Anyone who’s seen Crossing Guard Supervisor Dorothy Whitley standing at an Oak Park crosswalk, a police-style cap tilted low over her sunglasses, stop sign in hand, halting cars and directing pedestrian traffic, saw a woman with a commanding, confident presence.
But confident and commanding was not how Whitley felt during her first 10 years as a crossing guard, when she waged a desperate daily inner battle with a fear that threatened to destroy all that was good in her life. For 25 years, the Austin resident suffered from agoraphobia, a crippling anxiety that produced panic attacks, which prevented her from leaving her house.
“I went through hell,” Whitley said. “I laugh at this now, but it wasn’t funny then.”
In fact, Whitley’s fear was once so intense she couldn’t travel with her husband Dave to family events in Mississippi, couldn’t travel on the expressway, couldn’t stand in open spaces or in crowds. Couldn’t even enter an elevator.
“I was afraid of everything,” she said. “The rain, the snow. Everything.”
Nearly as bad as the fear, Whitley said, was the burning shame and fear of being found out.
“You become ashamed. You don’t want anyone to know it,” she said. Whitley said the disorder is genetic, and that her mom and brother were afflicted with it. For her mother, it was virtual house arrest. It eventually killed her brother, who self-medicated his anxieties with alcohol.
For decades, Whitley feared she would suffer her mother’s fate. Then in 1979, Whitley’s daughter, Julie, saw an ad in the paper seeking crossing guards in Oak Park. Whitley managed to get across Austin to Oak Park Village Hall and apply for the job. It would be her love of that job, and the children she worked with, that eventually enabled her to confront her illness.
But progress was agonizingly slow. Whitley managed to make it to her corner and do her job each day, but little else. For nine years, she endured daily battles with anxiety that left her physically and emotionally drained.
“When I first started, I’d cry. I was so afraid that something would happen to me and the children,” she recalled. On many days, she could hardly wait until the last group of children was safely across the street before collapsing in her car.
Nearly as bad as the panic attacks was not knowing what they were or why they afflicted her. It was a lonely struggle. She consulted countless doctors during the first 15 years of her illness, spending two weeks in the hospital once for a series of tests.
“I went to dozens of doctors. They had no idea,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Dorothy, there’s nothing wrong with you.'” She prayed for some way out of her pain.
Her prayers were finally answered in 1988 when she met Dr. David Carbonell, an Oak Park resident and expert in anxiety disorders and panic attacks.
“He’s the only one who understood my problem,” Whitley said.
A therapist since 1987, Carbonell is now director of The Anxiety Treatment Center, which has offices in Chicago and Oak Park, among other suburbs. Carbonell says people with anxiety disorders typically try to avoid situations they find threatening. He said his task is to show his patients that their fears aren’t grounded in reality, and that they don’t have to run from fearful situations.
“I point out that the things they most fear never happen,” Carbonell said. “I help them see that ‘Maybe I’m getting fooled by this [disorder].'”
For 30 months, Carbonell worked with Whitley to use her mind to confront and question her fears.
“He taught me to change the way I was thinking,” Whitley said.
It wasn’t easy. Tears welled in Whitley’s eyes and words caught in her throat as she recalled the early part of the process.
“It was like seeing the devil,” she said quietly.
As part of her treatment, Carbonell often walked Whitley through a series of exercises in which she confronted the very situations and environments she most feared-elevators, expressways, street corners.
“[It’s] so they can test out the possibility that they have nothing to fear,” Carbonell said. Each panic attack, he noted, is an opportunity to learn. “As long as they flee, they don’t learn,” he said. “They’re deprived of finding out it wasn’t going to do anything.”
Step by step, Whitley faced her fears and banished them from her mind.
“See, if you run and flee, it takes on power,” she said. “When you stand there and go, ‘Oh, no, no, no, never again,’ it lessens.”
Carbonell recalled that Whitley had to battle hard.
“I remember her saying aloud, ‘I don’t do that any more. Get out of here!'” he said.
Whitley said it was the job, and the children she saw every day, that spurred her on.
“I had to be free. Free in my mind. Free period,” she said. “I learned to say to myself, ‘I’m not afraid of you anymore. Get out of my way and let me do this [job].'”
Like nearly everyone else in her life, Whitley’s bosses on the police force didn’t become aware of her struggles until years later when ABC Channel 7’s Kathy Brock showed up at village hall to interview Whitley for a segment on agoraphobia.
