By Peter McDermott
David Grand believes in miracles, at least when it comes to treating victims of trauma. Now, many people in Northern Ireland share his enthusiasm for a new therapy known as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In two trips to Belfast, Grand, a 45-year-old Long Island-based psychotherapist, has helped train 150 mental health professionals there in EMDR techniques.
“David Grand has been very important for us here in Northern Ireland,” said Dr. Patricia Donnelly, chief psychologist of the children’s department at Royal Victoria Hospital. “He’s given us a lot of his time.
“I went to the course a skeptic. I didn’t believe the biological basis of it,” she said. But she was converted soon after finishing the course when she used EMDR in a critical case. Her patient was a man who’d been kidnapped and interrogated by the IRA. Although freed in a police raid, the paramilitary organization put him under sentence of death. “He couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t get two words out of him,” she said. Eventually, using EMDR, she calmed him. He was then able to develop a strategy with the help of his mother and a local priest to deal with his situation, and the death threat was lifted. “Now, the man who came into my office wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Donnelly said.
Another case in which she used EMDR involved a group of teenagers who’d witnessed a friend lose his footing on a moving train. The boy held on momentarily, begging for his life, and then fell to his death. “They couldn’t have helped him without great risk to themselves,” Donnelly said. The boys made great progress over two years using traditional therapies, but Donnelly successfully used EMDR when one of them showed symptoms again. “Post-traumatic stress disorder happens when people experience things totally out of normal life experience – rape, muggings, car accidents, acts of terrorism.” David Grand said. “Some of the symptoms are flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance of situations.”
In cases involving sudden death, trauma can also block the natural grieving process; in some instances, people fall victim to pathological mourning. “Many years later you see people who are still stuck in intense mourning,” Grand said.
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Now, many psychotherapists believe they have a powerful weapon to deal with trauma and indeed most other psychological conditions as well. But it is with post-traumatic stress disorder that EMDR is making its name.
A couple of years ago Grand approached Bob Franke, a Long Island Railroad engineer whose story he’d read in the press. As many as 80 percent of engineers working in high-population areas will at some time suffer from post-traumatic stress due to accidents or suicides. Franke, though, was particularly unfortunate: He was involved in incidents that claimed eight lives. In one, a man and his two sons were killed and his daughter seriously injured when the LIRR train hit their car on the tracks. In another, a woman who was eight months pregnant threw herself under the engine.
“Prior to meeting David Grand, I was a negative person,” Franke said. “When he first called me, I said: ‘Fine, so you want to help me. What’s this going to cost?’ When he said it would be nothing, I said, ‘There is no such thing as a free cup of coffee.’ Well, David replied, ‘Meet me in my office on Sunday morning and we’ll see about the free cup of coffee.’
“I went in there with an attitude you could cut with a knife,” Franke said. His session with Grand lasted an hour and a half. In the most common version of the treatment, the patient is asked to track the therapist’s hand, which moves from side to side, and to focus on the traumatic event. In this way, disturbing memories can be “unfrozen” and then “reprocessed.” The patient can then view the events as being safely in the past.
“Before I left, I gave David a hug. Now I’m not the kind of guy who goes around hugging other men,” he said, laughing. “But I just felt extremely relieved of the burden that had been on my shoulders for three or four years. My mind was relieved of the situation. I said ‘it wasn’t my fault’ a thousand times, but this time I believed it.” The treatment brought his emotions into line with what he logically knew to be the truth. The fatalities, though, are still with him, and he still sees himself as “the other victim.” But the quality of his life has improved enormously in every way.
David Grand wasn’t surprised at “Franke’s response to the treatment. However, six years ago, on the first day he tried EMDR in is practice, he was astonished at the marked improvement in his patients. “Their distress just seemed to melt away,” he said.
EMDR was discovered and developed by Francine Sharpiro, a Californian psychotherapist. One day in 1987, while she was out walking, Sharpiro realized that certain thoughts were less disturbing when she moved her eyes from side to side. One supporter of the new therapy, Harvard psychiatrist Bessan van der Kolk, has argued, using SPECT Scans, that the left-right movement reduces activity in the area of the brain, the amygdala, that controls fear response. Grand, who uses sound for the bilateral stimulation, believes this is the key to its success. He said that it’s known that the right side of brain (or the left side in the left-handed) shows more activity when people have psychiatric conditions. This is why anything that uses both sides of the brain, such as reading or walking, has therapeutic value. “We have a lot of good speculation that makes sense, but nothing is proven,” he said.
