CALL OF THE DAY: my caller with advanced Parkinson’s, aka when my listening skills are of no use

I groaned when she gave me his name and number. I don’t know what to do for this guy, I said.

“Don’t ask him any questions,” said the dispatcher. “Just go straight into a story, something basic, a blow-job or girl-on-top.”

My own sparse notes about him say something different—ANAL, in big bold caps—which only underscores my point. But how do any of us know that we’re doing it right?

“We don’t,” and I can almost hear the dispatcher shrugging as she says it. “Are you ready?”

I say yes, but in my head I’m thinking, NOOOOO.

Doing phone sex with someone who won’t speak is one challenge, but doing it with someone who ­can’t speak is an entirely different and more frustrating matter. This caller has Parkinson’s disease, apparently, and it’s advanced enough that he can’t articulate well at all.

I googled around on Parkinson’s and sex, and all I got were stories about how some kinds of medicine used to treat the disease can lead to a rise in compulsive behaviors, including sex. I think I was googling the wrong thing, but I don’t know how to phrase this question with search-term conciseness: how do I discover what this client really wants and likes when I can’t see him and can’t understand his speech? It’s not actually a question about Parkinson’s, it’s about working around serious gaps in our ability to communicate.

If we had a rapport built up, I could probably ask him to play the 20 questions game, with grunts for yes/no, but we don’t have that relationship, and he is not shy about hanging up when he gets annoyed, which … I get and don’t get. I mean, surely he must know by now that many people find his speech difficult to understand, especially over the phone? Maybe not.

And knowing something like that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I can imagine that the yes/no approach feels condescending. Maybe it really bothers him. Personally, if people had a hard time understanding me, but I really wanted to get off, I think I’d be relieved if someone proposed a simple non-verbal method of getting to that outcome, but I don’t know. Maybe I’d just be pissed all the time.

The first time I spoke with this caller, I made the rookie error of asking him an open-ended question and I didn’t understand a single word he said. (I don’t know where the ANAL note came from, but it wasn’t from him.) Since then, he frequently does talk to me, at the beginning of the call, but generally stops after I get rolling into whatever narrative I’ve chosen for the call.

We go the full length of time that he’s purchased, usually, but I can’t tell whether he’s come—his breathing is normally pretty labored—and there is no goodbye, just the prolonged noisy clatter of hanging up the phone when one’s fine motor skills have gotten blunted. To be honest, I have a few other callers who barely give me more than this. But they are at least able to say yes or no.

Since this caller doesn’t normally hang up when I launch right into a randomly chosen narrative/position/activity, I suppose that’s passive consent. He wouldn’t keep calling the company back if the service he gets wasn’t working for him. Whatever doubts or anxieties I have about doing calls with him, however much I wish I could get more clarity about what he wants, in the end I have to accept that those are about my needs, which are not the actual point. The actual point is what he needs, which I will never know for sure.

It burns, and it’s not just about wanting to make this caller’s experience better. This is a blow to my professional pride. I like that I know how to get to people’s hot buttons. I think that I know how to do this with just about any caller. It’s a skill, and I have it, but it is of no use here, with this caller.

I will always have to stumble clumsily through a monologue that I don’t know is actually wanted. I will never know.


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