me the Lady of the House rushed in and saved me. I couldn’t move, I was completely done in. The Lady of the House saved my life. I thought that I would never see my wonderful John again nor Roxie, nor have another Bay Rum bath and walks with My John. Just plain nothingness was staring me in the face.
Now, John, I know that a codger like the Old Codger doesn’t offer much chance for improvement, but I am willing for you to give him all of the chew sticks and pork chops you bring me. I’m willing to give up my signing rights—just anything–so that I can keep on being John’s dog and be plumb loco about Roxie.
Erickson also wrote poems and 44 limericks to John from or about Barney. And he gave John a little booklet entitled “Limericks for Barney,” as a holiday gift. Here is one of the limericks:
That Old Codger’s table creaks,
There follow those wheelchair squeaks.
From his haven, very craven,
Alert Barney, all tippy toes, retreats.
I once spoke with Mrs. Erickson about John. She said quite casually, “When Milton dies, John will certainly come over at night and watch television with me.”
Before Erickson died Barney had contracted valley fever. Dr. and Mrs. Erickson invested in keeping Barney alive because it was important in John’s therapy. Barney survived the valley fever but then died two weeks after Erickson died.
As it turned out, John frequently watched TV with Mrs. Erickson after her husband’s death, and he became her protector, as well as her companion.
After Mrs. Erickson’s death, I provided treatment to John. At that time, he was no longer a part of Erickson’s family life, but did go on to establish an independent life. I still occasionally hear from him. So do members of the Erickson family.
*This case is also reported in Experiencing Erickson.
Zeig J. (1982) Experiencing Erickson: An introduction to the man and his work. New York. Brunner/Mazel (now Taylor &Francis).
Zeig, J. (2018) The Anatomy of an Intervention Through Ericksonian Psychotherapy. Phoenix. The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Press.
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 39, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.
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