Communication Problems

It’s pretty ironic that my iPhone is pretty much welded to my side, when I’m more afraid of using phones in general than I am of anything else (with the possible exception of wasps). It’s not a problem with the actual technology itself, of course – just the act of speaking into one. “Blessed” with a stammer as I am, even the idea of a phone conversation is capable of breaking me out into a cold sweat. It’s my idea of torture.

In a work situation, using the phone usually means imparting certain specific information to someone, and as a stammerer who likes to get around words that he finds difficult to say, that’s often nigh-on impossible. As soon as the phone rings my stress levels automatically rise, and that feeds into the resulting conversation. That bad experience then feeds into my stress levels when the phone next rings, and so on and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle. Much of my working day is spent worrying about when the phone is next going to ring, and if I’m on my own in the office, it’s even worse. I’ve been known to ignore the phone completely when alone.

And that’s just incoming calls. Outgoing calls are a whole other level of hurt. Unless I know the person I’m going to ring very well, and just need to speak to them for a minute or two, I’m even more petrified. Calling a friend on their mobile when I know my number’s going to pop up for them to see, and I know they’re the only ones who are going to answer, is bad enough, but I literally will not call a complete stranger, particularly if it’s a work situation. The level of inevitable embarrassment for me, and perhaps more importantly for them as they have to wait for what I’m trying to say (with them often saying, “Hello? Hello?” as if the line’s gone dead, when actually it’s just me unable to get my words out), makes it not worth it for either party. Plus it’s hardly a great advertisement for the company I work for. So if I get a note on my desk saying, “So-and-so called, please can you call them back?”, my heart sinks. Don’t you know that I don’t make outgoing phone calls, FFS? And why am I inwardly getting angry with you for simply leaving me the message, when I’m the one with the problem?

As you can see: ISSUES. It’s hard to remember exactly when this phobia began. I seem to recall using the phone a lot as a teenager despite the problems. Maybe that was because there was no element of “risk” involved, as all I was doing was calling my friends. The only stress there was in a friend’s mother answering and me then having to explain who I was and who I wanted to talk to. But somewhere along the line – maybe when using the phone became more necessary in a professional capacity as I got older – it became this massive albatross around my neck.

It really is hard to describe what having a stammer is like. Obviously I can describe the physical symptoms, but the feeling of sheer bloody frustration nearly every time I open my mouth is hard to quantify. Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say all the time in any situation, but then being physically incapable of doing so – like there’s a fist down your throat squeezing on your voice box, making it malfunction. But that’s not the real problem, which is simply not knowing when things are going to come out okay and when it’s going to be a disaster. That level of self-doubt and uncertainty inevitably feeds back into my thinking and makes it worse.

And, not trying to over-egg the pudding here, it really does have a huge impact on my life. Want a takeaway? Better find somewhere with a website, then, as I can’t cold-call anywhere and hope to say my address. Problem with my telly/Internet/bank/anything else? Yep, that Indian call centre is looking really great right now, eh? Luckily I have a very understanding wife who does all the phoning in our household, but whenever that support mechanism isn’t there, I’m pretty screwed. It’s very easy for people to say, “Why don’t you just try it?” and “Make people wait for you – if they’re not prepared to, then it’s their loss”, but it really, really isn’t that simple.

It’s had a big impact on what I laughably call my career, too. While my work emailing is pretty much second to none (it’s had to be, I guess), my utter ineptness on the phone isn’t exactly compatible with rising up the greasy pole. “Call here to apply for this wonderful job.” Er… no thanks. And obviously in an interview situation I’m so busy trying to get around the words that my answers are terrible. It’s affected my writing, too. I can’t call editors looking for freelance work. I can’t be someone who goes around interviewing people. I can’t do the phone round to chase up leads, so that career in journalism I reckon I could have walked into otherwise, is simply not viable.

With my novel-writing and screenplay stuff, too, it’s a bit of a disaster in certain situations. I’m not going to call agents’ assistants and establish a relationship. I’m not going to go to a writers’ group or workshop where part of it is pitching my story (much as I can do that in my sleep, in my head). And while it was hugely useful to me in terms of content and what I learnt, the part of the one workshop I did go to last year (about how to write a synopsis) where I had to relay my own story to a partner and then give my version of their story in front of the others, was absolutely horrible. Well worth it for what I got out of the day, but that fifteen minute portion was hell. So if I get a literary agent, how am I going to get really in-depth about my writing with them on the phone or in a meeting with them? If I write a screenplay, how will I pitch it to a room of people? This kind of stuff keeps me up at night. At least it would if I wasn’t a sleeper par excellence.

Everyone has their little foibles, right? Doubtless every single person reading this blog entry wants to change something about themselves. For me, my stammer would be first against the wall. If it vanished tomorrow, I genuinely believe that I would be the happiest person in the world. Liberated. Free to do whatever the fuck I wanted, with nothing to hold me back. Contrary to popular belief amongst those who meet up with me often, I’m not a quiet individual at all. I’m generally known as a good listener, but there’s always so much I want to say that I don’t. You should hear what I’m thinking. It’s just a shame that you probably never will. And I’m sorry about that. My fault.


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4 responses to “Communication Problems

  1. Andy Johnson

    Despite dropping out myself, I’m still trying to keep up with a few One a Days…

    I’m not “blessed” with a stammer, but I severely dislike using the phone. It’s bearable with people I know well, but I always feel very anxious about talking with anyone else, particularly if I have to call. It used to be much worse, mind, I’m steadily getting over it as time goes on – I hope! Having said that, it occurred to me recently that during the five months or so I was with my ex, we never, ever spoke on the phone because of our mutual dislike of them. Seemed normal to us, but to most people that would probably be incredibly strange. A friend showed me his phone inbox the other day – about the last seven messages were his girlfriend saying “call me”.

  2. Jen

    That must be so tough 😦

    I’m no fan of phoning people but at least I’m able to if I build up the nerve beforehand.

    I really feel for you 😦

  3. It’s not your fault, though, Mike.

    I really don’t know what to recommend. Have you spoken to a doctor about maybe trying to examine the psychological side of it – i.e. the fact that you’re thinking about it and exacerbating the condition? I’m sure that’s an avenue you’ll have already explored, but thought I’d mention it, as it was something my GP talked to me about when we were discussing my condition.

    Either way, you should be proud of what you’ve achieved. Your piece on the Guardian about your stammer was great, and you only need to read back through that to see what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. Your stammer shouldn’t be a barrier to any potential career path – if anyone has a problem with it, then they’re obviously not worth working for or with. Besides, your writing speaks for itself. That’s going to be the most important thing, not whether you can pitch something in person.

  4. I have a similar hatred of using the phone so I can truly sympathise; It used to be chronic – I couldn’t make a phone call without pacing for about five minutes and talking the whole thing out loud to myself first and if the phone rang my heart would leap up out of my chest. I’m a lot better now, as my phobia was caused, in no small part, by my ex wife; who used to call me up and scream at me down the phone with no particular rhyme or reason. Over a year of counselling to get me through my fears eventually helped me to begin to put it behind me, but I still get a twinge when the phone rings or a pang when I have to call someone unknown.

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