Reach Out and Help Someone

Potential suicide. Sexual anxiety. Adolescent angst. No matter how hung-up you are, the counselors at Switchboard of Miami won't hang up -- or give up -- on you.

"I want to get out of this fucking world," she continues.
"I don't want you to get out of this world, I want you to get to someplace that's safe," Chuck says. He asks if she's tried living with any other relatives, and discovers that she's stayed with an aunt and uncle -- and found it tolerable. Although they want her to live with them permanently, she insists, "They don't like me."

In fact, she adds sadly, "Nobody likes me. I take drugs, I cut my wrists."
"Those are not the characteristics of a person who is unlikable," he says with an air of mock formality. "Those are the characteristics of a person with problems."

As they continue talking he learns that she has a boyfriend who might want to live with her, relatives willing to take her in, and only a few months to go before she turns eighteen. "It seems that you have a lot of possibilities other than killing yourself that could help your situation," he tells her.

"I still want to kill myself."
"I understand that, but there are other things you can do." He soon gently raises the possibility of low-cost counseling; her family has nearly exhausted funds for the psychiatric care she once received, but he still sees hope for her. "We don't like the fact that you want to kill yourself," he adds. "Is that okay with you?

"No."
"It's not okay with you? You would rather that we want you to kill yourself? You're going to have to accept us for what we are, people who'd much rather if you don't kill yourself." There's something strangely jocular about all this, a form of repartee that doesn't completely mask its deadly serious purpose. Eventually all the back-and-forth makes her laugh.

"See, you just laughed," he points out.
"No I didn't."
"Don't kid me," he says with a broad smile on his face. "I gotcha. The world isn't entirely black -- you laughed."

"You were laughing at me."
He's talking to her now like an old friend. "Oh, you know you're just trying to hold on to this black depression and not let me get you out of it!"

Her defenses are crumbling. "You made me laugh," she asserts.
"Yes, it was totally deliberate!" he proclaims, acting amused by it all. "It's true that I did it."

After the laughter she seems more willing to talk about the things she likes in her life, although her conversation is still laced with grim references to pills she can take or the glass she can use to slit her wrists. Still, before the call ends she reads him a poem she has written and tells him that her boyfriend is coming over later. She is, he believes, out of danger -- for now.

"Call us back at 358-HELP whenever you need somebody," he concludes.
"Bye," she says in a friendly way. No miracle cure has been achieved, and before retreating back into the silence she at least knows there's a place she still can turn to.

The call has taken about an hour of Chuck's time. "I usually don't spend that much time with a caller," he says, "but she was really depressed." He completes the suicide-assessment form, and ranks her as a moderate risk. "She's probably not going to do anything tonight, but in the long run she's a potential suicide."

Direct suicide-related calls make up roughly two percent of Switchboard of Miami's helpline cases, but the possibility of it exists for many of their callers. And each new phone call also may bring with it the threat of a crisis in progress. With 70 or so hours of classroom training and supervised phone work, the volunteers are expected to handle it. Even the newest volunteer may be called on to diffuse a dangerous situation. On a recent Tuesday night Jim, a bearded cabinetmaker, begins his first solo shift as an operator after four earlier sessions monitored by a supervisor. On this 5:30 to 9:00 p.m. shift there are three counselors on duty, and it falls to Jim to take a frantic call from a Spanish-accented young woman who is screaming, "Is this suicide information? Our friend is trying to do it! She's taken a lot of pills!"

"What kind of pills?" Jim asks, but he can't get a clear answer. Part of the problem is that Jim doesn't speak Spanish and there's no one manning the phones now who is fluent in the language. (At least one bilingual person is usually on duty at all times, although today that volunteer, Steve, is running slightly late.) It seems that the caller's friend, a recent Central American immigrant stuck by herself at a relative's house, may have taken as many as twenty pills. A nearby operator, Karen, a volunteer for two and a half years, rushes over to hear the ongoing conversation, then recommends that they set up a three-way call between the caller, her friend, and the switchboard. They need someone who speaks Spanish, so they ask another volunteer to go look for Jorge, the switchboard security guard who -- like everyone else associated with the organization -- has been trained in phone counseling.

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