The Trance Factory: Hypnotherapy
Bobby Rothschild lowers her voice to a soothing monotone and instructs me to focus on my chair. "Feel where your body is touching the arms of the chair," she intones softly. Though my eyes are closed, I am still aware of the rush of traffic outside, the tinkling of a wind chime, and a persistent leeriness in the back of my head. This is my first trance.We're sitting in a pleasant, sunny room in the Hypnosis Clearing House (HCH), a Lafayette, Calif.-based hypnotherapy school where people like Bobby come to learn the esoteric art of mesmerism. For the students and hypnotherapists at HCH, what is happening to me is no mere parlor trick; for them, and many others, hypnotherapy is a healing discipline on the cusp of legitimate acceptance. Next Bobby has me picture a yardstick, and she asks me to pick a number on it that represents the depth of my incipient trance. I pick 12. She has me move my attention down the stick, telling me that as the numbers grow, so will my spell. This is called a deepening technique, one of several Bobby has learned in the 200 hours of training she's been through at HCH. As I picture the mental yardstick sliding by, the darkness before my eyes seems to move back a step or two, like there's space between me and the inside of my eyelids -- a sensation I've had before, but never without beer. I make it down to 28; now the real work can begin.The issue I've chosen to address is my smoking, a common complaint hypnotherapists are asked to help alleviate. Bobby encourages the part of my psyche that simply can't do without butts to talk for a bit; then the voices in my head that nag me about smoking get their say. Finally Bobby has what she terms my "higher wisdom" take a turn at the psychic lectern. During the entire process I remain aware of everything around me; at any time I could open my eyes and walk out of the room. And the physical sensation of being in a trance is interesting. For a while, my chair feels as though it's rising; and, as my "higher wisdom" speaks, I notice that my eyes are darting around under my eyelids as if I've slipped into the dreamy, REM stage of sleep.One thing that doesn't disturb my concentration is the cost. A typical hour of hypnotherapy like this can run upward of $95, which is exactly what Holly Holmes-Meredith, HCH's clinical director, charges. But because Bobby is an intern in a program unique to HCH, the cost is a measly 20 bucks. A former high school psychology teacher, Holmes-Meredith, 45, has been running HCH for 10 years. She learned hypnosis from Dr. Freda Morris, the school's founder, while working toward her marriage and family therapist license in the early '80s. Morris, an author of two books on hypnosis for laypeople, found an adept pupil in Holmes-Meredith, who understood the value of hypnotherapy as a healing tool, an understanding that stemmed from an adolescent experimentation with "altered states" (achieved through meditation and dance, Holmes-Meredith assures me with a laugh). "I knew the profoundness of accessing that part of myself," she says. "When I became a therapist, it was just a natural thing to study hypnotherapy and to do most of my therapeutic work in an altered state. It's cheaper [than traditional therapy]," she laughs, "and it's much faster for the client; and it's more empowering because the medical model of the therapist being in the authority position is totally blown out when the client has their own experience of healing themselves." HCH teaches traditional "directive" hypnosis -- the old watch-the-watch stuff, in which the client is led through a hypnotic experience by the hypnotist; but it specializes in a newer, more touchy-feely "transpersonal" hypnotherapy, which lets the client steer the experience while the therapist asks questions and elicits responses (what Bobby's using on me).One part Jungian analysis, one part hypnotic rap-session, this altered-state therapy was pioneered by the American father of modern hypnosis, Dr. Milton Erickson, and a Czech doctor named Stanislav Grof, who began his experiments back in the early '60s when LSD was legal and altered states a little easier to come by. To become a hypnotherapist at HCH takes some time and some dough. Students, who range from licensed therapists to curious amateurs, spend 200 hours in class, mostly on weekends, generally over four months; there are three texts, a video assignment, and a whole lot of hypnosis. It runs about $2,900."It's very hands-on, very experiential," Holmes-Meredith says. "It's a very supportive environment both to have personal experiences and learn the techniques. A lot of therapy surreptitiously takes place because people are practicing on each other."The practice continues in HCH's in-house internship program. After a student finishes the classwork, he or she can put up a shingle as a certified hypnotherapist under HCH's aegis in one of its three Bay Area clinics in San Rafael, Berkeley, and Lafayette. (A new clinic is scheduled to open in S.F. by the end of December.) An hour with an intern runs 20 bucks; this money goes to HCH (the interns are unpaid) to help pay for marketing and rent. At the end of six months, the interns can take any of their clients with them, no hard feelings. There is no standard scenario; some clients remain with their hypnotherapists because they've established a rapport or are in the midst of long-term therapy, while others simply rotate interns, attracted by the low fee. The duration of hypnotherapy also varies from one or two visits to several weeks, depending upon how much work is needed. "It works for everybody," Holmes-Meredith says of the