October 14, 1996 in Features

A World Apart Agoraphobia, A Fear Of Being In Public Places, Held Jackie Debs Prisoner For Years

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Jackie Debs’ eyes pinch together in a frightened frown as she sneaks into her Spokane Valley kitchen for a cigarette. “No, please, please don’t,” says Gary Coxe.

“Just one?” Jackie says.

“I beg you,” Coxe pleads.

Jackie sets the package of Merit 100s on the glass-topped coffee table. Her collection of Red Skelton lithographs hangs on the walls surrounding her, their lips drooping in sad clown faces.

“He’s mean,” she says.

Jackie is dying for a cigarette, any escape from this cheerful, but relentless young man sitting on her living room couch. He has come to cure the anxiety which keeps her reaching for the cigarette package, trapped in these four walls surrounded by Red Skelton’s eyes.

Jackie Debs, 40, an overweight woman with curly blond hair and polished nails, suffers from agoraphobia. Panic attacks keep her off the freeway and out of airplanes. She won’t drive herself to the hairdresser or her son to school.

She spends most of her days hooked up through the Internet to a bulletin board for agoraphobics. She and her computer friends call it Tiny Town.

Now with the help of this stranger from Tampa, Fla., Jackie must venture into the world. She can no longer afford her limits. Her family has hit financial trouble, and she needs to earn $1,000 a month. But she can’t apply for a job until she works up the courage to drive alone.

Jackie became so desperate for help that this summer when a daytime television talk show, “The Gordon Elliott Show,” broadcast a request for people with phobias, she called New York immediately.

The producers liked her story. So did the talk show’s guest, Gary Coxe, this 32-year-old man with the brush of wavy brown hair and a TV-infomercial announcer’s voice, now waiting in her living room.

Coxe is a personal success coach. He wears a brown jacket advertising a Caribbean resort named Sandals. He appears at conventions there, giving motivational speeches to hundreds of salesmen for Century 21, Kirby or Saladmaster.

Coxe never went to college, never trained in psychology, but a string of miserable personal experiences he chronicles in rapid daytime TV patter he was married at 17, his wife told him her baby wasn’t his, his father was murdered, he lost a business by the age of 21 - left him convinced that personal success can only be pursued by training the power of the mind.

These days, Coxe travels with a pet tarantula, curing people of arachnophobia in 15 minutes or less. Coxe’s tarantula perched today in Jackie Debs’ dining room while Jackie and a cameraman attempted a wild, panicky ride to her son’s school. It was the talk show’s “before” shot.

Now Jackie has returned, flushed and anxious, to work with Coxe. Improbable though it may seem, Coxe has scheduled an hour to cure her of an affliction she’s had for nearly 15 years. She eyes him warily and sinks into the couch.

Coxe begins the treatment by pulling out several blank sheets of paper. He asks Jackie to write down three reasons why she wants to be cured.

“I want to get personal freedom,” Jackie says. “To get my stupid hair done if I want my hair done. And my nails done when I want.”

She feels terrible, making her husband Ralph wait in a hair salon for an hour and a half.

“Not terrible enough,” Coxe says.

Jackie lists more reasons. She wants a job. She wants to take her son Bobby swimming, or to a movie, or all the way over to Silverwood.

Next, Coxe asks her to write down the words “Limited Beliefs” and list her fears.

“The first thing that goes through my mind is ‘If I go too far, I’m going to panic,”’ she says. “If I’m in a car and it starts to happen, the palms go, the heart palpitations go.”

“Write it down,” Coxe says.

She writes: Sweaty palms. Heart goes fast.

“Subconsciously, you associate sweat with panic and that automatically triggers you,” Coxe says.

Jackie lists more fears: “I’m trapped and I can’t get out. I’ve got to turn around and go home. I get disoriented. I get on a street that I’ve been on and know, but I don’t believe it.”

Coxe picks up the list and reads it aloud.

“If I believed I was going to get trapped and not get out, I would panic, too,” he said. “This is so real to you. We want to get you to the point where you can look at this and laugh at it.”

“But this is real,” Jackie protests.

“It’s only real because you feed your mind to make it real,” Coxe answers.

Coxe asks Jackie to write a new list. She must turn each of her fears around.

Her first sentence becomes, “I’m not going to panic and I can go as far as I want.”

She completes the list. Each statement reassures her.

Next Coxe coaches Jackie as she reads the statements aloud. If her voice falters, or she sounds whiny or scared, he backs up and makes her say the statement again, keeping her voice and her facial expressions strong and confident.

“If I get disoriented, I won’t panic and I’ll find my way back,” Jackie says.

It’s time for Jackie to drive. The cameramen are poised. “I’m going to do this alone because, dang it, I want to get over this,” Jackie says.

Coxe tells her to take the lists along. If one of her fears surface, a quick glance at her new confident beliefs can shoo it away.

“There’s a reward in doing this,” Jackie says slyly. “I can get away from you and smoke a cigarette.”

Coxe says no.

They head for the driveway. Jackie climbs in her white Ford Explorer while Coxe stands outside, coaching.

“Stay strong,” he commands. He slams the car door. “And keep looking at your list.”

Jackie speeds off.

A few minutes later, she roars back into the driveway.

Coxe strolls to the car and opens her car door. “Well?” he asks.

