A healer of the past

Tue, May 1, 2012, 01:00

The victim of an IRA attack has turned adversity to advantage to help others affected by severe trauma

ALL PSYCHOLOGISTS should have a capacity for empathy, but Michael Paterson – who specialises in helping people who have undergone trauma – has a particular insight into personal suffering.

On September 28th, 1981, the former RUC officer was on patrol with a colleague in West Belfast when an IRA rocket-propelled grenade ripped apart their heavily armoured Land Rover. The driver, Alex Beck, took the full force of the blast and was killed instantly. Paterson lost both his arms.

Paterson carries the physical evidence of that attack to this day: he uses a prosthetic right arm and hand; his left arm is amputated at the elbow, but residual nerve endings mean he is able to operate a hook device.

Yet there is no sense that Paterson is a victim; quite the opposite, in fact. In the aftermath of the attack, he returned to education – itself a brave decision, given that he had failed his 11-plus exam, and left school with only two O levels – and surprised himself by gaining a first-class honours degree, and then a PhD, later followed by a second doctorate. He qualified as a consultant clinical psychologist, and today works mainly with individuals who have suffered severe trauma in their lives.

Paterson’s kindly, engaging and empathetic approach, and his powerful story of transformation and hope, means he is also in demand as a motivational speaker. Clearly, this is a man who has found a way to turn adversity to advantage.

His particular expertise is in the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), an unusual sounding therapy designed for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD – who may have been in military combat, or been in serious road accidents, or lost a loved one in especially distressing circumstances – often suffer terrifying flashbacks, where they spontaneously relive their disturbing experiences.

EMDR, which was developed in the 1980s by Dr Francine Shapiro, a US psychologist, involves the bilateral stimulation of the brain using side-to-side eye movements. Results are favourable, and the reputation of the therapy is growing, but the truth is that no one knows exactly how or why it works.

One idea is that the movements unlock the brain’s information-processing system, which may have become “stuck” as a result of the original trauma, allowing it to digest the upsetting experience and move forward.

“EMDR helps the vividness of the distressing imagery become less emotionally disturbing. It helps turn negative self-belief into something more positive,” says Paterson.

“When we link into the traumatic memory, my role as a therapist is to keep the client with one foot in the present and one in the past, like dipping their toe in a pool while I hold on to their arm. It’s important to maintain that connection.”

Paterson says that one of the reasons that EMDR is very efficient is because it operates at a neuro-biological level, at the level of the body itself, and its effects percolate up, rather than cognitive therapies, which go in at a higher level, and then percolate down. Trauma, it seems, is a visceral experience, and it takes a visceral therapy to really deal with it. It connects with the most primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, responsible for emotional processing.

When something – a sight, perhaps, or a smell – triggers the unconscious memory of the trauma, it is this system that takes charge, over-ruling the higher cortical processes. “The past becomes the present,” explains Paterson. “Intellectually, we know it is the past, but emotionally it feels like now, and that’s why people behave irrationally in certain circumstances.”

The emotionally wounded brain appears to be geared towards self-healing, but Paterson says that, just like a physical wound, if there is dirt present, it needs to be cleaned out. “An emotionally charged psychological injury can fester and become stuck in the brain. It can lay down a belief system – for example, that we are helpless, or that we are defective – and that can become part of how we see the world.”

With PTSD, there’s a 50 per cent chance that, after six months, a patient will no longer be symptomatic; that the brain will have dealt with the trauma itself. But if a year has gone by and the person is still troubled by flashbacks or nightmares, then it’s likely that the trauma has become effectively locked in the brain, and needs treatment.

Paterson has worked extensively with police officers who were disturbed by their experiences during The Troubles, and he discovered that the triggers can be apparently trivial, although powerful in their effects. Smell, it seems, is particularly evocative. He recalls one former officer, suffering from PTSD after attending to the dead and dying at bomb scenes, who couldn’t stand the scent of marzipan, because it reminded her so strongly of the strange, almond-like smell of explosives.

But what about Paterson himself – how has he coped with the trauma that changed his life? “I noticed that I always had a knot in my stomach when I spoke about the event. And then there were the images: my severed right arm, the sight of my colleague slumped over – I knew he was dead.

“Seventeen years later, I received EMDR myself. The images faded, and I was left with a feeling in my stomach; I felt something moving up my body, and suddenly the tears started to flow. I remember the last time I cried like that – it was just after the blast, and I saw the extent of my injuries. A nurse comforted me, and I felt like a wee boy with his mother. It all became locked in after that.”

As well as the psychological release of the EMDR therapy, Paterson found that a trip to South Africa, organised by the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, allowed him to move on. “I spent several days in the African bush with a mixture of former security officers, former IRA men, former UVF. In that situation, human beings come first, political ideologies second.”

Paterson pays particular tribute to his wife, Hazel, in helping him turn his life around and supporting him in his new and unexpected career. “The attack happened 21 days after our wedding, and on Hazel’s 25th birthday. But she has always believed in me.”

As his friend, the humanitarian and former hostage Terry Waite remarks, Paterson is “one of the most remarkable living examples of how suffering need not destroy but can be used creatively”. In fact, the physical evidence of his injuries – his missing arms – often helps traumatised patients to connect with him as a therapist, putting them at their ease early on. He says that “if my visual appearance helps them on the road to recovery, I’m happy with that”.