A celebration of healing with humor

20-year-old organization promotes laughter as a way of coping with disease and other crises

March 02, 2007|By Paul Lieberman | Paul Lieberman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Panama City Beach, Fla. -- Alison Crane was back. So with countless hugs, and a few quips, the members of the group dedicated to "healthy humor" celebrated the return of the nurse who founded their organization in the spare bedroom of her Chicago-area townhouse.

During the group's first years, she did everything - editing its newsletter, organizing its conferences and giving the speeches. Now the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor was 20 years old, and they celebrated that, too, during their convention here on Florida's Gulf Coast.

"I'm its mommy," Crane said at an early session for newcomers to the group, a mix of nurses, physicians, psychologists, public speakers, clergy and "caring clowns," some of those wandering about in red and blue rubber noses. "Then I went into hiding for about 17 years."

And that would be one through-line of their weekend, the discovery of what had happened to their founder during those "lost years" or "dark years," as she alternately called them, and why she'd say, "I couldn't be around an organization that's so positive and optimistic."

It was an ironic truth that many of the group's members also know too well - that you can devote your career to caring for others in hospitals and nursing homes and hospices, and preach to them about the benefits of laughter and mirth, and yet sometimes, when illness and depression enter your own life, there's no way to laugh them off.

"Sometimes what's appropriate is to cry through your grief," Crane said, and during the next three days other professionals would speak of their own brushes with death and despair and their personal attempts to find solace in the lighter side of the bleakest moments.

The modern "therapeutic humor" movement got its start in the 1970s when magazine editor Norman Cousins wrote a book crediting doses of Marx Brothers movies - along with a new diet and vitamin C - with helping him come back from a potentially fatal illness.

Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient helped spawn the use of clowns and "humor carts" in hospitals, studies attempting to document the physiological benefits of belly laughs and the formation of several national organizations, including the one that met here last month.

By the end of his life, Cousins worried that some people were taking his idea too far, attributing too much power to laughter, as if "ha-ha" might help cure all problems.

But you heard few such claims at the convention.

Indeed, at the Friday morning orientation for first-timers, Steven Sultanoff, an Irvine, Calif., clinical psychologist and former president of the group, cautioned that they would "learn some of the truth and fiction" in the field, and among the latter, he said, are claims that humor prompts the body to secrete more endorphins and that children laugh 400 times a day while adults enjoy that release a pitiful 15 times.

Though there were poster boards summarizing various studies, the claims here were far more modest. For example, humor might help in stress relief, or in communicating with patients or, most essentially, in coping with disease or other life crises, "just to improve the will to live," said the association's new president, Lenny Dave.

Dave, a Cincinnati-based humorist, lived through a heart attack a couple of years ago, at 48. He recalled being taken to the operating room, where a doctor in "a welder's mask" was going to perform an angioplasty. "I said, `Doc, have you ever done one of these before?'"

"He said, `I tried one yesterday on the dog.'"

Telling the tale, Dave shook his head at his missed opportunity. "I forgot to ask, `How's the dog?'"

The Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor now has nearly 600 members, and 200 showed up for the 20th anniversary convention, with an eclectic roster of speakers and performers - from a juggling divinity student to leaders of support groups for breast cancer survivors - offering the attendees broad philosophies and practical tips for improving the lives of their patients, and themselves.

The kickoff speaker was a classic icebreaker for both groups, David Coleman, known as the Dating Doctor. He's become a mainstay of the college circuit by dishing out such tidbits as: Don't look for someone to "complete" you because "what if they leave you tomorrow, are you then less complete?"

After his presentation, he held court from behind a table, signing his books and offering more personalized advice, as to a nurse who reported that a man in the audience just said to her: "Your husband must be one lucky man."

That was a line right from Coleman's talk - one supposedly that shows a man's interest, checking the woman's status. The problem, the nurse said, is that she told the fellow she did have a husband who thought he was so lucky "he left me a year ago." Coleman advised her to instead tell new suitors, like that one, "Thank you, that's very sweet. But I'm not healed yet."

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