The convention's logistical planner is afraid of highways, so she chose a hotel close to Washington. The codirector is afraid of heights, so naturally the 16th-floor banquet room was ruled out. The treasurer panics at the sight of long lines at the bank, so tickets were handed through the mail one month in advance.
Against all odds -- highways, heights, bridges, elevators, airplanes, insects and public washrooms -- the Second Annual Phobia Conference took place over the weekend at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington.
"We tried to throw one last year," joked one convention-goer, "but everybody was afraid to show up."
About one million Americans suffer from some form of phobia, said Dr. Robert L. DuPont, director of the Bethesda-based Phobia Program of Washington and cochairman of the conference, which drew more than 200 mental health workers and phobics from across the nation.
"And these are people who don't know what to do about," said DuPont. When confronted with the situation, the phobic person will experience a "panic attack," a sudden rash of fear that is disorienting and causes the person to avoid that situation afterward. The most common phobia, convention goers said, is fear of flying, followed closely by fear of driving, fear of heights, fear of elevators, shopping malls, restaurants and insects. Agoraphobia, described as "fear of the market place," is one of the most disabling phobias, causing the sufferer to become housebound.
"It's not really irrational, it's unrealistic," said Dr. Manuel Zane, a 67-year-old psychiatrist from White Plains, N.Y. Zane's nine-year-old phobia clinic is generally recognized as the model for similar programs that are, in the words of one psychiatrist, "springing up like weeds" -- across the country.
"In the world we live in today, it's easy to be phobic," Zane said.
Therapists accompany the fearful subject to the situation they most dread -- be it highways, tall buildings, airplanes, even public washrooms -- to support the patient until they eventually overcome the phobia.
The conference -- part revival meeting, part group therapy -- indicated that the unorthodox self-help treatment is working.
"It was like a vice grip," said the luncheon speaker, describing the overwhelming panic that caused him to quit his job as a well-known Washington area radio personality. "I live in mortal fear of choking up on the air."
"Mr. X," as he asked to be called, developed a public speaking phobia several years ago. He thought it was a physiological, but a speech therapist told him his voice was fine. "I thought I was going crazy. The terror became so acute, my hands and feet would lose circulation. I was holding on to the microphone so tight my knuckles were white."
After enrolling in DuPont's clinic, he said, he learned how to deal with his fear and slowly began speaking to small groups, then larger groups. "Now, he told the luncheon crowd, "I'm a public speaking junkie." He told the group he had just won a job as an assistant communications professor at a midwestern university -- teaching public speaking.
The crowd gave Mr. X a standing ovation. One woman embraced him, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The convention-goers traded other tales of horror; a man so frightened of leaving his house he used to walk down the front path backward to around to back inside ohis house.
"Then there was the man who couldn't cross bridges," said Nancy Flaxman, a phobia therapist from Menlo Park, Calif. "He lived in the San Francisco Bay area. It ruined his life."
One doctor told a patient who was so afraid of public restrooms he left his job and drove 25 minutes home everytime he had use the bathrooms.
Seminar topics at the two-day conference included: "Family Members Speak Out: Living With a Phobic Person," "Former Phobics as Therapists," "Rethinking School Phobias" and "Freedom From Fear of Flying."
"You know, Gene Shalit won't fly," said Jerilyn Ross, DuPont's assistant and a self-described "traveling shrink."
Other notable phobics include Emily Dickenson, Howard Hughes, songwriter Dory Previn and actor Peter Sellers. "He's phobic about the color purple," said one conference attendee over the breast of chicken lunch. "And Woody Allen must be phobic," said another. "He never goes any where."