Don't Call Me When You Get There!

An argument against a common practice among family members.

Posted May 30, 2012

Phobias, and what might be called a phobic point of view, are passed down from one generation to the next. The ideas underlying phobias are, among others, a fear of strangers, a fear of illness, a fear of losing control, a fear of being trapped, and so on. It is a frightened point of view. The specific ideas a parent may have—for instance, a fear that an interloper will come in through an open third floor window—are often seen by a child, later to become a grown child, as ridiculous; but the music lingers on. A diffuse and vague sense of danger persists. One such patient who had, indeed, a mother who was afraid of interlopers, called me in my office once to tell me that her car had broken down in the Bronx. She was terrified. I asked her why she was upset.

“I’m stuck in the Bronx!” she said. She was afraid to be stuck in a borough with about three million other people.

She recognized, as most phobics do, that her fears came in some way from over-protective parents. She went out of her way, as do most of the others, to let her children experience the world in a way which will not make them afraid of choking when eating too fast, or getting overheated, or swimming after eating a snack, or any of a thousand other exaggerated and pointless concerns. But, sometimes, there are ordinary, customary ways of behaving which are widely, if not universally, accepted, but which are likely to make someone already inclined to be fearful become out and out phobic.

Parents who send their teenage kids, or college–age kids, off on a plane ride often tell them to call home as soon as they arrive. I think there is only one way the young person can construe this remark: my parent is worried that the plane may crash, and he/she wants to be reassured that I am still alive. This admonition is commonly made by parents who are not at all phobic. It is almost a courtesy, like saying “see you soon,” or “take care.” But to someone inclined to worry, it is one more thing to worry about. The parent also pays a price for these requests/demands.

Once upon a time, (actually it was more than once. One place or another it was about a thousand times), a worried mother sent her only son off to college. (Come to think of it, this isn’t right either. He was her only son over the age of 14; but he may have been the best. He had yellow hair and a nice smile.) She took him to the airport and waited around to make sure his plane took off safely.  When she went back to her car, she felt a little uneasy, not just because her oldest son was leaving home, but, also, because she wasn’t sure that the plane she had watched take off was his plane. His plane, she thought dismally, might have already crashed on a different runway.

Her instructions to her son were these: as soon as he landed, he was to take a taxi to his dorm, and as soon as he arrived there, he was to call her. Before he unpacked. On a previous visit, she had timed all of this and knew it took approximately two hours and forty-six minutes. She waited at home by the telephone, looking at the clock from time to time. Two hours and 46 minutes  then 56 minutes, then three hours and 56 minutes, came and went without his calling. Nowadays, everyone has a cell phone, but back when this happened no one had a cell phone. So, she couldn’t reach him. She began thinking of what might have happened to him. The plane could have crashed. (She would have heard about this on the radio about ten minutes later, I pointed out to her later on.) He could have gotten off at the wrong stop! He could have fallen ill, and so on. It turned out, of course, that he had met someone he knew; and he forgot that he was supposed to call home.

What is the point of her doing all this? If anything had happened to her son, she would not have been able to help him. Why couldn’t she find out a few hours later on, or a few days later on, whether something bad had happened to him? She said, naturally, that she simply wanted to be reassured; but her search for reassurance was making her more anxious. And that is usually the case. Waiting up for an adult child to come home at night is similarly designed to increase anxiety. (Recently, a patient told me she didn’t want her daughter driving a car late at night because the car had been driven all day long and “the car was tired.”(The nice thing about being a psychiatrist, is you get to hear things you haven’t heard before.)

What someone should say when sending a loved one off on a plane trip is: “Have a nice trip. When you get a chance, let me know how things are going.” Then you should go eat something and go to a movie. If you know that person is not going to call. You are not going to wait around anxiously. I know this works, if for no reason than I have three children of my own.

Some time ago, I heard, from two different women, that it was possible to watch a dot on a computer screen that represents the plane your grown child is on—while he goes to Europe. Imagine someone staring at that dot for five hours. How comforting can that be? Especially, given the fact that computers blink on and off all the time. Suppose the spot disappears? 

(c) Fredric Neuman2012

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