James M. Flammang, author of 30 books (including
six for children), is at work on several more,
including the title described below.

An independent journalist since the 1980s, Flammang
specialized in the automobile business. During
2016, he turned away from cars and into more vital
topics: work/labor, consumer concerns, and especially,
the emerging outrages of the Trump administration. His
website, Tirekicking Today (tirekick.com) has been
online since 1995.

Fraidy Cat

Surviving a lifetime of unwarranted fear and fright

by James M. Flammang

Acrophobia (fear of heights) is just one element of
dread that a "fraidy cat" might have to face regularly.
Unlike more insidious fears and phobias, it's one that
can usually be avoided easily enough.

Chapter Outline and Summary (tentative)

This is a personal memoir that covers well over half of my life. As I write this, I’ve eased substantially into the senior-citizen category. My bout with disabling fear–officially diagnosed at one point as "anxiety and panic reaction" – began at age 17. When the fear finally began to ease, and I found myself able to lead a reasonably normal life, I was in my mid-50s.

After decades of being unable to travel alone, for example, I began to fly regularly, both on business and for pleasure. Eventually, I became a million-mile flyer on one of the major airlines, and couldn’t begin to count the number of trips I’d taken–nearly always alone. In addition to providing a description of how that could happen, without the aid of therapists or medication, my hope is that these words might give some consolation to young worriers, in particular, who are struggling to find a pathway into normal life.

Chapter 1: Childhood Frights: Fear starts early
I’ve always been afraid. That’s how this chapter begins, and how some subsequent chapters will start. In a portrait photo taken at age 3, I looked so carefree. But that ease with life wouldn’t last much longer. A snapshot taken at the same age shows a subtly worried expression. Early in childhood, during the first few years of school, the die was cast for a lifetime of fear and anxiety. Though I was a “smart kid,” skipping three semesters in grade school, I was also clearly an introvert. One teacher even cited my left-handedness as a cause for introversion and other maladies, conveniently ignoring the fact that some 10 percent of people were left-handed.

In this chapter, we see how fear and avoidance affected childhood in so many ways, led by compulsory participation in games and sports. We also note the lasting impact of an aversion to taking risks, demonstrated by an invigorating night hike taken by my Boy Scout troop–while I opted instead for staying comfortably in my bunk, back at camp. Along the way, we take an early look at relationships with friends and, later, colleagues, most of whom never understood how much I differed from them. Also highlighted are my relationships with parents: an inhibited mother who was overprotective, and a father who was forcefully gregarious, generous, and open–as well as an alcoholic (which I later became myself).

Chapter 2: Crazyhouse
Not many neurotics or even psychoneurotics end up in a mental institution, of course. But I did, for 3.5 months of voluntary incarceration. At the time, the mental hospital–dubbed a "psychiatric institute"–was brand-new, resembling a luxury hotel more than the stereotype mental institution. While describing what life was like inside, we note the differences between voluntary and involuntary patients. Unlike the former, I wasn’t clamoring to get out. In fact, I was more worried that they wouldn’t let me stay.

In addition to chronicling meetings with a staff psychotherapist, and other futile attempts to make me “well,” this chapter takes a look at life inside: what it’s like to be watched at all times; making friends with certain inmates (while shunning others); the benefits (or lack thereof) of planned activities; and the difference between locked and unlocked wards. Also highlighted are what might be called the dayroom doldrums, the emergence of patient-patient romances, ways to conceal your movements and actions, and the role of the staff–often perceived as the enemy, at least a little.

Naturally, we also consider some examples of patients on the ward: a crude fellow nicknamed Gip (for backward pig) by the ladies; a catatonic man who suddenly became apparently normal; a nymphomaniac or two; a highly nervous ad man; an alcoholic ex-beauty queen who tried to enter a dayroom beauty contest naked until she was dragged away by orderlies; and a couple of strange folks who appeared to live in worlds known only to themselves. Plus the majority, who appeared roughly as normal as folks on the outside – at least until an "episode" occurred.

Chapter 3: Sex Is Where It Starts
Well, where else? As a pre-teen and teenager I was utterly petrified of girls, and envied the guys who had no trouble making friends with them. In eighth-grade ballroom dancing class, for instance, one male participant stood statue-like, petrified, for what seemed like hours when the boys were requested to ask one of the girls to dance. One guess who that was. When it was down to two–the girl who lived upstairs and whom I knew well, and an older, notably buxom girl whom I didn’t, I finally picked the latter so they could get on with the class. Ironically, the unpicked girl had been my first movie “date,” at age 10, prompting any number of catcalls from the boys on the block. So naturally, I couldn’t admit having any sort of interest in her in dancing class.

