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FEBRUARY 11, 2013 7:32PM

Notes From A Suicide Hotline

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Twice a week, for six weeks during our intensive training to be suicide hotline volunteers, the thirty of us eagerly absorbed suicide statistics. We raptly listened to suicide survivors’ tales.  We fought back tears when those who’d lost loved ones to suicide described for us the never-ending reverberations of living in the wake of a type of death that for many is nearly impossible to come to terms with, even decades after the fact.

When the group leaders rolled out the “Suicide Quilt” with photographs of local people who’d killed themselves we were astounded at how ordinary they all looked, how happy they appeared.  They beamed back at us from their little squares, the dates of their birth and suicide below them, male and female, all races and ages.  The oldest was in his seventies.  The youngest was twelve.  It was so different from say an AIDS quilt where everyone on it is united by the same disease.  There was something illogically lonely about the “Suicide Quilt”.  I had to turn my head away.

We role-played.  We listened to live calls. We learned the questions to ask a suicidal person to quickly assess their intent and the severity of the situation.  We took tests.  We were given lists of area resources, referrals, numbers to call for additional help.  We had it drummed into our heads that we were not doctors, counselors or mental health professionals.  Our only goal was to make sure the suicidal caller was safe for the next 24 hours. 

When they finally turned us loose, pairing us up and assigning us our own shifts in a stuffy little room on the second floor of the mental health center, a room so small three literally was a crowd, we were nervous of course, but we felt more than prepared after all that training.  We were pumped.  We were ready.  We had all the tools necessary to be suicide warriors, saving lives, helping desperate souls, giving them renewed hope and a reason to live. 

And as we came to find out, once in a great while we actually got the opportunity to do just that. 

But the reality of answering a suicide hotline was so different from the way it was portrayed during training, it’s not a stretch to say at first it was something of a letdown.  And so much more difficult than talking someone down off the ledge so to speak.  It turns out the vast majority of callers to a suicide hotline are not suicidal.  I can’t speak for any other geographical area than the one I volunteered for but I’d guess it’s the same everywhere.

Most people who dial up a 24-hour suicide hotline aren’t suicidal.  They’re calling because something’s not right in their life and they want to talk about it.  And when they have no one they can confide in or it’s three in the morning and they can’t sleep because whatever’s bothering them is eating them alive, there aren’t many other options.

Often they’re embarrassed when asked the mandatory question every single caller must be asked at the beginning of every call: Are you thinking of hurting yourself or are you considering suicide.  They say things like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know who else to call, maybe I should call someplace else,” or they fall all over themselves insisting they’re not suicidal.

The problems they’re wrestling with are universal:  Job loss.  Loneliness.  Relationship issues.  Addiction.  Lack of health insurance.  Lack of money.  Depression.  Family conflicts.  Mental illness.

There are no easy answers.  Sometimes there are no answers at all.  Sometimes despite all the resources at our fingertips, a caller lives in an area where no assistance, free or otherwise, is available.  Or he doesn’t have a car, or access to a bus line.  Or she’s unable to leave her home for various reasons.  Sometimes despite every suggestion, despite every phone number offered, the caller doesn’t want help.

The reasons someone decides to take his or her life are as diverse as various individuals' personalities.  One person’s breaking point may simply be another’s bump in the road.  That’s why it’s critical to get it out of the way at the beginning of the phone call:  Are you thinking of hurting yourself or are you considering suicide.  It’s too easy for the volunteer to assume the situation isn’t as bad as it may be if the caller isn’t immediately up front; the volunteer must always assume the worst case scenario.

What surprised me is how many of my callers weren’t suicidal despite the huge, sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems in their lives.  So many times they just wanted someone to hear them out.  As sad and hopeless as some of the situations were, they also left me in awe of the human spirit and its desire to persevere. 

Sometimes I still think about Sam.*  He called one morning at about 5.  He was adamant he wasn’t suicidal, he just wanted to talk.  He'd made a mess of his life due to drinking.  He hated what he did for a living, working a dead end minimum wage job at one of those discount dollar stores. Almost all his money was going to child support yet he couldn’t see his three kids because he didn’t live close enough to his ex-wife and had no transportation.  He had no car and couldn't drive anyway since he'd lost his license.

