Phone Phobia

I’m petrified of the phone.

This is not some sort of hyperbole indicating that I find telephonic communication to be a mild irritant or inconvenience.  I’m honestly, truly terrified of it.

I decided to write this post after a discussion developed on my Facebook page between a few of us that regard the act of ‘being on the phone’ with genuine horror.  The most rudimentary of Google searches suggests that we are not at all alone.  I can’t speak for others, obviously, but my phone phobia perplexes me entirely as, certain parameters of social anxiety aside, I am not too bad with people in person.

Let me qualify that; I freak out around new people, unless I am surrounded by people I know very well.  I refuse to go out without people I know intimately, and I’m very uncomfortable around mere acquaintances, not that you’d always know it.  However, if you catch me in the right mood, and I am with the right people, you’d be stunned to know I have any mental health issues at all.  My in-laws, for example, are constantly amazed that there’s anything wrong with me, as I give the appearance of being a social animal in front of them and in front of a number of others – sometimes it’s a mask, but occasionally it’s real (hypomania?  Who knows).

The phone changes everything.  I will usually answer if A phones me, because although he doesn’t actually have the full-blown phobia that I do, he hates the device too.  Anything, therefore, that he has to say via the bloody thing is either (a) quick or (b) urgent.

I only answer to my mother about 25% of the time, and everyone else thereafter becomes pro-(or re-)gressively more likely to be ignored.  This includes my close friends such as Daniel.  If they warn me that they’re going to phone, and give me some indication as to what it is they want to discuss, I’ll usually reluctantly give in – but not always.

There is 0% chance of me answering to a number that is either unfamiliar to me or is withheld.  It just will not happen.  As far as the land-line goes, I never answer it at all as I have no way of knowing who’s on the other end.  If it’s anyone that even has half a chance of speaking to me, they’ll get me on the mobile anyway.

When I hear the accursed thing vibrating (I almost never have the sound on) for any more than the second it takes to denote a text message or an email, or when I hear the infuriatingly cheerful but simultaneously ominous sound of the land-line, I begin to feel desperately uncomfortable.  It’s hard to say exactly how things progress, but let me attempt to dissect it.

It starts with a horrible ‘butterfly’ like feeling in the pit of the stomach, progressing to a sense of heightened physical alertness in which it feels like one is aware of every cell in one’s body.  It produces goosebumps.  The struggle for breath begins, the eyes widen.  One’s heart beats so desperately that one feels it will surely explode from one’s chest.

It reminds me of what I’ve heard of the mammalian ‘fight or flight’ instinct, except in this case things definitely fall on the side of ‘flight’.  Run away.  Hide under the bed, where you can’t hear it or see it taunting you.  Be gone, phone!

In short, I suppose I am essentially describing a panic attack.  Because of a fucking phone call. It is, when you think about it, absolutely preposterous.  What’s the worst that can happen, seriously?  You answer; if the person is a tosser, you hang up.  BIG DEAL.

Making a phone call tends to be less of an issue simply because, with the rare exception of my mother and A, I almost never do it.  Phoning those two individuals is always done through my choice and is on my terms, so whilst I don’t especially relish the prospect of communicating in that way, I don’t completely dread it.  I only call other people that I know when something very urgent arises, and as for calling people I don’t know – hahaha!  No.

There has been the odd time when I’ve had no choice but to do it – for example, when I changed my name, some companies with whom I deal refused to accept emailed or written confirmation of this (which seems rather unusual to me, but anyway).  This takes several hours of preparation on my part…sometimes more if the people concerned – eg. credit card companies – have proven themselves historically to be bastards.

