I worked at the suicide line for a year. It was a four hours every week job. All I had to do was sit there and answer the phone. It broke me like nothing else ever did.
Work is about the do, or get out of the way. I don’t like to think there is any middle ground when it comes to the job. Either you do it or you state, in very clear terms, that you will not do it. You can have your reasons for not doing it, and they can be fair and even noble. But you absolutely need to state that you will not do the job.
This goes double for volunteer work. You are not there because you need, but because you want. And wanting something has a strong meaning for you and everyone involved with the thing you want. You don’t volunteer because you are a good person, or because you believe in the nobility of the cause, that is all worthless. You volunteer because you want.
Back then, I wanted the job. But more importantly, I wanted an answer. Why suicide? Why do people commit suicide? It was a nagging question to me, and I felt that connecting with people who at least thought about it would help me understand.
The job was boring and overly bureaucratic. Weirdly enough, not a lot of people who called were actually thinking about ending their lives. They were lonely, sad, apathetic, but whenever we touched the subject most of them would state that they never wanted to die, and still would very much like to continue living, only in better conditions. Some had very intense and emotional stories, but otherwise it was just four uneventful hours.
One day, with only 10 minutes remaining to end my shift, the doorbell rang. It was someone wanting to talk in person. Since the advent of phones and the internet, very few people would go to the Suicide Prevention Center requesting that kind of talk. I was trained to deal with it, but that would be the first time. I let the man in. He was a beggar. Tall and very lean, his knees were swollen, his clothes were inside out and he smelled really bad. I did my best to not let any of that bother me, hopefully he didn’t notice. Or noticed, but was so used to the way people got around him that he didn’t care. I offered him a seat and I sat on the chair right in front of him.
On that day I learned that a momment between two people can be so powerfull that you connect, even if you never saw that person before. He exposed me to myself like the mirror of truth. His knees were swollen because the cops beat him up for nothing. His clothes, I deduced, were inside out because he wanted to hide the blood that spilled on the surface. He smelled bad because he didn’t have a place to return to, with a shower available for a little dignity. All the terrible things that were happening in his life, and his great concern was dogs. A bunch of dogs who sat faithfully outside the gates, waiting for him. He was worried about who would feed them — this man who barelly had any food for himself—who would feed them if he died?
I was desperate. I wanted to run. To yell “Stop making me see how awfull the world can be!”. I didn’t do that. I stood there, looking him in the eyes the entire time. And when he finished, the only thing I could say was “I can’t help you with your dogs.”. As a single tear went down through my face, he asked why I was crying. I said the exact same thing again. He got up and went out. I never saw him again. Later, people told me that just by listening to his story I already helped him a little. But honestly, I doubt it. On that day I failed to do my job.
Not long after I quit volunteering.