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Acting Out the Aggravating Scenes of Life

Counselors employ psychodrama to help patients cope with problems

By Meg Angus-Smith
The News-Times, Danbury,
April 23, 1991

DANBURY - Playing. That's what grown-ups call it when kids do it - a thousand different variations on "You be the mommy and I'll be the daddy."

It helps them understand who they are and who they want to be, and to iron out the wrinkles of everyday living.

For children, however, it's still mostly a wash-and-wear life.

For grown-ups, the wrinkles need more attention, since they've become like an iron accordion from lying in the bottom of our mental laundry basket.

One way to smooth out the bumps borrows a little from childhood, but dresses it up with a theory and an imposing title: psychodrama.

With a therapist to guide the exploration, everyday incidents - confronting your boss, a visit from the in-laws - can be cracked open to find the kernel of emotion, present or past, that drives the scene.

"Spontaneity is the key in psychodrama," says Rebecca Walters, a certified trainer, educator and practitioner of the art of psychodrama part-time at Danbury, Personal Counseling, and at Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Katonah, N.Y.

"It helps you figure out new responses to old situations," she said.

In a recent session, the issue was lack of assertiveness, an old chestnut, self-developmentally speaking.

The relatively minor incident that came up for improvisation at a recent session at Danbury Personal Counseling was how to deal with a client over the phone who wanted to cancel an appointment and make another one. Seems simple enough.

Our "heroine" was obviously frustrated, not just with this client, but with all clients who cancel easily, guiltlessly, and expect our heroine to turn the world upside down to suit them.

Two chairs were placed back to back.

Someone is picked by the heroine to take the part of the client.

The first step is reversing the roles, so that the client role is played as the heroine understands it.

At this stage, the improvisation is limited by the heroine's perception. Then they reverse again.

Haltingly, the conversation begins.

Oddly, the phone conversation as directed by the heroine didn't make her seem like a doormat, which is what the heroine said she felt like.

Unstumped, Walters moved the problem into a slightly different arena, suggesting, perhaps, another place where a lack of assertiveness bothered the heroine.

So another scene develops from the heroine's memory. The grown-up is now a child, confronted by parents.

Here's where the guiding hand of the skilled therapist is crucial. Occasionally. the wrinkles that hamper our day-to-day living will only respond to some steam and a bit of pressure. Too much of either and not only will there be no healing, there's a danger that the wound will go deeper.

Psychodrama is a technique that can be used for either the seriously or slightly troubled, as well as for those who look to weekly therapy for a happier life.

In the next set-up, our heroine is 8, the father and stepmother are denying a request for a birthday party. Anger erupts when the child cries.

The heroine remembers the father's yelling -- and his kicking,

Here, Walters notes, the problem is not a lack of assertiveness, but unspoken rage.

The scene moves along the lines described by the heroine.

Foot stomping substitutes for the kicking.

An odd chemistry is at work,

The dialogue is often monosyllabic, and the acting Is not at all polished, but the effects are profound.

Summoning up the ghosts OF past or present and finally saying, or doing, whatever it is you want to say is an enormous release,

"It's a great catharsis, there's tears, sometime, screaming, said Walters.

The first run through creates a lot of tension from the father's aggression.

Walters suggests that there might be someone who our heroine would wish was there to help her.

"Oh, yes" she says without hesitation, "my husband."

Psychodrama has no rules of time and place. So another character stands beside her, her defender — borrowed front the future — her husband.

Roles reverse. so that we can all see how our heroine wants her defender to act.

The action begins. When the yelling starts, the heroine, acting her own defender, intervenes.

"Stop," she bellows, arms outstretched and her body between her father and her younger self.

Reverse roles.

This time, the heroine herself is defended by her husband's standin.

And then, one more time, the sceneis repeated. This time the heroine defends herself.

Finally, the electricity generated by previous scenes seems grounded, and people seem to breathe easier.

Where one-on-one counseling, and even group therapy, can get bogged down with intellectual games and psychspeak, psychodrama cuts to the quick.

From the smallest irritating incidents that plague everyone, a session of psychodrama can slice life in countless shapes, making everyday drudgery gleam with new possibilities.

At the end of it all, the therapist sets up the phone conversation scene once again. There's not much difference in the replay.

Walters asks the heroine for her reaction,

She still seems a little stunned. and comes to no sweeping conclusions, wondering aloud at the difference she felt, and how things can seem different to different people.

Walters later explained that this last part of therapy is very important and compared it to "putting your clothes back on."

Everyone takes part in the sharing to talk about what affected them, or how they connected with the session.

One woman, who played the husband defender, was deeply affected by being defended in the first role reversal, and brought to tears when the heroine was able to defend herself.

The person who played the father was able to get into the part and feel the almost irrational rage he, as a parent, can feel with illogical emotional outbursts from his children.

He was also able to feel relieved when the defender intervened, prohibiting his own outburst.

The weekly sessions at Danbury Personal Counseling are often oddly revealing, shedding fight with interplay that words might never capture. Walters group is not the only one that uses psychodrama, however.

"Action methods often take you where talking alone can't," explained Cathie Helfand. a therapist, who owns Danbury Personal Counseling with her husband, Bob. Cathie Helfand said that some elements of psychodrama are often woven into several of the group-therapy sessions held by the co-owners and other staff members.

Each psychodrama session costs $55, but there is an obligation to attend 10 weeks, to make sure there isn't too much change in the group, and allow, stability and trust to build up,

Mike Russell has been coming to the session for about two years, and is getting close to the end of psychotherapy's usefulness for him:

"It's getting comfortable," he says with a smile, "It's only when there's a edge that I know that I'm doing work."

But Diane Thompson has been attending for a year and a half, and is still finding work."

"It's as useful as ever. And it's a place I can go, for me, to find me,"

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