By Judy Shaw
How long did it take for you to recover from your phobia?
How long until you weren’t anxious anymore?
How did you do it?
These are some of the most frequently asked questions of our counselors at the Phobia Center. There is no one answer. Since it seems to be a major concern, we thought it would be helpful to hear from some of our counselors in their own words.
More than 20 years ago, Doris Johnson was totally housebound in Connecticut. Dr. Zane had referred a counselor to come to her home and work with her.
“I worked with Melanie every week—learning Dr. Zane’s method of how to deal with my phobias. I practiced faithfully every day. I would go for one item at a small store over and over and then on to a bigger store and more items. I did this every day, (except for those days when I felt very sorry for myself and didn’t go—but, the next day I was out there again.) The more I practiced, the more I began to see progress, and eventually I was able to volunteer at White Plains Hospital.”
“At first my counselor met me halfway and soon I was doing it alone. Believe me, it wasn’t easy. I just kept at it, because I knew it was my only hope. My husband, Nick, was incredibly supportive of me. In fact, he was so impressed with the program and how it had helped me, we both became phobia counselors.
“Driving to New Jersey to visit my mom by myself was my ultimate goal, and one day I was able to do it. That was my breakthrough. I realized that the feelings weren’t going to hurt me and, while my agoraphobia didn’t appear overnight, it sure wasn’t going away overnight either. It took me more than a year of dedicated practice before I considered myself recovered.
“Do I still get anxious? Sure. But, now I do it anyway because I’m not afraid of those thoughts anymore.”
The choice is always there: Do I want to stay scared or did I want to feel free?
After seeing a doctor for a year of “useless therapy” for panic attacks, Jackie Kupper attended a lecture at the White Plains Hospital given by Phobia Counselor Bob Mauro. She realized that her problem had a name: agoraphobia.
“I attended a self-help group offered by the Phobia Center and learned to take one manageable step at a time. I practiced every day driving exit by exit on the parkway for at least a year. My goal was to drive to Long Island. Eventually I decided to go. With anxiety levels of 6 to 7 and using my tools, I made it. I said hello to my family and within five minutes, I headed home. I thought that if I stayed longer the anticipation might build and I didn’t want that to interfere with my success.
“All during this time, I made a promise to myself to keep exposing myself to every situation that caused anxiety until I learned to control it. I then volunteered at the Phobia Center and trained to be on staff. A funny story—I worked with a woman in one of the large area malls about 40 times. I had levels of 4 to 5 myself every single time (unknown to her). Finally on the 41st visit, it dawned on me to just accept my anxiety—that it really wasn’t going to hurt me. That felt great!
How long? I think it took more than a year of very hard work. Even after that I didn’t stop practicing. I kept reinforcing what I had learned and tried not to avoid anything because of some phobic or unrealistic fear.”
Barbara Bonder was married and the mother of two small children. She was suffering from panic and severe agoraphobia. She was desperate, and after much searching, found a counselor who was trained in Dr. Zane’s approach and who would come to her home to work with her.
Barbara explained, “I worked with her for two years meeting once a week and practicing diligently every day in between. I knew that was the only way I was going to get well. It was so hard but I never gave up. Things were tight financially, and I reduced the food budget so I would have enough to pay her. She really taught me how to deal with my fear based on Dr. Zane’s Six-Point therapy. I put myself in every phobic situation that faced me. Sometimes the fear was so bad, I would shake, even feel sick, but I didn’t back down. I followed our program to the letter (and I still do today.) My counselor received the PM News, and I saw an article about training to become a counselor, and I decided to do that. Since then I have been asked this question over and over. It’s really hard for me to answer, because everyone is different and they have to work at their own pace.
How long? My answer is: As long as it takes. For me, it took more than 2 years. I was totally committed to doing whatever was necessary to recover. Because I wasn’t going to live like I did before. I was always willing to take the risk to feel bad in order to feel good.”
When the “clinic”(as it was known 30 years ago) started Marjorie Mottola attended a self help group every week.
“I made a commitment to practice three days a week because I needed the day in between to rest. I drove the parkway one exit at a time and became a master at using tools. I’m not kidding—I cried the entire time I practiced because it was so painful, yet I was thrilled with my gradual progress. After about a year, I felt I couldn’t do it anymore.
Then I decided I had a choice: Stay phobic for the rest of my life or continue through the pain. I chose to keep going, and one week later I found myself on the parkway with no anxiety levels. From then on I felt recovered.
