Living in Fear

updated 09/08/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Balloons Give Him the Willies

Globophobia: A fear of balloons

Mike Calderon, 29, is an ad-traffic coordinator for Clear Channel Radio in El Paso, Texas, where one of his first assignments included blowing up helium balloons for events. "It was torture," he says—as most balloons have been for him since he was a toddler, when a child sitting next to him at the circus squeaked and rubbed a balloon until it popped. "It scared me so bad," he recalls. Today he has reached a kind of détente with his phobia. It helps if he knows in advance if he's about to encounter a high-risk setting: a parade, say, or a birthday party. And he can be comfortable "if they're far away, like 100 feet."

Allison Jones Avoids the Banana Aisle

"Bananaphobia": The yellow fruit has no ap-peel

I get a nervous feeling in my stomach—a nervous, nauseous feeling," Allison Jones says in a fraught, edgy voice. "I wouldn't call it a fear for my life. I just need to get away."

What is this dark force that unhinges an otherwise rational 36-year-old mother of two from Hanover, Pa.?

"Bananas," Jones explains.

Bananas?!?! "Just bananas."

It all started in elementary school.

"When other kids had bananas at lunch, the smell was so powerful it made me sick," Jones recalls. "I had to get away from the table. They knew it, and they'd try to put them in my face and say, 'It's okay; it's just a banana.' I just couldn't get past that smell. That's the whole key: that horrible smell."

As Jones's "bananaphobia" ripened, she's taken measures to accommodate it. At grocery stores she detours around the banana displays. Still, she can never be entirely sure where the horror lurks. "I was driving by a Cold Stone Creamery near my house, and they had this big guy outside dressed in a banana suit," Jones says. "I actually swerved and almost got into an accident. I don't think bananas should be walking around on two legs."

Jones' husband, Michael—ironically, a manager of a fruit-processing plant—actually likes bananas, which requires some compromises in their kitchen. "They have to be in a bag with a tie on," Jones says. "I can deal with them if I know where they are."

Jones takes a lot of ribbing, but not enough to make her seek help: "The rational part of me says, 'What's the problem? They're just a piece of fruit.' But another voice tells me they're evil. Or as evil as a fruit can be."

He Hates Railroad Tracks

Siderodromophobia: A fear of railroads and train travel

Carlos Rosario speeds across railroad tracks, even when the warning gates are coming down! It's a dangerous habit, but Rosario, 39, a married father of three from Springfield, Mass., says he can't help himself. "When I see railroad tracks, I start shaking. I sweat," he says. "I can't stop thinking, 'Something bad is going to happen.'"

Something bad did happen, once, to Rosario near railroad tracks. When he was about 7, he and an older cousin got into an argument while playing outdoors. The cousin pointed a BB gun at him. "He said, 'If you don't do what I say, I'll shoot you,'" Rosario recalls. Rosario told his cousin to stop, and the boy fired at a nearby track. But the pellet ricocheted and struck Rosario in the head, just inches from his eye. He had surgery to remove the BB, but his crippling fear was born. He hasn't ever sought treatment, though the dangerous behavior it provokes is common in people who have phobias.

"They will often do something risky if it can get them away from what they fear, like running into the street to avoid a dog," says Virginia Tech psychology professor Thomas Ollendick. Rosario, a school-parent liaison for the Springfield Public School District, drives miles out of his way to avoid railroad tracks. He says he can cross them calmly "only with my wife. My wife tries to help me. She's like a shield."

Bridges Terrify Her

gephyrophobia: A fear of crossing bridges

Carolyn Garcia had driven effortlessly across countless bridges—until one day 30 years ago, when she was headed from Detroit to her Springfield, Mass., home. As she approached a crowded bridge, "this feeling of absolute fear came over me," Garcia says, surprised still today by her reaction. Her heart raced and she broke into a sweat. "I felt like stopping the car right there and running across the bridge, just to get off."

Garcia, 62, a retired medical assistant and grandmother of four, still panics when she comes to a bridge, although less so at familiar ones. She tries to get over her terror by attending a weekly group-therapy session, which helped her develop coping techniques such as only looking straight ahead as she crosses. But she can still barely cross a small footbridge, even with her husband, Porfirio, 60, holding her hand. "I think, 'Just go and cross it. Stop the stupidity,'" Garcia says. "Sometimes it works if I'm close to home. If not, I'm a basket case."

From Our Partners