"All of a sudden I get the feeling that I can't breathe, that I'm having a coronary, though there's no pain . . . I'm afraid I'll faint or collapse and I'm shaking like a leaf . . . I have two minds at that time. One mind is awareness of these terrible feelings and the other mind is trying to stay in the reality of the room with respect to other people. The fear is, I'm going to plunge into the depths of total black madness . . ." -- A patient describing a panic attack.
To the 300 or so phobia and anxiety specialists, many of them ex-phobics themselves, attending the fifth annual conference of the Phobia Society of America here last weekend, it came as no surprise that their specialty was "number one."
The newly released demographic study of mental problems in this country suggests that 13.1 million Americans have an anxiety or panic-related disorder, making it more of a problem than depression and substance abuse.
NBC's "Today" show weatherman Willard Scott is one of them. He's afraid to go on camera. Honest.
It's all right when he's dressed as Bozo or Carmen Miranda, "making a fool of myself in front of 7 million people," he told conferees. "I'm not really myself."
Scott, the affable, funny, affectionate, prototype of the southern gladhand had his first panic attack -- "I thought I was going to die" -- on a bridge in Charleston, S.C.
There he was, Willard Scott, the gephyrophobe (a man afraid of bridges). "Five years it took me to conquer it, and to this day when I cross a bridge . . ." He shuddered.
His do-it-yourself "macho" cure? "I got a six-pack of Budweiser and two aspirins and I drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge one night 20 times," Scott said.
His current two-year-old fear of being on camera hasn't been so easily conquered, and now he concedes the need for professional help.
"There used to be a one-minute commercial between the news and the weather," he confided at a conference luncheon, "so I would run around the set howling like a karate expert doing a chop. It helped. Then they canceled the commercial . . . I couldn't howl while John Palmer was doing the news . . . If I did, they'd either shoot me or watch 'Good Morning America.' "
He tried jabbing himself with a sharp object to take his mind off his anxiety. "That just got me a sore rump."
Now he just occasionally gives a little kiss to a couple of Valium he carries in his fist. He has eliminated coffee (and cigarettes) when he gets up at 4 a.m., sharing with many phobics a keen sensitivity to caffeine.
Dr. Robert L. DuPont Jr., outgoing president of the Phobia Society of America, is Scott's therapist and has enlisted his aid in preparing a series of public service announcements. "We are not alone," is Scott's message.
Caroline DuPont is a 16-year-old junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Sharon Zane-Macosko is a 38-year-old writer and oral historian, and mother of a 3-year-old son.
These women have two things in common: First, their psychiatrist fathers, Dr. Robert DuPont and Dr. Manuel D. Zane, are preeminent specialists in the treatment of phobias.
Second, they both have had their own personal phobic experiences.
Caroline DuPont was claustrophobic from about age 2. At 12, her gift to her father on his 40th birthday was a two-floor elevator ride. Zane-Macosko is phobic about airplanes.
In his newest book, "Your Phobia," Manuel Zane theorizes that a glitch in the developing imaginations of children may explain some adult phobias.
Caroline DuPont's experience tends to confirm Zane's theory that the most imaginative children may become the most vulnerable adults. "Separating reality from the imaginary," said DuPont, "is still hard for me." She still refuses to go to scary movies.
Zane believes fears must be confronted. "Just allow yourself to get the fear" so it can be worked through, he said, "or it can get out of control."
Zane-Macosko has been afraid of flying since she was 14. Even the day before the workshop, she went with her husband and son to the Air and Space Museum -- and had a panic attack.
"Something I got from my father really helped: If you think about probability of a plane crash, for example and not possibility and keep the ideas distinct, it really helps. Some."
For more information: Phobia Society of America, 6181 Executive Blvd. Rockville, Md. 20852.
Coming Oct. 31: The drug versus no-drug controversy in phobia treatment.