Levels still come once and a while, but I’m not afraid anymore. If you are going to recover, you have to stay with it for as long as you have to. That’s the answer to how long. There is no magic.”
“I came to a self-help group with a friend and learned just how phobic I was,” Jo-Ann Weiss remembers with a big smile.
“Then I realized I needed to start practicing driving by myself. I made my friends promise me that no matter what excuse I might come up with (and I was good at it) they would see to it that I got behind the wheel of my car and drove. At first, I needed them to go with me and then after a few months I was able to manage driving alone. (Jo-Ann is noted for having covered her steering wheel with gobs of Silly Putty so she could squeeze it while driving with anxiety.) “I knew that I would be—and was willing to be—scared because Dr. Zane told me that I wouldn’t die from fear. I totally trusted his assurance and believed that nothing bad would happen. I volunteered at White Plains Hospital which would require me to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge twice. I began with incredibly high anticipation, but I was willing to do it anyway.
“How long? After about a year my levels on the highway were low, but I was still practicing. I’m not afraid of those feelings anymore. There’s no time limit as to how long to practice. Just practice, practice, practice. You get out of it what you put into it.”
It’s clear that there is no set answer to how long it takes to recover from a phobia and/or anxiety. Most of the counselors believe it takes about a year or two of consistent practice. The recurring factor in each response is commitment. Commitment can be a term that causes anxiety for many of us—the perception is that of being trapped into something with no escape. Upon reflection, commitment can become an option in itself.
The choice is always there. “Do I want to stay scared or do I want to feel free?” Perhaps the word commitment can be replaced by determination or dedication. The word is not as important as its application.
We need to be willing to make a total commitment to ourselves to learn the process of staying in a feared situation long enough to control the levels of anxiety. Using the all-important Six Points as a guide, recovery is within your reach.
Remember, as our counselors remind us, it always takes longer than we want. Commitment outweighs weather, fatigue, stress, minor illness, headaches, personal problems and sometimes even a job. Commitment always finds time to practice.
I went to Ireland alone, where I met my tour group. There was a time when going to New York or the next town was seemingly impossible. But having worked through my driving and traveling phobias several years ago with my phobia therapist, I have been enjoying new-found freedom of traveling, of living.
Things had gotten so comfortable for me that when I encountered two problems on the trip I was surprised and momentarily set back. But, solving these two problems further reinforced the feeling that not only can I travel alone to Europe or anywhere, but I can deal with problems, solve them and go on.
The first problem occurred after an unusually long day of traveling by bus to Dublin. The bus had gotten quite warm and I had become tired and had not had enough fluids to drink. We stopped at a burial site grounds where visitors can walk into a cave like structure, look around, hear a talk, walk through and leave.
I got into line and the guides asked if anyone had a problem being in close quarters, don’t go in because you cannot turnaround and leave beyond a certain point. I have never had a problem with claustrophobia, but I think the heat, the fatigue, and the thirst got to me and I decided not to go in.
Thoughts started racing in my head. What if I’m getting claustrophobia now? What if there are more small area places to visit during the remainder of the trip? My tired, hot, and thirsty mind had lapsed back into negative, “what if” thinking.
When we arrived in Dublin, I called my Phobia Counselor. She reassured me that it was perfectly all right not to have gone inside, and she pointed out that I should not be so hard on myself.
“It’s okay sometimes not to do something.”
The second experience happened during the last leg of the trip. I had been staying up later than usual because I was having such a wonderful time. One morning we went sightseeing and shopping in a town in County Kerry. I was taking some pictures when suddenly I started to feel “funny”. The thoughts started. What if I faint here in the street before I meet up with the group? ‘That thought and accompanying picture really made me feel queasy. I decided to do some “good” self talking. I’ll take my coat off; it’s too warm. Then I’ll sit for awhile. I’ll go into a cool hotel, put my feet up and drink a lot of water.
That’s exactly what I did. I sat in a hotel coffee shop for about thirty minutes until I felt better. I met up with some of the tour group and forgot about fainting. Although I handled this situation well, it left me a bit shaken.
When I returned from my trip I discussed this problem with my Phobia Counselor. She pointed out that I had handled the problem beautifully and that I had not fainted and that I’m probably not going to faint in similar situations in the future. I realized that I should pay a little more attention to fatigue and heat on a trip and vary the pace.
I love traveling alone so much now that I have forgotten the “what ifs” that used to plague me. I have learned that the difficulties I encounter on a trip provide me with an opportunity to learn new coping skills, enabling me to do even more traveling — and living.