|The Songwriting Psychotherapist
By Garry Cooper, LCSW
Originally published in Family Therapy Networker (now Psychotherapy Networker (May/June,1999)
Your brother came to your bedroom one night
Stealing all of your hopes and your dreams.
Your father he preached about Jesus and love
While playing the Judas with all of his schemes.
And you run and you run and you run and you run….
This is part of a song that therapist and song writer John Foster Elliott sang in his North Hollywood office one day to a fairly new client, a women diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Therapy, he says, wasn’t going anywhere—he seemed to be just one more in a long line of therapists. But when he took out his acoustic guitar and sang to her, the woman broke down and cried. “When she heard me sing it,” he recalls, “she knew that I understood how she felt.” At that moment, Elliott says, he thinks therapy really began.
Elliott has been writing and singing songs in coffeehouses and bars since his undergraduate days in the 1960s, but only recently has he been composing specifically for his clients. His songs work on an almost intuitive level to help him and his clients connect to each other--and to themselves. Songs, Elliott says, carry a power that has been around longer than psychological theory. The words, imagery and rhythms quickly make connections that might take months to make through talk therapy, if they were ever made at all.
The hypnotic, almost compulsive rhythm of “And You Run,” for example, conveyed his client’s experience in a way that complemented the insights of its lyrics. Other tunes take other forms. Elliott once wrote a waltz for a client who was stuck in a co-dependent relationship. He composed this ballad for an outwardly successful but depressed client:
I got my fortune, I got my fame,
Friends all around me, -everyone knows my name,
I got the strength and I got the mind
But there’s always something missing I can’t seem to find.
And It's a mystery to me how blind men often can see
How deaf men often hear...
It’s a secret to my soul
How seeds of doubt grow into hope
And diamonds come from coal.
His songs serve a variety of therapeutic ends. Some songs, he says, produce sudden breakthroughs. Others are simply gifts that help motivate clients. Still others function as transitional objects, giving the client a tape to hold onto and play between sessions.
Elliott doesn’t always sing to his clients. He writes his songs when he feels connected to a client and then decides how—or whether—to use them in session. “I’m always careful,” he says, “not to use a song just to gratify anyone’s narcissism, including my own.”