I cannot recall Milton using the terms "success" or "failure" in a single one of the discussions about psychotherapy we held in 1974. His watchword was "change," and he enjoyed my concept that we were not so much diagnosticians as vendors of change. A session with Milton was an opportunity to change something. You didn't know what or how much about you would change, but you knew you would emerge somewhat, somehow different. He believed that anything that might foster change was of potential use in the therapeutic process. Just like Dr. Lankton, I was asked to climb Squaw Peak the afternoon of my first visit; sweaty, scared, out of shape, wearing clunky hiking shoes quite unlike my usual Eastern establishment office togs, I was certain my first psychological change would be death due to heat stroke. Didn't die, but next morning the master said "And I suppose that like every other Eastern physician you did not prepare yourself by taking salt pills." We were in business. I was no longer an expert but now a student far out of his element and quite dependent on the wisdom of the master.
Erickson and I shared a passionate disregard for the limitations presented by the fact that a therapist normally saw the patient for one hour out of the 168 in the week. It seemed only natural to us that the patient should be given exercises, tasks, assignments, images, worries to manage between sessions. These multipliers of the therapeutic interaction can be regarded as extensions of the trance induced during the actual session, or as "education." Don't think for a moment that he used trance in any formal way---everything about him was hypnotic. The only person I've ever encountered who used a similar form of induction is the singer Johnny Cash, who speaks exactly as he sings, drawing the listener into the imagery of his art. Put another way, there was no moment of any conversation when Erickson was not working, and he expected that when you left his office, you would continue working similarly.
Of the dozens of clinical anecdotes he told me, one may perhaps be interesting to you. "I worked in therapy with a young woman who had bulimia," he said one morning. "How long do you think it took me to get a complete cure?" It was, of course, an unanswerable question from a man whose one-session cures had only recently been made famous by Jay Haley, and I told him so. Bulimia was not as trendy a symptom then as it has become in the past decade; most of these patients were morbidly ill and in treatment for several years. "She'd had a terrible childhood, so in each session we gave her a birthday party, the kind of party she would have had in a healthy home. By the time we got her to her present age, she was healthy. Took almost a whole year." Through the medium of trance, Erickson built her a new history.
Equally interesting were the cases in which he determined swiftly that the patient did not want to change. In my own experience, one of the rarely-discussed arts of therapy is the ability to figure out when the patient is done and wants to get on with life without you. Milton was masterful at getting people out of treatment, often with the instruction that they had done well at the tasks the two of them had set.
What did I get from my hours with Milton Erickson? 1974 was a period of my life in which everybody disagreed with me, including a wife, a therapist, and a phalanx of authorities rather uninterested in my belief that human emotion was an important area of study. Not long after I returned to Philadelphia from Scottsdale, I found myself operating with new courage to leave behind everybody who could not accept my areas of interest. Burned into my ears was his low, rumbling, cynical-yet-loving voice that told me "You're filled with wonderful ideas. But as soon as somebody important to you disagrees, you give them up." It was Leon Wurmser, the Swiss psychoanalyst whose work on shame so electrified me a few years later, who said that creativity requires the heroic transcendence of shame. Erickson was saying the same thing, even though he lacked the language my group brought into vogue a decade or so later. Over and over, Milton Erickson said to us that we could change when we wanted to change and were willing to put in the effort to learn new ways of being. Would he be angry when we refused to change more than a little bit in any particular session or moment? Not at all. We were going to change when we really wanted to change and were willing to change, and Milton Erickson would remain with us every step of the way.
I wonder how many of us therapists who worked with him have Seri woodcarvings in our offices? Mine, a groundrunner, is called Milton, and watches me work all day. Several of the young therapists I've treated or supervised over the years (a few hundred by now) have brought me carved birds from other cultures, thinking that I collected birds. And I guess that nowadays, I do.
And so, in answer to your question whether Milton Erickson ever encountered failure in his work, I guess the best answer is that he did what he could in every interaction, and hoped that his work (his person, his essence) would foster change. Viewed in that manner, how could he fail?
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