(Don’t) Call Me on the Telephone

I have long avoided phone calls. If I have to call someone else, I usually need to work myself up. And when the phone rings, I either let it go to voicemail or (much less often) answer with an anxious aggression.

I have generally attributed this avoidance to PTSD: After I moved out of my mother’s house, she’d call me threatening suicide. That in turn tied to a two-part episode of “One Day at a Time” (the original version) I’d seen as a child; the first part ended with an acquaintance calling Barbara from a hotel, having taken enough drugs to die. My parents refused to let me see the second part, and so that lingered in my head for decades, overlapping my mother’s repeated suicide threats.

Lately, though, I’ve been reflecting on the role that my neurodiversity plays in my anxiety about phones.

One attribute of phone conversations is a diminished lack of control. I’m old enough to remember a time before caller ID was even a thing: The phone would ring and there would be no way of determining who it was on the line. Before that, voicemail wasn’t even a thing; businesses had to redirect their unanswerable calls to a third party company.

So when I was a child, when the phone rang at home, someone either had to answer it and risk whatever conversation might ensue, or ignore it and perhaps never find out who it was.

These days, I always check the number when it rings to see who it is, and most calls go to voicemail. As far as I can tell, this is how most people work. But I remember those old days and the panic of trying to get to the phone on time even when there was something else going on. The telephone was some master control on life, always ready to intrude.

Also, for me, there’s a greater awkwardness in phone conversations. The etiquette and scripts are different then they are with face to face conversations. In face to face conversations, things like body language can be used to indicate when a conversation is being wrapped up, when it’s time to continue, when it’s time to change subject, and so on.

While those conversations have their own scripts which I struggle with, phone conversations are at a different level. Turn taking is more complicated, ending conversations is more complicated, and when a conversation goes the wrong direction it’s more difficult to recover.

Both of these attributes—a history of having to answer, and scripts that are more difficult to navigate—lead to me feeling somewhat trapped in a phone conversation. And while changes in technology (caller ID and voicemail) have mitigated one set of anxieties, phones are now omnipresent, and hence harder to get away from.

I know I’m not alone in these feelings: Newer generations seem to minimize voice calling entirely, usually in terms of texting. Despite the even more reduced access to tone, texting has the advantage of being easier to control the conversation; mistakes can be erased before they’re sent, and miscommunication can be referred back to.

Even so, it feels like many people merely prefer modes other than voice calls, while I actively resist them.

A problem with having CPTSD and being autistic is that it’s difficult to ferret out which aspects of my non-normative behaviors and feelings are attributable to which, and to what extent. But as I continue to navigate through my self-exploration, it is helpful to reflect on how each factor makes up my whole.

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