Monday, May 25, 2009

'You’re my friend, right?': An Interview with Dr. Jay Hamer

"The way I personally approach psychotherapy is very much about creativity and spontaneity": Dr. Jay Hamer in his traditional therapeutic pose.

You’re a counselor at The College of Saint Rose, but I also know that you like to dabble in music as a hobby. How did you get started with that?
Like a lot of people, I listened to music that I liked as a teenager. Being inspired, I thought, maybe I could make something that sounded sort of like that. So I bought a guitar and started teaching myself to play it.

What do you feel that you get out of being a musician?
I like to do spontaneous things as opposed to just reading music and playing what I see. Being a musician feels playful and joyful. I think as an adult, we often don’t get enough opportunity to experience a sense of play and joyfulness.

Do you feel like it helps you deal with the stress of your job? Would you say music is your preferred coping mechanism?
I would say it is one of my preferred. I also like going to see films. They are probably tied as my two favorite things to relieve stress.

Were you aware that of all the arts, Freud was least receptive to music?
He probably interpreted people playing woodwinds as being orally fixated. Freud suspected that deep down inside we are all conflicted and violent. I imagine he would value art in general, and that it would be both fascinating and scary to him. I didn’t know in particular that he was hard on music.

It is interesting to me that he didn’t care for music, given his fixation on sexuality, particularly childhood sexuality. Music is very sensual, with a great deal of bodily involvement. I can’t help but wonder why he would be more interested in say, poetry than music.

Freud was so grandiose that it was probably as simple as he wasn’t very good at music.

Where do you think creativity fits into psychology when it comes to working with clients?
In my first year of graduate school, I nearly got kicked out of my program for writing a paper explaining what I thought psychotherapy was. I wrote about it as a creative, artistic process, and the professor hated that. I remember him screaming and yelling at me out in the hall. It really caused me to think, and set some goals for myself.

On the one hand, I wanted to quit, but there was something that kicked in with me that said, “No, I think that I know what I’m talking about, and I’m going to stick it out.”

So for me, the way I personally approach psychotherapy is very much about creativity and spontaneity that is informed by empirical literature. I read the literature; I know all the tools and have them at my disposal, but still I am just like an artist picking the right color and the right brush. I still choose the right intervention as informed by research, but ultimately it comes from a creative place.

Do you think that psychoanalytic theory still has validity in today’s society?
I still think it has validity. I think what you have to do with psychoanalytic theory is subtract out the things that are ridiculous, and see what’s left. I think that a significant number of therapists believe that there are psychological processes that are less than conscious.

The most important thing about psychoanalytic theory has to do with transference and counter-transference. I think that anybody that does this work sees that after awhile. Clients often project stuff on to you, by virtue of being their therapist, and those therapists do the same with clients. Having some type of awareness of that process being out there is really important to doing good work.

What was it like working in Rockville, Maryland at Chestnut Lodge, a psychoanalytic-oriented hospital?
In terms of my first job, it was really interesting. It was founded by Harry Stake Sullivan who was in the Freudian line. It was a country club for very rich, very crazy people. Consistent with strict Freudian practice, they met with a psychotherapist four times a week for therapy. They believed that therapy still cured the most ill people. This was starting to change when I was there, but for a long time they tried to never use medication.

A method we used to sedate people was something called “cold wet sheet packs.” A client would be wrestled to the ground and then wrapped in ice-cold sheets. What happens is that when the body is that cold, the blood apparently rushes to the abdominal area and slowly starts to expand. That gradual expansion of warmth in the body is sedating. So, it does actually work.

What was your first day like at John Umstead Hospital?
I walked in, not really knowing where I was. At the time, the patients were doing their morning chores. There was this fellow playing (really loudly) some Jackson Five song, and he had this great big, wonderful, Afro. He was playing air guitar on his mop and I thought, its kind of nice, I kind of like this.

Then this fellow walked up to me, stuck out his hand and said, “You’re my friend, right?”

So I thought, trying to apply all my knowledge, okay, how should I answer this question, I’m not really his friend, but we’re friendly?

While I’m thinking this he said, “You’re my friend, right?!” a little bit louder, a lit bit more agitated. Then I started talking, “I guess.” He got really upset and started saying, “You’re my friend, you’re my friend!”

It started escalating, and I thought Oh my God! What I am going to do? I’m going to be attacked by a patient on my first day! By instinct, I just blurted out, “Yeah, I’m your friend," and then he said, “O.K.,” and he immediately quieted down and walked away.

I think I was fixated on trying to be a professional psychologist, you know, what does theory say is the right thing? All he wanted to hear was that I was his friend. He just wanted some reassurance. It was a good lesson.--Heather Dingman