Sam missed his kids but he was afraid their mother was turning them against him.  He said he sent them letters and birthday and Christmas presents but she’d send them back to him, unopened.  His work was three miles away.  Since he had no car and didn't live near a bus line there was only one way for him to get there - by walking.

I didn’t make any suggestions and he didn’t ask for any. I just listened while he matter-of-factly told me about himself and his life and how things had gotten to where they presently were.  Two hours later Sam said he had to go; he had to be out the door if he was going to be at work at 8.

Even though he’d done most of the talking, I felt drained. I wasn’t sure how to end the call but I also didn’t want to let him go.  I wanted to say something to him that would make him feel hopeful.  While I was frantically trying to think of the right words that might send him on his way with a lighter heart, he saved me the trouble.  He began making a strange high-pitched noise that at first I took to be a laugh, then realized was a wail as it went on and on.  It ended with a strangled cry as he gasped, I don’t want this life!  I don’t want this life!  I don’t want this life!

Then Sam quickly pulled himself together, thanked me for listening and hung up.


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Oh wow. Powerful stuff here. I hope you can't get in trouble for telling too much. But I know the angst. I just watched the movie "Beasts of the Southern Wild". Talk about tragic and yet there is such courage in that little girl. Such wonder even in the horror. That makes me brave. That makes me able to help people and listen. Don't be afraid of the edge of life. That is where the miracles happen.
Great story. Unfortunately, the truly suicidal ones just do it. R
The saddest part of this is that the callers don't have their 3am person - the one you can always call, always count on to listen.
I'm glad you're there.
Margaret, that was a fascinating look at something I know little of, but if you're convinced that someone is really about to kill themselves, are you supposed to call the cops or medics?

Thanks for the reminder; I added a note about protecting the subject's privacy. No, no trouble - I changed enough details to disguise the subject yet stay true to the core story. I haven't seen that movie yet - not sure I want to. But I probably will.


That's so nice of you to say but I don't do too much to be thought of that way. Even at the hotline, my main job was listening.


Yes you're right. Some of them call several times before they do it. We listened to a call where that very thing happened. When a person is determined and sets their mind to it, there's a certain peacefulness and relief about the decision.
I wonder how many people call before they try to commit suicide? I would never have called anyone, I had my escape well planned. I tried twice, I'm a meticulous planner and nearly made it out both times but people can say they'll be back on a certain day or time and come home early. People help you when you don't want them to and don't help when you do. Life is funny.

It was over 30 years ago and I still remember how desperately I wanted to escape. Funny how you don't forget feelings but you forget things.

Listening is a powerful thing, a rare thing these days.

Sometimes a faceless stranger is the best person for some people to talk to - someone who doesn't know them, won't judge them, and won't recognize them either. I agree, it can be sad - but there've also been times when people have told me things that a family member or someone close to them would have too much emotional investment in to be able to help them. It's been a real privilege to do this.

Unfortunately I'm not currently there; my work schedule changed and I'm still getting used to it. I hope to be back in a couple of months.


Yes absolutely. I've had to call 9-1-1 a couple of times; also had to call Poison Control before, but it seldom goes that way. And a lot of times, the first thing a person will say is, "are you going to call 9-1-1 if I talk to you, because if you do I'll hang up." Have to be up front and say "if you're a danger to yourself or others, if you've taken anything or have a weapon and are planning on using it I have an obligation to call them. Otherwise, no."

That's a good question. I wish I knew the answer but I think maybe the ones who call really don't want to do it - somewhere deep down they're looking for someone to give them a reason not to. The worst calls for me are the borderline ones, where you suspect the person is more serious than they're letting on, not telling you everything, yet you don't have a solid reason to call 9-1-1. And you end up second guessing yourself after the call ends because they've assured you they're fine. You worry they might have been testing you and you failed them.

I've also had calls from people who've attempted suicide before. Those are tricky too because the caller's heard it all before and usually knows more than you do about what can and can't be done for them. They don't want b.s., they want answers.