internship program. The interns are closely supervised by Holmes-Meredith herself, even after they've completed the scholastic part of their training. That puts HCH "in a different niche," she says, from most other hypnotherapy schools.In the four years since the program was established, nearly 4,500 hours of low-fee hypnotherapy have been provided by 30 HCH interns, Holmes-Meredith says. It's all part of her plan to seed the world with adept hypnotherapists and pave the way for hypnotherapy's acceptance in mainstream health care. One step toward attaining that acceptance came last spring with the introduction of a bill in the California Legislature that would have changed the way hypnotherapy schools are regulated by the state. Oddly, the battle pitted HCH and like-minded schools that favor stronger regulation against the state licensing bureaucracy, as well as others in the hypnosis business who took umbrage at certain aspects of the legislation. The conflict was but the latest skirmish in the wayward discipline's long fight for legitimacy, a fight that began with the very first hypnotist.Back in the 1700s, an Austrian by the name of Anton Mesmer debunked the spurious myth that human behavior was predicated upon the balance of the "humors" by creating his own spurious myth. Humors, he said, weren't the medium of human well-being, silly, magnetic fluids were. He set about demonstrating his theory by measuring how magnets placed on human subjects changed their behavior. When his cohorts at the University of Vienna (Freud's future alma mater) in turn debunked Mesmer, he split to Paris and set up shop as hypnotism's first charlatan, making his clients sit in a tub of water while he pranced about in a purple robe "mesmerizing" them with a magnetic wand. He earned himself etymological immortality, but what Mesmer had really discovered was the power of suggestion. It took the behaviorists in the 1930s -- who ignored Freud's haughty dismissal of hypnotism -- for hypnosis to get a second chance. Gradually, it began to make its way out of the fun house of clinical psychology. Since then, hypnotherapy has been embraced by the likes of Holmes-Meredith, who say it can manage physical and emotional pain, enhance certain skills, or help overcome addictions, like smoking. But, for many, hypnotism still labors under its ignominious past, as well as a plethora of common misimpressions."I've heard licensed [psychologists] who have never had a course in hypnotherapy babble off some of the misconceptions, like, 'Oh my god, you wouldn't want the client to get into that material too soon!' " Holmes-Meredith says. Innate defenses keep patients from doing things or expressing emotions under hypnosis that they want to keep private, she explains. There are ways around these protective instincts, but an ethical hypnotherapist wouldn't use them. For Holmes-Meredith, hypnotherapy is based upon the principle that the clients are their own best healers. "We have a higher self, an inner power, an inner wisdom," she says, "and that's actually invoked or activated in the hypnotic process as the therapist's partner." She calls this "mental tai chi," in which the hypnotherapist listens and takes cues from the client."One of the concerns that I have as an instructor," says Holmes-Meredith, "is that there are a lot of people out there practicing hypnotherapy that don't have a whole lot of training. For instance they don't know how to stay out of the client's way, so they may be creating false memories or leading people into experiences that may not be empowering or healthy for them." To help prevent that kind of abuse, she joined Southern California hypnotherapist and educator George Cappas in backing the legislation last spring, the Hypnotherapist Registration Act. Written by then-Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), with much input from Cappas, it would have established a set of professional standards for schools' training and licensing programs. It called for a minimum 300 hours of schooling, in hypnotic technique as well as legal and ethical questions raised by hypnotherapy's use, and an additional 200 hours of supervised internship."All you need to operate a hypnotherapy school in California is a fire exit and a bathroom," Cappas says. "Truck drivers, hairdressers have to spend more time in school than hypnotherapists."As it stands, the roughly 50 hypnotherapy schools in California are registered by the Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, the same state body that oversees barber colleges and truck driving schools. And the council's licensing criteria are considerably less strenuous than those outlined by the Registration Act, though it would continue as the enforcement body. In most cases, the council simply sends a team of experts to check the educational quality and financial integrity of a school. But Dan Sackheim, who does checking for the council, concedes that, in the case of hypnotherapy schools, "there is no standard curriculum."Cappas likens many schools operating today to "diploma mills," and he has some harsh words for the council, which opposed his bill. Sackheim counters, "It could eliminate in a single sweep all of our [already approved] schools." "They're not doing their job," Cappas says of the council, "and they don't like the fact that we're very vocal. They refuse to address the standards problem, yet they oppose us when we do." Cappas' Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana, Calif., already conforms to the Registration Act; but that's not surprising, given Cappas' role in writing it. In fact, its requirements are based on his school's curriculum, which has his opponents crying foul. Bob Strouse, general counsel for the American Institute of Hypnotherapy (AIH), an Irving, Calif.