Rush of Fear

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Hall of Famer talks about fright—his own

During eight seasons with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, National Football League Hall of Famer Earl Campbell gained 9,407 yards, most of them by running at—and over—opposing linemen. Timid, Campbell was not. Yet two years after he quit football in 1986, he began to experience episodes of fearfulness that would all but paralyze him. They struck without warning and were so intense, he thought he was dying. At times, the man who had been one of the NFL's most fearless runners was afraid to leave the house.

Campbell's mysterious ailment, as he eventually discovered, is called panic disorder. The condition, officially named only 11 years ago and now thought to afflict one in 75 people at some point in his or her life, is still widely misunderstood even by medical personnel. A National Institutes of Health study released last month reveals that patients afflicted with panic disorder sometimes see 10 or more doctors before receiving a proper diagnosis. For unknown reasons, women are twice as likely as men to develop the problem; otherwise it cuts across age and social groupings. Typically, victims experience intense apprehension including fear of dying, accompanied by multiple physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, rapid heartbeat and nausea. Anticipation of attacks can in itself be debilitating. When treated with behavioral therapies, drugs (antidepressant or antianxiety) or both, patients can expect to improve markedly or even recover within one to two years.

The attacks, which usually last only about 15 minutes, can be terrifying. "You could see the scare on his face, "says Earl's wife, Reuna, 35, a former nurse who now runs a boys' clothing shop in Austin, Texas, where the couple live with their two sons, Earl Christian II, 9, and Tyler Christian, 5. Campbell, 36, who owns a company that makes east Texas—style hot sausages, spoke with correspondent Anne Maier about his disorder.

ONE DAY IN 1988, I WAS OUT FOR A drive, listening to country music—I'm a big country music fan—when my heart took oft with this rapid beat. That night, after I had dinner and tried to go to sleep, boom, it happened again. My heart was beating so fast, I told my wife, "I think I'm having a heart attack."

I was hospitalized for seven days while they put me through a bunch of tests. They scanned my heart to see if my arteries were clear, and everything seemed fine. About the only thing they could find wrong was that I had a high cholesterol count. So when I returned home, I went on a strict diet—I even cut down on my own sausages—and continued to run four miles a day, which I've done since my football days. Still, every other day or so my heart would suddenly start beating very fast. I lived in constant fear that I was going to have a heart attack away from home. I don't know why I thought it would be better to have one at home, but gradually I grew more and more afraid to leave the house. Doctor after doctor examined me, and nobody could figure out what was wrong.

After about two months a friend suggested I see yet another doctor. I was surprised to see him sitting in his office wearing regular street clothes. I said, "Hey, you're not dressed like a real doctor." When he explained that he was a psychiatrist, I came back at him with some words I would be embarrassed to repeat. I told him that I wasn't crazy and didn't need somebody messing with my mind. He just said, "Listen, Earl, I've got to go see another patient. Why don't you take this little booklet and read it?"

The pamphlet was about panic disorder. It was the first time I had ever heard of it, and I was surprised at how much of what I read related to what was happening to me. That day, I made a deal with the doctor that I would take a class from him if nobody else came. I was embarrassed at first and mad about my condition. I kept thinking, "Why has this got to hit me, of all people?" I've always thought of myself as a laid-back guy.

In addition to the instruction—which taught me to calm myself by deep breathing and visualizing that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on—my doctor put me on medication. At first I resisted. He would tell me, "Earl, please, take it. You'll get better." And I'd say, "Yeah, sure. If you get me hooked on this stuff, I'll come back and kill you." It took about three months for me to begin to get the attacks under control.

I still don't know what causes panic disorder. Nobody does exactly. But over time I have discovered this much about myself: If I work for about 10 days straight and don't rest like I should, I'm asking for trouble. That's when I'm most likely to be hit with a panic attack.

I also learned that there are a lot of people with this problem who need to know that it can happen to anyone. About a year ago a friend of mine asked me to visit a hospital and talk about my experiences with some people who were also suffering from panic disorder. I called my doctor to ask him whether he thought it was a good idea, and he said, "You know, Earl, when people find out about your condition, some of them are going to think you're crazy and begin to look at you as being different." I just said to myself, "Hell, I've been different all my life anyway, so why not just go another step with it?" Since then I have given speeches to doctors and hospital patients in Texas, California and New York. I tell all the groups, "If you have this condition, it doesn't mean you're crazy. You can still live a normal life."

As for myself, I used to dread having a panic attack in front of other people. But now I can usually control an attack with three or four deep breaths. With football behind me, I want to become a successful businessman. I'm ready to get on with my life.

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