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Commentary: Fear Itself

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

At some point in life, it is said, one in 60 people will be overcome with fear of impending doom. Your heart pounds, sweat pours down, breathing accelerates, dizziness sets in and you may become so exhausted that you pass out. You think you're going to die. Or worse, have a bowel or bladder accident in public.

You're having a panic attack. It is so terrifying and debilitating that you don't return to that place or situation. When the attack recurs, you avoid that situation too. Eventually, if therapy fails, you retreat to your safe haven, inside your home. You become a member of the five percent of the population with agoraphobia, fear of public places. Emily Dickinson had it, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne at times, Sigmund Freud, Greta Garbo, and Howard Hughes.

And Richard Rogers had it. We were classmates at Cleburne High School and also soldiers together. He was my partner on the mortar range, and his mathematical genius saved me many times from possibly firing a round into the officers' headquarters. He knew what vectors and azimuths meant and could instantly compute in his head the precise location of the target.

He was unbeatable at poker and never forgot who owed him money. We lost contact after the military and he called me up in 1996 when he read one of my books. "Are you Tommy Dodge from Cleburne?" he said.

"I used to be," I said.

"You owe me a dollar thirty-five," he said.

Our work and family responsibilities caused this hiatus, I guess. His job as the president of a nationwide company required lots of travel. In his forties he developed such a fear of flying, conducting meetings, and interacting with people that he could no longer work. Hardly anyone, even relatives, understood his disability. Mental illness baffles people.

Some even thought he was a faker and a slacker. After all, when he was young, he breezed through the test to become a member of Mensa, the organization for super-intelligent people. Maybe they thought he concocted this ruse in order to sit back and let others take care of him.

At his funeral on March eighth the minister spoke of his brilliance, his gentle nature, and wit. I was happy to learn that after all the years of our hiatus he had not lost any of his brilliance or gentleness or wit. He did, though, fight a monstrous cynicism that grew inside his brain like a cancer. He was a heavy smoker and greatly feared cancer. Even so, he told me, he would rather have a tumor in his brain than what he had, because others would then understand his ailment.

Fortunately, his sister understood and took him in when he had nowhere else to go. Pam Johnson is a Christian martyr. I say Christian martyr because Richard was no saint. His depression was a part of his disorder and could be withering to others. But, ironically, near the end of his life, he was getting better. He admitted he had been wrong to fixate on money. He paid for his sister's needs no matter what they were, even donated to her church.

His money fixation was, I believe, the origin of his disorder. Hardly anyone practiced his strict "pay as you go" philosophy, and so he became more and more isolated. When he finally let it go he started coming back to life.

And then he died.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.