As someone in the “hero” community, I’m often asked about the biggest fights I’ve been in or the worst injury I’ve received and so on. The extremes of what I do are always interesting to people. And I’ll answer them, of course, to appease their curiosity. But then I’ll tell them about something even more extreme and more brutal, in some ways. It surprises them for two reasons: 1) it involves a team of heroes that most people don’t know I belong to, and 2) it has nothing to do with having superhuman abilities.
When I was thirty, I lost someone close to me to suicide. And like most people who lose someone this way, I didn’t understand. The idea that this person could have made such a drastic decision made no sense to me. My quest to understand eventually led me to become a suicide prevention crisis counselor. Yes, that means I’m one of the many people answering the phone when someone calls the hotline number.
This is my other team of heroes. We don’t have flashy names or wear capes. But it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding.
Here’s something else that may surprise you: most of the people who call the suicide hotlines aren’t actually suicidal. Most of them are in crisis of some sort, yes, but very few of them are actively intending to off themselves.
While it’s on my mind, let me dispel a few of the more common myths about suicide and suicidal people:
- MYTH: If someone talks about suicide, they won’t actually attempt it. TRUTH: People who die by suicide usually do talk about it first.
- MYTH: If someone is set on killing themselves, you can’t stop it, only delay it. TRUTH: The vast majority of suicidal people don’t actually want to die. They just want the pain to stop. Helping them find their way to lessen the pain is a very good way to prevent suicide.
- MYTH: Suicide is the ultimate selfish act. TRUTH: When a person has reached this level of crisis, they’re not thinking clearly. It’s not that they’re insensitive to how their loved ones will feel. It’s that they truly believe those left behind will be better off without them. From their perspective, they’re being selfless, not selfish.
I could go on. There are so many incorrect beliefs about suicide. Take some time and educate yourself if you believe anything like this.
Anyway… most nights on the suicide hotline aren’t all that draining, just as most nights in tights are really spent doing paperwork. As I said, most callers aren’t suicidal. I’m lucky in that I’ve so far never had to “talk someone down” who was close to committing the act. But there have been many calls that really were harder for me to deal with than just about anything else I’ve faced.
I get a lot of calls from teenage girls. Some of you might now be thinking, “Oh, teenage girls are just drama queens.”
And you’d be both right and wrong. Yes, “drama” is common in that demographic. But never forget that some teens do have legitimate drama that can be overwhelming.
One recent call that stands out in my mind was a girl, age seventeen, who described an absolutely awful relationship with her parents. It was bad enough to make my relationship with my own parents seem wonderful, and that’s saying something. She explained to me how they had no respect for her, never listened to what she had to say, and had made it clear that they were going to kick her out as soon as she turned eighteen, even if she had nowhere to live. There was more, but you get the picture.
I could hear in her shaky voice just how desperate she was. She saw no way out of her situation and just wanted to end it all. After about twenty minutes of talking, I got her calmed down to the point of actually thinking she could tough out the remaining nine months until her birthday, and we even laid out some plans for what she would do at that point. But before we got to the point where I felt okay about where her head was, I heard a door open in the background. A man’s gruff voice yelled, “Get off the phone!” And the girl muttered a quick “sorry” and said she had to go. She hung up before I could even say goodbye.
This call infuriated me. I wanted nothing more than to grab that man by the collar and scream in his face, “Do you have any idea who she was talking to, you oblivious idiot?” (Except I’d have used a much less family-friendly word.) No doubt he assumed she was talking to one of her school friends or a boyfriend, maybe. It never entered his head that she could be talking to a suicide counselor, that she could be thinking the things that drove her to dial that number.
Calls like this one are unfortunately common. As tempting as it is to brush off teenage complaints about their parents as exaggerations, my experience has demonstrated that there are fewer cases of that than most people believe. There are some people out there who are terrible parents, although, for some reason, it’s socially unacceptable to point this out.
In my daily life, I go up against physical enemies with my own physical abilities. It can be dangerous and scary, but it’s familiar. It’s “easy,” in that respect.
But on the suicide hotline, I talk to strangers in crisis… people who feel they have no reason to live, people at the end of their ropes. And my only weapons are compassion, listening skills, and words. Believe me, that’s much harder.
This blog originally appeared as a guest blog on PsychCentral.