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Jerilyn Ross, 63

Jerilyn Ross, 63; psychotherapist, phobia expert

On radio, Jerilyn Ross became known as the
On radio, Jerilyn Ross became known as the "Phobia Lady." (The Washington Post File Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Jerilyn Ross, 63, a psychotherapist who overcame her phobia to help hundreds of other people peacefully meet their fears face to face, died Jan. 7 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She had neuroendocrine cancer in her abdomen.

Ms. Ross, who had a lifelong fear of heights, bucked the trend in 1970s psychotherapy by taking her patients off the couch and into the environment that caused them anxiety. She would accompany her clients on nerve-racking trips up and down the Rossyln Metro escalator or on claustrophobic elevator rides to the top of the Washington Monument.

Ms. Ross achieved wide notice in the 1980s as the host of a radio show on WRC, where she was known as the "Phobia Lady." She would give common-sense advice to listeners on how to confront and overcome their fears.

"The phobic person has a fear of fear," Ms. Ross told The Washington Post in 1980. "Phobic people are generally considered to be weak and helpless. That's not the case. Most of them are bright and competent people with one thing ruining their lives."

Many of her clients through the years had a fear of driving over the long and narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland. For many years, police there ran a chauffeur service, offering to drive cars over the bridge for phobics.

"The Bay Bridge has everything to fear, not just height," Ms. Ross told The Post in 1987. "Water, traffic, claustrophobia -- anyone who's prone to suffer from a phobia has a problem with the bridge. It's the feeling of being so close to death."

One of her clients was so afraid of driving over the bridge that to cross it, he would handcuff his hand to the steering wheel or have his wife lock him in the trunk while she drove.

As part of her therapy session with him, Ms. Ross accompanied the man on many drives over the 4.3-mile bridge. She explained to him that instead of concentrating on the trip, he should distract himself by reading highway signs or counting backward from 100 by threes.

"A good part of therapy is going over the bridge again and again with an escort," Ms. Ross told The Post in 1987. "It's like a roller coaster -- the first time it's dark terror, but then after time and time again, it gets boring."

Jerilyn Ross was born Dec. 20, 1946, in the Bronx, N.Y. She was a 1968 graduate of the State University of New York at Cortland, where she majored in education. In 1975, she received a master's degree in psychology from the New School for Social Research in New York.

On vacation in Salzburg, Austria, Ms. Ross, then 25, was dancing in a club with tall windows overlooking the city's castles and steeples. Suddenly, she said in an interview, she felt the urge to walk to the windows and jump.

The episode overwhelmed her. For the next five years, she did not climb above the 10th floor of any building, a serious problem for someone living in Manhattan. Her boyfriend of the time lived on the 22nd floor of a high-rise. She never visited him there.

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