You come to a cliff. Here is the edge, where the wind whips at your body, and everything beneath you is impossibly tiny. A single movement of your foot, a slight lean of your body weight, and you could throw yourself right over. One simple movement.
But you wouldn’t actually jump, right?
That’s how I feel about making phone calls. Self-preservation determines that I wouldn’t take the last step, and I won’t hit the call button either, whether or not both of those things are logical.
In truth, the small corner of that flowchart isn’t even what it says it is; I hadn’t yet created the full flowchart at the time I posted about it. I added fake boxes to the edge and faded them out to give the illusion of more flowchart beyond.
If you look at the full, uncropped version of that chart in my graphics program, one of the fake boxes reads:
Thng thing thing thing but an axe thing thing thing but the only sad ounoahuenohunoetuhn cheap onuhoanteuhnotuwith rayon.
But it’s positioned so that the only full words you see are “axe” and “sad.”
The other reads:
Screw that, this is America, and I’m not just going to do something so ridiculous as to
But it’s positioned so that the only visible part is: “Screw that, this is America.”
My phone call anxiety hasn’t improved in the five years since the original post. I have an office job now, one with Microsoft Everything and Calibri Everything and spreadsheets for which I can choose unnecessary color schemes. There is also a small black phone with no caller ID and my own extension and sometimes, on a bad day, a phone call that I can’t divert into an email exchange instead.
Exposure therapy is a thing, so my theory went that, in being exposed to phone calls, their effects would blunt over time, and they would no longer be the cliff I can’t jump off.
That… kind of happened. I am exactly as terrified of most phone calls as I’ve ever been, but I deal with my work calls without too much drama or figurative nail-biting.
And as for my non-work phone calls…
(imagine the haggard, stumbling man from the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, coming close to announce…)
The Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly
About two months ago, I took a 5×8 index card, wrote “Onerous Health To-do” at the top, and divided up sections for my primary care, ob-gyn, and therapy appointments, the ones I’ve been putting off scheduling for eight, one, and two years, respectively. On this, I wrote every phone call I needed to make, and every task that preceded those phone calls. Then I made the mistake of doing the same for my partner so we could both tackle everything in a single day and move on with our lives.
Although his phone call anxiety is less severe than mine, this still resulted in both of us procrastinating for another six weeks. We broke out of the cycle only when my partner told his friend to call him on a Friday morning to remind him to remind me to do the thing.
What no productivity system in the world will tell you is that it can’t help you with anxiety over a task.
You can break up a task into next actions. You can rephrase it to use an action verb. You can put it on an @Home or @Phone list. You can choose it as one of your three must-do, priority tasks of the day. You can migrate it to another page in your bullet journal. And if you have anxiety over that task, you’re going to keep migrating it, keep rewriting it, and keep finessing it.
Those are the steps you take by the edge of the cliff because you don’t want to take the one step that matters: hitting the call button. Eventually, the task before every undone task is “deal with the anxiety I have over this task,” because of course it’s best to deal with the root problem of something.
Only now you have months of therapy before you can switch your primary care doctor, and you can’t make the phone call to get into the therapy because you wouldn’t jump off a cliff, would you? WOULD YOU?
That day we finally made the phone calls, I assumed that kicking myself off the cliff would result in a rush of anxiety, but that my bravery would ultimately be rewarded with medical appointments that I don’t especially want to attend.
Instead, I learned that my health insurance’s website is the real-life equivalent of a Liars and Knights puzzle. One always lies, and the other always tells the truth. The one that always lies is the website. Between that, busy signals, and voicemails, I tackled everything on my Onerous Health To-Do list, and still got nowhere.
I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Maybe it’s about perseverance. Maybe it’s about bravery. Or nihilism. Or next actions. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve climbed back to the top of the cliff, the fat green circle at the start of the flowchart, and it feels exactly the same here.
*Figuratively, because I kicked my life-long nail-biting habit during the swine flu outbreak of 2009. Now, nail-biting, mine or others, would probably destroy me. Thanks, OCD.
For more than a month, I’ve been trying to answer the question of whether or not 2019 was a good year. I’m not ready to touch whether or not the 2010s were a good decade. This was the fourth time in my life I’ve watched one decade change into another, and the fact that I’m aging is hitting me hard lately. But a year? I can handle that.