“I was stunned,” Police Chief Rick Tanksley said. “How can an agoraphobic be a crossing guard?”
“I was always a great actor,” Whitley explained. “I wouldn’t let anyone know what was going on inside of me. I thought they’d make fun of me.”
Hard shell protects a soft heart
With her quasi-military bearing and appearance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone making fun of Dorothy Whitley. Short and stocky with an attentive visage, she exudes authority. Her trademark sunglasses cover eyes that reveal the warmth of a woman with a quick laugh who is always ready to talk with anyone-when she’s not busy working.
“She has a rough, tough, no-nonsense Marine drill instructor exterior,” said Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna, who is effusive in his praise and regard for Whitley, “but if you get to know her, she is the most caring, giving person you’ll ever meet.”
Over 27 years working numerous corner crossings in the village, Whitley came to know literally hundreds of kids and their parents. Rain or shine, winter cold or summer heat, she watched over every type of pedestrian from 5-year-olds walking to school to adults heading to and from the Farmers’ Market on Lake Street.
Meridith Conn, who manages the Farmers’ Market, has known Whitley for a decade, back when she supervised the corner where Conn’s daughter crossed to school. Conn recalled with a laugh, she used to call Whitley “the crossing guard Nazi,” because of Whitley’s stern demeanor on the job. That quickly changed when she got to know her.
“She really did care about our kids,” said Conn.
“Dorothy was one of the most passionate people I’ve ever seen as regards the safety of kids in this community,” Scianna said.
“She called them ‘precious cargo,'” noted Resident Beat Officer Anthony Coleman, who has worked closely with Whitley. “I’ve seen her chase down cars, stand in front of cars.” It’s not personal, Coleman explained. It’s strictly about the safety of the kids she watched over.
“She comes hard, but lovingly,” he said.
Her attitude toward her work, said her bosses, also made her special.
“She would get in your face until she was sure you understood the seriousness of what you’d done,” said Scianna.
She was a model for all the village’s other crossing guards, said Tanksley. “She laid the foundation for a professional crossing guard unit,” he said. “She had one mission and one mission only. To keep those children safe.”
Just how dedicated Whitley is to Oak Park’s kids and to her police department colleagues was demonstrated over the summer. Whitley was set to retire in June, but stayed on through September because she wanted to be sure her replacement and several new crossing guard hires were adequately trained.
That gesture actually cost her money. June was one of two months that had three pay days. If she’d left then, her final month for pension calculations would have had three checks. Instead, she stayed on to finish training a group of new recruits and ease the transition for new supervisor Theresa Bursoni.
“She knew how difficult it is to bring a new supervisor on board,” said Scianna. “That’s the kind of person she is.”
A celebration, and hope for others
Whitley uses her story to encourage others who suffer silently to take action and end their own pain.
“It’s good to get the story out,” said Whitley, who noted that some four million people suffer from agoraphobia-related anxiety disorders in the U.S.
Carbonell joined the crowd at Whitley’s village hall retirement party last Thursday. There was no talk of fears or phobias, only a celebration of Whitley’s accomplishments.
“The work we did was a long time ago,” said Carbonell. “Her world really opened up and blossomed for her. It’s been great to see her utilize all she has. She’s a terrific lady and a fascinating personality.”
Carbonell said many people afflicted with the disorder don’t seek help. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 90 percent of people suffering from anxiety disorders will recover with proper treatment, yet only around 1 in 4 will seek treatment.
“This is a very solvable problem,” Carbonell said. “Not to minimize how terrible and miserable people feel.” The hopelessness many people feel, he added, is just another ungrounded fear to be overcome. “That’s just a symptom of the disease. That’s not the truth.”
Though happy to be putting working behind her, Whitley admits to having mixed feelings about leaving the job and people she loves.
“Where I came from, and where I am now,” she said, hesitating a moment, “I’m truly going to miss this job.”
The second week of October, Dorothy and Dave Whitley will drive down to Natchez, Miss., to visit Dave’s family, including his 104-year-old father. It’s an 850-mile expressway trip. Once just the thought of it left Whitley paralyzed with fear. Now she’s looking forward to it.
Not that the old ghosts don’t still try to visit her from time to time.
“It comes up every now and then,” she acknowledged. “I still work on it.”
But the old demons can’t intimidate her anymore-she knows what to do now. When they appear, she treats them with the same stern, no-nonsense approach she uses with careless, inattentive motorists who endanger the children on her street corner.
“If it shows its ugly head again,” she said. “I’m ready for it.”