I like mental-health professionals. I’m happily married to one. But my response to potential suicides is anything but textbook.
It seems to me that the right to take one’s own life ought to be respected as sacred. Don’t get me wrong. I want people to live, and I respect the power of depression. But if you feel your life has hit bottom, one of the few powers you still have is to cease being. As long as you have that power, you don’t need to kill yourself. You can always do that tomorrow.
If I feel that life is agony, being reminded of the people who love me isn’t going to persuade me to live on. And knowing that I can be hospitalized for my own good may hasten my self-destructive act. What would help me in a situation like that is talking with someone who will listen mindfully and compassionately and with support for whatever I decide to do.
When I moved from the New York City area to Northern Virginia in 1990, my life was crumbling around me. I was severely depressed and decided that my depression would help me understand and show compassion for others. So I volunteered to answer the phones at the Northern Virginia Hotline.
I went through a training program that focused on reflective listening — trying to determine the thoughts and emotions being expressed by the caller and then relaying those back, accepting either confirmation or correction.
“I feel great today!”
“So, it has been a good day for you.”
“Well, mostly, but…”
Once I completed training, I didn’t see a point working a quiet shift. I volunteered for a high-crisis time slot — midnight to 8 a.m. Saturday mornings. We generally worked in pairs, and the phone kept us busy. We got a lot of calls from men with sexual quirks who needed to confess anonymously, from D.C. streetwalkers who had been cheated and needed to complain, and from painfully shy women who needed someone — anyone — to talk to. And, of course, we got the occasional suicide call.
One night around 1 a.m. it was my turn to answer, and after my standard greeting, I heard this from a gruff male voice:
“I got a noose and a chair and I’m ready to jump.”
I thought fast about how to reflect that back to him and came up with: “Things are so bad that you’re about to take your own life, but you decided to call the hotline first to see if it’s really what you want to do.”
He replied: “Yeah, now it’s your job to talk me out of it, right?”
I didn’t see a way to reflect that back to him, and I felt that it needed an honest answer. I told him exactly how I felt. “No,” I said, and I paused before adding: “My job is to help you decide what you really want to do. I’m here to help you do that.”
I don’t remember what came next, but we stayed on the phone for about a half hour. His voice remained gruff, and he may have been drunk, but when the call ended, he volunteered: “Well, I’ll say this for you. I feel better now.”
There’s no way of knowing whether the person calling a hotline is telling the truth or engaging in a fantasy. So I don’t know if I really helped a potential suicide that night. I did check the newspapers for several days looking for a suicide by hanging and found none. But, assuming he was telling the truth, if I had agreed that my job was talking him out of suicide, it would likely have played into his possibly drunken antagonism and increased the likelihood of his going through with it.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine