What It’s Like To Work At A Suicide Hotline


That was the joke back then: “your hair is full of everyone’s secrets.”

It’s true, I suppose. I happened to have a not insignificant number of people choosing to confide in me. It was a two-way street, though, and I suspect the joke came about largely because I happened to share horribly intimate things first. And maybe that was all inevitable in college, where you find yourself in a bastion of vulnerabilities and unendurable desires to express. I can’t explain, nor do I want to, the magic of that moment that lasts for four rushed years. It is a moment of pureness and honesty. It is a moment wrought with All That Could Be and imbued with all of the love inside of us, begging to be placed unto someone.

Once over, that Moment became an itch across my body and across my soul that needed to be scratched. I was only tangentially aware of this intimate truth, and became fully aware of it at 10:17 on a Thursday night, just 43 minutes away from the end of my shift at a suicide helpline.

After 52 hours of training, I was deemed qualified to volunteer at a wonderful organization with a broad impact. For four-hour shifts at a time, I sit and answer calls or chats from people whose problems range in a diversity akin to the people in this world.

I’ve noticed that one common thread seems to tie them together. It’s not the mortgages or the job losses or the deceased relatives that keep them calling us. It’s not the mental illness or the time spent in jail or how fucked up a person can make her own life. It’s not the physical handicap or the pressure to succeed and inability to actually do so or the divorce or the depression or the brother who killed himself a year ago or the rape no one believes happened or being transgender or the impossible to diagnose knot lodged firmly in the pit of his stomach. Those are only ever the reasons my callers talk about around the Point. Because the point is that they feel like what it must feel like to be inside a glass cage and bang and scream for the people standing mere inches away from you on the other side of the glass but still not be heard. The point is that they feel more than alone — they feel the awesome weight of believing the world has given up on them.

Sometimes my callers are subdued. Sometimes they are hysterical. Every time, I am raw.

And they are just that — My Callers. They’re mine for 5 or 10 or 30 minutes a night, all mine. Without fail, the 30 seconds preceding a phone call, a prescient pulse of nervous energy courses through me. Then the phone rings, and as my hand reaches for it, the world around me melts and I know I am about to do what I was made to do, what I become my best self in doing. I say the standard greeting and the world becomes smaller, while my awareness simultaneously expands to fill the void between the boundaries of What I Know and What Exists. Most callers barely share anything discernible. They just need a voice, a presence, to travel through the ether between the air we share upon our receivers and attach them to Life. Our calls become undeniably intimate. It’s me and you, and the beautiful, awesome human instinct to survive. It is instinct made more powerful by the fact that we share it. You want to survive and I want you to as well. So let’s share the silence like lovers hold hands and intertwine your story with my world like the strands of a braid.

Then the call is over and a spell is broken as immediately as it was created.

There is a line so fine, it is often crossed easily by mistake. The same quality that makes My Caller so intimate to me is the very same that can turn our moment into a mere exercise. The line between reality and abstraction is so fine, that it nearly breaks your heart when you hang up the phone and realize you just spoke to someone who is so desperately unhappy that taking one’s own life feels easy. Suicide is not an abstraction. Suicide is what happens when Misery overcomes the hardwired human instinct for Survival. That person to whom you just said “take it easy” before hanging up is not a case study of sorrow. That person is as real as any pain you have ever felt.

Ten minutes. Ten minutes sustains life for another day. Ten minutes of feeling a shred of companionship.

So tell me, my dearest friend, what it was that you were so upset about, you who has people who make their care known in ways big and small? Tell me how it is you lost sight of the thing that pre-exists all of our perceived successes. Tell me how you forgot that my hand is ready to hold yours, my ears to receive your words, my heart to reflect your own, and tell me how you forgot that none of the rest of it is possible or relevant when you are deciding if your life is worth living.

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