Not Just Afraid of the Dark

Everyday objects behind extraordinary phobias in some.

August 12, 2008, 5:14 PM

Aug. 13, 2008 — -- For as long as Darcy Lemke can remember, she's been absolutely petrified of cotton balls.

"I just freak out and start gagging when I see them," the 20-year-old told

"I've been this way for as long as I can remember," said Lemke.

Lisa Neubig, a legal secretary in Kansas, says she knows how Lemke feels.

Neubig, 47, has never been able to be around boat anchors without panicking.

"Just seeing a chain connected to an anchor in the water causes hyperventilation, cold sweats and the shakes," said Neubig.

Erika Clementi, 28, said that her fear of wet paper makes her want to "curl up in a ball and die."

"I'm absolutely terrified of wet paper," said Clementi. "It makes me shudder."

Just like Neubig and Lemke, Clementi has no idea where her fear of wet paper originated but can't remember a time when it didn't make her panic.

As bizarre as they may seem, these types of phobias are not all that uncommon, according to several anxiety professionals who said that many people become fearful of random items that may have been present during a scary experience.

"There has to be something associated with it because nobody is going to develop a fear of cotton balls just all of a sudden," said Clark Vinson, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of the Phobia Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"Anybody that has a fear of something that is unthreatening is experiencing a conditioned response," said Vinson. "Some people may not remember how the phobia developed, and others will."

Sally Winston, a psychologist and also the co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, agreed, and said that she's treated several patients who have become phobic of items they had no memory of having a negative interaction with.

"The mind gets very sticky when a person is anxious," explained Winston.

So much so that Winston said that she once treated a patient who had a phobia of chocolate -- so severe that she would do everything she could to avoid it -- but had no recollection of how or when her fear began.

"It turned out that there was chocolate in the front seat of the car when the Jaws of Life were getting her out of a car accident," said Winston.

Winston said another patient she treated had an unexplainable fear of buttons. After spending time in therapy, the patient discovered that her button phobia originated from being eye level with a police officer's button-down shirt while she was being interrogated.

Phobias can also be created in less traumatic situations, said Winston, who explained that someone could develop a fear of something simply because it was associated with an embarrassing or anxiety-provoking situation.

For example, a person who throws up in front of a peer who is wearing a yellow shirt and is embarrassed by it may then fear all things yellow.

Several anxiety experts said that the only way to get over one's phobias is to gradually confront whatever it is that terrifies you.

Charles di Cagno has been treating people with phobias in New York City for more than 20 years and said that the best way to cure someone's fear is to do it slowly.

Di Cagno said that he once treated a woman who refused to go near a bat, even though they were infesting the attic in her home.

After days of talking about her fear, then looking at a photograph of a bat, and then eventually playing with a toy bat, the patient was able to enter the attic and face a real bat, said di Cagno.

"If someone is really motivated and is gradually exposed [to their phobia], they can reduce the fear dramatically," said di Cagno, who said that phobias affect everyone -- men, women, the elderly and even preteens.

Another patient di Cagno treated was terrified of escalators.

"There were several instances where we'd go to an escalator just to look at it and the person could not approach it," he said. "After a few minutes we would have to leave because of the patient's increased symptoms [of] anxiety."

Many people who suffer from phobias don't seek out treatment. Some can simply avoid whatever scares them without disrupting their lives.

Lemke, the 20-year-old Wisconsinite who panics at the sight of a cotton ball, says she simply does whatever she needs to do to stay away from them and has never sought out therapy.

"They're not that difficult to avoid," said Lemke.

"I just live with my phobia," she added.

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