April 04, 2012

Phone phobia and why I feel like an idiot

This evening I was a caller on a nationwide radio show, and I wanted to say something about the effect of stigma on mentally ill people (the situation was specifically the stigma surrounding Jason Russell, but I wanted to talk more broadly about mental health stigma). Anyway, it panned out that I got quite flustered and distressed, and was cut off before I could say what I wanted to say on air. The bit of me that they got made me sound very stupid, and I was very unhappy about it.

I sent a message on Facebook to the producer (who originally contacted me through Facebook), saying what I wanted to say on air.

Fast forward an hour, it is 8:30pm at night and my cellphone rings, number withheld. I freeze up, a huge lump forms in my throat and another in my chest. My ears start ringing and I just stare at the screen on my cellphone until it stops ringing. Then my home phone starts ringing and the same happens, followed by another call to my cellphone. The whole time I am sitting here, frozen, completely filled with absolute terror about the phone, who would be on the other end of the line, what they would say to me... and if it was the radio presenter, how terrified I would sound.

I didn't answer. I couldn't. I sat here, terrified, waiting for the ringing to stop.

So I will never know what they had to say to me. Maybe an apology, maybe an accusation that I hadn't been clear on air. Who knows, but they didn't leave a message, and no reply was made to my Facebook message. I can't change what happened on air, or how silly I feel I sounded, so I feel like it is best to let that part go.

But I can't let go of the fact that my phone phobia is so crippling that I can't answer a call that may make a situation that upset me much better. It is so crippling that if friends call, I avoid answering their calls, I tell them my phone is broken, or it was off. I avoid making calls to utilities companies, or to make doctor's appointments. I just can't do it. The fact I could even use a telephone to talk on the radio show in the first place is a pure miracle, and I just used up my miracles of the day.

I would also like to point out at this point that this phone phobia is only active in out of work hours. While at work, it is like I have a separate person that takes over, and I am able to answer the phone, make phone calls, and generally talk on the phone like a human being. Why this is, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps I just know that I have to talk on the phone as part of my job, and I have no choice. There is no one else to answer those calls, only I can do it. It is the same with public speaking - I couldn't talk to a stranger outside of work hours, but in the shop I can talk confidently to several people at once.

Moving on, not unlike many phobias I have as an adult, I can pinpoint the direct cause of this anxiety. Many years ago I worked for a fast food restaurant. The manager of the store I worked at used to call and abuse you if you had called in sick, or if you were had been asked to do a shift but couldn't make it then he would call and abuse you for that. Once, he got my housemate instead of me, and abused her instead.

It seems like anxiety is the one facet of my mental illness that I just can't shake. I no longer self-injure, I don't make suicide plans, I no longer hide in my room and cry. I have a career, long-term boyfriend, and life is good... but I am still crippled by anxiety and fear.


  1. I know you're not looking for advice, which is just as well. I don't have any to give. I just wanted you to know that you're not alone in this particular issue. Phone phobia is a peculiar disorder. Most people relate to the common ones--claustrophobia, fear of loud noises, fear of crowds, spiders, etc. Those make good, logical sense on the whole. But a fear of talking on the phone? Why? It can't hurt you? It can't smother you, it doesn't bite.

    For what it's worth, I suffer from this phobia as well and I can't pinpoint the cause (Back in the late eighties, I was a telemarketer for PBS for two years--and I was really good at it). All I know is that a few years ago, I began avoiding phone calls--first taking them, and, now, making them. It used to be specific to certain people (like my dad--lots of luggage there), but it seems to have spread its wings to encompass everyone except my mother, my children, and my husband (all "safe" people). It's gotten in the way of long time friendships. Most have accepted that it's easier to email me, because I will always reply at length and in depth, but I know they don't understand. My husband of twenty-plus years more or less gets it and grumbles, but compensates by making phone calls for me, but it does get to me. Other than this particular issue, I am in more or less good mental health--at least nothing that interferes with normal day-to-day functioning. :)

    1. Hi Mary!

      Firstly, thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment :)

      I have "safe" people too. My partner, my mother, and my closest friend. They are the only people I feel safe and no anxiety about picking up the phone to answer a call, or make one.

      I find my family and friends don't get it, but my mother and partner will have a moment of comprehension when I snap in frustration after being pestered to be the one to call and order the pizza for dinner, or some other similar situation!

      I'd say phone phobia, and general low-level anxiety, are the only barriers to day-to-day functioning for me as well! :)

  2. I have this so bad. It's progressed over the years. I just now bothered to google it today. My biological father called and i froze up & denied the call. Then I had a little anxiety attack that involved feeling like allll the air had been crushed out of my chest. I was fired from a job a couple of weeks ago (involved *very* little phone-talking) and immediately applied for a CALL CENTER JOB of all things only to quit 3 days after getting hired because I remembered I hate hate hate answering the phone. I quit before getting to the point where you actually put on a headset & answer an incoming call. This caused a lot of embarrassment for me. I've denied 14 out of 15 incoming calls to my cell since then. The one i answered was from a close friend who knows and is understanding of my phone dread. The first panic I ever remember feeling about the phone was when, a few months after my 2 yr old son died, my mother called my job & had my boss come get me to the phone...to ask me where the remote control to the tv was. Wtf?! I thought for someone to call me at work it must be something terrible. I thought someone, possibly my other son, might be dead. Anyway, I find it impossible most of the time to answer or place a call.