But if a person has made up her mind, as you did, she's not going to call a hotline. I'm so glad you weren't successful. Have you ever thought about doing this? I don't know about your area but the hotline I worked at (& will again) is always desperate for help. I'd imagine it's the same everywhere.
[r] Wow, thank you for this compelling read. How smart of you to be the listener not an interrupting advisor! You let Sam cry it out. How important for him that was. So many people don't want to "inflict" their pain on others out of consideration, pride, fear, whatever. Calling the "suicide hotline" is a welcome mat to lay it out! And there is the anonymity, like spilling your guts to someone sitting next to you on a train or plane if encouraged. Though I think less and less it seems to be.

I once heard a joke about two kinds of people. The kind of person who when they get a flat tire call Triple A. The other kind calls the "suicide hotline". You make that point. What is one person's trauma is another's inconvenience. God divides and we all have our triggers and all have our strengths.

And we all are on this roller coaster of life which has serious highs and lows.

best, libby
And I thought working at Arbitron was tough! But seriously - you are doing benevolent work & I know I couldn't do it! R
You guys are heroes for doing what you do. Thank you. R
How similar is this to your work taking disaster insurance claims?
It's amazing how many people are like "Sam" and we don't notice them, or we assume that they're okay or we just don't care.

I can understand why people don't volunteer for suicide hotlines- that's a lot of pressure that I know I couldn't deal with. Thankfully there are people like you who can. I wonder why we don't have a hotline for people who are lonely and just need to talk to someone. That I could volunteer for.
I'm glad someone is there to answer the calls. You and everyone else who listens deserve a special respect. And thanks.

A welcome mat - that's a great analogy; it's exactly right for the hotline and how callers view it. Yes you're right, one person's flat tire is another person's crisis moment. Gotta treat each call as if it's a crisis moment no matter how trivial it seems. Thanks for coming by.


I'm sure you'd be fantastic on a hotline. Talking to you would be as comforting as having a warm cinnamon roll & hot chocolate.


Thank you; it's the most rewarding thing I've ever done.


You knew I did that? Yes, taking those calls was absolutely some of the best preparation I could have had for doing this work. I referred to it during my interview for the suicide hotline training program.


People like "Sam" are everywhere. They could even be you and me at one time or another. As for a line for people who just want to talk - there are those - they're called "warmlines" but aren't 24 hours. We have "frequent callers" at the suicide hotline who call during the warmlines' off hours.


Thanks, JL. It can be sad and stressful but it's some of the most satisfying work I've ever done.
You really are a wonderful person for doing what must be extremely stressful work.
I can't imagine doing what you do, but i suspect your a good fit for the job. A really interesting read.
having called many a hotline and dealt with my son- it takes a secial person to do this..and thank god they had you.
The wail just rattled me
Heartbreaking and so well told. Yes, you are a hero. The world is a better place because you're in it. God bless you.
Christ . how can you do it?
Yeah I would turn my head away from a goddamned suicide quilt.
O I know it serves a purpose but why why should I have to look at the thing, when every day of my life I deal with potentially suicidal people, and there IS not a script, and there is only listening to every shift of timbre of a voice…knowing intuitively how to respond to the irrational shift with momentary words of encouragement meant to SIMPLY KEEP THEM TALKING..

Emotion , especially strong emotion , is a bell curve if left to play itself out. A wrong idiot stupid phrase that these suicidal people have heard for years? Will send it off to a dangerous tangent..

Listen, lie if ya gotta for awhile, but bring HOPE.
Yes! They are not suicidal, m, and you know why? Cuz it is against nature.
To suicide, as my dear best friend Cliff did, by slitting his throat in a psychotic Mormon induced haze takes serious craziness.

Yet that is the fate of these not suicides who are TOLD THE SCRIPT, THE BULLSHIT THEY HEARD all their life.
Camus said suicide is the ONLY SERIOUS PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, famously, right?
Well! Then your near suicides are into philosophy!
I know everyone makes fun of Philosophy cuz ya cant get a job with it, but…there is a reason it has been around for fucking 2500 plus yrs.

Sorry. Sore point. Suicide.
Here is a hard goddamn truth: some people simply are not ‘viable’ in this insane world.
I told that to Nora, the real nora in my fiction , today.
She wanted to sleep in the snow
So do I but yknow…why not just get a good night’s sleep?
nicely told. i've manned a hot line. it ain't easy "just" to listen, and admit, there but for the grace of God go I.
Some folks just cut with the backside of the knife, and with such a dull edge it takes a very long time to die. A lifetime even.

moving and sad, and well done M.