How to prepare?  Well, the CBT-like approach of rationalising the probable simplicity of the impending conversation does not of course work, so I have to attempt to find means to make myself calm (*cough* Diazepam *cough*).  In such circumstances, I merely hope to convey facts to the other party, but although I usually get there eventually, even with the help of my little yellow friends I end up embarrassing myself wholly in the process.  Compare this to when I went into the bank with my deed poll to change my name with them in person.  Admittedly I had to take my mother (otherwise that would’ve been a fail too, no doubt), but I nonetheless communicated effectively and succinctly when dealing with the personnel directly.  Hmm.

Reverting to the issue of phoning people I don’t know, an alternative to the ‘calm’ approach is, on extremely rare occasions, to be really angry.  I mean, real, absolute, ‘I’m-seeing-fucking-red-here’, total anger, not just ‘I’m pissed off with these wankers’.  This leads to a very dominant me, blinded by rage, demanding answers and results.  This has happened maybe twice in my life – both times when I was regularly overcharged by packs of twats who consistently ignored other communications.

Compare the Mr Director-Person letters.  Am I angry in those?  Well, yes, I am – but not with that all-consuming, overpowering rage of which I speak.  Yet I can articulate myself coherently and intelligently, if rather arrogantly, on paper.  I cannot do this on the phone.  I’m either furious beyond furious, in which case woe betide whoever answers, or I faff and babble and make a complete tit of myself, thus ensuring the very opposite of what I’d like – an even longer bloody call.

I’m trying to pinpoint a time when this started.  When I was at school, I had a rather blasé relationship with the phone; I didn’t usually go out of my way to use it, but neither did I avoid it with the determination that I now do.  Daniel would ring me quite a lot, as would a few others to whom I was then close, and I was fairly OK with that.  A certain friend – Louise – and I even used to have a very childish (potentially cruel, I now see) laugh now and then phoning those stupid chatlines (they were free for women for some reason) to wind people up.

I would always have used email in preference to the telephone where possible, but my first memories of really being troubled by using it were when I was working in a firm of solicitors just before I started my postgraduate degree…so, what?  At the age of 21, maybe?  I remember phoning in sick a few times, and being terrified that my employers would doubt the authenticity of my illness, so to avoid accusations and 20 questions, I would ring before the office opened and leave answering machine messages for them rather than speak to anyone.

In my most recent job, it began to become a real bugbear.  Again, I used email where possible anyway, not particularly concerning myself about the phone, and my first boss had enough faith in me to get the job done in whatever manner that she let me get on with doing things in my own autonomous way.  When she retired and a colleague took over, things changed.  My new boss – a lovely woman, but dreadful boss – she was hell-bent on micro-managing everything, and as a techno-phobe she decided that email was a facility akin to Guantanamo Bay, and she all but banned the use of it in favour of the bastarding phone.  The nature of my work meant that I almost always took the entire department’s flack, even when the fault was mine maybe at most 5% of the time.  I felt that I could deal with this in writing, because any letter or email that was critical of me would be very easily trumped by anything that I could write in response.  Constantly having a bunch of stupid fuckers screeching in your ear about how useless and dreadful you were, however, was not quite so easy to contend with.

When I was embroiled in a pseudo-row with the office during the absence that ultimately led to my unemployment, I told them that I accepted the need to use the phone on many occasions, but contended that under the DDA it was a reasonable adjustment for them to allow my primary means of communication to be email.  They did not agree.

However, it would be easy to blame my last workplace, but my discomfort did not entirely emanate from there; it was merely worsened.  I cannot work out exactly where or how the discomfort, then the fear, then the abject terror first came about, and I cannot work out how I will deal with the issue in the long-term.  I hate the fucking phone.  I absolutely hate it.  I don’t ever expect to like it, but I would really rather it didn’t send me running to hide under the bed every time its use becomes necessary.

In this hugely electronic world that we have come to inhabit, perhaps ultimately the phone will end up being redundant and forgotten, consigned to unread, dusty pages of technological history books.  But that state of affairs is not at all imminent, not even vaguely so, so I must hope to find a solution to this most irrational, but frankly pathological, of fears.

