They both looked at me wide-eyed, almost in disbelief, but I knew the intensity of the therapeutic intervention had to match the drama of the presenting problem. I also knew this directive would work no matter how it was taken: straightforwardly or paradoxically. In other words, if the couple complied with the instructions, then they’d share a sexual life that, while a bit unusual, would at least keep them engaged and would allow Natalie to have some control; however, if Josh developed a dislike for this activity (because it involved putting his wife in charge, which would drastically change the nature of the relationship with the dominatrix), it’d end future indulgence. Either result would be a satisfactory solution.
A few months later, I got a call from Josh, who was almost tearful. He said he wanted to tell me that he’d never be involved with a dominatrix again. When I asked what had happened, he explained that Natalie had found a dominatrix who was an aerobics instructor. The two women had become close friends and had recently decided that Josh needed to get into shape. In their last session, the dominatrix had ordered Josh to jog on the treadmill and do pushups and jumping jacks while she beat him. Afterward, Josh was hurting all over and could hardly walk.
“Couldn’t you tell her to stop?” I asked. “Isn’t there a safe word for that kind of situation?”
“I had two women dominating me,” said Josh. “I couldn’t tell them to stop, but I will never be with a dominatrix again.”
Everyone who has worked with unconventional sexual preferences knows how difficult it is to change them. I don’t think I’d have been able to convince Josh to abandon his preferred practices; however, the small change of including his wife—which led to including physical exercise—was enough to turn him off completely from the activity.
Again, this intervention came from an Ericksonian idea: a therapist starts a small change in the context, not knowing where it’ll lead, and the change can have huge repercussions. Sometimes the therapist guides the change, but sometimes all the therapist has to do is wait for the repercussions to happen. Later, I heard that Josh and Natalie were doing well and enjoying common interests together, just as they always had.
My Daughter the Artist
Parents typically love their children and want the best for them, but they often don’t understand how a particular child needs to be loved and what is really best for him or her. Often the role of the therapist is simply to help parents understand their child and give the kind of love that the child needs. Again, this help can come in the form of soft shock therapy, as it did with a family who consulted me about their 22-year-old daughter, Myra.
Myra lived in a different city but routinely called all her family members in the middle of the night, talking at length about her anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. She frequently cut herself, prompting a panic that’d land her in the emergency room. She was a dramatically beautiful young woman with long black hair, black clothes, and many silver chains. Every gesture she made expressed despair, futility, and doom. When I met with her and the family, she sat slumped over in the chair, her head in her hands.
I learned that Myra hated her part-time job as a receptionist, and that all she wanted was to be an artist, particularly a painter. But she had little money and no medical insurance. When things got really bad, her father helped her out financially, but lectured her weekly about the importance of building a strong work ethic, getting a good job, saving her money, and being more responsible with her finances. This was the dynamic of their relationship, and it never led to any change. The father would lecture, she’d say she’d try, but nothing leading to any type of change would happen. In fact, every attempt her father made to help her seemed to make matters worse—in part because he wanted her to be somebody else, and in part because they were caught in a pattern of interaction in which he was determined to show her what he knew was best for her and she was determined to show him that she couldn’t be helped.
The whole family—her divorced parents, stepmother, and two older siblings—had flown in from different cities to see me for two days. As I observed them, I realized that they all, except Myra, were goal-directed, hard-working people, especially the father, a wealthy businessman. It was as if Myra had dropped into this family from another planet. They couldn’t understand her, but knew that what they were doing to help her—the long, late-night conversations, the father’s intense lectures—wasn’t working. I got them to agree that they needed to take a totally different approach, perhaps even an opposite approach. I told them that I’d think about what that could be and expressed my appreciation for how much they all loved Myra and wanted to help her to be happy. I also said that Myra needed a consultation with a psychiatrist friend of mine, since I feared that the medications she was taking were making her worse.
The consultation with the psychiatrist, a Gestalt therapist, took place the next day, and he reported to me that he’d interviewed both Myra and her parents, and had asked many questions about her behavior as a young child—how sensitive she was to sounds and colors, what toys she preferred, how she expressed her emotions. He’d then brought the family together and announced a diagnosis of “artistic temperament.” This was a personality trait that she’d exhibited since early childhood, and it couldn’t be changed or repressed. It was who she was. He also planned with Myra how he was going to wean her from her medications.