As a crisis phone support worker, we receive all sorts of calls. Some are lonely people wanting someone to talk to. Some feel they can’t be open and talk to friends and family. Some want a ray of hope. Some get confused and think they’ve phoned a sex line and others are in the darkest of places- either thinking about ending their lives or suicide is imminent.
It’s an incredibly challenging and demanding role, but it can also be so very rewarding.
Last week the first call I received was a suicide in progress, and of course the details are private, but I share this for a few reasons. Firstly as a reminder that we all need to practise compassion and kindness, because everyone has a story and we don’t know another’s pain. Secondly we live in a society where too many of us put our own discomfort above another’s pain and suffering.
Listen I get it. We don’t want to listen to someone’s darkness. We would rather distract ourselves from hearing another’s pain and pretend everything is rosy. We also have a very dismissive way of assuming we understand or know what they are going through, and I can tell you the vast majority of the time, we have no clue. We also like to compare our own situation and suggest that we too have been through that- and use platitudes like “it will be fine”, “you’ll get over it”, “other’s are so much worse off than you”, “you need to be stronger” and the list goes on. All very unhelpful and invalidating.
So back to this call, I admit it really shook me. After having a break over the holiday season I had to remember my training; remember the buttons to press; the protocol. All the while trying to get enough information out of the caller to send help, at the same time as hopefully calm them down. Not at all easy when you’re flipped into fight/flight yourself with adrenaline coursing through your body. Not at all easy when it’s you and a caller on the phone who has already taken action and you have no idea how serious it is.
I did what I needed to do and the shift supervisor arranged for help to be sent. Was it enough? I will never know as we never find out what happens and I have to tell you that is both a blessing and a curse. I want to know that the caller is okay. I want to know that I made an impact on that person. But what if I didn’t? What if it wasn’t enough and the help was too late? What if I didn’t do enough to save them?
After that call I debriefed with the supervisor and I know in my head I did all I could. I understand I’m not responsible for the caller. But it did not stop me from shaking or staring at a wall for the next 30 minutes anxious about the next call. I knew I had to finish my shift and take more calls and not let that call get in my head. I did take more calls and it was a damn tough night. I felt battered when I finished. It was my toughest shift as I usually find supporting people so rewarding.
I walked to my car afterwards and as soon as I got in, the floodgates opened. Again I share this because this is life. Real life is beautiful but there’s also darkness and pain and to really live is to accept reality and the suffering. I am human and as a compassionate and caring human I’m unafraid to be vulnerable.
I cried and cried some more because I took a call from someone in so much desperate pain they felt their only way to stop that pain was to end their life. And once they had started they picked up a phone and spoke with a total stranger, and I was that stranger. I cried because in their darkest moment I was the only person between them and them getting help. I cried because it broke my heart.
I know some of you reading this will think this person was selfish and you will be judging why a person would do this. Can I ask you to please not do that? It’s not a selfish act, it’s someone trying to end their pain and they are no longer in the same headspace as you and I. Some of you will feel uncomfortable reading this because you may feel it’s negative or you don’t like to read or hear about “bad” things. But it’s life and it’s real and no amount of ignoring the more painful and sadder things in life will make them go away.
Being a crisis support worker is definitely not for everyone. But for me it has given me such an increased self-awareness because I need to be fully aware of my own triggers and what I need to do to unpack my feelings and emotions. You have to be fully present because that person on the other end of the phone needs your full attention and undivided active listening. It also has the ability to push you towards any healing you have to do on yourself. Every shift I do, I come away knowing I have grown more, knowing I have learnt more.
So what is it we do as a crisis supporter? We listen, we listen to hear NOT respond. We validate their feelings because their feelings are real and whatever they feel just is. We empower- we find the strengths and we focus on those. We remind them that they are in charge of their life and deep within know what’s best for themselves. And of course we always ensure they are safe and have a plan in place to remain safe after we end the call.
What we do not do is give advice. Tell them what to do. Assume we know what is best. This is not our role. Nobody knows what’s best for another person. And our own beliefs and judgements should never, ever get in the way.
Don’t be afraid to support someone in need, but please do so from a space of compassion, non-judgement and empowering them. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if they are suicidal- I know it’s scary but if we are to support someone and aid them in getting the right help we need to have open and honest communication.
Lastly don’t be afraid to reach out if you are struggling. It’s hard to open up and talk about these feelings but once you do you can be supported. And there’s always someone to take your call and just listen.
We can all make a small difference, and that’s a goal worth achieving.