Dating in high school? Never happened. Only by sheer will did I ask the girl next door to go to our Prom. After spending the whole night afraid to go near her, we ended the evening with something less than a firm handshake. After all, I was the teenager who attended a cousin’s party and sat there rigid, staring straight ahead, for hours while all the others in that basement room were “making out.” I was only there because my father had brought me along while he was visiting his brother, so naturally they assumed I’d rather be with the teenagers downstairs. They were wrong,

Then, in my later teens and 20s, came a couple of utterly inappropriate romances: wrong girl, wrong purpose, everything wrong. Rather than any sort of joy, those dalliances led to little more than intense feelings of jealousy and possessiveness, enhancing my already poor attitude toward the opposite sex. My father, meanwhile, counseled nothing other than the need to “wear a rubber,” assuming that I’d be just as good at girl-chasing as he'd been. He’d also assumed I’d be good at sports, because he was. Wrong on both counts.

Chapter 4: Living Each Moment Fearfully
Even when a fear-laden person has a relatively good day, the dread never lets up completely. That’s largely because there are so many causes and triggers, ready to set off another episode. When your brain is overloaded with obsessions, phobias, and general fears, all those unwanted companions are eager to leap into play at a moment’s notice. And they do, over and over and over.

Chapter 5: Doctor, No! Addictions make matters worse
At one point, prior to my hospitalization, a private psychiatrist, whom I'd seen briefly, had recommended electroshock treatments. This was around 1960, and shock treatments were still commonly used. Fortunately, that travesty did not come to pass, but I spent the entire decade of the Sixties gobbling down just about every brand of tranquilizer on the market. Thorazine, Stellazine, Mellaril, Librium. All in big doses, falling just short of putting me to sleep–yet having surprisingly little effect on my anxieties and constant fears. Tranquilizers were something new, prescribed freely for a broad spectrum of mental troubles. Physicians hardly seemed to consider the prospect of addiction at that time, but that’s what it amounted to.

Worse yet, just before turning 17–a few months after graduating from high school–I took my first drink. And second. And third. Before I knew it, I was an alcoholic, despite having vowed at a young age never to duplicate my father’s weakness in that area. Doctors warned against heavy drinking and the taking of tranquilizers, but my psychiatrist kept prescribing the pills anyway, though he’d been fully informed about the extent of my drinking.

After a decade of this drug use, I stopped. Cold. Stopped drinking at roughly the same time. For good measure, I also went “cold turkey” on cigarettes. Since then, I’ve never had a drink, never taken a tranquilizer. After a length period of smoking a pipe and cigars to substitute for the cigarettes, I went the no-tobacco route, too. Today, my only consumable vice is coffee.

The lesson learned from all this substance abuse was simple: No pharmaceutical solutions could help. Neither could psychiatric solutions, apparently. Shrinks could help with serious psychoses and sometimes perform near-miracles; but for psychoneuroses, not so much. Those are more elusive. That leaves only self-help, as we’ll see periodically in the rest of these pages. Doctors today would say drugs are vastly better than in the past, and they’re doubtless correct. Even so, for real improvement, you have to find your own ways to ease the fright.

Chapter 6: Incompetence and Self-esteem
Basically, I had plenty of the former and virtually none of the latter. Much of that stems from fear of learning and practicing. When you’re sure you will be inept at a skill of some sort, you avoid trying it at all. If compelled to do so, you’re almost sure to fail. In my own case, I’d occasionally demonstrate the tiniest shred of competence the first time out. Try it again later and that shred was totally gone, replaced by sheer awkwardness. Clearly, fear of failure is the prime motivator here, and it can only get worse as time goes by.

Because fear is preventing improvement in a skill, you can never even know whether you’re gaining in competence or not. This chapter also delves into the differences between perfectionism and incompetence. Some of us incompetents can be awfully perfectionistic at the same time.

Chapter 7: Sports and Games
For a person who’s afraid–indeed, terrified–of people, communal activities are not considered a good time. That applies to sports and games, as well as to long-term situations like the military. Thankfully, I was exempted from the draft in the 1960s, due to anxiety issues. Had I gone in, I cannot even imagine the disasters that would have occurred. In my case, the monstrous obstacle had nothing to do with the military per se, even though I was ardently anti-war. It had little to do with the work involved, or with taking orders (though that wouldn’t have been easy). Instead, it was the necessity of living within a large group, day after day, and having to interact with at least some of its members on an ongoing basis. As it happens, my sole experience in communal living was in the mental hospital, where I coped, but not easily.

