Election day brings out the flags and the faithful, the candidates and crazies, but the phobics stay at home. Some fear public places and cannot leave their homes to vote. Others are afraid of driving, and others of standing in line. Some graphophobics cannot sign their names, while claustrophobics cannot tolerate the closed space of a voting booth.
So yesterday, a group of recovered phobics were working an election day hot line at the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rockville to help their fellow sufferers. According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 13 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders such as phobias and attacks of panic.
Jerilyn Ross, a psychologist at the center, who once suffered from a fear of heights, said many phobics "very much want to vote, and feel a responsibility to vote. But it's like going into the lion's cage."
In the early afternoon, Cherie Cannon, a 57-year-old Georgetown woman who was once too frightened to leave her home for a year and a half, took a call from a woman who was terrified of standing in line. "First of all," Cannon told the caller, "you are NOT going to pass out."
She told the woman she should decide how she was going to vote before leaving home, and think of everything else but voting on her way to the polls. If she panicked while standing in the line, Cannon said, she should ask someone to hold her place. "Say you are going to see if your dog is okay in the car," Cannon suggested.
"It's miserable," she said, "but you are going to succeed."
Soon afterward she took another call from a man who said he could make it to the polling place but was afraid he would panic when he closed the curtain on the voting booth. The man said he has suffered a fear of closed places since getting stuck in an elevator several years ago.
Cannon told him he should decide precisely how he was going to vote by the time he walked into the voting booth, and then relax by talking to the candidates: "This one's for you, Fritz, baby," and so forth.
The regular hot line gets between six and a dozen calls each week. But by about 3 p.m. yesterday, the election hot line had received about 15 calls. Many were probably too frightened to use the telephone, said call taker Liz Byron, a 53-year-old retired schoolteacher from Olney who is recovering from agoraphobia and who once was too frightened to use the telephone.
James O. Wood, a 58-year-old Upper Marlboro man who is recovering from a phobia about being trapped, was also there to answer phones. He said he never had any problems voting, but would always check for the exits before doing so.
He said he was eager to help phobics get out to vote, but admitted it was hard to do. "If they are phobic," he said, "in all likelihood they didn't register."