Interview with Our Spring Conference Presenter, Cathy Nugent, LCPC, TEP

by Eleanor Hoskins, LCSW, CGP, Spring Conference Co-Chair

In preparing for the upcoming Mid-Atlantic Spring conference, I had the opportunity to interview our presenter, Cathy Nugent, LCPC, TEP.  The conference, which will be held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, is titled Care for the Heart and Soul of the Psychotherapist: Psychodramatic Explorations.  Throughout the two-day experience, Cathy will share what she has learned over 30 years of work with individuals and professionals so we may better learn how to understand and care for our own needs.  In the interview, Cathy introduces the concepts we will be exploring, and speaks about her journey into the world of psychodrama. I have had enough exposure to psychodrama to recognize it as a compelling way to communicate what may be too difficult to speak and I am excited to learn more over the course of the weekend.  It is especially intriguing for me to think about having the opportunity to explore psychodrama at St. Elizabeths, where pioneers championed these experiential methods in the 1940s, and brought these ideas into our national thinking about mental health.

Thank you, Cathy, for taking time to prepare us for the conference by sharing your thinking with us in the following interview.  MAGPS is certainly in for a great experience on April 26 & 27, 2013.  We hope you will all come join us.

Eleanor:  Psychodrama may be new to some folks attending the conference.  Could you explain something about what psychodrama is specifically?  How is psychodrama a unique way of working with groups

Cathy:  Originated by Jacob L. Moreno, MD (1889-1974), psychodrama is a form of group psychotherapy that uses dramatic enactment to extend the verbal method of therapy. During a psychodrama, the therapist (called director) and group members, help one participant (called the protagonist), play out his or her story using role-play and a variety of specialized techniques.

A psychodramatic enactment can take many forms.  In psychodrama, ordinary reality is expanded into what Moreno called surplus reality, where protagonists can do things in the symbolic realm they might not want or be able to do in life. According to psychodramatic theory, these “make believe” actions have a curative effect.  This is because all experiences, even symbolic ones, have an impact on the body, mind, emotions, and nervous system.

So, in surplus reality, a man could psychodramatize a goodbye with a deceased parent that did not happen n “real life,” and, in so doing, help complete the mourning process. A woman could speak to her unborn baby of her hopes for the child’s future, relieving some of her worries and establishing a positive frame of mind for her labor and delivery.  An elderly man might receive comfort over the death of his wife through a psychodramatic conversation with his beloved dog.  And a teenager could speak with her older, wiser self, receiving advice about how to navigate a challenging life situation. The range of psychodramatic enactments is infinite, dependent only on the spontaneity of the director, protagonist, and group members who co-create the scenes.

One way that psychodrama differs from most other therapies is its reliance on bringing body into psychotherapy.  Moreno once said, “The body remembers what the mind forgets.”  By bringing the body into psychodramatic action, we can open up a rich source of information and a powerful avenue for healing. Current findings in neuroscience have shown that early memories and traumatic experiences are often not accessible to the thinking and language centers of the brain. In addition, some traumatic memories and experiences are not accessible to linguistic processing.  So, although verbal psychotherapy supports crucially important functions such as uncovering cognitive schema, improving ego functioning, and working with emotions; sometimes, “talk therapy” alone is not sufficient. With its reliance on movement, gesture, and sensory perception, role-playing can help individuals access, explore, and resolve early attachment wounds and traumatic experiences that might not be resolved through purely verbal methods.

EleanorThe theory and writing behind psychodrama practice may not be familiar to everyone attending this weekend. Can you share any works that have contributed to your work with psychodrama process? 

Cathy:  I have not found Moreno’s writings particularly easy to read.  He was much more a man of action than of writing.  Fortunately, there are several writers who have done an excellent job making Moreno’s theory and methods more accessible to contemporary readers.  Some of the most well-worn psychodrama books on my shelf include:

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama: history, theory, and practice (4thEd.). New York, NY: Springer    Publishing Company.

Dayton, T. (2005). The living stage: A step-by-step guide to psychodrama, sociometry, and experiential group therapy. Deerfield Beach  FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Kellerman, P. (1992). Focus on psychodrama: The therapeutic aspects of psychodrama. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

All three are excellent; however, I usually tell students if they can purchase only one book to get the one by Tian Dayton.  It is very readable with an excellent integration of theory and practice.  It is also very practical. Dayton provides step-by-step instructions for a number of psychodramatic action structures that can be used as described or modified for application with different populations and settings.

Eleanor: How did you did you become interested in this type of work?   Was there a particular experience that led you to focus on it?  What has kept you interested in it over the years?

