I spent three years volunteering on the crisis line at Distress Centre Calgary. In the first day of training, the facilitator said, “Since you’re sitting in this room, you are probably the person that all your friends call when they are feeling sad or lonely or when they get dumped or when their dog dies.”
I was not that person. Not in the slightest. In fact, I think my friends actually avoided me when they were in crisis. My usual response to emotional breakdown was deer in the headlights. I never knew what to say.
Despite feeling like a fish out of water, I pushed myself to show up and take it one shift at a time.
I listened to countless callers disclose their deepest personal problems. Calls ranged from relationship difficulties to family dynamics to struggles with addiction and suicide. No matter what the topic of the call, I noticed some recurrent themes and learned important lessons that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Lesson 1: We’re not that different.
A lot of people think that they’re crazy. I frequently heard callers say: “I bet you’ve never heard anything like this before,” when in reality I heard it all the time and sometimes even experienced whatever they were concerned about in my own mind. There is a lot of pressure to conceal our weaknesses and pretend that we have our lives under control. This pressure can silently persuade us to live in emotional isolation. There’s a stigma associated with seeking therapy or calling a crisis line. People believe they must be deeply disturbed to reach out for help. When a high-functioning person reaches a breaking point they think they’ve completely lost their marbles. This is not the case. Most of the calls I received were from “normal” individuals who just needed a little bit of support and reassurance.
Lesson 2: Sometimes people just want to be heard.
The concept of emotional validation was foreign to me. That’s probably why my friends avoided me when they were in crisis. I learned very quickly that my job was never to solve problems. Often, callers just wanted someone who would actively listen and assure them that they are not crazy.
Lesson 3: Silence is okay.
One of my biggest fears was not knowing what to say. I was worried that I might offend someone, make them feel worse, or worst of all cause them to act on their suicidal thoughts. Experience taught me that it’s okay not to know what to say. Sitting in silence with another soul can be cathartic. It wasn’t awkward. It was often a time for callers to reflect and come up with their own solutions.
Lesson 4: You can’t change anyone.
Ultimately individuals are responsible for their own actions, but this can be incredibly painful to accept. Third-party calls, meaning a person calling on behalf of someone they are worried about, were among the most difficult – especially if suicide was a concern. Unfortunately, you can’t help someone who doesn’t think they need help. Accepting this helped me understand that nothing I could have said would have caused a caller to act on their suicidal thoughts.
Sometimes worry for a loved one was not the problem. I spoke with countless men and women who were waiting for their partner to treat them better, a boss to realize their unreasonable demands, or a family member to stop being so judgemental. It’s exhausting waiting for people to change. If they want to change, they will do so in due course. If they don’t want to change, you’re not going to change them.
Lesson 5: You never know what someone might be going through.
I started looking at people differently. I began to wonder about the secret worlds of people in my surroundings. I was less frustrated if someone was rude to me in a grocery store. I had a heightened sense of compassion for sad looking c-train commuters. Most importantly, I realized that I can be completely oblivious to the internal struggles of those closest to me. It’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be another person, but listening with compassion can be a powerful way to show support.
I spoke with hundreds of callers that have faced unimaginably difficult circumstances. They taught me how to be present in my relationships and less judgmental of strangers. One of the questions I would almost always ask is “how do you cope?” People know how to answer this question and they know how to take care of themselves, even if they don’t always realize it. Humans are resilient.