John Swift – Walking EMDR in 2001

Scrapes made by a glacier
Photographer: Emma Van Sant | Source: Unsplash

John Swift was a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor who died on Tuesday 10th November 2015. He’d have loved to see the “old wildebeests who turned up in their droves to his funeral.” He did though, leave behind great memories with those who knew him, (his family, RUC family, EMDR UK/Ireland community, and his friends). Anyone who knew John will have abiding memories of his friendliness, helpfulness, and compassionate heart. He also taught me about the capacity of EMDR to be therapist friendly (that is, we can try things within acceptable therapeutic boundaries as well as it is sympathetic to clients).

If you knew John, you’d be familiar with his joking nature, fun, and his complete lack of ego. I remember sitting with John, watching his eyes roll at me when we listened to presentations which seemed to be more about the presenter than what they were presenting. Even writing the last line, I’m smiling at the many times he’d share this joke with me. He’d whisper, “there’s another I am ego gone wild.” He used to joke “I am” and “I’ve done this, and I’ve done that”, and then say, “far too many “I’s” in that speech.” Sometimes, John’s whisper was like an explosion, because of his hearing loss, his whisper was a loud yell to anyone else. I also want to say he was the most intuitive, client-friendly therapist I’ve ever known. He had a massive compassionate heart.

Desk in blue light
Photographer: Brandon Holmes | Source: Unsplash

In the summer of 2001, Swifty received a telephone call from the psychiatrist at the Army Hospital in Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast. The Duke of Connaught Unit was a secure Military Hospital within the grounds of the public Musgrave Park NHS Hospital in Belfast. It was surrounded by walls, barbed wire, and had armed military guards. This was in the era before the paramilitary ceasefire. It was still a time when military/police personnel and civilians were being blown up or shot.

The psychiatrist asked John Swift to visit the unit and help with a patient (soldier) who’d arrived back from the Iraq war and was very traumatized by his experiences there. John agreed and asked me to go with him. On the journey over to the hospital, John was his usual casual self. I remember asking if he knew what he would do to help, he replied “whatever we need to do” while laughing away. The journey took about 15 minutes and we arrived at the gate of the hospital where the armed soldiers on sentry duty let us in. We were met by a nurse and she brought us up to the ward.

Couple, holding hands
Photographer: Nani Chavez | Source: Unsplash

Upon entering the ward, I remember seeing a male walking up and down the ward with a nurse walking by his side. We went into the staff room which was all glass, enabling the staff to watch the patients and ward from the room. The psychiatrist and some nursing staff were there also. John asked the psychiatrist, “what can we do for you?”

The psychiatrist pointed to the patient pacing in an agitated manner and said “it’s him, I can’t give him any more medication because I may already have given him too much. If he was an elephant, he’d be asleep on the floor but look at him, he won’t stop walking.” He then said the patient had been pacing like that for 26hrs now and that he didn’t know what to do to get him to stop and sleep.”

John said “no problem, we can help. Is it okay if Davy and I talk to your patient?” He agreed.

John then said to me to go with him and got up and began to leave the office. I got up and followed him. I said, “what are we going to do?” John laughed and said, “follow my lead.” At this point, looking at the man pacing the ward in an agitated state and listening to John laugh, I was beginning to wish I was somewhere else.

John told me to walk on the other shoulder of the man – he would be at one shoulder and I would be at the other shoulder. He asked the nurse if we could take over and she consented.

John introduced himself and myself saying, “Hi my name is John, this is Davy and we can help you. Is it okay if we walk with you while you walk the ward?” The man was looking at the floor and did not lift his head to look at us but grunted and we took this as a “yes.” John then said, “could you try something for me, because it’ll help you”; again, another grunt. John said, “could you notice how one foot touches the floor and then another foot touches the floor?". Can you notice this while you're walking? Davy and I will make sure you don’t walk into the wall at the end of the ward, we’ll tap you and say, time to turn.”

This we did while John said, “watch one foot touch the floor and then the other. He also said several times “you’re safe here, we’re here to help you. You’re in no danger here.”

The man walked the full length of the ward, turned, and then halfway down the ward. John told him he was safe here while watching his feet land on the floor. He then stopped and went rigid. He looked at John and me for the first time and said, “you need to get me to bed.” We said that’s okay and walked him to his bed which the nurse pointed out. He got into bed and went fast asleep.

We returned to the staff room to much noise and laughter. The psychiatrist said, “what did you do?” To which John replied, “nothing much." The sound was of laughter as the medical staff looked at this patient through the window amazed. John said that we had to go but if they needed any further help to give him a call.

On the way back in the car I asked John, “what DID we do?” He told me to think about it.

After several minutes thought I said, “you were doing EMDR using his feet striking the ground. His eyes followed his feet bilaterally. He laughed and said that he did of course. He then said something I’ve never forgot, “Davy you don’t always have the perfect circumstances to do EMDR or any therapy, so you need to adapt and use whatever you’ve got.”

I’ve used this in the later years with clients and it works really well.

John didn’t read this technique in any book because it was not in any book or script on EMDR or any other therapy in 2001. The only reason I know about it is I was with him. John would have rather run across the Atlantic Ocean or had all his teeth pulled out than write up a case study. To honour his memory I wanted to give him credit for his creative genius with that soldier all those years ago. If I’d told him this, he’d have thought I was mad or winding him up.

In memory of a dear friend and “wildebeest”; Without Fear or Favour.