Stressful - sometimes. But worthwhile.


Thank you for reading and glad you enjoyed it. I've enjoyed working at the hotline more than I ever expected.


Thank God there are hotlines to call, right? And yes, the wail got me too. It was one of the most awful things I've ever heard.


No I'm not a hero, not at all. There's nothing heroic about answering the phone. But thank you for reading this and God Bless you too.


I don't know much about suicide or philosophy for that matter. I do know that in the same way water seeks its own level, so does the soul; it seeks equilibrium. When a life tilts awry enough suicide can sometimes feel like the best way to right it. That's my theory - because when a person makes up his mind that's what he's going to do he becomes calm & serene. Things feel good again.

You know far more about this than I do of course. You probably have the equivalent of a Ph.D in psychology and philosophy both. And there's nothing funny about philosophy; it's really the bedrock of all learning, isn't it? Every branch of study and everything we call knowledge is rooted in philosophy; it's essential to any kind of civilized life whether we recognize it or not. It's practical every day stuff as much as it can be pie-in-the sky ivory tower theory. But back to suicide - of course near-suicides are into philosophy. They're asking themselves the most fundamental philosophical question: what is the meaning of life? Specifically, of my life? And the answer is, nothing at all if I'm willing to extinguish it. Who really wants to believe that?
I think hope is woven through the fabric of philosophy like a shiny thread. I've tried to provide hope to everyone who's called me. Haven't had to lie too much but when the situation called for it I considered it more of a tool than a lie.
I would not know what to say to, "I don't want this life." Aside from victims of tragic mishaps, most people who commit suicide simply cannot stand/bare being a part of society. They are hypersensitive, thin-skinned with legitimate grievances. You are both strong and fair, Margaret. Excellent post. R
Fascinating, powerful read. We all owe you a huge debt for taking on such a difficult and important job. It's been my sad experience that most who commit suicide are filled with overwhelming pain and despair.

They may consider the meaning of life, specifically theirs, but it's usually a stalling tactic. At some point they subconsciously choose to die and seem to come out of their funk, appear happy and relaxed. Their loved ones and even trained professionals often fail to recognize this state as "decision euphoria." A weight's been lifted, they will soon be free of their pain, so their crisis status seems neutralized.

If someone who's been deeply depressed becomes abruptly cheerful, that's a big red flag. Those who can still cry out their pain are trying mightily to live. They are lucky to have you listen, support and validate their lives.
Ben Sen,

That thought crossed my mind...with nearly every call.

Gabby Abby,

Wow. Well-said and sadly - all too true.


Neither did I; I didn't know what to say. My mouth was literally hanging open. He hung up right after that. I even thought about calling him back but to say - what. Yes you do want your life/it's going to be okay/ things'll get better. Bull. Plus I'd have made him late for work. I still wish I'd called him back.

I must disagree with you when you say "most people who commit suicide simply cannot stand/bare being a part of society." This simply isn't true. Most people who kill themselves get to that point because they believe they've run out of options or there's no solution to their problems. Their thinking becomes impaired to the point at which suicide IS the only option; it's like they have blinders on. Telling them there are alternatives is like telling an anorexic she's too thin.
Not in every case of course. But in general people want to live and they want to be a part of society. It's human nature - we're not wired for self-annihilation.

Thank you for your comments and insight. Another red flag is when a person starts giving his or her belongings away, esp. things that were important to them. Also, when they start losing interest in things they previously enjoyed.

The thing that surprised me most about answering the hotline was how few of the callers were suicidal. Rather they were people like "Sam" who were between a rock and hard place and had no idea how to change things. This kind of call was so much more difficult in many ways than dealing with a crisis situation ,where there were clearly defined guidelines on how to handle it.
I'm reminded to try to listen. The quality of this piece and comments makes this place worthwhile to click into.