Writing-wise, I kicked ass this year. I relaunched this blog (to no fanfare, as I don’t fanfare well), and I’ve been working diligently on Stars Fall Out. I came out of the combined writing slump of 2017 (anxiety) and 2018 (baby).
Despite this having been my worst mental health year since I was diagnosed in 2012, my writing hasn’t been stomped on by my anxiety the way it was in the past. I have a toddler, and so many weeks, I didn’t write as much as I wanted. Still, 2019 is the most consistent I’ve ever been.
I had a string of bad haircuts, culminating in me giving in and getting a professional haircut for the first time in three years. I’m still pro diy haircuts, but this year was one botched experiment after another.
I lost two aunts and a great aunt. As a result, I’ve put more thought into my own death than I probably have before.
Don’t embalm me. Put me in a simple box, and let people write and draw on the box. Plant a tree over me.
I made less art and went on fewer adventures than I wanted.
It’s no surprise to me that they’ve both been weak; I’ve long considered art and adventures to be two sides of the same coin; one is the input, the other is the output.
My writing is a form of art, and that went well. But there’s only so much to pull out without putting something back in. I miss sketching, watercolor, collage. I miss going to new coffee shops and cemetaries and turning down intriguing roads.
The exception to not having many adventures were the ones I took with my toddler. She loves Dunkin Donuts, but I don’t know how many times one can go to Dunkin and still count it as an adventure.
When I try to figure out what 2019 was, I keep thinking about what turned out to be my flagship anxiety problem. It started when I paid off my car earlier this year.
Specifically, I paid it off a year and a half early to save more money in the long run, including on my insurance.
I was supposed to follow up by letting my insurance know that I had done this, which would give me full control over my policy again so I could choose cheaper coverage options, thus saving myself $200 per year.
This was a smart plan, but I can’t handle phone calls, and I didn’t do it. Reasons and excuses rolled one into the other, snowballing for weeks and then months. Knowing better isn’t doing better.
Around this time, the trichotillomania I’ve dealt with since my teens hit me the worst its ever done. Every so often, I’ll pull out eyebrow hairs while reading or thinking. I don’t typically notice until my thumb and forefinger come into view with five or six hairs pinched between them. I usually have months between episodes, so it hasn’t been too big a deal.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I haven’t had my eyebrows in their entirety for the same amount of time that I’ve been procrastinating on this call.
My social skills have seemingly deteriorated, which makes sense because assuming they are actually a skill and not a talent, one would have to practice to keep them sharp. It’s been a bad year for social anxiety, and I haven’t done well at keeping in touch with people. Low key texts to friends get wrapped up in the bigger anxieties of every other correspondence-related task I’m putting off. Like that phone call.
So back to that. For ten months, I assumed I had to make a call. For anything important, it’s always a call. No matter that we’ve advanced technologically to the point where that shouldn’t be the case. It’s always a damn phone call.
But then I went on to my insurance’s website in a fit of desperation, knowing it was a waste of time and I wouldn’t find anything. Instead, I learned that I can change my policy online. And because it made me feel like I was doing something, I filled out a contact form and asked if there were any way to have the lien removed from my policy electronically.
I knew this wouldn’t be possible. I knew they would tell me to call.
Instead, six hours later, I got an email that said it would be taken care of.
AFTER TEN MONTHS. That was it.
I’d love to see if my eyebrows grow back.
I couldn’t tell you why I started a list with every single year of my life and tried to label each year with a single word.
2009 The Year of Depression.
2015 The Year of Change
2017 The Year of Pregnancy
2018 The Year of the Baby
I’ve only managed to label six years of my life, and those ones came to me easily. The others bleed together. Nothing clearly demarcates them except for the numbers we put on calendars.
I remember twenty years ago, in 1999, the odd precariousness of realizing that all four numbers would be wiped away. 2000 would be a new, different world. This is both true and untrue of every new year that comes.
A few weeks ago, I asked my partner if he thought 2019 had been a good year. His response? A series of quizzical noises.
And so it came to be that 2019 was The Year of the Mixed Bag. I don’t know if time and introspection will turn that into the official label, but it’s true for now.
If you’re entertaining in your home this year, there are many reasons why you might want to utterly destroy a guest with obsessive-compulsive disorder. While the technical differences between a frenemy, a nemesis, and a cousin who drives you to murder with a turkey baster are beyond the scope of this article, all are bound to show up at your door this holiday season, and one of them might have OCD. By taking the words of Sun Tzu to heart, and learning these actionable techniques, you can deal with that person.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
OCD comes in many forms, and this guide is not meant for all of them. But if you know your guest has OCD, and you know that their OCD intersects with germaphobia or health anxiety, you need not fear the result of this holiday season.
