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.

"You refuse to let go," Amy says. "We talked about this a few weeks ago." At the end of their conversation Amy gives her the name of a Women Who Love Too Much support group to call, and Jane seems willing to go. Still, the next night she calls to talk about her unrequited love all over again. If this keeps up Jane may find herself classified as one of the "actives," the disturbed or simply lonely people who call as many as several times a day.

There are about 150 actives and the helpline operators have come to know them well. These regulars know the counselors and their shifts, too, sometimes timing their calls to try to reach their favorites. Novice counselors can refer to computer files on the constant callers; it doesn't take long, however, to learn their stories.

One of the most persistent is Larry, a manic-depressive who lives alone on Miami Beach. He calls only when he's in his manic phase, and when he can't sleep he may call as many as fifteen times a day; recently, with the aid of new medication he's been taking, he's started sleeping at night more, giving the counselors a break from his incessant phoning. "It's nice to get a little peace," says one. Yet Larry still calls frequently to discuss whatever happens to be on his mind. Even so, the operators manage to treat him with friendliness and respect.

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Sometimes, his calls refer to what are probably fantasies about his career. By about 8:30 on a Thursday evening when he calls in for the third time that night, he starts expounding about his dreams of running for office. Each call at the switchboard is answered randomly and so now Chuck is his designated listener. The man wants to run, he insists, an "upbeat" campaign.

"Sounds nice," Chuck says amiably during their five-minute talk. "Maybe you'll turn into one of those wise old people with acolytes listening to your every word." Not surprisingly, Larry calls back later.

On the phone he sounds extroverted, coherent, almost normal. The file on him tells a different, grimmer story. "Comments: Larry has been hospitalized for depression and suicide attempts.... Meds: Lithium, Haldol, Prolixin, Prozac.... Action plan: General support. Active listening. Encourage him to continue his group support at [a local clinic]. Reinforce his participation in social activities. Time Limits: 5-10 minutes, reduce after first call."

Chuck, who has spoken to Larry for years, has a tolerant attitude toward him, offering him plenty of warmth but little in the way of direct advice. "I'm not going to help his situation by doing it any other way," he explains. The switchboard must be doing something right -- Larry is still alive, after all.

While some of the other regular callers often are in more serious pain than Larry, there is little the counselors can do except offer reassurance and urge them to continue seeing their doctors. Their conversations offer insight into lives shaped by a chronic mental illness. So when Nancy phones on a Saturday night, the prescription medications she's taking are starting to kick in and she tells Jorge, in a rambling, slurred manner, how unhappy she is. "Should I try to make myself go into a coma?... Call the cops and make them shoot me -- I'm suffering, but I'm not capable of killing myself. I don't think God put me here to kill myself."

Eventually she gets tired, and Jorge tells her, "Get a little rest and call us tomorrow."

Nancy answers, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, it's never going to come any more. There used to be tomorrows, but after my mom passed there's been no tomorrows, there's only been todays. I have to stay here and suffer."

The file on Nancy tells why she has so little to look forward to: "Black schizophrenic female with substance-abuse problems and multiple hospitalizations. Resistance to medications. Suicide attempts." The recommended "action plan" includes "assessment of her intent to suicide" and "focus on identifying problem and alternatives she can take." For "significant other," it lists only a doctor.

Hearing so much misery on a regular basis can take its toll. These helpline counselors, though, are devoted to their work. In addition to her day job as a secretary at the University of Miami, Amy, 26, generally works two eight-hour weeknight shifts that end at 3:00 a.m. A plus she volunteers at a hospice on weekends. She, like many of the others, downplays her own altruism, saying only, "My interest is in psychology." Most are drawn to the work because of a simple desire to help others and serve their community, and for some those reasons are deepened by pain they've experienced personally. It enables them to relate closely to a caller, even though the lives of a counselor and client may be very different. Denise, the Southern Bell technician, notes that as an overweight woman, "I'm able to be sensitive to others. I understand how they feel."

The challenge the volunteers all face, though, is not letting their caring for others overwhelm them. Jorge, after finishing his talk with the schizophrenic Nancy, observes, "You've got to train yourself to leave it right here in this room." Chris, working the overnight shift with Jorge, adds, "You empathize with them, but you try not to feel their pain so much that it interferes with what you're trying to do." Both Jorge and Chris are still young, however, and have been fielding calls for only eighteen months. They might not be so sanguine about it all if, like Chuck, they had been listening to tales of suffering for more than two decades.

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