Category Archives: anxiety disorder


I am a bear of very little brain.

I am a bear of very little brain.

I was born with only one channel. It’s an affliction I’ve had to struggle with my entire life. No studying Latin conjugations while listening to the Top Ten on the radio. No chatting while a television babbles away in the background like an idiot brother whom everyone indulges but no one pays much attention to. Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain. If I am to function, I require quiet. That’s because I can only tune into one thing at a time. Present me with multiple audio streams and watch a train wreck happen in my head.

My first real job was as an assistant editor for an academic press. I shared an office with my boss, a chain-smoking Mennonite who tuned into National Public Radio ALL DAY. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of NPR, just not when I’ve been charged with wrangling a writer’s dubious prose into some semblance of meaning or untangling a grammatical snake ball.  For that, I need my entire brain, including the large chunk besieged by that interview with Glenn Gould or under attack from the whimsical musings of Garrison Keillor. And because X was my boss and this was over thirty years ago, I couldn’t say Word One either about the non-stop cigarettes or the non-stop radio. I spent two years tearing my hair out in a haze of blue smoke and unceasing burble.

I can no more not watch television than I can ignore radio. I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. For me it is always foreground, never background. Because I can’t ignore it. Because it’s there. Part of my issue is undoubtedly nurture. When we were kids, Mom thought that television would “rot our brains,.” Accordingly, she  tightly rationed our  consumption. Every week she presented my brother Peter and me with the TV Guide. We were allowed one hour of television a day.  We selected those shows we wanted to watch and listed them on a form she provided.  As a result of this surprisingly Tiger Mom-ish action on her part, I am utterly incapable of channel surfing or of coming into a show part way through.  I would no more sit down and channel surf than I wander off into a snowy night shoeless with no destination in mind. As for watching part of a show, that means you’ve missed the other part — a glass half-empty in my estimation. If there’s something I want to watch, I have to see it from the very beginning, including the intro, and nobody better talk over it, because, goddam it, this is my hour of television and I only have one and I don’t want to miss one second!

It’s not only blaring TVs and radio that give me the fantods;  TV and radio turned down so low that all you can make out is a distant drone and rumble have the same effect. I become immediately fixated on trying  to tease out meaning from the mumble. I don’t want to, but I can’t help myself. Some kind person has turned the volume down so the noise won’t bother cranky old me, only now it bothers me more because, instead of hearing it, I’m not hearing it.

My husband and I used to frequent a particular ice cream stand. I would order Butter Pecan, because that’s the best flavor of ice cream there is; my husband would order Turtle Caramel Fudge. One day they were out of Turtle Caramel Fudge. “You’re out of Turtle Caramel Fudge!” my husband exclaimed to the teenage girl whose summer job this was; he likes teasing young girls. “I’m distraught! I’m beside myself! At a loss! No Turtle Caramel Fudge? Whatever can I do?” The girl appraised him cooly. “You might see a psychiatrist,” she suggested.

And so could I, I suppose, for all my noise foibles, but, really, why bother?  The most commonly used word around our house these days is “What?” — my husband thinks I’m going deaf and I know he is.  I’m lobbying for us to have a hearing test mainly so that I can prove to him that he is deafer than me, in which case, clearly, I win.  He’s  resisting because he knows I’m right. Soon enough, if I am lucky — or unlucky — to live as long as my blessed father, I will be ensconced in a chair from which there is no escape — at least not under my own steam — with MSNBC cranked so loud that the vibrations rock the foundations of the nursing home and, far from it bothering me, I will not even notice.

I am a telephobe

My lifeI 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’!”  “Noooooo!”   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.