an interview with Linda Hyman by Pat Merrill
On March 2, 1995, I watched Linda Hyman with great respect. I had never met her, yet I knew I would want to. She appeared on the “Leeza” show, sharing her experiences in recovering from agoraphobia. I’m glad that we did meet by phone and that she graciously allowed me to conduct this candid interview with her. I learned a great deal from her, and I suspect you will too.
One of the first things I wanted to ask Linda Hyman was, “Why did you go on national television?” I suspected I knew the reason, and I was right. She is one of those special people who wants to help others who are struggling or simply need more help.
It is not easy for the average person to walk onto a Hollywood studio set in front of an audience of strangers, let alone a sensitive person prone to experiencing an intense variety of anxiety. Yet there she sat, an attractive young woman, appearing amazingly poised. She answered Leeza’s questions with candor and conviction.
How did she feel about being on the show? Was she as calm as she appeared? Linda reported that she really was pretty tense, but she knew how to deal with those anxious feelings. “It was exciting,” she revealed. “The fun part of it was when they came to my house to make tapes. What caused me a lot of anxiety was that, knowing the most important things they taped and that we talked about, never would show because they weren’t ‘exploitative’ enough.” All of the tape that was shot showing Linda working with a field worker, showing how one is worked through things such as going to the market, was not aired. Additionally, the O.J. Simpson trial preempted that particular “Leeza” program at least in Southern California where Linda lives and works.
Having had panic disorder off and on for about a dozen years, Linda knew the pain and struggle well. During that time, she additionally went through some immense stresses and personal tragedies–a major accident, painful losses, a stalker.
For a period of time, she managed to–despite panic attacks–continue in her strenuous and stressful career in the Los Angeles area as a salesperson and designer. “I would have to have meetings in front of groups of people to sell a project, and I would go in . . . without remembering a word I said. But nobody knew.”
She tried various forms of therapy including psychotherapy. But she quickly worsened and eventually became very agoraphobic, completely housebound. Deciding to admit herself into a hospital program for treatment, she risked leaving the “safety” of her home for the help she hoped to receive. Linda recounted the difficulty she experienced. “I had to go with a pillow over my face just to get there.” Despite the severity of her symptoms, the evaluating psychiatrist said she wasn’t “bad enough” to be admitted. “All of that trouble and all of that heartache was for nothing,” she lamented.
Another attempt to be treated at a well-known hospital proved equally disappointing. It became clear the first day when she was locked in her nearly empty room by the staff that they did not understand agoraphobia. She left.
But on her way out, she saw a sign that mentioned a treatment program called TERRAP (which stands for Territorial Apprehension, the term coined by its founder, Dr. Arthur Hardy).
She discovered that it was a specialized program for those with panic and anxiety. “We ended up making it there and went to the orientation, and I sat outside on the steps and cried, and my mom went inside. I listened and could kind of hear what was said and I thought, ‘This is me! Wait a minute!’ ” All the staff had experienced the same things Linda had. “The woman that came outside to talk to me is now one of my co-workers.”
Being so phobic, it was difficult for Linda to begin attending the program. She recalled that “the first week I sat outside in the hallway, the next week I went into the door a little ways, the third week I was inside.”
Linda started working as a volunteer for the TERRAP office after she had been part of the program for a relatively brief time. Not driving yet, her mother drove her there to work four days each week. Next, she began driving there herself, with her mother in the car. Later, she began driving in her own car, having her mother follow her in another car. Eventually, she was able to get there on her own.
Does she consider herself recovered? “I call myself recovered, but as you know, ‘recovered’ is a funky word. This is something that I’m born with. It’s never going to go completely away. Everybody gets anxious. I have a lot more chemical imbalance as far as my adrenaline than most people do. . . . To me recovery is knowing when I’m getting anxious, knowing what’s happening, being able to figure out a way to circumvent it and not get into panic.”
On the television program, viewer’s saw Linda’s loving and supportive parents in the audience. But she mentioned that her best friend of twelve years did not understand her panic and phobia; subsequently their friendship ended. “What I tell people is that if others love you, honestly love you, they will try to understand. And if they’re not going to, then you need to find another avenue to make yourself better. If you can’t rely on them, maybe they’re not the people you need to have in your life, maybe that’s why you’re having anxiety. If they’re not going to be supportive, then evidently they don’t love you enough.”
What is the most important thing that she thinks is key to recovery? “It’s hard to do without support,” Linda answered. “But the most important thing is to know is that this is a terrible thing and it’s a terrible feeling, but thank God this is all you have. It could be a lot worse. Even when you’re in the middle of the worst panic attack and feel like you could die this minute . . . if you work hard enough, and you care about yourself enough, building up your self-esteem again, you can get through it. But you have to do it yourself. That’s the most important thing. No one can do it for you.”
Today Linda is able to “do everything.” “I travel, I go everywhere, I can even go to Las Vegas–the most anxiety-provoking city! I can drive, fly, do restaurants and malls.
“The most important message, I think, is for people who have this is to not be scared, to tell someone, to go to their doctor and get the proper care . . . to not be ashamed of it, to have enough love of yourself and you can get better.
“I’m not embarrassed by panic attacks any more. I still hate the feeling, I’m not going to lie about that. They still scare me, but I’m not ashamed.
“A couple of weeks ago, I had a panic attack in the store, and I just sat down on the floor. I sat there for a minute, did my breathing, thought about what was going on. . . . I realized I had [tried to get too much accomplished and was rushing too much]. I don’t think I was exactly doing it the proper way! So, I calmed myself down, went to the phone and [changed some plans] so I could get things done that I needed to.
“Not one person looked at me when I was down on that floor. . . . It helps you to get over this when you know that people aren’t going to just look at you thinking, ‘What a weirdo!’ ”
Linda shared the fact that she had had to work to get past the embarrassment issue. During her treatment, she went to a major department store while with her mother, and had a panic attack in the children’s department. Rather than fleeing, Linda got on the floor and acted out a little temper tantrum just like one of the little children that was fussing in the same area. To her surprise, despite several other shoppers being present, not one person seemed to notice! “Everybody is too busy. . . . I was at the point where I was tired of worrying about it,” she declared. This was a real breakthrough in her progress.
Linda is also no longer embarrassed to request help when necessary, even from strangers. She simply explains matter-of-factly that she is not feeling well and has an anxiety disorder; if she feels the need for some assistance, she has found that someone is always willing to help.
But even more significant, Linda explained how important it was in her recovery when she realized that she could handle her anxiety alone if need be. “The reason before that I wouldn’t drive is because if I had a panic attack and had to stop, I would think, ‘What if I can’t go again? What if I’m stuck here?’
“Well, I cured myself of that by making myself stop without one [a panic attack]. I’d pull over on the side of the freeway; you can pull off and get back in the traffic if you need to.” She added humorously yet with all seriousness, “You could pull over into a shopping center, run around the car 50 times and scream, do whatever you want to do, get back in the car and you can still go!”
Linda’s coping skills and strategies no doubt additionally helped her with a very scary, life-disrupting situation not long ago. She was able to respond well during and after the serious Northridge earthquake that severely damaged her home.
It seems obvious that Linda’s recovery had much to do with her perseverance and willingness to change. Having worked hard to help herself, she is now more than willing and able to help others.
(This posted article was originally published in our ENcourage Connection Newsletter, print version.)