Answering when friends call/text can be hard, even when you want to. Sometimes bodyminds swear it’ll take too many spoons, or you aren’t worth it, or you’re too symptomatic and boring.
Here are some of my hacks:
Letting go of the lie that it’s been too long to call/text a friend back is the number one key to maintaining my relationships while chronically ill and healing from trauma. Responding right away comes from urgency culture and capitalism teaching us that we’re commodities that must be “on” all the time. Laura Brewer writes in “Operating Under the Influence of Urgency”
“One of the root causes of a sense of urgency is an orientation to scarcity […] even if unconscious, we believe there will never be enough. This mentality usually stems from experiences in childhood, and often from growing up in or experiencing poverty – real experiences when there truly wasn’t enough of something. The trouble comes when the mindset gets engrained in our unconscious beliefs, and those beliefs form our way of being and leading. Scarcity ends up functioning almost as an obsession and, because it’s not often conscious, that obsession can get displaced and projected.”
Many trans and nonbinary survivors can likely resonate with this sense of scarcity, with or without a history of childhood trauma and poverty, simply from existing in a society in which trans-affirming resources and accessible, affirming survivor communities remain niche luxuries often reserved to progressive cities. In spite of how that scarcity of care may make every phone call feel urgent, driven by lack of trust that there are other places and people to whom our marginalized friends can safely turn, there’s no such thing as taking too long to call/text a friend back, and learning to slow down in the age of speed is actually a vital part of many people’s healing processes. Healthy friendships involve respecting time apart and out of contact, and celebrating when you reconnect. Both come in waves and that’s okay!
In fact, you often don’t have to apologize when you do get around to returning that phone call. The only time I apologize for taking time to connect with someone is if a) I said I’d do it by a certain time and couldn’t, or b) I missed a major life event or couldn’t be there when I was needed. Neither circumstance is about guilt, shame, bootstraps, or “doing better”- just genuine repair. Psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, reminds those for whom even the potential of rupture is terrifying due to patterns learned through trauma: “There doesn’t have to be a big traumatic rupture or if there is, we can repair it. We can express disappointment in each other AND still stay connected. We can agree to disagree AND still stay connected. We can be angry with each other AND still stay connected.” For many survivors, Hendel’s affirmation of repair and maintaining connected even when we mess up in our relationships can come as a surprise. Thankfully, mundane mistakes like dropping the ball on important phone calls with people we love offer great opportunities to test out these truths for ourselves with patience, curiosity, and courage.
To compliment this emotional and relational work around our relationships to phone calls, fatigue, and urgency, learning to schedule texts is a practical tool that has changed the game for me. When I need to check on a friend after a hard appointment or anniversary, I schedule the text immediately instead of using spoons to fight to remember the day of. Or things I think about at 4am can go out at more reasonable times. Scheduling texts is usually a lot easier on Androids than iPhones, but it can be done. Here are some tips:
- iPhone: https://www.komando.com/how-tos/schedule-a-text-on-iphone/782420/
- Android: https://www.businessinsider.com/schedule-text-message-android
- Signal: https://www.quora.com/Can-you-schedule-a-message-in-Signal-Messenger
If scheduling texts doesn’t work, I set reminders in my phone, calendar, and/or on physical stickies. Instead of just “text Bex on Tues!” I’m specific about what I want to say and time sensitivities for both of us. Sometimes it’s useful to type the full message into my Calendar description field so I can easily copy and paste it once my phone chimes that it’s time to send the text.
As helpful as scheduling texts is, there are certain conversations that simply need to happen over the phone. Recently, I’ve found I do a lot better answering the phone when I have a general idea when someone is going to call. By knowing a friend wants to chat at 2pm, survivors can plan ahead so that internal and external environments will be as supportive of that conversation as possible. This might include:
- Setting aside time before the call to nap, meditate, stretch, or otherwise recharge spoons.
- Taking care of body needs by going to the bathroom, getting a snack or more water, or getting away from the screen for some fresh air.
- Budgeting other social commitments, to the extent that you have control over them. If you’re an introvert like I am, phone call marathons, juggling multiple group texts, or jumping from a work meeting to socializing can all spell burn out, especially if I still have a phone call with someone I love and want to be fully present for coming up. Building in just ten to fifteen minutes of quiet time, which for me includes not texting or using social media, before phone calls with friends helps give me a recharge and recentering buffer between the demanding chatter of daily life and the time we’ll share together.
