Feb. 7, 2014
I am telephobic. I have been as long as I can remember. I didn’t know it was an actual disorder until I Googled it, but there it is in Wikipedia: Telephobia, a reluctance or fear of making or taking telephone calls, a type of social anxiety which I share, interestingly enough, with about 2.5 million people in Great Britain.
Except in rare cases where I’m waiting for actual news, the sound of a telephone ringing triggers a five-bell alarm in my nervous system.
“Shit!” I mutter, glancing furtively around for someplace to hide.
“What?” my husband asks, quite reasonably. “Somebody’s calling. Why do you have to react that way?”
If it’s a 1-800 number or a number I don’t recognize, I give a sigh of relief. Because my rulebook clearly states that I don’t have to pick up a call from either a 1-800 number or a number I don’t recognize. This sometimes backfires. Once I got a call from an unavailable number and it turned out to be the Emergency Room, calling me to let me know that my son had broken his femur. Why, I thought, does the Emergency Room have an unavailable number? Shouldn’t the display say “Emergency Room” so you’d know to pick up right away? It seems kind of sneaky not to, as if they’re trying to trip you up, make you out to be a bad parent.
Of course, if it’s a number I recognize, chances are I’ll let it go to voice mail anyway. Moments later, full of dread, I will slink over to the phone, take a deep breath, and, lifting the receiver with a clammy hand, dial voice mail, heart pounding. Because I do check messages and quickly. That’s because I’m afraid it might be bad news or something to which I need to react quickly. I’m not irresponsible. Just full of trepidation. If the matter is urgent, I will steel myself and call back. “I was just out walking the dogs,” I'll say, trying to sound blythe. If it is not urgent, I'll email a response and hope that they reply back with an email, thus saving myself from the agony of resorting to the telephone. Failing that, I will put returning the call on my To Do List for the next day. By then, I will have mustered sufficient fortitude to make the call. And I will call at a time when I think the other party might not be at home, so I can leave a message on their machine rather than actually converse with them. It’s safer that way. In my universe.
Apparently one of the reasons telephobics dislike talking on the telephone is that body language is taken out of the equation, forcing us to navigate uncharteded seas of conversation without the clues that body language usually provide. When engaged in conversation on the phone, I pace like a big cat in a cage -- back and forth and up and down, the receiver painfully ground into my ear, my right hand pressed to my forehead in a fainting gesture. I feel crazy, cotton-mouthed and dithery. I talk too fast, raise and summarily dismiss too many topics, interrupt, cough unproductively, gag. Then, when I think I spot a teensy light at the end of the tunnel, when I think that maybe, just maybe I might be able to extricate myself from the conversation without seeming too rude, I announce, “Well, I’ll let you go now.” “Wait a minute,” my startled interlocutor will say. “I called you.” (Why not use FaceTime or Skype, people suggest, and I do. There are, however, times when one doesn’t want to be seen. Times when one is wearing pink foam rollers, for example, or dressed like a hobo. Times when one has been drinking excessively.)
I don’t have any trouble talking on the telephone for work. That’s because it’s Work Me who’s doing the talking. Work Me is a very different kettle of fish from Me Me.
What’s more, I’ve been like this all my life.
"Here! Grandmother wants to say ‘hi’!”
Not even when I was a teenager and all the rules governing normal behaviour were suspended did I like talking on the telephone.
“It’s Debbie!” my mother would call upstairs.
“Tell her I’m in the bathroom!” I'd yell back.
I do talk on the telephone to people – my children, my sister, a few friends -- and to those people I say, do not feel bad that I do not like talking on the telephone and you are making me do it. Take it as a compliment. If I didn’t love you, I’d be out walking the dogs.
Or in the bathroom.