Music is calming for Derrick Heffner. Hip hop beats with just the right ebb and flow help him forget about the many times he has he has faced violence and death.
Heffner joined the U.S. Army in 1997. He was deployed and re-deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a weapons specialist. He provided backup support for Special Forces soldiers and saw combat “more than a few times.”
Heffner, 35, was haunted by what he had seen and done. Shortly after leaving the Army in 2004, Heffner was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress.
“Literally, inside I'm like my own prisoner, if that makes any sense, because I feel like I have no control,” he said. “And I can't really do what I want and need to do."
He can't because of the battle scars on his brain. Scans of his brain show the trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the scans, red areas show how activated the brain becomes. But after successful therapy, a second brain scan indicates how calmed a patient's brain becomes.
Heffner wanted to get better and liked what he was hearing about a powerful tool to treat PTSD called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. EMDR addresses psychological issues without the use of talk therapy or medicine but instead depends on patients following the movements of a therapist while discussing past traumatic incidents.
The technique was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1989 after she discovered the basic tenets while taking a walk. Shapiro, in a Psych Central interview, said, “I noticed that disturbing thoughts I had been having had disappeared and when I brought them back they didn’t have the same ‘charge.’ I was puzzled since I hadn’t done anything deliberately to deal with them.
“So I started paying careful attention and noticed that when that kind of thought came up, my eyes started moving rapidly in a certain way and the thoughts shifted out of consciousness. When I brought them back they were less bothersome.”
Shapiro worked on the technique and published her findings in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 1989.
In Fayetteville, Heffner heard about the concept and found a local therapist, Kim Gutjahr, who understood it. He also asked his wife, Heather, to join him.
Gutjahr does pro bono work with veterans in Fayetteville.
In his first session with her, Huffner followed Gutjahr’s moving fingers while he focused on a traumatic incident from the war.
“Let me know when you got it in your head,” she asked him.
“Oh. I have it," he said.
It’s a painful process for Heffner as Gutjahr keeps him focused on his feelings.
“That's where I need you to go,” she said.
One memory stirred up another and then another.
“I want you to pick an incident in Fallujah," she said, referring to a town less than an hour from Baghdad that was the site of intense fighting in Iraq.
She listened to his memories as Heffner continued to follow her moving fingers for seconds at a time. The movement of the eyes in the therapy, combined with memories of traumatic experiences, allows for the brain to repair after a traumatic memory.
By the end of a 90-minute session, Gutjahr had guided him to a better self-image.
Heffner said, “The thought, ‘I hate being me but I wouldn't want to be anything else’ popped in.”
As Heffner heard Gutjhar's positive words, the EMDR stimulated both hemispheres of the brain and helped his nervous system reorganize his memories.
“It's bilateral stimulation,” she said. ”Right left, right left - and that is what causes the brain to process."
The results of EMDR, which is an eight-phase approach, can be impressive. The National Center for PTSD cites cases where even a single treatment has been enough to resolve complicated deep-seated trauma.
But Veterans Affairs centers across the country, including the one in Durham, have been slow to add the concept.
Heffner said he was told by staff at the Durham VA, “We just don’t do that here.”
Some offer it, and some don’t. Regional centers aren't completely sold on it, so it's not widely available.
Dr. Harold Kudler, the coordinator of VA mental health, said, “There simply weren't enough studies done with service members and veterans to show that EMDR was equally effective in treating problems that come up in war."
Gutjahr, a veteran herself, decided not to look to argue the status of studies and decided to act.
“In my opinion - just this one therapist in Fayetteville - I really do believe that whatever works ought to be available," she said.
After WNCN continued to ask whether EMDR was practiced at the Durham VA, regional mental health administrators said they found a practitioner at the hospital and offered services to Heffner.
At that point, it was too late because he was deep into his EMDR counseling with Gutjahr.
But at least veterans in this area can now ask at the Durham VA and likely get EMDR therapy if they wish.
Editor's note: WNCN anchor Pam Saulsby and Derrick Heffner have both worked as volunteers at the Durham VA, and Heffner has done some contract work for the VA helping homeless veterans.