Shadows of Shoah darken authors inner struggles

For Mani Feniger, driving on freeways or across the Bay Bridge represents nothing less than a major triumph. Flying in airplanes makes her heart soar with pride. There was a time when those everyday acts sparked gut-wrenching panic attacks in the 52-year-old Berkeley hypnotherapist and counselor. But with patience, perseverance and a concrete set of learned skills, she taught herself to manage the phobias that bound her life.

Hoping her story will encourage others suffering from similar ordeals, Feniger chronicles her struggle and healing process in her new book, "Journey from Anxiety to Freedom: Moving Beyond Panic and Phobias and Learning to Trust Yourself."

"My real bridge to freedom is not made of steel," she writes in her introduction. "It is a bridge within myself, an attitude that takes me over the chasm of self-rejection to the peace of mind that comes with accepting myself and my life."

In addition to recounting her own story in her book, Feniger describes seven Bay Area men and women whose lives were once compromised by anxiety disorders.

From a prominent physician whose claustrophobia caused him to doubt his own value to a woman so afraid of heights she avoided college courses taught on high floors, the stories demonstrate that panic and phobias grip a wide range of sufferers and come in many forms.

In fact, it is estimated that nearly a quarter of America's adult population will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Feniger's own anxiety stemmed in part from her upbringing. Both her parents escaped Nazi Germany in the early 1930s and resettled in Queens, New York, where Feniger grew up. Though she speaks of her parents with great affection, she also recalls the underlying sense of paranoia that shadowed their lives.

The paranoia, Feniger believes, was well-founded.

Under Germany's Aryanization laws, Feniger's grandmother had to sign over her house to a non-Jewish family. Her father, a student, faced discrimination at his university. When her family fled, they left behind many friends and relatives.

Looking back at her childhood, Feniger recalls her parents' emotional life as governed by unspoken rules: Forget the past. Don't express feelings. Stifle grief and anger.

"It was a household where there were a lot of secrets, a lot of withholds," Feniger says in an interview. Such behavior, she believes, was, in essence, a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her family's insistence on hiding information and repressing emotions made the world seem like a menacing place for Feniger. She remembers being a child and fearing the teenagers she passed on her way to school, as well as riding the New York subway and staying alone in her house, even when her aunt and uncle were upstairs in their flat.

In keeping with her parents' example, however, she did not voice her fears. Rather, she kept them inside, where they mushroomed into catastrophic fantasies.

Feniger's attempts to control her fear, she now believes, led to a chronic inner anxiety that would later express itself in such classic panic symptoms as disorientation, blurry vision, a racing heart and sweaty palms.

"Seemingly out of the blue, I'd experience a rush of energy that made me feel like I was going to explode," she recalls. "When I reached the point of an actual full-blown panic attack, I felt a kind of disembodied feeling."

Feniger had the first of many panic attacks in a car in 1980, but she suffered silently for many years. She had no words for her experience and thought there was nothing she could do to change it. She saw herself as weak and immature.

Later, when she sought treatment through therapy, she began to view her problem and the long recovery process as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

Feniger says one of her goals in writing this book was to instill in anxiety sufferers a similar sense of hope.

"I want people to get a sense of self-respect, to realize they are normal healthy people and that many other very effective, competent people have these issues," she says. "The biggest damage comes when we become ashamed and think we ought to be able to find our way out of this alone."

With that in mind, she founded the Anxiety and Phobia Peer Support Network — a nationwide toll-free telephone support service that can be reached at 1-888-748-PEER.

Of course, no one goes through life entirely fear- and anxiety-free.

"Everybody has felt anxious. It's the natural response to the stimulation and stresses of our lives," Feniger stresses.

"But when the anxiety begins to take away your enjoyment of life or erode your self-esteem or cause you to avoid situations that are important to you, then it's important to look at that."

Feniger helps readers confront their anxiety through specific tools, including techniques for physical relaxation and for learning to stop and transform the fearful thoughts that trigger anxiety. She also discusses what she calls "exposure therapy," the process of facing fears through taking on small challenges that over time progress to larger ones.

"Life wants us to blossom. Life wants us to be free," she says. "But we have to do our part."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.