The Tyranny of the Telephone

The internet can be a daunting, even terrifying place, but there are times when I’m incredibly glad to have access to it. In particular, I find it very comforting to be brought into contact with other people who share the same apparently unusual behaviours as me. For a long time I wondered whether I was the only person who was genuinely terrified of the phone. By being open about my hatred of phones online, I discovered that it was a surprisingly common fear – amongst my friends, at least.

Have I always been this way? Yes, for as long as I can remember. It was easier back in the days when I was very small and being taught to answer the phone when it rang. The deal was that I could answer provided I said “Hello, how may I help you?”, answered any direct questions and then handed the phone over to Mum or Dad. At that stage I didn’ t have to worry about actually making the calls. As I got older and was expected to have actual conversations with the people who called, or – worse – to call people myself, the anxiety began to set in.

What am I scared of? Being judged and getting things wrong, mostly. Like the writer of this article – http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2013/08/why-are-you-calling-my-texting-device/ – I don’t always find it easy to hear exactly what people are saying on the phone. I’m very sensitive to background noise, and anything with more bass than a human voice will drown out whoever I’m talking to. I also find that hearing someone’s voice when I can’t see their body language and facial expression is like reading a letter with every third word blanked out. It’s a confusing experience and I find it difficult to trust disembodied voices on the ends of phones. Unless I’m talking to someone I know, really, really well (and sometimes even then), my stupid depressive conviction that everyone hates me tries to get out of control.

However, when I was younger it was easier just to shut my anxieties up and get on with things. I could talk myself through the fear, doing a kind of rudimentary CBT. I still hated it when I called my friends and their family members answered because that interfered with the script in my head, but I could do it without having a meltdown. I was never exactly comfortable with phones, but I could deal with them and even have long conversations with people I knew well. Then, as with so many other fears of mine, the trouble really began when my parents died.

To be absolutely precise, the trouble began when Dad was dying. My mum went quickly from diagnosis to death, and for the couple of weeks that she was in hospital we barely left her. Dad and I would dash home to wash, change clothes, top up our supply of cornflakes and peppermint tea for her and then go back. When Dad got diagnosed he was at a much earlier stage, so the plan was for life to go on as normal until the need for palliative care grew more pressing. A few days after he came home from hospital, he had a stroke and ended up right back there.

When Dad and I arrived at A&E I was warned that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He did. Then I was warned he probably wouldn’t make it through the next 48 hours. He did. I snatched a few hours’ of sleep in some unoccupied doctors’ quarters but didn’t dare go further away than that. After day three, the doctors encouraged me to go home, get some sleep, spend a bit of time outside the hospital. After I’d been home for some sleep and a shower, I went shopping. Specifically, I went looking for the kind of yoghurts my dad liked. As I pulled into the driveway, my aunt came and told me that the hospital had phoned and it was that “come at once” call. I went tearing across the city, terrified that I might be too late.

I wasn’t. Dad would survive for another four months, but throughout that time he would not only be dying of cancer, he would be at risk of a secondary stroke which would probably kill him. Since he was partly paralysed and I couldn’t handle caring for him on my own at home, he was transferred to the hospice. I practically lived at the hospice until he died, but I still had to go home for showers, changes of clothes and occasional time off and nights in a bed rather than a chair. My home phone and mobile numbers were written in large letters on a pinboard in my dad’s room and I have never been more diligent about keeping my phone charged. Every time I left the hospice I was just waiting for my phone to ring, dreading that it would be the call telling me to come back because we were at the end – or worse, the call telling me that I could take my time because it was too late.

As it happened, my dad never had another stroke. In fact, he made an incredibly impressive recovery from the first stroke. It was truly galling to watch him battling to regain his vocabulary, his diction, use of his right hand, while at the same time watching him wasting away as the cancer took hold. (He even got as far as being able to recall most people’s names accurately, though he always confused mine and Mum’s. That was painful.) He died slowly, his body shutting down bit by bit, and I was with him throughout it. But even though I never got that call telling me he’d had a second stroke, the fear of it never left me. I learned to associate ringing phones with bad news, and that’s why my mobile lives on silent.

After Dad died I was subjected to harassing phone calls on the house phone for some considerable time. That didn’t really help with the phone fears. Upwards of five times a day, any time from morning until the small hours, a particular member of my family would call and leave long, rambling, often threatening messages on my answering machine. (In retrospect I should have reported it to the police, but it’s amazing what you don’t do when you’re newly orphaned and made promises to your parents. Or I should have changed my number, but I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be in that house for much longer and I would change my number when I moved. To change my number would have been an admission that I wasn’t getting out my dead parents’ house any time soon.)

So, none of these things really helped me to deal with the existing fear of phones. I have mad CBT skills, but it’s an inadequate weapon against this particular demon. When my phone rings I am convinced of the following things:

1) Someone I love is dead/dying.

2) Failing that, someone I love now hates me.

3) Failing that, I am in some kind of massive trouble with someone over something.

4) Failing all of those, the person who used to leave those message has found me again. (This one is why I NEVER answer calls from numbers I don’t know or withheld numbers. EVER. My job makes it necessary for me to have my contact details available, which means that occasional calls from unknown numbers are inevitable, but that’s why I have voicemail. If a client leaves me a voicemail I expect that they’ll leave their name and ask me to call them back. If a friend leaves me a voicemail I expect it to be an emergency, because they all know everything I’ve written in this post and that I don’t appreciate being put through the phone fear unless something is wrong. Friends who want to chat to me know to text me first so I’m expecting their call. People who call from an unknown number and don’t leave a voicemail… I HATE THEM ALL. When that happens, I get those joyful feelings of “they’ve found me, it’s all going to start again, how much do they know, have they found where I live, am I going to have to change my number/move/call the police”. And this goes on for ages, just because some people won’t leave a fucking message. Thanks! Thank you so much! I love reliving traumatic experiences just because it’s too much work to say “This is X, I’m calling about Y, please call me back.” If it’s important enough to warrant a phone call, it’s important enough to leave a message. If it’s not important enough to leave a message, why are you calling me in the first place?)

This is why I love email. And Facebook. And Twitter. And video calling on Skype. And blogging. And texting. And pretty much anything else that means I can communicate with people without phone calls. Nothing beats a face to face conversation, of course, but if that’s not an option I’d rather use pretty much any means of communication rather than the phone.

There’s more to explore here, so I will revisit this subject at some point – as always, I’ve written until I couldn’t write any more and need to step away from this topic for a bit. The external influences on my fear are pretty clear, but it would be easy to get stuck on them and not look at the root causes. There are issues here concerning control, feeling unable to communicate with people, feeling that people are incredibly difficult to understand but that I have to keep trying and trying to do so. All the things that pushed me towards theatre, essentially. Though, sadly, I don’t think that “don’t phone me, just write me a play and I’ll write you one back” will ever catch on.

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

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