Not Just Afraid of the Dark

Everyday objects behind extraordinary phobias in some.

ByABC News
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.