Steering into it

Last night was my last shift at the suicide crisis hotline I’ve volunteered at for the last three years, as I’m about to move across the country. It’s been a really wonderful, life-changing thing I’ve gotten to do, a privilege. I’ve struggled a bit to write about it, because I always have a hard time getting the scale and tone of it right: on the one hand the experience feels really big, like humanity-sized, and on the other I really just sit and answer a phone for a few hours every once in a while, sometimes quite ineptly, so I really don’t want to get too grandiose. But I was moved to try to write down a few thoughts about it anyhow.

One of the things I’ve learned at the hotline that’s resonated the most with me is a certain type of listening. In our training, they call it “steering into the pain.” I already knew, though didn’t (and don’t) always faithfully practice, the basics of how to listen well: being present, validating, asking questions, and sometimes the hardest part, not trying to fix things. Steering into the pain goes a step farther — when someone is telling you about something that hurts, not only do you stay there with them, and not minimize it or change the subject or talk around it or try to compare it to something or find a way to make it better, you stay there with them, and you go in deeper. You ask questions. Like: what’s the hardest part? What do you miss about him?

I don’t think I totally understood the power of this until I lost my mom a couple years ago. One of the worst parts about being in that much pain is how alone you are with it — it’s this thing that separates you from the people around you, that you feel like you can’t ever adequately communicate or share. And it makes people uncomfortable, too. So many times when I talked about my mom to people I could hear, see, feel them steering away from the dark parts. They all meant well and were trying their best, but there is nothing more lonely than to have someone look at your pain and, intentionally or not, turn away. Those moments when people stayed there with me, when they asked me questions about her, about how it felt — I remember so many of those moments individually, and the people who shared them with me, and I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life. When you have a pain that can’t be relieved, only borne, it means so much for someone just to be willing to bear it alongside you for a minute.

A lot of people, when I tell them about my work on the hotline, say “I don’t know how you do it. I could never.” That’s not usually true, I don’t think. It can be hard, but not in the way people most people imagine it is, and not in a way that requires any special abilities. Most callers aren’t standing on a ledge while you try to talk them down — those types of “imminent risk” calls are rare, and you have lots of training and support for them. Many callers are suicidal to some degree, but not all are. You’re not responsible for solving anyone’s problems or saying the “right thing” that will make their pain go away. How could you? You’re just there to sit with them in the dark for a while. Even after three years, and experiencing it from the other side, I still am taken aback by how powerful just doing that can be sometimes. It doesn’t seem like it should do much, and it definitely doesn’t always, but sometimes you start a call with someone and they’re hopeless and in agony and you just do your best to stay with them and listen and ask questions and at the end of the call they say, I feel so much better. It floors me. And people’s willingness to share their pain with me has given me a lot, too.

I said earlier that pain is this isolating thing, something that feels like it separates you. But it’s also one of the things that you share with every other human on earth. It can be an opening for intimacy, and for connecting with the shared humanity of the people around you.

The trick I learned from my mom about empathizing with challenging people, years before I worked at the hotline, was really simple: look for their pain. Often it’s right in front of you, clearly driving whatever pain-in-the-ass behavior is frustrating you. Or it’s easy to imagine — they probably learned to be this way growing up, and can you imagine being a child in a household where people acted like that? Sometimes you just have to make something up, but the one thing you can always know for sure is that they have hurt, like you. For me, connecting to the pain in others makes it easier for me to love them, which is what I want to do. When I can manage to do it, it makes me act better, and it makes life easier to bear.

This is the first time I’ve written anything about losing my mom since she died, and part of it was that I just could not bring myself to ascribe any “meaning” to the awful, pointless bullshit that was losing the person I loved most in the world way before her time. It felt too much like a kind of turning away from it myself. But to the extent that I’ve come to feel that losing her ties into anything bigger, it’s the way that it ties me to everybody else I meet.

One last thing — the hardest part about working at the hotline for me, sometimes, is hearing the despair people feel from problems that are fixable — not by them or by me, but by us, collectively. Pain is universal and inevitable, but there’s no reason there has to be as much of it as there is now, or that it should be so unevenly distributed. We tell people who are suicidal to “get help,” but often that help is hard to find or does not exist. A lot of people who call have no access to mental health care. Or they’re in and out of a revolving door of institutions, showing up at the emergency room again and again, because we don’t have a good model for how to care for our most troubled and vulnerable neighbors. So many of them feel hopeless and want to die because they’re facing material problems that no human should have: they’re poor, they’re homeless, they’re sick without insurance, they’re in intractable debt, they’re incarcerated. At times like those I felt frustrated and helpless that all I could do was listen. But listening, for me, I hope has been a starting point. Being able to hear so much of their pain, and holding it in my heart, has made me want to work with and for them, alongside everyone who knows what it is to hurt, to fix things.