Sy Cohn Steers Phobic Drivers Around Mental Roadblocks

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Close your eyes," orders Sy Cohn as Helen Blockovich, 49, slips behind the wheel of his gold Mazda. Cohn slides a soothing new-age tape into the car stereo, the amethyst crystal around his neck glinting in the midday L.A. sun. Taped to the dashboard is a sign reading SALOME, which Cohn says is an intergalactic greeting. "You're leaving work behind you," he tells Ms. Blockovich, who responds, "There's a white light inside of me. Another one surrounds the car." "Now," says Cohn, "take deep breaths. When you're ready, we'll get started."

Sy Cohn, 50, a new breed of Southern California therapist, uses self-knowledge as a vehicle for curing driving phobias. His clients have real and often incapacitating hang-ups: They can't handle freeways, parallel parking or crossing bridges. (Since the San Francisco earthquake, he has had a number of calls from Northern California.) For $60 an hour with a two-hour minimum, over a period of two to eight weeks, Cohn will drive to your home, explore the phobia with you, then use hypnosis, music, imaging astral projection and your past lives to steer you into life's traffic flow. Initially, possibly just sitting in a parked car, he talks about the fear. Stage two involves driving with the client in his dual-control car. Lastly, the client drives alone while Cohn follows in his own car. "Driving is often symbolic, a kind of mobile agoraphobia," says the Freud of the freeways. "I'm helping them learn how to handle themselves."

For 15 years Cohn taught in his own conventional driving school, but after a 1972 divorce, he dropped out of that and most everything else. "I needed so badly to let go," he says. He experienced an epiphany during five months at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur in 1979: He became a vegetarian, lost 60 pounds, grew a beard and "did a hippie thing." Next, Cohn got his B.A., then his master's degree in psychology, from Antioch University. It was while qualifying as a therapist that he merged his interests and set up shop as a driving therapist in Venice. Says Benjamin Crocker, one of several psychiatrists who refer patients to Cohn: "It's like taking driving lessons, and it's not as pejorative as being in therapy." His clients are also supportive. "I still hear his voice nagging in my ear in certain traffic situations," says former client Arlene Wilson.

Helen Blockovich turns into a busy intersection with no traffic light, her anxiety palpable. "It's like the parting of the Red Sea," Cohn says gently to her. "Each time, we expand the alternatives." A car honks at Blockovich. "Shut up," she shouts back. "That's good," encourages Cohn. "You're starting to sound like other drivers now. You gotta learn to get out there and toot your own horn."

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