When I was fifteen, my mom got me my first cell phone – a black Nokia flip phone. Texts were character limited and cost 25 cents both to send and to receive. I still have it, along with its charger, in a box in my second bedroom, nestled among other technological relics from bygone eras.
In high school, it allowed me to go down the street to my best friend’s house, and to stay after school for track and cross country, and math team. When I first went away to college, it would begin to fill me with dread. My mom would call me regularly, much more than I wanted. If I didn’t pick up, she would get angry with me. When I did pick up, she would aggressively demand to know what I am doing with who, when, where, then respond with her characteristic criticism. As always, she took what could just as easily have been gentleness and interest and curiosity and instead made it invasive and coercive and demanding.
My cell phone would ring while I studied in my dorm room, and I would have to take a couple of deep breaths and collect myself before going into battle with her. I didn’t realize it would only get worse.
A couple of months into that first year of college, I came out. Just to myself at first, and then to my best friend. Over winter break I told another close friend while we were all back home. Shortly after returning to school, my conversations with my mom devolved from difficult to unbearable. Sometime in mid-January, she ended our call with words that still send chills down my spine ‘You need to be sure to stay away from any gay stuff’. I don’t remember what I said in response, I just remember my heart-stopping and the room distorting and being unable to breathe or move. She still had the power to make me dissociate even though I now lived hours away.
I didn’t know how she knew, but I grew increasingly consumed by fear. Weeks went on, and mom ended every conversation that way ‘Be sure to stay away from any gay stuff’. I went from having to collect myself a bit to pick up a phone call, to shaking with anxiety and dread. I started to avoid the calls entirely. Too distraught to pick up right away, I would call back a couple of hours or a few days later, citing schoolwork or rowing practice.
I began to piece together what had happened. A few months prior, she had demanded to know my school account password, under the guise of being able to look at my classes and grades. But it was a shared account with my email, so she effectively had my email password as well. Sometime in the past couple of months, I had signed up for communications from Purdue’s Queer Student Union, the LGBT organization on campus. She must have seen those while digging through my emails and put two and two together. Although not surprised by her actions, I was furious at the violation of my privacy. It also stung that I had gotten in such deep trouble over emails from an organization that I was still too terrified to even think about attending. I wasn’t out to any of my college friends or teammates yet, and I felt stripped of my right to share my truth with others on my own terms.
Determined not to live in this constant state of fear (I had more than enough of that the first 18 years of my life), I decided to tell her. I knew whatever consequences there would be better than my current situation. And so, on a blustery February afternoon, I went for a long walk on campus with my Nokia flip phone.
I called but she didn’t pick up, so I left a brief voicemail. She returned my call later that evening when she was done with her Sunday chores and I was settling in for the night. It was cold and windy out, so I walked to the top of the stairwell in my dorm to get some privacy. I didn’t want my roommate to walk in on this. Without much preamble, I said. ‘Mom I need to tell you something. I’m gay.’ And she responded exactly how I knew she would. Though I was used to bearing the brunt of her cruelty and rage, the rancor had somehow reached a new high. I don’t remember how long she yelled and screamed at me while I sobbed and tried to reason with her. I hadn’t yet learned that I could just say no, end the conversation on my terms. That was a lesson that would take me another decade or so. When she finally wore herself out, I hung up my Nokia flip phone and went back to my room to attempt to piece myself back together.
I used that same phone until 2012 when I finally gave in and got a smartphone. I had gotten a flat tire and ended up lost in the suburbs of northern Cincinnati trying to find the repair shop via some inaccurate MapQuest directions I had printed out. I have so many memories of that phone, good and bad, and everything in between.
Bored on the bus, I would play the one game installed on it – snake. I would occasionally take an extremely low-resolution picture and reset the background. I dropped it countless times, and it gained a few scars but never stopped working. Junior year of college, I woke up one morning, panicked, unable to find my phone after partying way too hard the night before. I guess I had dropped it in water or spilled something on it because I ended up finding it conscientiously laid out on the dish drying rack next to the sink, something that my roommates found endlessly amusing.
A day later, it was back in working order after I had placed it in a bag of rice. I took it to school and class and had my first professional job interviews on it. This past summer, after not using it for 8 years, I charged up my trusty old black Nokia flip phone again. Through some combination of curiosity, masochism, and desire for resolution, I hoped to uncover a series of texts that I had exchanged with my coworker the day after he had raped me. It had been a decade almost down to the day. I had forgotten how limited the memory was back in 2005 when my phone was manufactured, and the texts were, of course, long gone.
My phone anxiety has never gone away but it has lessened greatly – it was never again as bad as those couple of months being harassed by my mother before I decided to come out to her. I would go on to learn that most other people weren’t flung into a panic every time a family member called them and that it wasn’t something wrong with me, but something deeply dysfunctional in my family of origin.
I did continue to call my mom for years, but with dwindling frequency and increasingly on my terms. After the phone call where I went no contact with my mom, I find that my anxiety around calling has reduced even more. It’s not gone, exactly, but it is much more manageable. Shout out to my trusty black Nokia flip phone for being such a stalwart companion for so many years, a relic from a bygone era.
Cassie (they/them, she/hers) is an Aerospace Engineer, Planetary Scientist, and complex trauma survivor pursuing a PhD in Space & Planetary Sciences at the University of Arkansas. They started writing as a way to make sense of and find meaning in their own story, and write about lived experiences including childhood sexual abuse, narcissitic abuse, anxiety and depression, religious abuse, and being a queer and non-binary person. When they are not doing research or going to therapy, Cassie enjoys reading, cooking, traveling, and spending time with their dog Reggie.