A woman in California wrote to me that her husband was totally paralyzed as the result of a stroke and could not talk. She asked if she could bring him to me. It was such a pitiful letter that I agreed, thinking that I might be able to comfort the woman enough to allow her to accept her difficult situation.
She brought her husband to Phoenix, registered at a motel, and came with him to see me. I had my two sons carry the man into the house, and I took the woman into my office and talked with her alone. She said that her husband, a man in his fifties, had this stroke a year previously, and for that year he had been lying helpless in a ward bed in the hospital of a university. The staff would point out to students, in his presence, that he was a terminal case, completely paralyzed, unable to talk, and all that could be done was to maintain his health until he eventually died.
The woman said to me, "Now, my husband is a Prussian German, a very proud man. He built up a business by himself. He's always been an active man and an omnivorous reader. All his life he's been an extremely domineering man. Now I've had to see him lying there helpless for a year, being fed, being washed, being talked about like a child. Every time I visited him at the hospital I'd see the hurt and utterly furious look in his eyes. They told me he was a terminal case, and I asked my husband if they had told him that, and he blinked his eyes affirmatively. That's the only means of communication he has."
As she talked, I realized that I need not merely comfort the woman; something might be done with the man. As I thought it over, here was a Prussian, short-tempered, domineering, highly intelligent, very competent. He had stayed alive with a furious anger for a year. His wife had, with extraordinary labor, managed to load him into a car, drive clear from California, drag him out of the car and put him into a motel, then take him out and put him into the car to drive to my house. My two sons had difficulty carrying him into the house, and yet this woman had moved him across country alone.
So I said to the woman, "You brought your husband to me to be helped. I'm going to do my level best to help him. I want to talk to your husband, and I want you to be present, but I can't have you interfering. You won't understand what or why I'm doing what I'm going to do. But you can understand my statement that you are to sit there quietly with a straight face and say nothing, do nothing, no matter what." She managed to accept that; later, when she wanted to interfere, a deterrent look restrained her.
I sat down in front of the man who was helpless in the chair, unable to move anything but his eyelids. I began to talk to him in roughly the following way. I said, "So you're a Prussian German. The stupid, God damn Nazis! How incredibly stupid, conceited, ignorant, and animal-like Prussian Germans are. They thought they owned the world, they destroyed their own country1 What kind of epithets can you apply to those humble animals. They're really not fit to live! The world would be better off if they were used for fertilizer."
The anger in his eyes was impressive to see. I went on, "You've been lying around on charity, being fed, dressed, cared for, bathed, toenails clipped. Who are you to merit anything? You aren't even the equal of a mentally retarded criminal Jew!"
I continued in that way, saying all the nasty things I could, adding such points as, "You're so God damn lazy you're content to lie in a charity bed." After a while I said, "Well, I haven't had much opportunity or time to think of all the insults you so richly merit. You're going to come back tomorrow. 1'11 have plenty of time the rest of today to think of all of the things I want to say to you. And you're going to come back, aren't you!" He came back right then with an explosive "No!"
I said, "So, for a year you haven't talked. Now all I had to do was call you a dirty Nazi pig, and you start talking. You're going to come back here tomorrow and get the real description of yourself!"
He said, "No, no, no!"
I don't know how he did it, but he managed to get to his feet. He knocked his wife to one side and he staggered out of the office. She started to rush after him, but I stopped her. I said, "Sit down, the worst he can do is crash to the floor. If he can stagger out to the car, that's exactly what you want."
He lurched out of the house, even down the steps, and he managed to crawl into the car. My sons were watching him, ready to run to his aid.
There is nothing quite like a Prussian; they can be so domineering, dictatorial, incredibly sensitive to what they consider insults. I have worked with Prussians. Their demand for respect is so great, their self-image so bloated with self-satisfaction. Here was a man who had been insulted beyond endurance for a whole year in the hospital-then he reacted.
I showed him what insults could really be like and I said to the wife, "Bring him back tomorrow at eleven o'clock in the morning. Drive him to the motel now, and drag him into his room. Put him to bed, following your previous routine of taking care of him. When it's time for him to go to sleep, as you walk out of his bedroom and into your own, tell him he has an appointment with me at eleven o'clock tomorrow. Then keep right on walking out of the room. Tomorrow morning feed him his breakfast and dress him. Then at ten-thirty say, 'We've got to leave now for Dr. Erickson's office.' Walk out and get the car, drive it up in front of the door, and race the engine. Wait until you see the doorknob turn. Then you can go and help your husband out and into the car."
The next morning they arrived. He walked, with only her assistance, into the office and we got him seated in a chair. I simply said, "You know, it was worth going through that hell yesterday to be able to walk out of this office. To be able to say at least one word. Now the problem is, how do I get you to talk and to walk and to enjoy life and to read books. I prefer not to be as drastic again. But you didn't believe in yourself at all. I was sufficiently unpleasant to give you no recourse except to protest. I hope now we can be friends. Let's get started on your restoration to at least some normal activity."
He was very worried in his facial expression. I said, "You realize that I can make you speak by insulting you, but I think you can say 'yes' to a pleasant question. In the light of what we've al- ready accomplished, after your year of terrible helplessness, I think you will want me to continue helping you. You can answer 'yes' or you can answer 'no.' He struggled and got a 'yes' out."
After about two months he was ready to return to California. He limped badly, had circumscribed use of his arm, and some aphasic speech, and he could read books but only if he held the book far to the side. I asked him what he thought had helped him. He said, "My wife brought me to you for hypnosis. I always had the feeling after that first day when you got me angry, you were hypnotizing me and making me do each thing that I succeeded in doing. But I'll take credit myself for walking fifteen miles one day in the Tucson zoo. I was very tired afterwards, but I did it."
He wanted to know if he could return to work, at least part time. I told him he would need to list the most simple things he could do in his place of business and content himself with doing those. He agreed to that.
I received letters from her and from him periodically for nearly seven years. They were happy years. The correspondence came at greater and greater intervals, and finally it ceased. Then about ten years after their visit, his wife wrote that her husband had again had a stroke and he was badly handicapped. Would I be willing to see him again to restore him to physical health?
Considering his age, I didn't think I could possibly take him. I wrote to her and pointed out that he was past the age of sixty, and he had been badly damaged by the first stroke. Now the second one had left him unconscious for several days. He was as helpless as he had been before. I told her I didn't think there was anything more I could do.
Taken from Jay Haley, Uncommon Therapies. The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson. W. W. Norton & Company, New York – London.