Greet your guest at the door
Start off on the right foot! Or rather, the right hand, where you keep a great deal of germs. A hearty hug or a handshake is the perfect way to warmly welcome your OCD guest into your home while also saying, “Nothing is safe for you here.”
This one is especially great if your guest is female! No matter how many gender norms we see fall by the wayside, the norm at gatherings of friends and family is still to hug women while men shake hands. If you are warm, effusive, and sweater-wearing, you can hug everyone.
Once you’ve mastered the basic greeting, next year you can pull out of the hug and cough demurely. Something is going around!
Make space for everyone
Do you need to make space on the table for another side dish or for another guest’s plate? Does your OCD guest have a cup full of water that they’ve been sipping from? This is a two-birds-with-one-stone situation, like when you have multiple turkeys and kill them yourself with the molded plaster “Welcome to our home!” tile that you scooped up from the walkway.
Wait until your OCD guest glances in your direction. Then pick up their cup by the rim–the part they drink out of–and move it two feet or so.
Remember, don’t pick the cup up by the base; this method is less effective less of the time, and you should make sure you know your guest is suitably sensitive before trying it.
Take more mashed potatoes
Curses, you’ve run out of mashed potatoes! You scoop up more potatoes, but they are hearty and thick, and they stick to the spoon. Don’t panic; you can get out of this situation with subtlety and panache, and you can destroy your OCD guest at the same time.
Now, do you have the serving spoon in hand? Clunk the spoon onto your gravy-swirled plate. This action will free your desired serving of potatoes, while also leaving a subtle seasoning of your mouth-germs on the spoon, which you should then stick back into the nursing-home-yellow casserole dish.
Burn those holiday calories
Going for a post-meal walk or run either to burn off some calories or for a good reason? For convenience, place your sneakers soles-down on the table before you sit down to put them on. Make sure it’s not a side table, an end table or a coffee table: you want to use the kitchen or dining room table.
This will send a clear message: “All the germs from every public restroom I’ve walked in with these shoes are now on the table where we eat!”
Keep up your dental hygiene
Is your guest staying over? You have a great opportunity here! Make sure they’re around when you brush your teeth, and do the following: squeeze out your pea-sized ball of toothpaste, scrape your wet, used toothbrush over the opening of the toothpaste tube to get the paste off, and hand your guest the tube. Make sure to tell them, “All set! Here you go!” in your cheeriest holiday voice.
Even though flax is a flawless egg substitute when it comes to cookies, make sure you use raw eggs in your cookies. After you’ve rolled out your cookies and put them on trays, but before you wash your hands and tidy up, make you sure touch a lot of things. Chairs, doorknobs, and refrigerator handles are great options which are all in close proximity of your kitchen.
If you really want to be a maverick, combine this with the next tip.
Put out the guest soap
You know those shell-shaped soaps that sit ambiguously in their dish, making guests fret over whether they’re supposed to use them or not? Don’t use them. That kind of holiday anguish is old-school, and definitely not on-trend. These days, there’s a better way: have bars of moisturizing soap at every sink, and turn off your hot water. The slippery, difficult-to-rinse nature of the moisturizing soap draws out the oft-repeated hand-washing process of your OCD guest, making it as long an excruciating as possible.
Keeping your hot water off ensures that if your guest needs to wash hands multiple times—and they will, if you’re following these tips!—their fingers will be too numb to unwrap presents or pretend to eat your dubious food.
Share some comfort and joy
Is there a flu going around? Has your guest expressed concern about the flu, or about the sick children you invited because child germs are different from adult germs? Remember to make vague comments about upset stomachs, then assure your guest that it’s indigestion.
Does your guest think the meat seems undercooked? Make sure you dismiss this silly concern! Even if you used a meat thermometer, even if the pink occurs naturally in that cut of meat, even if you’re an experienced cook, don’t say any of those things. Don’t explain how you know the meat is fine. Simply say, “there’s nothing to worry about.”
Remember that dismissing legitimate concerns isn’t holiday gaslighting; it’s sharing comfort and joy.
As Sun Tzu said, that’s what the holidays are all about.