When I tell people what I do for a living, I typically get one of three reactions: #1 “Oh wow! I could NEVER do THAT!”; #2 “So, do you get sexual callers?”; or, most commonly, #3 Silence. The conversation is stopped in its tracks.
I am one of those mythical creatures that works on a crisis hotline. You know, always at the ready to take your call. “Operators are standing by,” except I’m not here to sell you anything. I’m one of the “Grief counselors are on hand” on the 5 o’clock news in response to a school tragedy. Or, one of those people you may have talked to during one of your darkest moments. I mean, I am kind of a big deal. I have a cape under my clothing and everything. I am a superhero.
I was a young, single mom when my mother passed away in late winter 2007. But, with her passing, I was truly on my own. I knew I needed to do something for my son and ultimately for me. Living can be a terribly scary and overwhelming thing; there are unknown people and places, there is fear. When fear takes the wheel, it’s a powerful driver and we become the passenger. But instead, I took fear for a ride and found myself volunteering at a crisis hotline. I found greatness there. Volunteering saved my soul; it gave me meaning and purpose to be there for others.
Training was intense and gratifying, the kind of gratifying that fills your soul but leaves you wanting more. I have always been one to be there for others, I’m a good friend – such a good friend that after my best friend’s suicide I was told that if she had more friends like me, she would still be alive today. So, I took this natural gift and found my passion.
When the training ended I was anxious yet thrilled to put my skills to work on the lines. I can still envision myself slumped over the desk, gripping the receiver nervously the first night I took a suicidal call. I listened to this young person pour their life out word after word. And, with each word, I could hear their relief and the burden start to ease. In what seemed like a powerless situation just 45 minutes earlier, I could hear them begin to feel empowered. They could formulate thoughts and feelings into a manageable set of actionable goals.
With one phone call, this person found hope and came up with a plan to keep their self safe from suicide that night. After the call, my supervisor and I debriefed what I had done well, what I might have done differently and how I was feeling. I was EXHAUSTED. Nothing ever left me feeling the way I did after that first call. It was physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, but also exhilarating. Facing the fear of my own grief, my own purposelessness and meaning for life lead me into a place I could never have imagined.
Over the years, I’ve been beside those who had been facing their worst fears. Death, a loss, or threat of a loss. Those are the times that trauma and crises occur, but they are also the times when people grow and overcome.
I’ve sat with grieving families who have experienced sudden, unimaginable loss and were struggling just to breathe. The grief and the pain is palpable when trauma occurs, it’s not just observed but felt deep in one’s bones. I was someone that could tell them their feelings were normal. That they had a few options and I could connect them with the support they needed but weren’t sure how to find.
I get through every day by reminding myself that I do not own their pain, but I can empathize. Empathy is the root of support for the crisis theory. I compartmentalize their hurt and pain, which allows me to think as clearly and rationally as possible; a detached empathy. I have this innate ability to turn that off when it comes to my personal life. It is a saving grace for being a fully-formed emotional being, and yet at times it can be an enemy when family or friends finds themselves in crisis.
I often get these kinds of calls or messages late at night. I am put on guard and feel the pain with them, though I know they’re the ones that have to do the work – and crisis is work – it affects every single one of our senses. I am feeling it with them while on the hotline; I am the sounding board, I am the shelter in the storm.
A friend called me late one night to share their heartache and pain with me. I naturally took it to heart and offered to set up a time we could get together. They brushed off my offer, sharing more about utter despair and thoughts of suicide. I deal with suicide regularly — I lost a best friend to suicide — and yet this caught me off guard. Those personal and professional lines became blurred. Thankfully we made a safety plan and that friend is still with us today, happier and healthier.
I was working late one night when my personal and professional lives collided yet again. Someone I love dearly called — hysterical, hurting and in pain, feeling lost and angry. My instinct was to jump into my car and be there for them, yet I couldn’t. They were too far and I was too upset. So, I just listened. I listened and I cried with them. I felt their pain too, and I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to help them get through. What I didn’t consider at the time was that I was helping just by picking up the phone. I didn’t need to have all the answers, I just needed to hear them.
Crisis doesn’t care about your schedule, it just shows up and knocks the wind out of you. It stomps on your plans for the day, week, year, or life. It crushes your hopes and dreams and then carries on to the next person.
Crisis affects us all differently; for some it drives them deep into themselves, and for others, it drives them to ask for help, to reach out because they just don’t know what to do with themselves.
Crisis presents opportunity. People in crisis are more willing and able to accept change. It challenges the core of their being and more often than not people overcome, and they grow into stronger, more empathetic beings.
So, when I tell people what I do for a living and hear: #1 “Oh wow! I could NEVER do THAT!”, #2 “So, do you get sexual callers?” or, #3 Silence, I typically give one of three replies: #1 “It isn’t for everyone,” #2 “Could you please stop calling. You can get your kicks on the internet” or, most commonly, #3 I smile and offer a hug. I have learned firsthand that words matter, words heal and words change lives. As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”