LAKE IN THE HILLS – The gruff man with the worn face squeezes his puffed eyes closed.
Ted Biever’s mind tries to focus on the anxiety, the deep-seated feeling brought on by a story he has never stopped telling himself. Of war. Of death. All packed in that same dang dream.
That story, the therapist will repeatedly tell him and the others on this Thursday night in an open, upper room of the Lake in the Hills American Legion, is not the boss. The story is a story. Biever is the boss. If he – if all these men – focus on the feeling instead, first welcoming the anxiety or anger or sadness before allowing it to dissipate, the stories can’t maintain their choking grip.
“You are not your thoughts and feelings,” said David Welch, the therapist who runs the group. “You simply have them.”
It can sound, at first, like metaphysical nonsense. But in this upstart group, leaders are presenting a therapy that strays – successfully, they say – from the techniques traditionally applied to treat war-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rather than continuously drudging up old memories of war in an effort to learn to think differently about them – a process called cognitive processing therapy – the very small number of vets who have so far opted for the alternative therapy don’t share stories at all. In large part, they don’t know what the others in the circle have seen or what nightmares plague them.
Instead, vets learn to mentally and physically “just let it go,” that phrase they have heard for years without actual direction as to how, Welch said.
The group sprang up from a couple McHenry County veterans who recognized a need for more local efforts.
Having spent decades in therapy himself since his Vietnam War deployment as a Marine in the late 1960s, Biever had grown skeptical of traditional therapy methods. But his standing as a veteran in the community meant he would sometimes get asked by the mothers of younger veterans about how to combat PTSD.
He directed one young guy to Welch and heard rave reviews. Having to relive those painful war moments is a factor that can keep veterans from seeking therapy. Welch’s technique felt safer.
And, that first guy told Biever, it worked. So he sent another young veteran, and after another positive response, Biever decided to see what Welch’s therapy could do for himself. He, too, felt the results.
Biever sought out Tammy Stroud, a well-connected veteran, to help formally create a veteran therapy group around Welch.
“I was telling Tammy there are so many young kids out there that need this help,” Biever said. “If they can get ahold of them now, they aren’t going to be screwed up the rest of their lives.”
After initial setbacks, the group received funding to start the program through the Mental Health Board and from a portion of a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant that has been designated to transform the way local agencies provide for McHenry County veterans, Stroud said.
The program has no formal tie to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but Stroud said she thinks its the kind of community-based effort the VA wants to see.
“They recognize they can’t treat all the veterans that are going to be returning,” she said.
Of course, any effort means little if it doesn’t work or endure. Biever said he’s proof Welch’s techniques – which aren’t his originally, but have been borrowed and molded to fit veterans – are effective. Thursday night, he tells Welch his anxiety is through the roof – 10 out of 10 – before beginning a technique called “releasing.” Over the course of about five minutes, Welch directs Biever, eyes closed, to focus on the physical sensation of anxiety – not the story causing it. Welch has Biever repeat phrases.
“Anxiety,” they both said, one after the other. “You can stay or you can go.
“I give you permission to leave.”
The display makes a couple veterans, in a room of about a dozen, visibly uncomfortable. One says it reminds him of a yoga class. Minutes later, after receiving the treatment, he admits its calming effect while remaining skeptical that it can truly rid him of the feelings that war memories – the things he “wasn’t supposed to see” – enliven.
But several veterans preach the drastic impact the new therapy has had on their lives.
Pat Fimon, who served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1971, admits he thought he was too old to get any real relief from years of suffering through PTSD. He always had the same nightmare: he and his brothers are getting overrun. Everybody dies. Fimon runs out of ammo.
The other night, in the middle of all the action, he simply told himself it was a dream and awoke – relieved.
“I don’t have to dream this anymore,” Fimon said. He still does occassionally, he said, but less frequently.
Biever, too, has felt relief from years of nightmares. They still come but not as often.
When Welch finishes with Biever’s treatment Thursday, he asks again where his anxiety rests.
“Two, or three,” Biever rumbled.
The group has big plans for where this program might go, but additional funding will be needed to take things where Stroud and Welch envision. To secure it, the group will likely have to be able to prove its effectiveness.
If it comes, that money could go to add several meeting groups a week or provide one-on-one counseling outside of weekly sessions, which Welch says can greatly improve the effectiveness of the release technique – and in a shorter period of time than some might think.
“[Therapy] should be brief, to the point,” Stroud said. “You get better and you move on. Like anything else, you need a tune up, you go back in.”