What is Empathic Therapy?

            I went to Dr. Peter Breggin’s Empathic Therapy Conference because I knew Dr. Breggin to be opposed to psychiatric medications—drugs—which had grievously damaged me.  I also knew that without drugs there can be no hospitalization.  Only a chemical straightjacket can keep people in the emotionally dreadful confines of locked-door psychiatry.  I didn’t have a clue as to what empathic therapy was, and didn’t much care; I just wanted away from drugs.

            At the conference, I found hundreds of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who were at some stage of rejecting drugs and hospitals.  This psychiatric safe zone liberated the post traumatic stress disorder I’ve been suffering for decades as a result of abuse on inpatient psychiatry.  I also particularly found Dick Gottlieb, a primo empathic therapist, who helped me through some of the roughest parts of the PTSD.  So today I asked him to explain empathic therapy.  He started with a story about his years of being assistant director of an inpatient treatment facility for children.

            There was a knock on the door of Dick’s office.  He opened it to find two policemen holding a 6’4”, 17-year-old male who was all muscle, and in handcuffs and leg shackles.  One of the policemen says, “Is this the place for crazy kids?”

            Rejecting the basic premise, Dick can’t say, “Yes,” but he does say, “Um, well,” and the policemen remove the cuffs and shackles, shove the kid into Dick’s office, and close the door as they leave.

            The kid immediately informs Dick that he’s going to kick Dick’s butt and throw him out the window.

            Dick is 6’2” and not inclined to be afraid of much, however he does a quick emotional inventory of himself and knows that he is afraid—so he knows the kid is afraid.

            “W-a-a-a-i-t a minute—hold up right there,” I say.  “You’re afraid because the kid is angry and threatening, yet you decide the kid is afraid?”

            “No-o-o,” Dick says patiently. “I am afraid because the kid is afraid.”  I don’t get it, so we begin a series of questions and answers which result in this:  there is a part of the brain (Dick rattles off the medical terminology) that ties all humanity together.  We “get it” because our brains are wired to pick up on one another.  Dick is not afraid of the kid; he is afraid with the kid.  The kid is afraid and Dick feels it:  this is the basis of empathic therapy.

            So Dick makes some intuitive leap (to be covered in another lesson) and decides that what the kid is afraid of is being alone, so he says, “Yes, you could kick my butt and throw me out the window but then you wouldn’t have anybody to talk to.”

            The kid sits down in a chair and begins to weep, then they have a healing talk.

            Now let me tell you how that situation would have played out in Syracuse.  The police would have taken the kid to CPEP (Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program), where 9-year-olds are intermingled with convicted killers.  The staff, feeling fearful but not acknowledging the kid’s fear, would have had the police transfer the kid to four-point—that is, they would have had him tied down hand and foot to a bed—as the handcuffs and shackles were being withdrawn.

            The kid would have been left there for a while—possibly several hours—until the staff got around to processing him.  At that time, there would have been a by-the-book cursory psychiatric evaluation, then heavy drugs would have been prescribed.  When the kid was so gorked on drugs that he couldn’t move then he would have been released from four-point and probably moved to an isolation room where he would be guarded by a man with a gun on his hip who had standing orders not to talk to the patient.

            While the kid was tied down hand and foot—unable to fight, unable to run, and left alone with no one to talk to—the groundwork would have been laid for the formation of PTSD.  Instead of helping the kid, the “treatment” would guarantee that the kid would repeatedly come back into the system, with each re-entry becoming increasingly hostile and violent.

            And the pivotal point was a therapist—trained and aware—who could acknowledge the kid’s fear as his own.

            Empathic therapy starts with the premise that the therapist and the patient are equally human, and that is all the therapist needs to understand the patient.  The data for working with someone who is in pain is entirely available to the therapist through his eyes, ears and other senses.  Instead of relying on books and theories and teachers, rely on yourself and your innate ability to connect with people, to read people and, mostly, to read yourself.

            You are, at all levels, picking up on how the people around you are feeling.  Work with that; it is enough.


About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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