Remnants of a Phobia
For a panic disorder to disappear entirely, only two things need to be learned: that it is possible to escape from all those places where phobics typically feel trapped, including stuck elevators, and that the panic attack, no matter how extreme, does not cause loss of control. The affected individual will not suddenly do something that is embarrassing or dangerous. However, there are more general fears that underlie this condition and that do not necessarily disappear along with the panic attacks themselves. Phobics believe that the outside world is inherently dangerous. Consequently, they feel safer at home and often feel less and less safe the farther they are away from home. They tend to distrust strangers. These fears, and others, can outlast the fear of the panic attacks.
My granddaughter, who has no history of being phobic, was packing last night to go to Amsterdam, where she will spend a semester abroad. She was, naturally, nervous about being far away from home in a place where not everyone speaks English. I was reminded of a time when I was in similar circumstances; and I did have a history of having had a panic disorder.
This was the situation: I had calculated to the last decimal place the chances of my getting drafted into the Army. My first child had just been born, and, naturally, I wanted to stay home and help take care of her and also continue with my psychiatric training. I had determined that I would not be drafted. I was drafted, nevertheless. (A senior officer told me subsequently that I had figured correctly. They had made a mistake and drafted more psychiatrists than they really needed. This was not, as the lawyers say, a “reversible error.”)
I was sent to San Antonio for basic training, during which time I learned how to march in very hot weather and to cross a desert at night using only a defective compass—skills that were evidently considered critical to my future role as an army psychiatrist. At the end of two weeks of training (during which another psychiatrist became disabled by injuring himself climbing out of a trench) I was shipped by an Air Force transport to Nuremberg, Germany, where I and my family would serve for the next two years (See my book, “Maneuvers.”)
I distinctly remember the flight. I was very nervous. I spoke no German. I tried to use the time to learn some basic phrases, but kept repeating the same words over and over again, hour after hour. I could remember “Grus Gott,” which means “Hello,” I think, but nothing else. I kept imagining that I would arrive at Nuremberg, and the Army would have forgotten to meet me. I would be there all alone unable to talk to anyone. That was the scene I imagined. I could not think about what would happen to me afterwards. What actually did happen when I stepped off the train at Nuremberg was precisely that. The Army was busy doing other things. I was there in a strange town, in Germany, alone.
I mention this anecdote because phobics always tend to “What if?” thinking, and every once in a while the “What if?” comes true. I encourage them, then, to think about what comes after the dreaded situation they imagine, because there is always something that comes afterwards. In my case, I stood on the steps of the Nuremberg train station and looked around anxiously for someone in uniform. There were a few German policemen and a sailor from somewhere, but no American servicemen. So…I picked up my bags and walked down the stairs to a taxi stand. Hesitantly, I told the driver, “Grus Gott…uh, you know, 20th Station Hospital?” He replied, “Sure, get in.”
Whenever the phobic person imagines some terrible situation, it rarely turns out to be so terrible or unmanageable. © Fredric Neuman