Oct 052018
 

Twice each year, I am invited to speak to the sophomore health classes at Neuqua Valley High School. Recently, the students asked some wonderful questions about working on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). Here are my reflections.

What do you tell someone who wants to commit suicide?

“Telling” callers anything can often be hurtful. Sentences that end in periods indicate we are not listening. The only thing that helps are sincere questions and deep listening. The only valuable path forward is the one the caller discovers during our conversation. In the end, it is what they tell me that matters.

How many lives do you think you have saved after 15 years?

We never save lives; we share sacred moments when callers choose to save their own. There have been thousands of those moments.

Does the job affect you emotionally?

The work is often emotional. When it is, I try to remain in touch with my emotions and honest with the callers. When I am sad or heartbroken, the caller usually knows, and that helps them know I understand. Most of the stories stay with me, especially those that are heartbreaking, but I am usually successful in not allowing the emotions to follow me home.

Do you ever fail to help callers?

There have been many times when I simply could not find the right words or question to help a caller see their life in a new way. Those calls are some of the most difficult. It makes me sad, but I forgive myself when I am imperfect. I am a volunteer who tries very hard to help every caller. Should a caller choose to end their life after we have talked, I refuse to take responsibility for what was, in the end, their unfortunate decision.

Have you had personal experience with suicide among friends and family?

16 years ago, before I began this work, I did not. In the last 15 years, because of my work in suicide prevention, I have been touched by the tragedy of suicide. I have had to live through the grief and pain with several families. Anyone who thinks no one will miss them when they are gone, has no idea of the devastation left in the wake of their decision to end their life.

How do you know the right thing to say?

We seldom do when the call begins. We begin by listening to the caller’s pain and validating their feelings. During the dialogue, we try to discern what is happening in their lives. Usually, after enough time together, we find questions that cause them to rethink how they see themselves; to reframe their pain and sorrow.

Do you have emergency procedures for someone who is about to end their life?

If a call ends unsuccessfully, meaning the caller is in danger of suicide and hangs up without a resolution, we call 911 and help the emergency responders find the caller and get them to an emergency room.

Is there something you have said in the past that has actually changed someone’s mind?

Everything we do on the line is aimed at inviting callers to see their world in new ways. We don’t change their minds but invite callers to change their own. There have been hundreds of times in which just the right question will help a person see things from a different perspective.

How and why did you get started in this work?

How and why I began is less important than why I am still there 15 years later. Several years ago, a young woman called with a bottle of pills she intended to swallow. After a long and heartfelt conversation, she chose to put the pills away. One of the last things she said to me was “I am thankful you answered my call. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be dead now.” Even many years later those words are etched on my heart, and their memory brings tears to my eyes.

Every human being hopes that, in the end, their lives will have mattered. If I can help another person choose life, I can go to sleep each night feeling immense gratitude.

 

Suicide Prevention Services of America, where I volunteer, is always in need of volunteers to help with their life-affirming work. To find out more, visit SPSAmerica.org or call 630-482-9699

Jul 302018
 

One Christmas afternoon many years ago, I answered a call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) from a young man in middle school. Through oceans of tears he told me how he and his father argued almost constantly. All he wanted to know was whether his father loved him. It broke my heart. We talked a long time that afternoon until he felt he had a way to talk with his father. One of the last things he told me before the call ended was “I know I don’t know you well, but I can tell you I love you.” One of the most perfect gifts I have ever received on that day.

Having spent nearly 3500 hours answering calls on the Lifeline, I have found that helping those who suffer is some of the most life-affirming work any person can be invited to do. On the other side of suffering is a profundity of joy and wisdom unavailable to us without the journey into the depths.

But to truly affirm life, we must affirm all of life…including suffering. We are bereft of wisdom, empathy and love when we go to great lengths to eliminate or hide suffering; we do everything we can to avoid the journey that eventually leads to an understanding of the true nature of the human journey.

When we hide suffering, we concentrate it in hidden worlds. We send the elderly to retirement and nursing communities; the infirmed and disabled are sent to homes. Depression and mental illness are closeted behind the closed doors of professionals. And while these places are caring and wonderful, those outside forget the suffering behind those doors. By concentrating the anguish into those places of caring, those left to attend to the suffering are overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask of them.

When suffering is hidden, we are left believing it is not normal for humans to suffer. Those who suffer cry in silence, believing it is their unique frailty or weakness that leaves them in pain. We think, “Since others around me are doing well, it’s just be me who is weak and unable to cope with life.” We miss suffering’s doorway into understanding and sagacity.

I wonder how we might change the world if every person were to find even small ways to allow human suffering to reinfuse our lives. What if we began with the courage to let the world see our own vulnerabilities; bring the reality of the human journey back into our lives and communities. What if each of us spent time in places where we have gathered great suffering and gave a moment of respite to the caregivers who are becoming overwhelmed?

Perhaps, in many of those moments, we will each receive gifts of gratitude and wisdom beyond any we have yet known.

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.