Chapter 8: Agoraphobia and Travel
In the Sixties, agoraphobia–literally the fear of open spaces, but in reality the fear of being out in the world alone–was just beginning to gain serious attention by the psychiatric community and the general public. Agoraphobic symptoms come in many forms and intensities, ranging from moderate discomfort to all-out terror. Curiously, through all those years when I suffered from it, I was able to travel as long as someone accompanied me–even if that person was someone who could not be called upon to help if fear took over completely. In fact, I traveled through much of North America in the late 1960s and ‘70s, in the company of a young woman who enjoyed driving. But on those rare occasions when I tried even a short trip alone, the results were displeasing, if not disastrous.

Chapter 9: Finding Ways To Work
Because my most intense symptoms typically erupted while at work, keeping a regular job was out of the question. Over a period of seven or eight years, I held more than 30 different jobs. In nearly every case, at some point I couldn’t cope any longer, and had to quit. Sometimes abruptly, without notice. More than once, I simply had to walk out and never come back. As a result, my only option was to find a way to become independent. Fortunately, I came up with an option, working at home as a freelance writer with a specialty. That permitted me to earn a modest living for the next several decades.

Chapter 10: How To Look Normal When You’re Not
If you want to survive, you’d better find a way to resemble regular people, as we see in this chapter. Look troubled or crazy, and you start drawing unwanted attention. That makes prospects even worse, creating a cycle of anxiety. You’re stuck in place, somewhere between regular people and the seriously troubled. This chapter looks at some of the ways in which frightened people might stand out from the crowd, and considers tricks and techniques that may help with coping.

Chapter 11: Marriage Matters
Troubled people need love and affection, too, to attain at least a semblance of normalcy. Needless to say, they become a trial for their mates or paramours. They might be indecisive, argumentative, depressed, or just plain unhappy–all triggered largely, if not entirely, by fear.

Of course, fearful people have a much harder time coupling up in the first place. For many, who are barely able to deal with dating and relationships on any level, marriage isn't a likely prospect.

Chapter 12: Breakthrough, Ready or Not
When you’ve been imprisoned by your mind for decades, the potential for improvement is nearly impossible to visualize. You don’t think about it much, because it seems utterly beyond the realm of realistic probability. If and when it happens, it can only be described as feeling like release from the penitentiary after an indeterminately long sentence, for a crime that you don’t believe you committed. The release can come almost without warning, just like the onset of mental disturbance. It can be partial and/or temporary, too: nice while it lasts, but eventually there’s a reversion to the old ways. That happened to me in 1974, while on a ship going between Britain and Holland. It was as if an astoundingly heavy load had been lifted right off my shoulders, and the world turned brighter than I’d ever remembered it being. Such a lovely sensation, even if it didn't last too long.

A true and lasting revelation, as happened in the early 1990s, can be stimulated by a change in personal circumstances, providing you recognize that your potential may now be greater than you’d imagined in the past.

Chapter 13: Depression vs. Fear
Sometimes, when you finally lose one form of trouble, another one is waiting patiently to step in and take over. As the intense fears eased, later in life–far more quickly than I would have considered possible–they were replaced by something that can prove to be even more insidious: depression.

Unlike anxiety, which can be eased at least a little by making use of various clever tricks to deceive the mind, depression can be considerably more stubborn and resistant, thus even more debilitating. Here, we look at ways to help keep it at bay, including the use (or avoidance) of antidepressant drugs, and the benefits and drawbacks of traditional psychotherapy. We also consider the ongoing wisdom of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's dictum: That "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Those heartening words can apply as much to personal depression and psychoneuroses as they did to the economic woes of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Chapter 14: Saying “No” to Fear
This book is written for one reason: to warn people – especially young worriers – that by giving in to intense fear, you’re throwing away the better part of your life. Looking back upon that 40-year period when fear ruled my entire life, I truly feel as if I'd been in prison all that time. Yet, I'm still not sure if there was ever any way out during those years, or what such a route might have been. Therefore, writing this book also serves as a learning experience for myself, to see if I might have benefited from comparable advice all those years ago.

Chapter 15: Looking Backward: What did I do wrong?
Now that I'm in the latter stage of a fearful life, it's hard to avoid thinking about the past. What might I have done differently? Would it have mattered, or was a troubled life inevitable from the start? As a wise woman once told me about making choices, "If you didn't do it, you couldn't do it."

Please take a look at Excerpts for Fraidy Cat:

Tentative contents of Fraidy Cat

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Fraidy Cat: Childhood Frights: Fear starts early

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Fraidy Cat: Sex Is Where It Starts

Excerpt from Chapter 5 of Fraidy Cat: Doctor, No! Addictions make matters worse

Publishers: For further information on availability of Fraidy Cat and all other book projects from James M. Flammang, editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com), please e-mail us at JF@tirekick.com.

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Photo by: Peter Oresved (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
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