Several years ago I got involved with suicide hotline counseling. I took a two month training course, and spent four hours a week answering a phone, knowing that utter despair might be on the other end of the line.
The training was terrifying. Two thirds of the initial class dropped out in the first month. I wasn’t dropping out of anything. I was training my character about the concept of commitment. All the volunteers had the same fear: what if we said the wrong thing and were RESPONSIBLE for a suicide?
The latter parts of our training were about role playing. We’d gather as a group and the trainer would ask someone to go first. I always offered to be first. I preferred to get my terror over with rather than sit and anticipate. The trainer and I would pretend to be on opposite ends of a phone conversation. The trainer would say “Ring Ring” and I would answer, “Suicide Hotline.” Then the trainer would act out a scenario and it was my job to respond to the situation as if it were real.
My heart started pounding, my throat went dry. The trainer would play an adolescent in crisis, or an elderly person sick, alone and without hope for the future. The trainer could be anyone at all. We didn’t know until we answered the “phone”.
In this way we got past certain inhibitions. It’s not only okay to ask if someone is thinking of doing harm to themselves. It’s mandatory.
“Are you thinking about committing suicide?”
Yes, we ask the question!
“Do you have a plan? Do you have the means to do it?”
“Have you attempted suicide before?”
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, if the caller has a history of attempts, and is holding a gun, a bottle of sleeping pills or a pack of razors, then it’s time to go into action. We try to find out the location of the caller. If the caller won’t give up this information, we have the ability to trace the call. We have a reverse phone book, addresses that yield phone numbers. We can call friends, relatives. We can call the police. We’re not helpless.
By sheer wonderful luck, this is the hotline associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. There are call boxes at regular intervals where would-be jumpers can get a direct line to a counselor. I never got a jumper. I got a lot of other things.
When the training was complete, I went as an intern to the switchboard. An experienced counselor was on hand to help out. We worked in teams. For a few sessions, the supervisor could listen on an extension to my calls. I got some calls, but they were mostly sad people wanting to hear another human voice. No serious threats.
On my third shift, it was time to go solo. There was another counselor there, but I was now officially on my own.
I was terrified when my first call came in. I picked up the phone and said the requisite, “Suicide Hotline” in a calm neutral tone. Then I waited, listening to hard breathing on the other end. After about fifteen seconds, a woman with a thick southern accent said the following:
“I have a loaded gun pointed at my head, and my finger is on the trigger.”
This is my first solo call! Okay, okay, be calm, work from the training.
“If you really wanted to die, you wouldn’t have called me.’
“Maybe I don’t want to die and maybe I do,” the caller responded. “Maybe I called to see if you could come up with a single good reason for me to keep living.”
“I can’t talk to you until you put the gun down. And I can’t give you reasons to live, you’ll have to do that for yourself.”
My supervisor had heard all this. She came and stood behind me. She took a pen and bent over to write on a piece of paper on my desk: “did you say gun?”
I shook my head yes.
The woman on the phone spoke in an acidly sarcastic manner. “You mean you’re not going to give me Jesus or Buddha or some crap like that?”
“I’m not here to promote religion,” I responded. “I’m here to listen to you.”
“Oh bullshit!” Now she was angry. “I’m going to pull the trigger!”
I braced myself for a blast. It didn’t come. There was just the sound of labored breathing from the telephone.
“Hello?” I spoke to the breath. After some seconds, the voice responded, with the same angry sarcasm.
“You didn’t pull the trigger.”
Then I heard a click click click.
“That’s the gun,” said the woman. “It’s not loaded. But I can load it, in a second.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you would have. I think you want to live, whether or not I give you a reason.” I was beginning to feel a little angry. I felt a sudden intense dislike of this person. I felt that she was bullshitting, that she had called just to mess wth my mind.
Again, the sound of three clicks. Mocking. I had a cigarette lighter in my pocket. I took it out, held it to the receiver and clicked it three times. My supervisor had been standing behind me. I saw her arm come over my shoulder with the pen. She wrote, “what the f…?”
I shrugged, then wrote, “B.S.”
I saw Leslie, my supervisor, nodding.
The woman with the southern accent said, “What’ve you got there, a thirty eight?”
“No,” I responded, “A Bic.”
She laughed in a witchy sounding cackle. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
“I know I’m smart, but that has nothing to do with what’s happening right now. Are you intending to hurt yourself, or anyone else?”
“I’m not gonna tell you, now. You’ll just have to live with not knowing.”
Click. She hung up. I sat there, half terrified and half enraged.
I pivoted my chair so that I could talk to Leslie.
“Doe she sound like this?” Leslie did a perfect imitation.
“Okay, well you just met Lynn Brogan. She calls four or five times a week, and if she gets a newbie, she does the gun routine.”
As I was letting the air out of my lungs, as my shoulders settled, the phone rang again and I nearly levitated from the chair.
“Suicide Hotline”, I said.
“You know, I have a pretty important job.” Same southern accent. It was Lynn Brogan.
I had to restrain my anger, restrain my urge to answer with sarcasm. After all, if this was how she spent her time, she was pretty unhappy. She was in a lot of pain.
“That’s good,” I said in a neutral tone. “What do you do?”
“I’m head of Research and Development.”
“With what company?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s a VERY big company. Very important to the government. You’ll just have to take my word. I have thirty four hundred people working for me.”
The other phone line rang. Leslie moved into the next cubicle and took the call.
“Suicide Hotline,” she said.
Thus began my acquaintance with a list of characters who used the hotlilne as their primary social focus. They were hotline addicts. Kendra S. called fifty times a day until we cut her to a maximum of five. She started calling all the other Bay Area hotlines. San Francisco thirty times. Berkeley twenty five. Oakland fifteen. Each day. Her hoarse voice assaulted hapless volunteers with anger and self pity. She could not live without calling hotlines. As she got thrown off one, she migrated to another until she was calling hotlines in Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles.
One of our clients, named Gwen, had multiple chemical sensitivity and would go into a psychological meltdown if she thought she was exposed to a carpet that wasn’t detoxified or a whiff of someone else’s perfume. When she weakened and ate a piece of chocolate she entered a state of panic in which she believed her toxicity would be fatal. It wasn’t.
Bob R. had flown B-17’s during the war and couldn’t stop re-living his experiences, fifty years later.
Working the hotline was like that truism regarding war: hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of sheer panic.
Most of the time, my method worked. I kept at bay all the things with which I might lose my sense of equality with these people. Compassion can only operate on a field of equality. If I lost sight of the fact that I could BE one of these people with the tiniest slip of fate, then I was in trouble.
At one time I WAS one of these people. I could never forget that. I always felt a vulnerability, always felt as if the despair were as close as my skin. After five years, I reached the burnout point. The despair penetrated and I began to become my callers. That’s when I started leaking anger and judgment, impatience and contempt. It began to come out through the holes in my skin, through the membrane of invulnerability that I had worn in order to do this kind of work. The membrane was leaking pretty badly.
When I said to Kendra S., “For god’s sake Kendra there might be someone in real trouble trying to get through here….”
That’s when it was over.