I’ve been asked to continue writing a bit about my experiences as a Suicide Prevention Lifeline volunteer. I’m limited, in some ways, about what I can and cannot (and will and will not) say here; but if people are interested in my experiences, I’ll try to share what feels comfortable for me.
My very first call at ContactLifeline was a 190 minute suicide call with a person who suffered from post-traumatic brain injuries that inhibited some of their ability to communicate directly or clearly. My support worker was with me (once you complete 3 shifts, you fly solo, with access to a support worker via phone and internet chat), and sat with me as I took deep breaths, focused on my voice, and tried to reflect and redirect and assess this wonderful human being away from the path of taking their own life. For the record, a 190 minute call is very long in the crisis world. The vast majority of calls are under twenty minutes, and very few go as long as even one hour. I had a bit of a trial by fire, as is wont to occur with me. I was, no lie, terrified for probably the first 90 minutes. But then, I noticed something.
People in crisis are far from selfish. They’re also really forgiving. They see with relative ease what a difficult position their helpers are in, and readily acknowledge that helpers have needs, too. My very first caller taught me that it is okay to make mistakes on a suicide call, because hey there, human. What matters is how we correct those mistakes. During the call, I panicked. I let my emotional tie to this person who was at risk run my mouth for a second, and I said something that was not damaging, but definitely not helpful. I realized it right away, and stopped and said to my caller, “I am so sorry. That thing I just said? I’m getting really emotional, because I’m worried about you and I want to help so much. Can I try that again, but say it in a different way that might be more helpful?” And you know what caller’s answer was? “Of course! I can’t imagine how stressful this must be for you.” And I tried again, and caller said, “You’re right, that was a much more helpful thing.” And then I told them, “You’re being really great, and I’m so glad you called. This is my first call ever as a volunteer.” And my caller, love of loves, said, “Oh [pseudonym]. You’re doing beautifully.” I am dead serious, people.
Callers almost always realize that the reason they are calling someone anonymous to talk about these really volatile, overwhelming feelings is because it might be too much for the people who know, love, and support them in their lives. Even someone who is in emotional agony over things like the death of a child or spouse, crippling injury or illness, staggering debt or addiction, plus all of the physical, emotional, and psychological disturbances anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness can impose generally sees that to do the work their helper is doing requires a lot of energy, a good amount of training, and an ability to balance the demands of empathy with the exigencies risk assessment and response.
190 minutes is a long time to be in voice-only intense emotional contact with another human being. Like, REALLY long.
That call resolved favorably, and my caller and I found some ways for caller to address a few of the issues of concern, and developed a longer-term plan for caller to receive appropriate, on-going, palliative care. We hung up, and our relationship ended. I never took another call from my first caller, and to my knowledge, caller did not call back on any shifts while I was a volunteer. I hung up that phone, looked at my support worker and said, “The training works.” I hadn’t really believed that such simple strategies could really produce the kind of de-escalation required to talk someone off of the ledge (proverbial or otherwise). I learned so much on that call that stays with me when someone is in the process of losing themselves.
Things like: I don’t need to know the whole story to be helpful; what your voice and breathing and face do matters; people will forgive you when you screw up; sometimes, you need to remind people to have a glass of water if they’ve been talking for a long time; you don’t need to solve a problem to be helpful; you can’t solve a problem if you can’t de-escalate someone; people will not always tell you what their triggers are, but they will almost always tip their hands or show you some of what they’re scared to share; most of the time, the “reason” for the call is not the Reason For The Call; and a lot more. I also learned that I’m very (very) talented at hearing what people are not saying, and getting them to a place where maybe they will start to speak the scarier truths.
I think I might take some time to excavate what people mean by “selfish” the next time I write about this. But I want to get my thoughts on that together, first.
If training to be a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline volunteer sounds like something you might feel passionate about, especially if you work closely with Veterans, the elderly, the infirm or disabled, or young children and teenagers, please let me know? I will help you find a way to get certified.