-based school, fought the Registration Act from its inception. "We favor regulation," Strouse explains, echoing Cappas' worry that hypnotherapists can have an "undue influence" over their clients and so should be held more closely accountable. "But our opposition to this bill was based upon the fact that it was written by a few schools for their own benefit."Strouse's Institute is no diploma mill. It is one of the few schools to offer bachelor's and doctoral degrees in hypnotherapy, as opposed to a simple certificate. Since 1984, the AIH has run the American Board of Hypnotherapy, a private, professional organization with a worldwide membership of 6,000 individual hypnotherapists and 144 hypnotherapy schools. The board provides a forum for hypnotherapists to network and discuss is sues confronting the industry. It was in this capacity that the board sent out a questionnaire to some of California's practicing hypnotherapists asking them what regulation they feel they need. That was one thing, Strouse says, Cappas never bothered to do. "If we'd written the law without any public input," Strouse avers, "it would be just as wrong."The Registration Act passed the Assembly last May by a vote of 50 to 15, due in large measure to some serious labor backing. It so happens that Cappas is the president of the Hypnotists' Union, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. But the act stalled in the Senate's Business and Professions Committee. According to Cappas, it slipped into a unique form of political limbo. Committee Chairman Dan Boatwright (D-Contra Costa) has strong ties to labor, but he is also a staunch opponent of government regulation, Cappas explains. The bill died. With Boatwright termed out, Cappas plans to reintroduce it in the coming session. He is hopeful about the act's chances session, even though Burton has decided not to put his name on it again. Cappas reports that Assemblyman Tom Woods (R-Shasta), one of the original co-authors, has expressed interest. "We're going to give everyone a shot at input this time," Cappas says.But it may be a struggle to build a consensus after last year's often acrimonious legislative battle. "I haven't talked to George in quite a while," Strouse says wryly.Even if all sides can come together to pass some form of bill, it still has to clear California Gov. Pete Wilson. "I told them it was going to be a hard sell," Cathleen Gardella, Burton's senior legislative aide, says. "This guy [Wilson] wants to abolish the Department of Consumer Affairs, for pete's sake!"Queried why Burton wasn't planning to be a sponsor the second time, "You'll have to ask him," she says. (By press time, Burton hadn't returned calls.) But Gardella did intimate that a certain sense of futility surrounding the bill's first trip through the Legislature may have contributed to his change of heart.If the act passes, and professional standards for hypnotherapists are established, the discipline could move closer to the mainstream of health care. Another major leap in that direction would be its inclusion in managed-care plans."Right now, hypnotherapy is not covered," explains Lila Petersen, a spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente, the state's largest HMO. "But it could very well be covered in the future. We already offer coverage for many forms of alternative medicine like acupuncture and biofeedback." As it's currently set up, HCH actually falls short of the Registration Act's stringent guidelines by a hundred hours of class time and a hundred hours of internship. But pumping up the numbers will be easy, since the mechanisms are already in place, Holmes-Meredith says."I think [the act] is going to elevate the acceptance of the status of hypnotherapists," she says. "They'll be an acknowledged profession with standards." She envisions a future in which hypnotherapists will leave behind the purp le robe of the mesmerist and don the white coats of legitimate health care providers. Back in our sunny room in Lafayette, my own personal mesmerist, Bobby Rothschild, brings me slowly out of my trance. She counts backward from 10, and I feel like I'm rising to the surface of a pool. I open my eyes and blink for a few moments at Mount Diablo framed in the open window. "Did you experience any time distortion?" she asks. I don't know -- what day is it? I find I have no real recollection of just how long the trance lasted; and although I was fully conscious throughout our session, I feel as though I've just awakened from a long night's sleep. Slowly my head fills with questions.Is hypnotherapy the wave of the future? I ask Bobby. That's a loaded question to put to someone who just sank nearly three grand into becoming a hypnotherapist, but I'm still a little groggy. "I'll tell you this," Bobby says, "hypnotherapy is a real dark horse, culturally, because it has come through such a funny, unlikely history that the whole power structure gives very little credence to it." Until recently, Bobby was a technical writer. When she finishes her internship, she plans to become a full-time hypnotherapist. "I'm not saying [hypnotherapy] is the panacea, like, no more AMA," she continues with a laugh, "but in the meantime, we're making steps. So yeah, I am a wave of the future." Did my session with Bobby help me kick the habit? Well, no. But our excursion into inner space did stir something up. That night, I dreamt I was visited by a giant filter-tip cigarette, which either means there's hope for me yet, or I have to stop reading Doonesbury.