Mesa Musings: What scares you?

Phobias. They're irrational and often debilitating. It seems every person has at least one thing that causes him or her severe distress. Few of us are exempt. Mel Brooks directed a hilarious film about the topic, titled, unsurprisingly, "High Anxiety."

Yet phobias aren't funny.

I have a relative with a phobia about driving freeways. She can't do it.

She's been driving her entire adult life — and for many years drove the freeways without difficulty — but for the last two decades she's had to limit herself to surface streets. When she embarks upon a journey of any distance she plots a route that does not include a freeway.

The last several times she drove freeways — years and years ago — she experienced panic attacks. She hasn't been able to drive them since.

It's irrational, but that doesn't make it any the less real.

Countless other people drive freeways every day without batting an eye. Not my relative. She freezes in fear when confronted with the proposition of entering an onramp. She can ride in a car on a freeway when someone else is behind the wheel, but she can't drive.

My personal phobia is public speaking. I hate it.

Funny thing is, I did lots of it throughout my career — and many said I was rather good at it — yet I hated every minute of it. I never got comfortable with the racing pulse, trembling hands and clammy palms that accompanied every presentation. Still, I stood before audiences hundreds of times. Never once did I pass out, have words stick in my throat or run screaming from the podium. I persevered, but it was always an ordeal.

Millions of people appear before audiences daily without a problem. Not me.

I met a guy on an airplane the other day while flying to the East Coast. I'm a frequent flyer and make coast-to-coast jaunts numerous times each year. It never bothers me.

Not this guy.

A strapping, rugged dude, I didn't pay much attention to him seated next to me as we took off. He was quiet, and I read my newspaper.

Once we leveled off at cruising altitude, he opened up.

"Boy, I sure hate that," he said with a distinctive, Southern drawl.

"Hate what?" I responded, looking up from my paper.

"Take-offs. They scare the dickens out of me."

"Really?" I mumbled, somewhat absentmindedly.

That began a non-stop conversation covering a host of topics all the way across the "fruited plain." He warned me sometime during the flight that if he'd looked worried during the take-off, well, just wait until the landing.

"You ain't seen nothing," he said. "I have a full-blown panic attack!"

I thought he was exaggerating. He wasn't.

He told me during landings he envisions the plane stalling and crashing. I tried to explain that — even though it appears to passengers that the plane is traveling slowly — it's actually still flying at a high rate of speed.

My cogent argument proved unconvincing.

He continued his monologue until the captain got on the intercom and announced that we were beginning our descent. With the illumination of the "fasten seat belt" sign, he went mute.

As the plane made its final approach, he held his head miserably in his hands and turned a deathly shade of pale green. He shook like a bowl of Jell-O.

"Are you alright?" I inquired.

"I will be when this dang thing is on the ground."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No, I have to get through it on my own."

Later, after we'd landed and were taxiing, I expected him to perk up and return to his loquacious self. He didn't. He was quiet all the way to the gate. I didn't intrude.

I said goodbye as I got up from my seat to exit, and he gave me a weak thumbs up.

"I'm gonna wait and get off last," he said. "I'll be fine."

It's strange what frightens people. Each one of us is tortured by a persistent personal boogeyman.

My phobia is your amusement and vice versa. I'll bet my affable new friend is a dynamite keynote speaker.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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