LUCY BURDETTE: I jumped with excitement when I saw an email from Dennis Palumbo several weeks ago about a collection of essays from both shrinks and patients about the experience of psychotherapy, called HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? I ordered it instantly and asked Dennis if he would come to Jungle Red to talk about his essay.
Welcome Dennis! The therapy world seems to have changed so much since I worked as a psychologist in private practice. As the editor of this collection mentioned, we didn't have to deal with the minefield of social media and worrying about what our patients might think if (or when) they came across some personal data. When you were approached to write an essay, did you have concerns about telling so much about yourself?
DENNIS PALUMBO: Not really, because I felt (and feel) that it's important for patients in therapy to see that therapists have the same kinds of struggles that they do. Of course, all therapists need to be cautious in terms of personal disclosures, but having a patient know that you can relate to their issues has enormous therapeutic benefit. In the case of this essay, which details my career transition from Hollywood screenwriter to licensed psychotherapist, I believed it was important to let readers know the emotional ups and downs of any major life transition. And that while it may not be an easy journey, it's one worth taking if it's what your heart demands.
Lucy: I love the line in your essay when you announce to your new therapist that you intend only to be there for a few sessions, which stretches into eight years. For folks who are not familiar with long-term psychotherapy, could you explain how a person who is relatively sane might end up in therapy over a period like that? (I should say that I was going to put my psychologist character Dr. Rebecca Butterman (DEADLY ADVICE) in psychoanalysis, but a dear friend advised me that she would look like a nut-so I opted for therapy instead!)
Dennis: The length of time anyone stays in treatment varies from person to person. In my case, not only did I have some significant issues to look at, but I also found myself intrigued and moved by the therapy process itself. Moreover, since my private practice specializes in treating creative people, I'm fortunate in that such patients are usually interested in and intellectually engaged by the process of therapy. They enjoy both the introspection and the emotional support that therapy provides. (BTW, I found your comment about your own fictional psychologist interesting. As you know, my series of crime thrillers also features a psychologist, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, and he mentions often how helpful being a patient in therapy has been for him. If some readers think that makes him look like a nut, there's nothing I can do about it. Thankfully, the vast majority of readers I hear from think otherwise. For many, being inside Daniel's head (the novels are told in first-person) as both a therapist and a former patient, are the most compelling parts of the story. Except for the murders, of course!)
Lucy: will you tell us a bit about how you use your experience as a therapist and a patient in your novels?
Dennis: While I don't use any of my patients' personal experiences as the basis of a novel, I do use what I've learned as a therapist for the past 27 years to inform the writing. How the therapist/patient dynamic often plays out, what might go on in the therapist's head during sessions, the relationship between the current state of the mental health profession and society, etc. More importantly, as in the novels NIGHT TERRORS and PHANTOM LIMB, how certain psychological conditions make a character's personality and actions more vivid and intriguing. Also, since Daniel Rinaldi is a trauma specialist, treating the victims of violent crime, I get to explore issues and symptoms associated with PTSD. I'm fortunate in that I spent five years studying trauma with Dr. Robert Stolorow, one of the nation's premiere trauma experts. I think, on the whole, this experience has been of enormous help in making what my characters go through moving, suspenseful and true-to-life.
LUCY: Finally, can you tell us a little more about working with creative people? We have lots of them here at Jungle Red!
Dennis: I work primarily with writers, but also see directors, composers, journalists, and musicians. Regardless of field of interest, most creative people struggle with the same issues: blocks, procrastination, fear of failure, anxiety and depression. Not to mention how these issues can impact the creative person's relationships. Though the issues may be consistent across any genre or occupation, how we deal with them in therapy is case-specific. In other words, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with these issues, primarily because a person's creative struggles are inexorably connected with his or her personal issues. Childhood experiences, career path, relationship history, substance use concerns, etc. I also try to help patients see that it doesn't mean anything negative about them if they're struggling with some creative project. Creative work of any kind is hard, and every artist of real worth struggles. If you think your creative difficulties mean there's something wrong with you, it will only make things worse. As I like to say to patients, "Work the problem. Don't make yourself the problem."
LUCY: Questions or comments for Dennis? (Tomorrow, we'll talk about our favorite fictional therapists...)
And here's a link to a review of the collection in the Washington Post.
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author. His acclaimed series of crime novels (including the latest, Phantom Limb) feature psychologist and police consultant Daniel Rinaldi. More info at www.dennispalumbo.com