Thank you so much for relating your experiences! It's truly hard to relate to others' what is involved in learning how to talk to someone in that situation and be able to say/do the 'right' things to help them through it. My own experience working on a suicide hotline was over 30 years ago, and although it was a learning experience of unexpected breadth, and at times, hurt, it isn't something that I've ever regreted taking part of. I know that my partner and I did exactly what we were trained to do and say, but with distance from that experience it actually scares me to the bone now. I can rationalize it in many different ways, all valid, but it doesn't change the fact that we were 17 year old high school students who had been identified as 'emotionally mature and responsible' and were asked to volunteer. After the training and our first 2 or 3 shifts we were beginning to wonder if we were going to get any calls that didn't involve someone unable to resolve a tricky calculus homework question or stuck trying to finish an essay for a college application. Granted, our ages helped us relate to those issues, but it wasn't what we expected. But, after 6 months of shifts, and way, way too many actual suicide calls, we knew that we had in fact helped a good number of people step back and take that deep breath that they all needed. Seeing that type of desparation firsthand, and at that age, may or may not have been 'appropriate', but it was rewarding and left me with a lifelong view to what true dispair is like that has always given me the proper reference to use when I'm starting to also feel a little 'off the rails' (as we all do at some point, to some degree). Our experiences led my friend to a lifelong career as an EMT and he continues to this day as a crisis line volunteer, something that I truly need to think about revisiting as well. Thank you again for the reminders, and to the help that you've provided to those in need and able to reach out to get it!

It is a wonderful place and always worthwhile. Thank you for reading.


Thank you so much for sharing your own experiences and how they changed you. When I'd tell people what I was doing the response was usually something along the line of "how depressing!" and maybe you and your friend heard the same thing. And it's true, some of the stories I've heard have been bad. But being there for someone at the very moment they needed you - there is something honorable in that. I felt like a priest sometimes, and the knowledge that people confided things in me they'd never tell anyone else - I didn't take that lightly. And even though you can't help everyone, the times you do - there is no feeling like it. You and your friend must know that feeling too. There's nothing like it.
you may have saved Sam from becoming suicidal. i often feel that as long as someone can bear to hear what i suffer then i can bear to suffer it - that this may be why being heard is so powerful. that putting words to the fears and the suffering names the monster, stands it up in front of the speaker and the listener. the ability to listen when knowing there is no fix to offer, but listening anyway, is a gift. the gift of being willing to stand in the space of someone else's unbearable pain. thank goodness you are there, willing to do that. may your kind strength help your callers from arriving at suicide's threshold.
I'd bet you've saved lives talking to them. I'd bet real money.
I'm glad people are out there to help when all options lead down hill, I'm glad you were there...
Such sadness. I give you credit for taking on such a lofty task.

Thanks for your kind words. I don't know if I've ever helped anyone to the extent that you describe - but even if it was only for the time we spent on the phone, that was time they were able to unburden themselves and maybe feel a little hopeless.


If you're right that would be unbelievably awesome. In the truest sense of the word.


I'm glad I was there too.


Nothing lofty about the task; it was very humbling.
Thanks for sharing this post, Margaret, and for doing this very hard work. I've never heard of a warmline...that's a great idea, too. I really like maria heng's comment...that if someone is willing to listen & hear the unbearable pain, then maybe it becomes bearable. She's right, it is a gift you are giving, sometimes a gift of life.

I'd like to clarify the last sentence in my response to your comment: Should have read "...that was time they were able to unburden themselves and maybe feel a little less hopeless."

Clay ball,

Maria's comment I think gets to the heart of the purpose of a suicide hotline, that is to make that which seems unbearable, bearable. Oftentimes it actually works. Warmlines are a great idea - I'd never heard of them either; unfortunately they have limited hours and none that I know of are manned after midnight.
bless you, Margaret...we all need someone like you at one time or another. Be sure to fill your own cup sometimes, OK?
A very compelling post. Oftentimes there are no easy explanations. I knew a brilliant, widely published and very influential psychologist who took his life because, looking back upon his accomplishments, he claimed that they were to meager. On the other hand, I had relative who recently took his own life violently but never left any note that professed a motive.
heady stuff. i wonder if we cld get a suicide line up and running in india.
Unbelievable post. So sad. I'm glad that at least Sam had a compassionate ear to listen to his story.