I figured they’d be home any minute, my partner and my friend. My partner had class today, and since he can’t drive, I usually take him to school. But my dear visiting friend graciously offered to drive him so that I could take a little downtime.
Around the time they were expected back in town, the text came in.
“Just FYI, we’re stuck in [school town] with car trouble.”
Then, about a minute later: “the alternator almost started on fire.”
And then my mobile started ringing. It was my partner, apparently not wanting to have to type out all the details over text message, and opting to give me the low-down on the sitch in real-time.
“Yeah, we’re up here on [US Interstate Highway + familiar major cross-street]. Tried to get on the interstate to head home and saw wisps of smoke coming from the engine. Had to pull over, and now we’re waiting for a tow truck. Here’s the problem…”
“…[friend]’s [travel association] can’t find her in the system, so she’s looking at a really expensive tow bill, and my [same travel association] card doesn’t show me as listed on our account; apparently your name is the only one listed. … Here’s what you need to do…”
And here’s where his voice got tentative and compassionate: “you need to call [travel association] and put my name on the account, and have them give me all the permissions you have.”
Practically any Aspie/autistic person knows instinctively that “call” was the operative word in that sentence.
This particular situation was a black-and-white, open-and-shut deal. They were potentially looking at a 70-mile (110-km) tow back to our town, and my travel association membership included up to 100 miles (about 160 km) for free.
My partner was much more concerned about asking me to make that phone call than I was.
Because usually, I hate the phone. I despise the phone. I don’t know what it is, but ever since I was young, I would feel a peculiar emotional mixture of elation (yay! Someone’s actually calling to talk to little ol’ me!) and annoyance (aw, dammit, I’m not really in the mood to talk at the moment, but I don’t necessarily have an “acceptable” excuse not to).
In high school and early college/university, I held several phone-based jobs that involved both inbound and outbound calling. Some positions were inbound, meaning that I would answer phone calls from the company’s customers: i.e., your garden-variety customer service representative. Other positions involved outbound calling, meaning that I would actually make the phone calls to other people, usually semi-cold-calling, usually selling renewal subscriptions to magazines or asking for donations on behalf of political parties, universities, or whatever other entity contracted with that company.
I had a decent phone voice and I had long since mastered most of the art of diplomacy and all that, but I still couldn’t stand the jobs, although it usually took me a while to realize it. They ended up going down in history as some of my most stressful jobs. I always felt downright buoyant when they came to an end.
Fast-forward a couple decades: on an innocuous spring evening, a pleasantly warm day that brought to a close a day no different from those that preceded it, I sat on the steps outside our apartment/flat and took my first Asperger’s quiz. Yep, that one. I was sniffing out a clue that had caught fire inside me a mere number of minutes ago, and I stumbled upon my Eureka-est of all Eureka moments.
Shortly thereafter, I connected with other members of the community and found that lo and behold, they hated the phone, too!
Whoa, cool!–wait–really?? You mean that (again) I’m not alone, and (again) I’m not a flawed, tarnished person? Rock on!
Instantly, my mind became flooded with every feeling I’ve ever had toward talking on the phone. Suddenly, it all made sense. Why, for example, my bestest of in-flesh friends would call and I would turn off the ringer and let it go to voice mail, even though I wasn’t engaged in any particularly pressing activity at the time (hell, I might not have been doing much at all).
Or why, before making a phone call, I felt the need to type out everything that I planned to say, typically word-for-word, complete with “Situation A”, “Situation B”, and “Situation C” off-shooting scripts that I could quickly skip down the page to access, depending on how the other person responded (i.e., a thought process that ran along the lines of, for example, if they say “this”, skip down to “Situation B”).
Or why I had to sit and stare and procrastinate when it came to making a phone call (I realized later that the procrastination was actually more of a summoning of courage).
Or why, when in the middle of a particularly cognitively-taxing activity, I would become rather irrationally irritable if the phone should dare to ring.
Or why I lived most of my life with my ringers turned off.
And why, in my not-so-mature moments of foul language, “the phone” became “the F-ing phone”, so reliably that I’m sure that if I had children, their kindergarten teacher would have probably held up a picture of a telephone and my theoretical child would have cheerfully shouted, “I know that one! It’s a ‘F-ing phone’!” Cue call from theoretical child’s teacher.
Which is probably one of the reasons why my better judgment overruled any biological clock upon which I hadn’t already slammed down on the snooze button, and lectured me that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to have children. And that was that.
So if I don’t have children nor horrified kindergarten teachers to talk to, then who do I talk to on the phone, how do I feel about it, and how to I handle it?
Surprisingly enough, there are a few people with whom I do talk on a regular basis.
There are my parents, of course. These conversations occur anywhere from a couple times a week to once every couple of weeks, but they’re never too far apart. We each know that if the phone rings and Caller ID proudly displays the other’s number, grab some tea and use the loo–it’s going to be a while. As in, probably two to four hours. During these conversations, we discuss anything from my parents’ crafts and cattle-raising to my partner’s and my work projects and adventures. Occasionally, there will be a political debate, too; my parents are conservative and I’m an unclaimed independent who requires that every candidate work–hard–for my support. Each conversation also easily includes at least two to three rants on average, and additionally, we end up solving the world’s problems several times over, before finally signing off.
