Humor and Healing

January 20th, 2010

A Talk Given by Billy Kaplan, LCSW
President and Clinical Director of House Calls Counseling

So when I was asked to give this talk about humor and healing the caller said, “and you know, Billy, whenever I see you perform, it’s like seeing Henny Youngman … but with a ukulele instead of a violin.” What? What does that mean? Does that mean he thinks my ukulele playing is as good at Henny’s violin playing? And is that a complement or a cut down? Or does it mean that every time he sees me perform he’s anticipating the moment a groan will force itself out of his psyche?

But before I talk about humor and healing, I’ve just got to tell you about the funniest thing that happened to me on the way to this presentation. First, I had to see my own therapist this afternoon. And when I got in his office he says, “you won’t believe this, but my last client was a squirrel who told me that when he heard “you are what you eat”, he realized he was nuts!!! No, seriously, I love my therapist. He’s done SO much for me and is a huge part of what makes me a good therapist; like I tell the people who work with me: behind every good therapist is a good therapist. So today, after years of treatment, though not as many as Woody Allan, my therapist finally says, “eureka, I’ve got it! Now I understand!” “What, what have you figured out?” I asked. “You’re crazy,” he tells me. Well, I get furious with him and yell, “oh yeah, well I want a second opinion!” “OK,” he yells, “you’re ugly too!”

OK, enough with the one-liners. I know what you’re thinking: stop, please, so I can keep my sanity! But, wait, that’s not the point. It’s the opposite that’s true. When we laugh, we feel better and become saner. Looking around the web I found several sources that talk about the healing power of laughter like this: “Research has shown health benefits … ranging from strengthening the immune system to reducing food cravings to increasing one’s threshold for pain.”

In my own work as a psychotherapist focusing primarily on children and youth who have significant attachment-related problems, I’ve learned that humor, or playfulness, is a key component for treating these kinds of problems. Now, let me explain: Attachment-related problems in children and youth, I’ve found, are among the most serious and complex to treat. Imagine that from birth, or even before while still inside the mom, a newborn receives very mean, sometimes frightening, and oftentimes unloving messages that get hard-wired to the core of its developing brain. The baby learns that it cannot trust that the world will care for it, so it learns it must rely on itself to control its environment. You might be able to image that the baby grows up and, fundamentally, does not know how to have relationships with other human beings. Then, I’m guessing you’re trying to imagine what that child’s behavior is like and what it’s like living with such a child. Well, the truth is, I doubt your imagination is warped enough to imagine that.

But one mother I worked with gave the following description of her adopted daughter. Keep in mind, when you hear it, that she’s not a professional, so these are just the words of a mother who loves, but often can’t stand the behaviors of, her daughter. She called her daughter a “Bipolar Paranoid Schizophrenic, on steroids, dressed in a lamb’s costume.”

Was that the image you had in your mind? Was your mind warped enough to imagine the child, in an angry fit, throwing a full gallon of milk at her sister’s head? Then, did you imagine that when asked what else she could have done instead of throwing the milk she replied, “I could have stabbed her with a knife.” I know: strange, twisted therapist humor. I imagine it’s difficult to hear that level of disturbance, but well, welcome to my world. And the world of her parents who felt the pain of their daughter’s disturbance.

Now, getting back to the use of humor, can you imagine that after the parents told me about the incident, I actually asked the parents, and here’s more of that strange, twisted therapist humor, to tell me about ways they’d like to “kill” their child? I did! Isn’t that crazy! But as we shared various, horrible things they could do to their child, the parents’ laughter grew, tears streaked down their faces, and they became noticeably calmer.

The psychologist whose work I follow, Dr. Daniel Hughes, my professional guru, talks about many uses for playfulness in clinical work. The “kill-the-kid” example demonstrates bringing relief to an intense situation. He talks about how being playful in sessions can give the client a break from harder work, let the client know that the therapist will manage the situation and provide the client with the opportunity to learn that difficult experiences can be managed, not just experienced as overwhelming and beyond control. Finally, for kids with attachment-related problems who have a very difficult time allowing anyone to care for them, playfulness is a safer way for children to experience caring and affection from an adult.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my work with children, youth and families is not just a series of personal/ professional, stand-up comedy routines. On the contrary, I’ve learned that, for me, I have to pull back my sometimes over-use of playfulness. Playfulness, according to Dr. Hughes, is just one component of his treatment model known by the acronym PACE, which stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy. Yet even while showing say, curiosity with my clients, I’ve learned that I can keep a playful tone, rather than a tone of “serious clinical inquiry.”

So, as I stand before you, talking about humor and healing with this ukulele in my hands, I feel it’s my obligation to pay homage to the great impresario of the ukulele. So, please, close your eyes, come on, please do it, I’ll be gentle. Now bring into your mind the sound and image … of Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe through the tulips.” Sorry about that.