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.

Before they can find Jorge, however, Steve breezes in, arriving after speeding along the highway from West Palm Beach. A young fast-food store manager, he is there on only his second day of volunteer work and he is expecting to enjoy a breather before starting to answer the phones. As the only Spanish speaker in the room, though, he's thrust into the crisis immediately, takes the headphones from Jim, and, after setting up the three-way call, begins coolly talking to the pill-popping woman, Maria, and her friend. As he speaks to them -- mostly in Spanish -- he occasionally presses the mute button and fills in Karen on what's going on: "She took the pills to get high.... She's been drinking...."

He needs to keep Maria talking while he waits for her friends to show up at the house where she is staying. As they talk, it becomes clear to Steve that the woman is not in imminent danger of overdosing: The drugs are prescription medicines for migraine headache. Still, the woman is high and maudlin and has fallen down a few times. He soon finds himself in the midst of a domestic melodrama when her boyfriend gets on the line, and Maria, weeping, tells him, "I promise I won't do it again." Steve continues to listen and talk until one of her friends enters the house and picks up the phone. Then Maria speaks up again: "Everything's fine."

During his 25 minutes on the phone, Steve says after hanging up, he was so focused on Maria's needs that he didn't have time to be nervous. "You're so well-trained," he points out, "that I was only feeling caring and concern."

Most calls -- more than 80 percent -- are not so urgent as Maria's. Usually they involve people with a range of worries and emotional problems, often involving relationships. The callers seem to feel there's nowhere else to turn for advice. And a weekend night can be a particularly tough time to be alone and confused.

It's around eleven on Saturday night, and Jorge, the short-haired, muscular security guard, is settling in for his overnight counseling shift. A teenage girl phones, her voice shaky with panic, and says, "I'm worried that I had sex with my boyfriend. He penetrated for just a second, and I told him to get off. He didn't use protection. Ten minutes later, he came." She wonders if she can get pregnant.

Jorge won't answer the question directly -- "I'm not a medical doctor" -- and tries instead to get her to take precautions for the next time. She moans in distress and he tells her, "You can't change the past. But you can plan ahead for the future." Because she didn't ask for a birth-control referral, there's not much more he can do.

Confusion about sex is still rampant among the young, at least according to the phone counselors who field such calls frequently. Ed, a retired business-college teacher who volunteers twice a week, cites two common questions -- Can the girl get pregnant if she did it standing up? Can she get pregnant during her period? -- and an uncommon one: "A fifteen-year-old boy called after he used a condom, and asked me, 'Can I use it again on the other side?'"

There's also a small group of callers who turn to the hotline not as a resource for sexual questions but as an outlet for their kinky fantasies. The operators usually can tell when they're being used that way and make sure to hang up if such talk continues. Sometimes a counselor isn't sure and may give the caller the benefit of the doubt for a while. So on one Friday night, shortly before eleven, a man calls and tells the 76-year-old woman who answers that he's not sure if wants to watch his wife having sex with another woman. He keeps talking earnestly about his wife's desire to dominate him, but when he asks to speak to another woman counselor the switchboard operator knows it is likely a bogus call. "You have to make up your own mind," she says, before hanging up the phone with matter-of-fact irritation. "I think he was masturbating."

Other callers have sicker reveries. One man is simply listed in the switchboard's files as "Penis," because he calls with an elaborate, plausible explanation of how he lost his member in an accident, or as a result of illness. Before a novice counselor knows what's happening, this caller feverishly jerks off. How he simultaneously reconciles a castration fantasy and masturbation in his own mind has not been made clear.

Most calls, however, come from people in genuine pain over their troubled personal lives. On any evening you can hear a teenage girl complain about her 29-year-old mother sleeping with a 17-year-old boy, or an overweight woman in her 40s who feels trapped still living at home with the mother she envies.

For some, the turmoil in their love lives has lasted for years and there's little the switchboard operators can do to alleviate it. In the last few weeks a middle-age woman, Jane, has begun calling the hotline regularly in the evenings to mull over what do about the man she's been seeing for fifteen years. On a Friday night she calls again and says to Amy, a young counselor, "I love this man I know and he doesn't love me."

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