- I also give myself another ten minutes of quiet after calls (or particularly good text threads) with friends so that my bodymind has time to digest and integrate the intimacy, information, feelings, and space that we shared.
I’ve found that without this time, I tend to rush on to my to-do list or reach immediately for my book or Twitter; this familiar, learned sense of urgency and restlessness makes it incredibly difficult for my body to process and benefit from the emotional, relational, and informational sharing that just took place. Just ten minutes of quiet makes all the difference in what I’m able to savor, integrate, and remember meaningfully later, and it helps me show up with more presence and clarity to my next task.
- When possible, changing into comfortable clothes, putting on any braces that make holding the phone more comfortable or setting up a stand to use FaceTime or speakerphone hands-free, including setting up the chair or bed to physically support talking on the phone.
- Taking any helpful medications as prescribed so that they will take effect by your phone call.
- Getting somewhere private or limiting company to people who are safe to have your conversation around, to the extent possible. Being in a generally quiet and low-stress external environment really helps me, though some people have no problem talking personally with loved ones on public transit, waiting rooms, or checkout lines.
- Taking care of pets, children, and other dependents’ predictable needs before the call as much as possible, and/or letting someone who shares those responsibilities with you know that you’re expecting a call and asking them if they can care for needs that arise while you’re on the phone.
COVID has taught many people to embrace life’s unfolding magic and mess while letting go of capitalist reliance on having everything scheduled, every moment accounted for. Why would friendship and phone calls be any different? Even if it makes me anxious, one of the joys of my friendships is that we call each other without warning to celebrate, honor grief and sit with each other in painful moments, rant, problem solve, search desperately for hope, or just make each other laugh. I’ve developed a few different approaches over the years of navigating progressive illness and survivorship to manage these warmest of cold calls:
- Many survivors of stalking may struggle with answering the phone throughout the day based in the traumatic fear that someone who caused harm will be on the other end. So, I set a boundary with myself to only answer the phone for numbers that I trust, which with few exceptions means numbers that are already in my contacts that show up on Caller ID. Everything else gets sent to voicemail to be checked with a holistic stalking safety and care plan in place. Even if the number looks familiar or frustrating games of phone tag ensue, I’ve found that it’s better to prioritize my wellbeing over being readily available to everyone who calls.
- Knowing when it’s time to get out of my own head is crucial to my trauma healing and quality of life. While there’s indisputable value in unplugging devices and going inward to journal after therapy, recover from a difficult doctor’s appointment or flashback, or practice spirituality or meditation that feels supportive of our healing, it’s equally important to plug in to our communities of support when our internal landscapes grow teeth or get stuck in loops. Picking up the phone when friends text or call out of the blue is a surprisingly simple way to disrupt trauma-based nervous system activation, dissociation, rumination, and urges or compulsions to engage in self-injurious, addictive, or suicidal behaviors. The decision to pick up the phone demands a shift in attention and activity which allows trauma symptoms to regulate and reorient towards connection, empowerment, and healing.
- Asking friends to call back at a specific time during a cold call has sustained my relationships when illness and trauma have made having fulfilling spontaneous conversations too difficult, whether because a nurse is about to draw more blood or because I’m too exhausted from nightmares to think straight now. I prioritize getting a sense of why my friend is calling before asking for a call back later so I can take a moment to join in their celebration, grief, rage, or longing for solutions or hope, which we’ll dig into together later. I also check on safety and risk of harm before asking for a call back, but it’s okay that not everyone has capacity to support friends struggling with those experiences, especially if they themselves are going through a hard time. That’s why we have entire communities and pod maps, so no single friend is the only source of support during crisis.
Even if their friends are supportive, some trans and nonbinary survivors may also have a hard time talking on the phone with loved ones if they’re experiencing dysphoria about the sound of their voice or are exhausted from maintaining a certain tone and pitch all day. This deserves compassion instead of pressure to push through. When voice dysphoria or tone fatigue make answering the phone too difficult, my friends and I either text instead or wait to talk another day. No justification is needed, so unless someone wants to share that they can’t answer the phone because of dysphoria or voice fatigue, a simple “Can’t talk. Let’s text!” or “Call you back later this weekend.” message suffices.
Whether or not trans and nonbinary survivors experience dysphoria, making space for how trauma can be triggered by phone calls for some people and giving empathy for the deep compassion and listening fatigue many of our bodies are carrying into this winter takes much of the urgency to connect out of talking with friends- a pressure that harms far more than it helps. I hope that some of these suggestions from personal experience and working with others can make staying connected this winter a more healing and resilient opportunity.