For 13 years, Faison Covington was haunted by a secret fear. Panic could strike at any time.
The panic first hit on her first day away at college. She had driven up from Charlotte to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro with her parents. When they left, "I just fell apart.
"I got dizzy, very dizzy. My stomach was upset. My heart was racing. My thoughts were racing."
She didn't know it at the time, but Covington was experiencing a panic attack, sometimes called agoraphobia, or "an abnormal fear of being in open or public places."
More commonly, it is called "the housebound condition," says Covington, now 31, "because in its most severe form persons feel unable to leave the home for fear of having a panic attack or anxiety attack." Most of the people it afflicts "are not even aware that there is a name for it because it is so often misdiagnosed and then mistreated."
At times, "You feel like you're about to throw up or have diarrhea."
Rarely was there a moment, she says, when her mind was free of the fear. "It was devastating."
In those first few weeks and months at school, she kept up the appearance that everything was normal. But she was afraid she might die.
"I began going to the infirmary every two or three days. They'd check me out and say. "There's nothing wrong,' Finally, they referred me to a psychologist." The panic attacks continued.
"People thought I didn't go to class because I was a goof-off. I would be flip about professors -- just anything not to let people know.
"Walking was hard. It was difficult and scary to get to the dining hall. I had the obsessive thought that I was going to do something crazy."
In her sophomore year, she flunked out. She continued to seek help from psychologists, but to little avail. They put her on Valium and other tranquilizers.
She dated and went out to restaurants, "but with a whole lot of discomfort. I fidgeted and sweated," and sometimes went home early.
She tried a second school and got married. But, after a bout with the flu, her condition "got a lot worse." She dropped out of college again. "It was the closest thing to being housebound."
A new psychologist helped. "It was the first time I was told I was not crazy. I got functional. I could drive a car."
Covington took a job as an eligibility caseworker with the Charlotte Department of Social Services. Generally, her hours were flexible enough so that she could rush home if she felt anxious. But the day she had to spend in the office "was just awful."
She continued like this for several years. Then about two years ago, she was hit by a particularly bad attack. Her psychologist was out of town, so she called one of her Queens College social-work teachers, psychotherapist Lou Owensby, and told her, "I want to be committed."
"Oh, what you have is an anxiety attack," replied Owensby. "Why don't you put your feet up on the coffee table and relax. In a few minutes, it will be okay."
To Covington's surprise and delight, "It was." She began seeing Owensby regularly. "Four months later I was well."
Covington came to Washington to tell her story on a national radio talk show. With her was Ann Seagrave, 37, who had a similar story. Both believe that other victims suffering silently, as they did, can learn to seek proper help.
"I had always thought of myself as hardy, competent, good in a crisis," says Seagrave. But that changed when she and her husband moved in 1976 from Georgia ("I had never lived anywhere but the South") to Rockford, Ill.
Soon after the move, the homelife pressures multiplied. The couple early learned the job transfer would not be as advantageous as they had anticipated. They took into their small home her husbans's children by a former marriage. She became actively involved in the PTA. "I was trying to be a perfect mother."
One day she drove to meet a friend for lunch. "Halfway there, I felt strange." She stopped the car because "I could no longer see. I couldn't focus."
Though it was a cold day, "I perspired, I was afraid I was having a heart attack. I could not move my legs, feet, hands or arms."
She alerted a passing truck driver to call her husband. "By the time Earl got there, I was in hysteria." He drove her to a doctor, who found nothing but "an enormous amount of muscle tension."
That night she caught the flu, and blamed the attack on it. But several-days later, "zambo!" it happened again.
A physician put her on tranquilizers and told her to consult a psychologist.
By now, "I couldn't drie out of the driveway. I wouldn't go to the grocery store without someone with me.
"For the next six months, I struggled that way -- I quit volunteer work, dropped out of school programs. I really felt inadequate. I couldn't go to a restaurant and sit comfortably. I couldn't go to the picture show with the children without fearing I would have to flee."
Eventually, through a psychologist, "I began to understand my limitations -- you can't be all things to all people." When she read an article "with a clear description of my feelings of panic," she thought, "that's got to be what's wrong with me."
Fortunately, says Seagrave, the family moved to Charlotte, where she learned about Owensby. After five months with her, Seagrave had her last attack -- 1 1/2 years ago.
Covington, Seagrave and Owensby, a licensed clinical social worker, last year founded CHAANGE ("Center for Help for Agoraphobia/Anxiety Through New Growth Experiences").
Agoraphoiba, say Chaange's founders, "is a learned condition involving a total bodliy response to stress.
"Because it is a learned pattern," they believe, "it can be unlearned and replaced with more productive paterns."
Traditionally, they say, 'It has been treated with tranquilizers and with "in-depth psychotherapy to uncover childhood sources of the problem. Such treatment is usually lengthy, expensive and rarely fully effective."
Particularly vulnerable, they say, "are people who feel they can handle anything." When something stressful occurs in their lives, "He or she then feels the need not to let up, to continue and not relax. That's when you get this overload of anxiety, that first panic."
At the 15-week clinic (a program they also offer on tapes) they attempt to "de-myth agoraphobia," says Covington, and reverse the streee-fear-body reaction spiral by teaching victims how to relax progressively "from toes to head." Clients are told to do the exercise 10 times a day, "so it becomes automatic."
The treatment to this point is not unlike that offered by Dr. Robert L. DuPont's Phobia Program of Washington. But, says clinical director Jerilyn Ross, the Washington program therapist -- practicing "supportive exposure therapy" -- accompany patients to the situation that is most fearful, or lead someone who is housebound out the door.
This "contextual" therapy is also practiced at The Phobia Treatment Center in Alexandria. If your fear involves getting in a car, say center psychiatrist David L. Charney, "We'll get in the car with you."
In CHAANGE's group sessions, clients also learn coping skills, such as how to "give yourself permission to be human and imperfect" or how to "handle yourself in an assertive manner."
"The end result," says Seagrave, "is that the person understands and appreciates his body's interaction with the mind."