If You’re Unhappy and You Know it, Dial the Phone…
I used to volunteer at a crisis telephone centre (Telecare), rather like Ted Bundy. Alas, I wasn’t as fortunate to volunteer at his crisis centre and sit beside him, as was the case with Ann Rule. A nice woman called up one day who had a quiet yet undeniable desperation in her voice. She spoke rapidly as she discussed her family and her experience with them, as if admitting to her pain was a source of shame for her instead of her family. She told me about being beaten with skipping ropes, burned with knives, insulted just for being her. She was going that night to see her so-called family, something to do with a dress-fitting for her sister, who also hated and abused her. She was the only child in her family who was hated and abused. I asked her why on earth she still associated with these people and she replied, “everyone needs a family.”
“That’s not a family,” I answered.
“It’s the only one I’ve got,” she answered, still talking rapidly in that shaky voice.
She was an intelligent woman and not prone to self-pity. She wasn’t crying about her life; she detailed it in a matter-of-fact, objective way. Yet she had to discuss it and she had to tell someone. Anonymously, of course. She didn’t want my pity. She didn’t want anyone’s. Maybe she’d been taught not to want any sort of emotional connection with anyone since that only meant danger and pain to her. Of course children of abuse are also instructed never to tell anyone about their life at home: hence the comfort in discussing her life anonymously over the phone. She ended the conversation by saying “God bless you.” Personally I think the poor thing needed it more than me. I didn’t know her family and I hated them. I would like to have known her not because I could help her but maybe because she could have helped me.
One day a woman called up who was crying and screaming into the phone so loudly I had to hold it away from my ear. I couldn’t understand most of what she lamented except “I shouldn’t have opened the door,” and something about being raped. I told her I wanted to call the police and send them to her building, which turned out to be the very one where my eldest sister was living at the time. She gave me her name and I called 9-1-1. Days later my sister said she hadn’t been raped, that she had a mental illness and was having a breakdown. How my sister got that information I’ll never know. I was given the information from the victim that she had been sexually assaulted. Unless an authority on the matter told me otherwise, I had no reason to doubt her.
Anne was a very quiet caller. She was abused since childhood. One day she informed me, “don’t ever ask me about my childhood. A guy did at the other Telecare (in Toronto) and by the time I told him I was so upset, I couldn’t calm down for 2 hours.”
Not only was that cruel, it was against the Telecare rules: we weren’t qualified to give advice and most people didn’t want it anyway. They just needed to be heard, probably like anybody. Now it almost reminds me of that flick Sixth Sense, where the ghosts that torment the little dude just need to be heard and to know that they mattered once. Over the course of a few conversations between me and Anne I learned she sexually molested her 2-year-old brother when she was 16. She tried to explain herself to her mother: “I was a baby.” Her mother yelled back, “You were 16!” Sex abuse really does go in cycles in families. Once, she called up to tell me she was very upset and needed to do some cutting. Her voice was ragged, different. I begged her not to but she said she had to hang up to do it. I now know that’s typical of abused people. Begging a person not to cut themselves is like begging them not to breathe. They need either inpatient or outpatient therapy and a plan of action to substitute cutting or burning. Anne didn’t have one. I doubted Anne had a psychiatrist either.
There was a girl who called me and told me she was afraid of her periods because the blood scared her. A woman who worked as a stripper called me weeping, saying she hated her job and her life and wanted better for herself. Then she sidewinded me by telling she had a degree in computer sciences! I told her to get out of the exotic dancing industry and into a computer job. She said she wanted to and did I think that was feasible for her? This was a person who did want to hear advice but she was ready for change. She just needed a push. Another woman was a mental patient. She told me crazy (pun) stories like how she’d tried to hang herself from her IV in the hospital (don’t think the IV could have supported her). Another girl called to say she liked to have sex outside with her boyfriend but try to keep it hidden, then she demanded to know if I was judging her. A guy with cerebral palsy named Frank told me he liked to make obscene phone calls to women (a thing of the past to be sure).
We had speakers and workshops now and then. They were cool. Once we had a social worker with her masters degree in social work. She threw out a few ideas for us to ponder and some of them had people’s feathers all ruffled. One statement she made was “there is an argument that people have the problems they have due to loneliness and that’s the cause.” Of course we reacted to that one. What a load of bull. I dare say that coming out of the kind of environment Anne did, or having Barbara’s mental illness, or Anonymous’s abusive family had something to do with personal problems too. Another workshop we had was relevent in the way it taught us not to try to give people advice when they weren’t ready for it. it was also interactive. It involved using little pieces of a game. The caller was supposed to guess what the listener was trying to tell them without words and only following the hint of these markers. Of course it was befuddling and that was the whole point. Callers, and people in general, don’t get it. They don’t see what is unusual or even sick about them or their environment. You can’t bring someone to that realization. They have to reach it themselves. Cool.
Clearly John had a personality disorder. He was extremely angry and it wasn’t difficult to say the wrong thing and set him off. He’d curse, talk about hog-tieing the listener, anything wacko he’d think of it. Once i had to hang up the phone on him. Predictably he called back and hurriedly said “hog tie” before I hung up again. It was rather funny, I have to admit. Once we actually had a decent, long conversation where he told me a lot about himself. At the end he actually thanked me for listening to him. That was rare. I don’t remember the things he told me that had made him so isolated and angry but I’m sure they were pretty extreme. Once when he was on the phone with me he could hear kids running up and down the hall of his apartment floor. It drove him nuts. He took the phone into the hall and yelled at their mother, “look lady, I don’t want to be a jerk here…” the anger was so palpable in his voice it was difficult for him to not be a jerk.
Bill was a paranoid schizophrenic. He was certainly lonely and lived alone. He used to write beautiful poems and asked my permission to read them to me over the phone. They were quite talented. Once he got mad at me, I don’t remember why, and he hung up on me. A minute later he called back but he was too shy to speak. “It’s okay Bill. Not a big deal,” I said and he began talking to me again. Bill was quite endearing.
He called up and said “I am sitting here with a gun in my hands.” It wasn’t a happy conversation. I believe he was divorced, had no one in his life, but he had adult children he loved. Clearly, they were independent and had little time for their father. I reminded him of how much they would miss him if he shot himself and he admitted “you’ve got me trapped there.” I told him “that’s where I want you.” He didn’t shoot his head off over the phone. I hope he didn’t when he hung up.
Fatima, the Freak
Fatima who also used another name to confuse us, was truly nuts. She tried to get you to tell her to paint her apartment black, or to talk about the colour the black in some manner so she could scream and call people obscene names. She got me that way once, not surprisingly. “Are you nuts, you crazy bitch? That would put me six feet under!” I hung up on her. Fatima was truly a lost cause.
Telephone crisis lines get very few suicidal phone calls. Most people are alone and want someone to talk to. They are very lonely but I don’t believe that is the source of their problems. Most of these people are mentally ill, have personality disorders, drug and alcohol addicted, are on meds, are in unhappy marriages, are friendless, have no family, are angry at the world, had abusive childhoods, and lack reality. Pathetic souls, really. Good thing there is a crisis line for them, a kind voice over the phone that simply lends an ear then sends them on their way. What else can we do?
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