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‘I always felt like an outsider. . . . And I could never cry. I felt dead inside.’ : Johanna Gallers, ‘Flooding’ therapist : ‘Flooding’ Therapy Pulls Rape Victims, Vets From Depths of Stress Disorder

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J. R. Gill accidentally blew up his two best friends with a howitzer artillery gun.

On a June day in 1970, a field scout radioed map coordinates to Tay Ninh base camp near the Cambodian border and Gill, an assistant gunner in the U. S. Army, pointed the massive, 105-millimeter cannon. Evidently, he says now, the coordinates were in error. Ten kilometers from the gun, the errant shell struck an American armored personnel carrier and his friends were dead.

By his own estimate, Gill did not spend a single day sober from that day on. He drank his way through two wives and several jobs. He fired the howitzer a thousand times over in nightmares. On another June day, 14 years later and half a world away, he checked into the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital.

At that time, in the summer of 1984, Johanna Gallers was one of a number of psychologists at the hospital working with “flooding,” a little-known behavioral technique that had become popular in the treatment of Vietnam veterans. Flooding had earned a reputation for being especially effective with soldiers troubled by traumatic experiences on the battlefield.

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Forced to Relive the Day

For an entire summer, sometimes seven days a week, Gallers forced Gill to relive that June day when he fired the howitzer, remembering every detail--the color of the sky, the clothes he wore, what he ate for breakfast, how he felt when he heard his friends had died.

Gill says that that summer with Gallers was one of the most frustrating and frightening of his life. He also says it saved him. The 36-year-old veteran, who now drills water and gas wells in Bakersfield, says he can handle the nightmares. He is sober.

“If it wasn’t for Johanna, I don’t think I’d be alive today,” Gill says.

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Gallers has been similarly inspired by flooding. She has begun using the technique on women who have been raped. After 1 1/2 years of flooding, rape victims on an experimental basis at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, she has opened the Valley Trauma Center, a free counseling service in Van Nuys funded by the Jewish Family Service.

Correlating Memories and Trauma

“When we used flooding with Vietnam veterans to help them through particular battlefield traumas, I always wondered if it would work with people who had been raped,” Gallers, 43, said. “After working with veterans for a while, what people knew was that there was a direct correlation between their combat memories and problems with trauma.

“People don’t make that connection with rape and incest victims. What was true with Vietnam veterans, I have seen to be true with rape victims.”

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The Valley Trauma Center offers conventional counseling to anyone who has suffered a psychological trauma, be it a rape, an automobile accident or a disaster.

Suffering From After-Effects

The rape victims Gallers selects for flooding are those who suffer from the after-effects of a trauma that occurred six months to 20 years in the past. The long-lasting effects--called post-traumatic stress disorder--range from nightmares to alcohol and drug abuse to depression or an inability to hold down a job.

A woman being flooded visits Gallers at least twice a week. The woman sits in a small, corner office facing blank, white walls. Gallers sits at the back of the room, out of sight, and listens to tales of horror.

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“They are reliving the trauma, but this time it’s with somebody who cares, somebody who can help,” Gallers said. “As terrible as it was, they can relive it to work through the trauma. It is a relief.”

The woman remembers being 4 years old, maybe 5. It was summertime in Far Rockaway, N. Y. A gang of boys from the block led her into a neighbor’s cellar, pulled off her clothes, and raped her.

“I have flashes of what happened,” the woman recalled. “I blacked in and out of the experience.”

As she grew older, the woman felt uncomfortable in intimate relationships. She drank too much. Traditional counseling did not seem to help. She moved restlessly from job to job--first working as a lab technician, then as a school teacher, then going back to graduate school.

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“I always felt like an outsider,” she said. “I went from one career to another, but nothing satisfied me. And I could never cry. I felt dead inside.”

The woman is Johanna Gallers.

Gallers said she never recognized her own symptoms as those of post-traumatic stress disorder until she began working with veterans. After discovering the similarity between her trauma and those of the veterans she treated, Gallers set out to find a psychologist who would flood her rape.

She was unable to find anyone using the technique on anyone besides veterans. Gallers enlisted a Los Angeles psychologist and gave him strict instructions on how to flood her.

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“After two months I felt there was a real difference in the quality of my relationships and my concentration at work,” she said.

The experience left Gallers intensely dedicated to her work and determined to use flooding to help other rape victims.

Twenty-five years ago, T. G. Stampfl of the University of Wisconsin published the results of his research into a new, fear-inducing treatment for people who were unreasonably afraid of snakes. Subjects were asked to repeatedly visualize snakes, then look at photographs of snakes and, finally, handle snakes.

Other psychologists subsequently conducted similar research and developed similar techniques. But it took the Vietnam War--with its large numbers of trauma victims who needed help--to popularize the treatment.

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Half desensitization and half a form of cognitive therapy, flooding reaches beyond traditional therapy by forcing the patient to concentrate on the uncomfortable memories of the trauma itself. In traditional therapy, the patient talks freely and controls the topic of discussion. During years of such therapy, Gallers said she, like most patients, avoided discussing her rape.

Most of the women Gallers floods did not seek counseling at the time of the trauma. Many have never told anyone they were raped. For these women, talking about the rape alone can be an unburdening experience, Gallers said.

Others need to discuss the rape in a supportive atmosphere.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had women come in who, when they told their families they were raped, the first thing the father said was, ‘How many times did I tell you not to wear that dress.’ Or, ‘What were you doing out on the street?’ ” Gallers said. “I tell them, ‘That rapist had no right to do that to you. You did nothing wrong.’

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“They need to hear that.”

Flooding is not a cure-all, Gallers said. It is a short-term treatment; most women are flooded five to 10 times over two months. Often Gallers advises women she sees to seek traditional, follow-up counseling.

Foremost among the dangers is the fact that flooding can be highly upsetting, if only for a short time. That can be harmful if the treatment is used with people suffering from or bordering on mental illness. Besides, flooding can dredge up past, unrelated psychological conflicts, creating more issues that the therapist must be careful to deal with, the psychologist said.

“While flooding has merits, there are caveats,” said Dr. Calvin Frederick, chief of psychology at the V. A. Hospital and one of the nation’s most respected psycho-trauma specialists. It is in the same category with electro-current therapy. I would hope that it would be done with the greatest of caution,” Frederick said. “We have had cases here in the hospital where patients were improperly selected and have become extremely upset.”

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Gallers fully examines patients’ mental and physical backgrounds before admitting them to flooding, she said. The women are also required to bring in a relative or friend who is informed about the therapy and told that they might be called upon to provide emotional support during the two or so months of therapy.

Holly fidgets in Gallers’ office, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking nervously and fast, then pausing suddenly to look to Gallers for help. She is still undergoing flooding and finds it difficult to tell her story to a stranger. She asks again to be sure that her real name is not printed in the newspaper. She says she would like to be called Holly.

“I had the screen door locked,” the 36-year-old begins. “It was about 10 p.m., during the heat wave of September, ’74. This stranger came to the door. A big guy. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

“He put his hand on the lock to the screen door and broke it. He had a knife. I screamed and nobody heard me.”

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Holly began abusing alcohol, marijuana and Valium. There were recurring nightmares: A man would break into her house and she would try to scream, but no sound would come out.

The flooding has been difficult, Holly said, but she is feeling better. She is no longer abusing alcohol or drugs.

“It’s a relief to finally get it out,” she said. “For the first time, I feel like I can stand on my own two feet. I don’t have to be a victim anymore.”


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