“It was fine,” Jackie says. “I did it.”

“You’re lying to me,” Coxe says.

“No!” Jackie says. “I feel like crying and laughing and jumping up and down.”

She’s eager to drive again.

“I think I could go to the school and get my son,” Jackie says. “I think I could handle that.”

She climbs into the car again, cameraman in tow.

“Can I have a cigarette on the way down?” she asks Coxe.

“Go ahead,” Coxe says, with a grin.

In a few minutes, Jackie returns with her son, Bobby. Both are smiling widely. “It went fine,” Jackie says. “It went good. It went real good.”

“The cigarettes are next,” Coxe says.

The next morning, Jackie and Ralph are scheduled to fly to New York, Jackie wedged into a seat where she can’t grip Ralph’s hand the whole way. She wakes up at 3 a.m., certain that Coxe is a fake.

But in the morning, she climbs out of bed, talks to the talk show producers and decides to drive Bobby to school again. It goes so well that on the way home, she surprises Ralph by swinging into a drive-through lane for a couple of espressos.

Jackie and Ralph meet Coxe at the airport, where he spends another hour coaching Jackie. She flies without panicking. The talk show, despite some jitters, goes well, too.

In the weeks since, Jackie has continued driving alone. She drove to meet with Bobby’s teacher, to rent videos and to take Bobby to the doctor.

Jackie’s talked on the telephone with Coxe, and he’s promised to follow up.

Just over two weeks ago Jackie did something she hasn’t in 15 years. “I said, ‘To heck with it, I’m hopping on the freeway,”’ she says. “That was a biggie. No anxiety. None. Zero.”

Jackie still doesn’t understand why the treatment apparently worked. Her friends from Tiny Town are amazed.

“It’s weird. It’s strange. It’s wonderful in a lot of ways, too,” she says.

Best of all, she’s driven herself to a job interview at a neighborhood retirement center. The supervisor liked her. The people couldn’t have been nicer.

Today, Jackie Debs’ segment airs on “The Gordon Elliott Show” at 11 a.m. Jackie won’t be home to watch it.

She’ll drive to her new job instead.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. ON TV “The Gordon Elliot Show” will air today at 11 a.m. on KAYU-Channel 28.

2. PATIENTS LEARN TO EXAMINE THEIR FEELINGS Why did Gary Coxe’s treatment work? It could be because Coxe’s techniques include elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, an effective treatment for agoraphobia, according to Dr. John Carr, co-director of the University of Washington’s Behavioral Medicine Clinic. “The techniques can be learned by reasonably intelligent members of many professions,” Carr says. While there are risks to turning to unlicensed practitioners such as Coxe for help, Carr says that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy works to restructure the thoughts that lead agoraphobics to panic. Many agoraphobics grew up in families that never discussed feelings. When they feel normal feelings of fear or anxiety as adults, they overreact and become frightened of the feelings themselves, Carr says. The more they avoid situations such as flying or driving on freeways, the more their self-esteem plummets. “They say, ‘Everybody else can drive I-5, why can’t I?”’ Carr says. Cognitive therapists help agoraphobics discover that their feelings are normal. “They’re under the impression everybody on I-5 at 5 o’clock is cool as a cucumber,” he says. “When you’re out driving on I-5, you should be afraid,” he says. “It’s a scary place. That’s normal.” At UW’s clinic, therapists help patients examine their assumptions about their ability to cope with life. They learn new, more reassuring thoughts, and rehearse methods of coping with difficult situations. When patients catch themselves thinking a negative thought such as “I can’t stand this. I’ve got to get out,” they snap a rubber band on their wrists and think, “This situation makes me uncomfortable, but I can handle it.” Jamie Tobias Neely

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. ON TV “The Gordon Elliot Show” will air today at 11 a.m. on KAYU-Channel 28.

2. PATIENTS LEARN TO EXAMINE THEIR FEELINGS Why did Gary Coxe’s treatment work? It could be because Coxe’s techniques include elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, an effective treatment for agoraphobia, according to Dr. John Carr, co-director of the University of Washington’s Behavioral Medicine Clinic. “The techniques can be learned by reasonably intelligent members of many professions,” Carr says. While there are risks to turning to unlicensed practitioners such as Coxe for help, Carr says that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective. Cognitive behavioral therapy works to restructure the thoughts that lead agoraphobics to panic. Many agoraphobics grew up in families that never discussed feelings. When they feel normal feelings of fear or anxiety as adults, they overreact and become frightened of the feelings themselves, Carr says. The more they avoid situations such as flying or driving on freeways, the more their self-esteem plummets. “They say, ‘Everybody else can drive I-5, why can’t I?”’ Carr says. Cognitive therapists help agoraphobics discover that their feelings are normal. “They’re under the impression everybody on I-5 at 5 o’clock is cool as a cucumber,” he says. “When you’re out driving on I-5, you should be afraid,” he says. “It’s a scary place. That’s normal.” At UW’s clinic, therapists help patients examine their assumptions about their ability to cope with life. They learn new, more reassuring thoughts, and rehearse methods of coping with difficult situations. When patients catch themselves thinking a negative thought such as “I can’t stand this. I’ve got to get out,” they snap a rubber band on their wrists and think, “This situation makes me uncomfortable, but I can handle it.” Jamie Tobias Neely

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