And yeah, for those of you that have been paying attention over the last 13 months, I do have an iPhone 😉  That might be a bit of a ‘go figure’ moment for some of you, but trust me – the phone facility is by far the least used one on what is otherwise an amazing device.

So I’m weird.  Surprise surprise.  That is all.


26 thoughts on “Phone Phobia

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  11. I’m not far off as bad. Nightmare at work: customers insist on phoning! Why?? Why, why why? Why can’t they use email like civilised people? And at home: unknown number: pass the phone to Sue. This call will not be for me, no, no, no!! Or just let the answerphone pick it up. Ah, sweet joy: answerphones: 10,000 blessings and more upon the person who invented them … just please don’t expect me to listen to the message or call back … just email me, OK? Or leave a blog/facebook comment … heck, I’ll even do facebook chat (as in text chat … don’t even think about live video chat) …

    Mine’s an Inq, btw: not quite as cool as an iphone, but it’s definitely a txt-twitter-fb mobile, not a freakin’ phone! Aaargh! No, my dear, you are truly normal.

    Did I ever mention I used to work for BT, 192, Directory Enquiries … ? I think that was what did for me… Lord have mercy, the nutjobs. Seriously. You, oh blessed Pandora, are not a nutjob. You may have mental health issues, can’t argue with that, but you’re no nutjob. 🙂 x

  12. I can soooo relate. And cell phones have made phone communication so much worse. It’s as if people feel entitled to getting a hold of you whenever they feel like it. And often to talk about absolutely nothing important. Like you, I refuse to answer when people call because it must be on my terms. And if I know it’s a person who talks for more than 15 minutes, I almost always respond only by text.

    I don’t know what I ever did without email and texting…

  13. I’m similar, but I find it slightly easier to answer the phone than actually make a call to someone else. I also can’t stand leaving messages on answering machines. I can beat myself up about how supposedly stupid I sounded in the message for weeks! I recall a few phone conversations with CPN and several times (mere minutes apart) she felt the need to ask if I was ok. Any official conversations go through my mum which usually just involves me giving permission for her to speak on my behalf, but there have been times when she’s not thought about it and she gave me the phone! It happened with Connextions last year and I swear I nearly died 😛 I was a stuttering mess.

    I was fine with phones as a kid and during my early teens, it was seen as my job to answer the phone, but I was uncomfortable with it. Then I point blank refused this ‘job’ because no one ever actually called for me and that quite quickly turned into fear of the phone. When my mum was having a lot of money issues, we’d get at least 8 phone calls a day and she would refuse to answer them, but the ringing would get me so anxious that answering and fobbing them off was preferable!

    Short answer: I don’t make phone calls. Ever. Rarely will I answer the phone, but it’s more likely if I know who it is. Ex. If it’s my aunt calling for my mum, but she’s out then I won’t answer, but if she’s in then I’ll quickly pick it up and throw it in my mum’s general direction (or block my ears until she answers if she’d get to the phone first) 😀 Fun times.

  14. IMO, this is extremely common among people who suffered severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as children, for the simple reason that safety is nearly impossible to gauge without body language cues, and similarly, dominance is difficult to establish without eye contact.

    I am that most curious of phenomena, a highly socially accomplished introvert (introversion and shyness are not, as many people assume, the same thing) but I hate the phone as well, though I have had to learn to use it because it is integral to much of my business. When I present myself in person, my body language almost immediately establishes me as the dominant party; this sometimes requires a bit of dancing around if I am meeting with another “alpha” male, but even then, I usually have the upper hand. On the phone, it’s usually the angrier party who dominates, and that is very frightening to anyone with trauma history.

    My girlfriend and I have been together for a year and half now; we live two hours away from each other and see each other once a week, and in that year and a half, we have spoken on the phone maybe four times. That’s how much we *both* hate the phone.