Cathy:  Growing up, I had a passionate interest in music and theatre. As an adolescent and young adult, I studied classical singing and opera, and I was involved in experimental theatre.  At the same time that I loved music and theatre, I also had a strong interest in psychology.  Like many of my generation, I was influenced by the human potential movement of the 1970s.  I pursued various avenues to facilitate my healing from a difficult childhood, increase my self-knowledge, and promote my personal and spiritual development.

Although I had heard of psychodrama, I didn’t know what it actually was.  Still, I found the idea of bringing together psychotherapy and drama intriguing, and I had a strong sense it would appeal to me.  So, in my late 20’s, I took a psychodrama course at Johns Hopkins University with Rene Clay, who was the staff psychodramatist at Spring Grove Hospital at the time.  During the weekend course, I was the protagonist in my first psychodrama. I was so taken by the power, truth, and beauty of that drama that I jumped in with both feet and have never looked back. For me, psychodrama continues to be a magical combination of psychology and art that approaches the truth of what is means to be human more closely than any other psychotherapeutic method with which I am familiar.

Eleanor:  As helping professionals, self-care is a necessary and very personal part of the work we do.  Is there a reason that you find psychodrama to be an effective technique for addressing issues around self-care?

Cathy:  I truly believe it is an ethical imperative that we find balance between work and play, service and self-care. Psychodrama integrates so many different elements─mind, body, emotions, spirit (Moreno developed an entire philosophy and theology underlying psychodrama), art and science, individual and group─in unusual, creative, and often profoundly inspiring ways.  To me, by its very nature, psychodrama is an excellent way to work with issues of balance and integration.

Many aspects of Moreno’s theory are inherently hopeful and strength-based.  Moreno rejected notions of determinism, focusing instead on the creative spark within each of us that enables us to rewrite our stories and reinvent ourselves in the here and now. For these and many other reasons, I see psychodrama as a very effective way to explore issues of self-compassion and self-care.

Eleanor:  In your introductory writing about this weekend, you discuss difficulties that confront us all in balancing self-care with our work with others.  Are there particular things that the we can do to prepare for working together this way and to take care of themselves during the weekend?

Cathy:  The basics, those things at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, are always where I start in my own life and in my recommendations for others. Adequate rest, good nutrition, and physical exercise are the building blocks of self-care. In addition, it is crucial to have positive connections with others. So, for a long weekend like the one coming up, I would recommend bringing bottled water and healthy snacks, getting enough sleep each night, and having supportive people with whom to process anything that might come up over the course of the conference.  When away from home, I sometimes have difficulty maintaining my usual exercise routine, but I find I can usually take time for a brief yoga practice over the course of even the most demanding workshop.

Eleanor:  Can you share with us what you are hoping for the weekend to bring to you?  What would you like the conference attendees to take away from the experience?

Cathy:  First, let me say I am honored to have been invited.  And I am excited by the possibilities.  Despite its long history, psychodrama is not well known in many psychotherapeutic circles, and it hasn’t always had the best reputation. It is unfortunate that some individuals not properly trained have conducted their own brand of psychodrama, and the method has sometimes been caricatured by people screaming and hitting each other with encounter bats. And in recent popular culture, the term psychodrama has been appropriated to refer to any intense, emotionally fraught situation. So, one goal for me is to offer an experience of psychodrama within its appropriate context and, if possible, to demonstrate the power of psychodrama as a method both of expression and of containment, to show the range of what the method can accomplish.

I am also very excited by the possibilities for cross-learning and collaboration between MAGPS and MAC-ASGPP (the Mid-Atlantic Chapter, American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama).  I have been very interested in learning about different ways of facilitating groups.  In recent years, I have enjoyed attending the American Group Psychotherapy Association conferences, where I’ve been exposed to many skillful group leaders.  So I am excited by the prospect of sharing psychodrama with the MAGPS membership and having MAPGS members teach psychodramatists about the kind of group therapy they do.

At the Spring Conference, some psychodramatists from MAC have volunteered their time to lead small groups. I think the focus on psychodrama at this conference and the involvement of MAC members represents a wonderful first step in bringing the two local group psychotherapy associations together.  I have great hopes for future collaborative projects that will enable the two associations to contribute to each other’s learning and organizational mission and spread the word about the value and effectiveness of group work.

Also, I am hoping the MAGPS membership and other conference participants will be inspired to greater levels of self-care.  I hope participants will leave with a feeling of restoration and a renewed sense of balance and connection in their professional and personal lives.