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Talk-Show Host Leaves Panic Behind : KVEN Figure Finds a Way to Overcome Agoraphobia

February 11, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Today, he cheerfully banters with perfect strangers over the airwaves, leads a Fourth of July marching band with fans toting transistor radios and, occasionally, slips behind the steering wheel of a stock car.

But this very public man, who says in his disarmingly frank way that the public likes him for his "moderately enormous ego," used to be excruciatingly self-conscious.

For 10 years, Ventura radio talk-show host Ross Olney was hounded by panic. Back then, even walking to the mailbox in front of his house, standing in line at the supermarket or sitting down to dinner in a restaurant set off waves of nausea, sweating and dizziness.

The host of KVEN's 3-hour morning show, now the very image of a gregarious bon vivant, once suffered from a psychological disorder that caused him to withdraw from people. But Olney, who at 58 resembles a younger version of Peter O'Toole, doesn't find his past as incongruous as others might. "There are far more agoraphobics than people imagine," he said.

Indeed, some 13 million Americans suffer from agoraphobia--a disorder that researchers now believe may be genetically passed from parents to their children, according to Dr. Arthur B. Hardy, a psychiatrist in Menlo Park, Calif., who has developed an approach to treating agoraphobics that is used in more than 60 mental health clinics.

In 78% of those cases, a bout begins with a sudden panic attack that Hardy, a past president of the Phobia Society of America, describes as "a feeling of absolute doom."

"Everything will be going along fine and then, suddenly, they have this horrible sensation and, right away, avoidance sets in. The more things you start avoiding, the worse it is."

The trap has closed shut on everyone from awkward high school students to successful business people. Even Willard Scott, the bubbly weatherman on NBC's "Today Show," is a recovered agoraphobic. Scores of published and broadcast accounts have explored the disorder in the last few years, perhaps making it a bit less frightening for those afflicted with it.

That was not the case, however, when the author and talk-show host first sensed that something was drastically wrong. Olney, who agreed to recount his experiences in the hope of helping others, was 28 years old.

After moving his young family to California in the late 1950s, Olney suddenly and inexplicably became "super-shy." A former radio operator for the Air Force who was nearly shot down twice during the Korean War, he had abandoned a secure job on an automobile assembly line in his hometown of Lima, Ohio, for the hit-or-miss existence of a free-lance writer.

Started to Avoid Situations

Longer on rejection letters than paychecks, he began to notice that he didn't want to go anywhere. He started to avoid situations that he couldn't get out of gracefully. But he was managing, he thought.

In fact, he began to feel more sure of himself when, after 2 years, he wrote off his career as a free-lancer for a more stable job as an editor for the Lynwood-based Skin Diver Magazine. Otherwise, he says now, he would never have agreed to do what turned out to be a fateful lecture on underwater warfare.

An article he had written about underwater propulsion devices had attracted the attention of a Long Beach naval officers' club, which requested a speaker on the topic.

Originally, Olney was only going to write the lecture, and the magazine's advertising director was going to deliver it. But when Olney's colleague discovered a scheduling conflict, the author was tabbed for the task.

Unexpectedly, the former Air Force staff sergeant had to confront the prospect of losing face before the men that he still considered, even after several years of civilian life, as his superiors. Olney, a mere writer, was convinced that he didn't have anything to tell them that they didn't already know.

"It terrified me," Olney recalled.

So did the scene at the club.

"This full admiral sits down on one side, and on the other side is a four-star general," he said. "Everything was wrong."

At the microphone, he dropped his notes. His hands began to shake uncontrollably. His face broke out in sweat. He felt nauseated and faint. Unable to utter a word, he excused himself and dashed into the restroom.

"I threw cold water on my face and then just kept going and never looked back," he said.

To this day, Olney wonders how the officers filled the void left in his wake. But there was no question as to the effect on his life.

"From that point on, it was downhill," he said.

Shunned Interaction

He withdrew at work, refusing to make any sort of public appearances, ferreting himself away in the back of the office and shunning personal interactions in favor of telephone conversations. But when new owners bought the magazine and told staff members that they would have to demonstrate skin-diving equipment as a part of their jobs, Olney realized he would have to change.

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