Seconds before the bomb destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in April, Linda Crampton stood on her 17th-floor balcony of the apartments across the street. She breathed in the morning air, then returned inside to go to her job as a sales rep for an airborne express service.
The blast blew her into the kitchen at the back of the apartment. When she came to her senses, she found the living room and kitchen walls demolished, and jagged shards of glass scattered with debris everywhere. She thought a nuclear warhead had struck Oklahoma, that the end of the world had come.
"It was horrifying," says Crampton, 47, who crawled out from the wreckage and walked down the stairwell into the disorienting mayhem on the street.
Though Crampton suffered no serious physical injuries, the catastrophe took its toll on her psychologically. She blanked out all memory of the disaster. She could hardly concentrate enough to brush her teeth. She wept constantly. She had to be reminded to eat and sleep. "I was completely incapable of functioning," she says.
When she again reported to work, she couldn't remember how to do the most routine tasks. She recalls: "It was like somebody took out part of my brain."
Seven weeks after the blast, Crampton's boss sought help for her. He took her to a psychiatrist who called the symptoms "very serious" and proposed long-term hospitalization. Crampton's physician referred her instead to a disaster response group he heard was getting extraordinary results using a therapeutic procedure called EMDR to help emergency rescue workers get past the emotional burn-out and horrors of the demoralizing body-recovery work.
Since first reported in these pages a year ago (Style Plus, April 14, 1994), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy has emerged as a procedure to be reckoned with in psychology. Gradually gaining greater public visibility, the "finger-waving" treatment, still considered controversial and scientifically unproven by its critics, has gained wider acceptance within the field. Among trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) specialists, EMDR increasingly is seen as a viable -- even preferred -- alternative to conventional therapies that have proven to be marginally effective.
About 15,000 therapists worldwide now are trained in the biopsychological technique, discovered seven years ago by California psychologist Francine Shapiro. "It is a complex method that seems to stimulate an internal, information processing system that we all have," explains Shapiro. "Once that is stimulated, it is the equivalent of a traumatic memory getting digested or metabolized, so the trauma is no longer stuck."
Almost a million people have been treated, according to EMDR researchers. Last April, the first textbook to detail basic EMDR principles, protocols and procedures was published and now is in its second printing. Also, further research appears to support the remarkable claims made for EMDR therapy. One such study, conducted by Colorado Springs clinical psychologist Sandra A. Wilson and scheduled for December publication in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that three 90-minute EMDR sessions produced significant statistical and clinical improvement in 80 percent of patients who had suffered a single traumatic event such as rape, suicide of a family member, or combat-related trauma. Her follow-up study, presented at the American Psychiatric Association convention in May, found that EMDR's benefits didn't diminish in the 15 months following the final session.
But it is the anecdotal cases that continue to paint the most startling of turnarounds for the odd-looking procedure that skeptics say is too good to be true.
"Had somebody told me what was going to happen when I went there, I would not have gone," says Crampton of her first of two sessions at the EMDR disaster outreach offices. "It sounds like hocus-pocus stuff."
Typical of what occurs during an EMDR session, the therapist talked with Crampton first to help her bring to mind a single image of the trauma. Crampton pictured little Baylee Almon, the 1-year-old girl who had lived in her building and died from the explosion. The therapist instructed Crampton to follow with her eyes a wand she moved back and forth rapidly (two fingers are usually waved) a dozen or more times. They then talked over the feelings and new images that welled up as Crampton closed her eyes. The procedure was repeated for almost two hours.
"When I left I remembered so much," says Crampton. "It was like watching it happen again." Two days later, she returned. She says that session restored every detail of the disaster to her memory, but somehow offset all the emotional pain and anxiety. It was as if she were watching a movie of herself during the blast and aftermath. "I called my boss on the mobile phone afterward," she says, "and I said I'm ba-a-a-ck!' "
The nightmares, crying and other symptoms are gone now, says Crampton. "I'm going through the pain of how horrific the actual disaster was. But it is not the lay-down-on-the-floor and not-function pain. I'm not dysfunctional anymore. I'm back to my normal self."
So are others. Christine Bowenkamp, the disaster health services supervisor for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Red Cross, who coordinated the Red Cross's mental health response in Oklahoma City, says feedback from rescue workers treated with EMDR was "extremely positive." Most, she says, found that a session or two defused their symptoms of emotional distress, sleeplessness, anxiety, irritability, helplessness and anger. "They went over there really at the end of their ropes," she says. "They were coming back smiling and feeling good about their ability to go on."
Judy L. Albert, a therapist for 19 years in Huntington Beach, Calif., set up the volunteer EMDR outreach operation in Oklahoma City after local therapists asked for help. Albert remembers a burly chaplain from a local hospice whose emergency job was to notify victims' relatives as bodies were identified. He was distressed, couldn't sleep and was having problems relating to people. "I did a 90-minute session with him," says Albert. "He wept through it, I wept through it, and he came out the other end feeling pretty amazed."
Though headlines about the bombing have disappeared, the psychological impact hasn't. "It's getting busier actually," says psychologist Sandra Wilson, who went to Oklahoma City to research how disaster victims fared after EMDR treatments. She found such pain that she stayed instead only to treat people. So far, she says, 120 people there have received 380 hours of free treatment at the EMDR outreach offices. She expects the therapists (who come from across the country for a week at a time) will provide 800 hours of free treatment before the offices are disbanded in September.
Even then, says Wilson, the job won't be over. "The children, we haven't even started to see yet," she says. "The children are quiet here. I think they are quiet because the parents are so upset, so we haven't really seen the impact it has had on them yet."
Before closing the outreach offices, Francine Shapiro is sending her most experienced EMDR trainers to Oklahoma City to instruct 300 licensed Oklahoma therapists in the procedure. Training local therapists in psychological hot spots worldwide has become part of her agenda to ease the pain and spread the promise of EMDR. Already, two psychologists she sent to Croatia have trained 38 therapists to assist the traumatized population there. Two Sarajevo therapists who risked their lives to attend the training have been added to EMDR lore.
"It sounds too good to be true. I know that. We all know that," says Yale psychiatrist Steven Lazrove, who spent a week in Oklahoma City treating psychological victims with EMDR. "But the stories just keep coming because it really does work."