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The Suicide Not-Line   Leave a comment

Twenty years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco from Philadelphia, I found myself in the City by the Bay not knowing a soul.  I had just started a new job but had not formed any relationships with people meaningful enough to socialize with outside the workplace.  So I spent my evenings and weekends in my tiny studio apartment staring at my telephone waiting for it to ring.  It never did.  If cell phones were commonplace in those days, I would have called myself just for the thrill.

I was starting to get lonely and depressed.  I didn’t want to go back to Philly, I just wanted to have more of a life in San Francisco.  Then it occurred to me to try doing some volunteer work.  I could do something worthwhile and hopefully meet new people at the same time.  Moreover, I wouldn’t be sitting in my apartment ruminating on the fact I was sitting in my apartment.

Since I was feeling a little suicidal myself, circular logic told me the best place to volunteer was the San Francisco Suicide Hotline.  In my state of mind I was a little worried I might not be able to talk anyone down and actually tell someone to “go for it,”  but I decided to see what it was all about.  The orientation was a disaster.

I came right from work in a double breasted suit and silk pocket square looking like a little mafia boss.  Everyone else was counter-culture San Francisco with tattoos, floppy hats, rings, piercings, ripped jeans and serious looks of consternation on their faces.  They all looked like society was torturing them in some way.  And all mobbed up I probably looked like a commercial for everything they were against.  However I couldn’t understand how they were going to keep people from killing themselves.  I imagined someone calling the hotline with thoughts of suicide and the slacker on the other end saying, “Man, stop feeling bad for yourself.  People are homeless in San Francisco.  And, they cancelled the Clean Needle Program.  But all you can do is think about your own problems.  Maybe if you cared about other people you’d realize there are other things more important than you and your silly suicide.”  Other end of the line.  “Click.  Bang!”

There really wasn’t much of a training.  That would come on the job.  Now that I thought was kind of dangerous.  You can learn to make fries at McDonalds on the job, because if you burn them you simply wasted some frozen-processed potato like things.  The assistant manager doesn’t die.  And everyone wanted “phone time.”  The Suicide Hotline actually had more people than shifts and I can’t imagine the phone was ringing off the hook.

The most insulting part was that some volunteers and a coordinator actually spoke up against me being part of it.  Probably because I was wearing a suit and didn’t look disheveled,  convinced everyone is a fascist and wasn’t angry at the city of San Francisco for one reason or another.  In their innate ability to read people, it never occurred to them I chose to work at the Suicide Hotline because I was bipolar, had attempted suicide in the past and felt I knew the right way to help someone in crisis.  It probably also didn’t cross their minds I had a job and was required to dress like John Gotti.  Well, I was required to wear a suit.  I just preferred the double breasted mobster look.  Don’t ask.

So the San Francisco Suicide Hotline would have to save lives without me.  I later went on to volunteer for other non-profit groups which I found very welcoming and fulfilling.  But that was not my last experience I had with suicide hotlines.  Several years ago I was to become a customer.  My medication was not pulling its weight so I was extremely depressed, in financial turmoil, my business was drinking saltwater, my girlfriend and I were at odds on couple of major issues and I felt I was ready to check out.  So I got drunk, climbed inside my too fast for its own good Mustang and headed for the 280 Freeway where I knew of a suitable cliff to drive off incurring certain death.  And getting drunk was the only way I had the nerve to do it.

I drove like a madman toward the freeway and stopped short of the on-ramp, pulling over to the side into a parking lot.  I was scared to die.  I called information and asked for the suicide hotline.  I don’t know if it was national or local, I just took what they gave me.  And I got a kid who couldn’t have been more than 25 years old asking me what was so horrible in my life that I want to end it all?  I was 44 years old.  I owned a failing business.  I’d been married and divorced.  I had a 11 year old daughter.  My finances were in severe peril.  And, a guy who probably still lives with roommates and smokes a bong the size of an alto saxophone is going to tell me it’s not all that bad and I’ll be OK?  I thanked him for saving my life, disconnected him and laughed aloud at the whole situation.  Then I fell asleep in the driver’s seat.  It was not my night to die.

I think suicide hotlines and the volunteers who man the phones are doing a noble thing.  The problem is, they have to be peer to peer, matching the right volunteer with the right callers.  Someone they can relate to, if nothing more than just being in the same age range.   Now I know suicide hotlines don’t have a stable of volunteers with numbers on their backs just waiting to be called up for the right situation, but there must be some way of asking a few quick questions when the person in need calls to better match them with an appropriate lifeline.  One size does not fit all.

Teenagers want to talk to other teenagers.  Thirty-somethings want to talk to other thirty-somethings.  Guys in their forties want to talk to girls in their twenties.  We all want to talk with someone with whom we can relate.  Or at least someone who has the same frame of reference.  You both remember Woodstock, saw Michael Jackson missing a glove in concert and O.J. Simpson not fitting into his in court.

So thank you suicide hotlines for the good work you do.  I’m thankful you are there for the people who have nowhere else to turn.  And I hope you can continually improve matching the right counselors with the right callers.   I understand when staffed by volunteers, you may not be able to get the full spectrum of age groups and experience you would prefer.  But as long as counselors aren’t asking people in the throes of suicide to donate their body parts for an art project, I have to believe you’re doing a lot of good just by simply being there.