Whatever the explanation, EMDR seems to help most people who try it. Doug Willox, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Div. 269, said that 54 of his members so far have visited Grand or his partner on Long Island. All but one reported that the treatment was beneficial.
Willox, who has been in three fatal incidents, said that regardless of the circumstances the engineer will always experience feelings of guilt after a death on the tracks. “It takes an eighth of mile to brake in an emergency and it could take more. You always feel maybe you could have put the brake on a little sooner.”
He recalled one incident that happened on Long Island several years ago. “It was early in the morning,” he said. “The sun was just rising. The engineer saw that there was a beautiful collie on the tracks, He was doing 65 miles per hour, he blew his horn and applied his brakes. At the last second the collie jumped out of the way and there was a 2-year-old little girl sitting between the rail.”
Bob Franke recalled the usual response to such tragedy; “‘Give me a couple of bottles of beer and I’ll be back to work in the morning,’ I was always frustrated with that macho attitude,” he said.
Division 269 has just 705 working and retired members – a majority, like Bob Franke and Doug Willox have Irish roots – and EMDR has quickly gained acceptance at this local level. Franke and Willox have put in place, with Grand’s help, an emergency response system for treating traumatized engineers. Willox, though, has an uphill battle in a union that has 30,000 members throughout the United States and Canada. Some in the Cleveland, Ohio-based leadership, he said, still celebrate the traditional machismo and refuse to give post-traumatic stress disorder the attention it deserves.
At the same time Sharpiro and Grand are facing resistance to EMDR in medical circles. Whereas its proponents see EMDR as a therapy for the 21st century, critics invoke the name of Franz Anton Mesmer, who in the 18th century developed a medical technique that also involved hand movements and was touted as a miracle cure in its day. One of them has pointed out that, like Sharpiro, Mesmer – whose name is the source of the word “mesmerize” – also came upon his technique while out walking.
One prominent critic, Robert Pitman, has done his own tests showing, he argues, that EMDR is merely a variant of the long-established exposure therapy, which requires patients to relive their experiences, and that the hand-moving is just “repackaging.”
“People have done research without being trained in the therapy,” Grand said. He believes that Pitman has softened his opposition, but many others are more hostile. Some people are “psychologically naysayers,” Grand suggested. “This happens with every new thing; it happened with Prozac. And not always from a legitimate position.” The Church of Scientology was behind much of the opposition to the drug.
In response to the view that EMDR is similar to other established therapies, its supporters say that the speed with which it gets results shows that this isn’t the case. Speed was of the essence in the case of Patricia Donnelly’s condemned patient.
Dr. Desmond Poole, chief psychologist for Health Services with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, also believes that speed is a big advantage, but not necessarily the only one. “Officers have been exposed to horrific scenes,” he said. EMDR brings “particular relief” for those who suffer post-traumatic symptoms. Poole was a pioneer for EMDR in Northern Ireland, having been trained in its techniques in the United States, and he played a key role in bringing Grand to Belfast.
Grand is the chairman of the EMDR-Humanitarian Assistance Program. Under the program’s auspices, therapists donate pro bono one week per year of counseling victims or training fellow professionals. EMDR-HAP arranged counselling in Oklahoma City, for instance, after the bombing in 1995 and on Long Island after the TWA 800 crash in 1996. It has also sent therapists to countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda and El Salvador. Many psychotherapists believe that by dealing effectively with trauma they can help break the cycle of violence.
“I decided it was time we brought EMDR to Northern Ireland,” he said. Grand, whose immigrant forbears were Polish and Russian Jews, has long had a passion for things Irish. Several years ago, traveling in the Canadian Maritimes, he developed a love for Irish music. This led him, four years ago, to take a two-week vacation touring the Republic with his wife and young son.
On his visit to Belfast, he has had an opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside. “The North is, if anything, more beautiful than the South,” he said.
“EMDR has given me a chance to get out of the office,” Grand said. The opportunity to meet and help a wide spectrum of people – from musicians and sports stars suffering from performance anxiety to mothers grieving for children cut down by gun violence in New York’s inner-city – has turned his life around.
“It’s been a rebirth for me,” he said.