My sister and I talk far less often (I’ve counted about five months in between conversations), but that’s no big deal; when we do connect, we just pick up where we left off. We make up for the lack of quantity with extra quality, though; the longest convo I’ve had with Li’l Sis has come just 10 minutes shy of six hours, and we cover similar topics, with the added bonuses of international boundaries (and thus, customs and laws) and a unified mutual good-natured tirade about how our parents are “getting old” and “can’t stop talking about the cows!” We’re only half-joking, but we’re also half-compassionate (toward them) about the issue, so we figure… good karma?
Then there’s my older friend, who’s staying with us for a few months, like she has every year for the past several. Strangely enough, despite the fact that I’m the known-Aspie, this was my idea. (Can I use the I-word? (Irony)?) When we’re geographically re-separated, we talk pretty regularly – sometimes twice in a week, but not more than 10 days between calls. Our frequency usually averages out to about once a week. The calls last anywhere from an hour and a half to possibly two and a half hours (if we’re really on a roll and our energetic stamina holds out). We talk about the same things that my parents and I talk about, sans cows and political debates.
I can talk with another dear friend of mine, who’s roughly my age and has Lyme Disease, EDS, and Hashimoto’s (just like me, minus the Lyme Disease), for hours, too. But she has three adolescent kids, a husband, and an elderly father, so she usually can’t stay on too long. Between the family circus (my affectionate term) and the crushing chronic fatigue, I’m just grateful to be able to talk with her at all. She’s amazing; I admire her strength and positivity. She gets down at times, but never lets herself stay there for long before picking herself back up and continuing on. We talk a lot about our jobs, our families, our anxiety, our introversion, Lyme Disease and Functional Medicine (she’s really interested), food and nutrition (she was going to go to culinary school, but now she wants to do something more along the lines of my career).
Those are my “inner-ring” peeps. They’re awesome and they form the bedrock of my in-flesh personal support network. My two friends are especially supportive and accommodating of my Aspie neurotype, and they listened with interest as I came out to them (which was pretty early on) and brought them through my journey. They’re generously patient with me, too, even if I’ve prattled on for a while about a “special interest” without realizing I was dominating the conversation. I’m extremely comfortable talking to them; no nervousness or anxiety at all.
As I move out through the ring-layers into the peripheral rings, I move further out of my comfort zone. The reluctance begins to ratchet up a little more the further out I go.
I’ve got more outer-ring friends than I do inner-ring, but they’re kept at much more of a distance. We might’ve met during–and through–different phases of our academic careers or part-time jobs or what-have-you, but we’re not on each others’ short-lists of contacts, and that’s mutually OK. We’ve all got each others’ numbers if we need something, and an open/standing invitation to call each other whenever, but we don’t communicate on a regular basis aside from lovingly cyber-stalking each other on Facebook. We might go several years without actually talking, and if/when we do, it’s probably for an average length of a few minutes, maybe up to an hour, if the issue is particularly pressing. I’m relatively comfortable talking with them, too, although I probably won’t initiate the conversation unless I have to, nor will I typically be quite as quick to return the call. If I have the spoons, and I’m fairly certain that the call will be brief, I’ll answer the phone if they call. If not, I won’t…even if I’m literally holding my phone. In those cases, I’ll let it go to voice mail… And it might be a while before I listen to that voice mail.
Making phone calls at work can be much trickier for me. If at all possible, I ask my assistant to make the call for me instead. In situations where that’s not as appropriate or ideal, I delegate it to my partner. Between the two, I’m generally shielded and protected from having to make phone calls myself. However, if the clientele member is extremely instant and adamant about talking to me specifically, then and only then will I get on the phone myself. And that’s where the meticulously-written scripts come in. I type them out on my computer so that I can get the wording just right; it helps with readability, too, especially when I’m feeling “under the gun” like I do in those situations.
There is always anxiety with those phone calls, the level of which will vary depending on the quality of my relationship with that clientele member, the topic or issue they want to discuss, the solidity of the solutions I can offer, and the way I think they’ll respond to those solution(s) (i.e., will they take my suggestions and do them, or will they kick up a fuss and come up with a problem for every solution?).
I know that this tiered system might sound ridiculous or “wussy” to some. But that’s just how it is; it’s the best I can do, even after nearly 40 years of life.
Sometimes I just don’t have the energy or ability to string enough words together to be coherent enough to have faith in my conversational skills. That happens, that’s (my) life. I know that it might sound ridiculous to be holding my mobile as it’s ringing, looking at the number, knowing who it is, but letting it go to voice mail instead.
(By the way, is there anyone else out there who thinks Caller ID was either invented, spearheaded, or heavily supported by an Aspie/autistic person?? I know I do. For me, Caller ID isn’t just to screen calls for junk, scams, and marketing; it’s also a mental preparation tool and big decision-making asset.)
I know that to decline to answer the phone, especially when I’m not engaged in much else, sounds like a lazy cop-out. I know that many times, I’ve felt guilty, sheepish, and ashamed of myself for doing so. But sometimes I just don’t have the brain-stamina or cognitive flexibility. Neurotypical friends, I’ll probably do this to you; if I do, please don’t take that personally; it’s nothing against you; it’s just how it is. I’ve made peace with that. If you’re still my friend after all these years, you probably have, too. 🙂