Lawrence Weathers, a gray-bearded psychologist with a bemused glint in his eye, rocks back his chair in the elegant parlor office of his South Hill mansion.
George Winston’s piano sweeps through the sound system. A fire crackles in the grate.
And beyond Weathers’ head, just in sight in the next room, looms a gleaming cream-colored pod.
There are five of them in fact, and they represent one of the newest and most mysterious forms of psychotherapy available in Spokane. Weathers has developed a therapeutic approach he calls Computer Aided Emotional Restructuring, in which clients are placed in futuristic, 7-foot fiberglass pods, as surreal as an image from the movie “Cocoon.” There, they track flashing red lights with their eyes, listen to atonal New Age music, and work through troubling emotions.
Weathers claims this new form of therapy successfully treats everything from traditional anxiety and depression, to marriage problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, often in a minimal number of $95 sessions.
“This is turbo-drive psychotherapy,” says Weathers. “Freud would love this.”
In the late ‘80s, Weathers and his wife Mary, also a Spokane psychologist, discovered an odd, new form of psychotherapy in California, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Along with the usual talk and tears of traditional psychotherapy, the therapist periodically would sweep his or her fingers back and forth in front of the client’s eyes 20 or 30 times.
The therapy was touted as a powerful technique for releasing crippling emotions and dissolving pain to allow relaxation and hope to emerge.
“It was wonderful,” Weathers says. “It did all the things it said it did.”
The frustration of psychotherapy seemed to melt away as his clients went home smiling. There was only one hitch. After a full day of sweeping his finger back and forth in front of his clients’ eyes, Weathers would go home with a sore shoulder at night.
Soon he had a realization: “There’s nothing special about my finger. It’s like a multi-purpose tool at the end of my arm, like a crescent wrench.”
Weathers, who has an engineering background, went to work designing substitutes for his finger.
He rigged flashing lights mounted in white plastic tubing and suspended above a recliner. He built a coffin-like plywood box with a waterbed and flashing lights inside.
“It was like Igor’s den,” he says. “It worked very well but it was ugly and strange-looking.”
Finally, with the help of the Gonzaga University electrical engineering department and a local boat builder, he produced his present fiberglass pods, each with a custom-made computer. It took $200,000 of Weathers’ money, and countless 80-hour weeks, but he built them. Today Weathers says he holds two U.S. patents and a number of international patents for the design.
“If the world likes them,” he says, “I would like to put them all over the world.”
Weathers published his own book, “ADHD: A Path to Success,” this month, which describes his new pod-bound therapy, and its use for troubled kids.
Weathers casts a dubious eye, both at the ADHD label, and at the use of the drug ritalin for hyperactive kids.
He was once a similar kid himself. His parents woke up arguing and went to bed arguing each night. He left for school each day fretting over whether they’d split up before he got home. The fear penetrated his brain, distracting him so completely that he failed at school.
Neither a scholar nor an athlete, Weathers delved into car engines with his auto mechanic father. It wasn’t until he discovered books on hot rod design in high school that he finally forced himself to learn to read.
Today, Weathers’ pods look like an adolescent boy’s dream, a wild invention where a kid could place a battling parent, simultaneously trigger and relax the adult’s most troubling emotions and ultimately expel a newer, better version of that person.
He explains his theories about how the pods work. The red lights which flash in one roundtrip per second, forcing the person to rotate his eyes back and forth, seem to mimic the action of REM sleep, the period that produces dreams.
The movement disarms the person’s psychological defense system, he says. When the person concentrates on an upsetting current image, then tracks it “like an emotional bloodhound” back to the past, memories and emotions begin to flicker through his or her brain.
Clients go through boxes of Kleenex in the pods. Weathers listens outside through a set of headphones, and interrupts with a few soothing suggestions when he hears crying or wriggling from inside the pod. Eventually the emotions subside, relaxation takes over, and formerly vivid memories slip silently by, as muted as a black and white film.
Weathers, himself, has spent hundreds of hours inside the pods. “I was still struggling up until the early ‘90s,” he says. Today, the pod time seems to clean the blackboard of Weathers’ brain, making him smarter, more articulate and more likely to puzzle out the answer to his next engineering problem, he says.
A client he writes about in his book, a boy he dubbed “Josh” for confidentiality reasons, was successfully treated three years ago, according to Weathers and the boy’s mother.
Josh squirmed in his seat at school and agonized over his fourth grade homework for four or five hours each evening. But, according to his mother, Weathers’ treatments precipitated a “100 percent turnaround.” The evening homework sessions shrunk to 45 minutes.
Weathers treated the whole family over the course of two years, and today, Josh is a calm, clear-thinking and responsible 16-year-old who earns Bs and Cs.
“We’re not having any of those typical teenage problems with him,” his mother says.
Priscilla DeWolf, a Spokane homemaker, belongs to a book group with Weathers. DeWolf has suffered from asthma ever since she was a child.
Weathers recommended his machine. “I thought he was a total kook,” she says. “He was trying to encourage me to come and try it. I was trying to politely avoid doing this.”
But eventually DeWolf broke down and gave it a try. Altogether, she underwent five one-hour sessions approximately four years ago. Her asthma left. She hasn’t wheezed since.
“It’s unbelievable,” she says. “I haven’t been able to persuade anyone to try it because it’s so bizarre.”
Mental health experts are also skeptical.
Dr. Michael Manz, head of the child psychiatric unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center, says, “Nobody but Larry takes it seriously.
“I’m not saying this is totally a crock, but it’s not grounded to any degree in any type of scientific circles,” Manz says.
He says ADHD is over-diagnosed and over-treated, but it clearly exists in 4 to 5 percent of school-age children. For those accurately diagnosed, ritalin is 85 percent effective, he says.
When Weathers’ pods work, Manz says, the result can be chalked up to the placebo effect, as when a sugar pill given in a scientific study appears to make people heal. Manz also disputes claims that EMDR, the therapy upon which Weathers based his work, has been scientifically validated.
“The studies I’ve read do not show it can be cross-verified,” he says. That means one clinician’s positive results with the technique cannot be duplicated by another similarly trained therapist.
Francine Shapiro, the California founder of EMDR, defends her technique, but distances it from Weathers’ new approach.
“I certainly wouldn’t want EMDR associated with placing people in a pod,” she says.
She worries that leaving clients in a pod could be dangerous. They could be overcome by traumatic memories and emotions and need a therapist’s constant presence and nurturing.
“This is the type of thing where people can really get hurt,” she says.
But Weathers disputes Shapiro’s concerns about his clients.
“They’re not isolated,” he says. “I’m right there. I’m on the headphones. I’m talking to them. I leave the door open if they’re sensitive to that.”
After experience with 5,000 clients, he says, he’s never had one come “unglued.”
Weathers discounts Shapiro’s criticism as “territoriality.” “She is pooh-poohing the next generation of technology just like she was pooh-poohed,” he says.
He calls Manz’ placebo theory “nonsense.”
“They’re out of line to comment on my therapy because they don’t have any idea what it’s all about,” Weathers says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BOOK READING Lawrence Weathers will give a reading from his book, “ADHD: A Path to Success,” at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at Auntie’s Bookstore. The $16.95 book is available at Auntie’s, Hastings and Weathers’ South Hill office. Excerpts are available on his Web page at www.caer.com. Weathers will lead a workshop for parents at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 12. The cost is $20. Register by calling 838-8473.<