    • YES! I am totally screwed without being able to see someone! I *need* body language and to see someone’s face when I am talking to them. Unless, oddly enough, it’s over the internet like a chat facility of some description. But I think that is because it is much less “real”, and quite safe to read dialogue and respond. But Phones? *Shudders* Scary. And I even worked in call centre for a year – nearly killed me.

      Lola x

    • I think this is a very valid point, David. I’d never thought about it in this context hitherto, but it does make a lot of sense. I do rely quite a lot on visual cues, such as facial expression and demeanour, so it fits.


  15. Hey Pandora,
    Long time, no speak. My phone issues tend to focus mainly around leaving messages etc. However, for the last month, while I’ve been out of town, I have been doing my Therapy sessions by phone. And I agree with David. One of the reason I hated it so much and had so much anxiety around it, was the lack of eye contact, visual cues etc. With the PTSD I need to constantly scan the environment and the other people in it to ensure my safety, and on the phone this environment is kind of nebulous….bleurgh…therapy sucks at the best of times, but on the phone was horrible! Take care of yourself

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  17. Hello luv,

    This is an interesting one isn’t it? I developed a similar but less extreme fear of the blower a while ago, though it was transitory, as I am not remotely anxious about technology. If anything, my obsessive, slightly non paranoid mania has made me a phone phiend in the past and I do go a bit gooey about the possibility of getting an iPhone or a something like it…

    What I’m intrigued with is that the thing I find similar to you is the context within which your own foibles developed. I presume that maybe that job with the wigs was at a time when you were getting a bit mental, and that perhaps you found yourself not wanting to explain why you were ill because you didn’t think they would understand or believe you – and that at the time, you didn’t really feel it was justified to be crook either (because mentalism isn’t a real illness of course… (bollocks)). In my case, I had a good job and went off sick after a failed relationship that I pursued with a colleague for about a year or two. Rejection by said colleague ensued, and that plus the stress of my job and working for a tosser took its toll. At the same time, my mother was being pushed about my a very unpleasant partner who was set to drive a wedge between her and my sister and I. Jealous, possessive, insecure TWAT he was (still IS!). I was very much alone, and my self confidence was rubbish. I was sleeply horridly and became progressively more and more depressed. Finally, MA (Mad Aunt – see my last blog post for context) convinced me to go off sick – and the GP signed me off with depression. But, and this is a but, BB (Bastard Boss) started ringing me at home to ask about some impending work I’d have to leave to him to cover. And he rang incessantly. I was off my face on amitryptilene, and just stopped answering the phone to him. In the end, MA answered and told him to piss off and leave me alone. She then rang the HR department of my company and reminded them that I was off sick and no-one should be contacting me about work… I didn’t receive another call for a long, long time. But the die was cast, and I found the noise of my mobile and the landline very upsetting for quite a while.

    Fast forward a few years, I rang up a bit of debt, and the debt collectors starting calling and making demands. This incessant pestering and threatening caused me further reasons not to answer the phone. I dreaded receiving those calls on my mobile that didn’t display a familiar number – so I just stopped using the phone at all. To this day, although I love texting and email, I don’t answer my phone to people I don’t know. And when I’m ill, I stop answering the phone to everyone.

    So as you can see, these are all reactive anxieties that I learned in response to fear. In the case of being ill, I was thoroughly justified in being worried about divulging my problems at work. I returned before I was recovered in response to pressure put upon me by BB, and they refused to allow me to return part time. I was made to feel like a freak and incompetent. The debt thing was caused by me being manic, but was also symptomatic of a bad relationship with money, practicality and responsibility to myself.

    I think how I feel about this is that I don’t have an irrational fear of the dog and bone, but in my case what I have experienced arose as a result of very difficult things going on at the time I became anxious about it. When these things were dealt with over time, the anxiety disappeared.

    Must be fucking inconvenient to avoid using the blower though love; though I suppose if this is a habit, you probably don’t miss it eh? I mainly don’t use it much these days because I email – and because I can’t afford to yack that much.

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