Hbo Documentary Explores The Terrors Of Panic Disorder

NEW YORK - Mysterious, overpowering blitzes of fear: In Kim Basinger's life, there have been so many.

But one stands out. The setting: her fourth-grade classroom at Alps Road Elementary in Athens, Ga.

"It's very quiet and kids are raising their hands. But the teacher called on me," she recalled.

Just thinking back on that moment during a recent interview, Basinger dislodged almost palpable dread.

"I stood up and I was shaking, and my mouth wouldn't move, and everybody stared at me, and I thought I was going to faint. I ran out of the classroom. It was horrible."

Unbeknownst to her or anyone else, Basinger was gripped by something called panic disorder. She still is. And however extraordinary her accomplishments as a star and Academy Award-winning actress, in one respect she remains all too common: She shares this affliction with as many as 28 million other Americans.

Basinger provides a compelling case history in a new HBO documentary, titled simply "Panic." Produced and directed by Eames Yates, whose credits include HBO's acclaimed "Dead Blue: Surviving Depression" of two years ago, "Panic" airs tomorrow night at 8 clock.

Besides Basinger, the film visits an unemployable model in Los Angeles who is plagued by intermittent dizziness, shortness of breath, crying and terror.

It travels with a successful mortgage banker from Syracuse, N.Y., as he attempts to escape his geographic "comfort zone" for the four-hour drive to see his ailing grandmother in New Jersey.

Yet another subject: Earl Campbell, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back at the University of Texas who later played with the Houston Oilers, then fell victim to panic disorder after his football career ended.

Thinking back to when he hid in a room with the shades drawn and even contemplated suicide, he says, "It wasn't any more of that tough stuff."

Panic disorder comes in many forms with many causes. The film hears from experts who offer psychological and physiological theories, and try to explain to nonsufferers what the affliction is like.

Dr. David Barlow, director of Boston University's Center for Anxiety & Research Disorders, asks us to imagine ourselves subject to lightning striking us two or three times a day, without warning.

"What would happen, of course, is that you could think of nothing else except: When is the next time that I'm going to be hit by this lightning?"

Basinger agreed. "There's a fear of fear, fear that fear will come."

Panic disorder can result in feelings of isolation, inadequacy, paralysis. "I remember how lonely I felt, and how in need of help I was," Basinger said. "And for a length of time I couldn't find it."

The breaking point, she recounts in the film, came when as a rising young actress she had a full-blown panic attack in a health-food store. She managed to get herself out to her car and drive home. She didn't leave again for six months.

Then aid came from Dr. Ronald Doctor, a clinical psychologist also seen in the film.

"Dr. Doctor - he gave me a new start in this life," Basinger said. "I even had to learn how to drive again. It was quite a process, I'll tell you that."

The good news: Whether with drugs or, as in Basinger's case, a behavior-modification program, panic disorder is highly treatable.

The bad news: Only one in four sufferers seeks help.

Today, Basinger knows she'll never be "cured." In particular, she declared, "It will never be an easy task for me to get up in front of the public. I think I'm getting better, but it's an inch-by-inch process." She laughed. "Not even a whole inch!"

She recalled the Academy Awards in March 1998, when she won the supporting actress Oscar for her performance in "L.A. Confidential."

"I was just absolutely scared to death," she said with a wry chuckle. "And I knew that the next year, I had to hand the award out to the next winner. I don't know if I was more elated over winning, or more in pain over knowing that I had to come back!"

The irony isn't lost on her: A terrified little girl from Chestnut Lane became an international celebrity.

"God only knows where it came from, and that's the truth," she said. "Here I was, a kid in high school who never said a word, and then on the night of the Junior Miss Pageant, I stood up in the auditorium and sang that song from `My Fair Lady' - `Wouldn't It Be Loverly?' "

Maybe it was her blend of resolve and effective treatment that has made life loverly for Basinger. "Panic" is a bracing look at how she and others like her can succeed in spite of fear.