I thought I'd have to call someone today to get some information, and I got that old familiar dread. I was relieved when the person emailed me before I had to pick up the phone, though my anxiety is a fraction of what it was even a few years ago. My phobia started in highschool. Calling someone meant an ache in my chest, tightness in my stomach, and delaying dialing as long as possible. It evolved into sitting staring at the phone, and doing nothing else in my life, while trying to work up the courage to call, and mentally rehearsing what I would say.
When I started ERP therapy, I realized that when making a call for information or to ask someone a question, I wanted to be certain that I would know how the conversation would proceed. My mental rehearsal could go on indefinitely, because I was attempting to predict the impossible. I couldn't know exactly what the other person would say, and the anxiety I felt about this put me into a suspended state. It wasn't so much that I expected the phone call to go badly, although at times this was the fear, but that not knowing the script in advance created a storm of anxiety.
I remember when an extraverted friend of mine told me she loved making phone calls and connecting with the person on the line, and delighting in having a phone interview for a job; I thought she was crazy! My mantra when calling was always, "don't answer. don't answer. don't answer." It was a revelation when I realized that I was not going to feel "just right" enough to call--that in fact setting it up as an exposure, dialing the number and letting the anxiety be there until it dissipated was the way to break the prison of dread that could engulf a day if I needed to make a call.
One time in session with my therapist, I told him I'd been avoiding calling my doctor about my elevated blood pressure numbers. He challenged me to call right there in his office. My adrenaline surged! But I recognized the opportunity to face the fear head-on. He also said it would be helpful to let myself stumble through what I had to ask, rather than trying to rehearse and talk with omniscient knowing. My heart was pounding. The receptionist freaked, and said I had to talk to the doctor on call, even though the numbers were not dangerous, just trending higher. But I survived it. And I glimpsed the possibility that lurching through a call could be less painful than spending weeks of avoidance and rumination about making a call.
My heart goes out to anyone who has difficulty making phone calls. It truly sucks to have this phobia. I didn't even call my friends or people who I really wanted to make contact with. People who loved me and didn't expect me to give an Oscar winning performance on the phone. I am grateful for the lessening of this anxiety as I practice tolerating the dread and calling anyway.
Tuesday Q&A: The Secret Illness
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