Editor's Note: "Stories from the Helpline" is a recurring feature on The Bilerico Project, bringing in the personal accounts of Helpline counselors from The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. This installment comes from Kyle Suchomel, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. He volunteers at The Randy Stone East Coast Call Center in New York City.
In my experiences as a counselor on The Trevor Helpline, I feel I have gotten to know a lot about what it is to be young and different in this country. Despite the progress we have made toward embracing diversity, the truth is, if you are a youth who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or anything different from the perceived norm in any substantial way, the subsequent rejection and isolation coupled with the already daunting trials and tribulations of adolescence can quickly become overwhelming and eventually, unbearable.
At Trevor we have no delusions about what we are capable of doing. We have no intention of fixing the life of a caller with a 20 minute phone call. And by no means do we think we can erode the pain of intolerance, diminish the anguish of paternal rejection, or negate a hundred-bladed tongue of bigotry with one open ear. We have but one goal, which we call "de-escalation." The idea is to have the caller calm enough that they are no longer a danger to themselves, at least for the evening. It's the best we can do. And it is that service, that tiniest kindness, that we as counselors believe in so much, and therefore keep coming back to the call center and volunteering our time to do it. However, I took a call recently that I was unable to de-escalate, and as a matter of last resort, it became necessary to send emergency services to help the caller.
The caller's name was Angie. Angie is 17 years old and going into her senior year in high school. She is shy and she is quiet, her voice quivers when she speaks as if the words were limping up her throat. In the school cafeteria she sits by herself. She likes to write and keep a diary. She thinks maybe she would like to be a writer one day. She dreams about publishing a whole book about the life of her grandmother, whom she loves dearly. Her grandmother is her guardian, and her whole world. Angie first told me she didn't have a lot of friends, but later confessed that she had no friends. She said she had a boyfriend for a little while, her first, but was pretty sure he was just using her, so she broke it off. She wants so badly to have a car. She keeps building them on dealer Web sites, with the color and features she wants in anticipation for the day she drives it out of the lot. And Angie can't wait to go to college, but she doesn't know how she will pay for it yet and for now, needs to survive high school. Angie is warm, articulate, filled with compassion, and seems wise beyond her years.
I came to find out all these things about Angie, but not right away. The first thing she told me when I picked up the phone at the Trevor call center is that she was hearing terrifying voices in her head. Strange voices she does not recognize. The voices only ever say one of two things to her. That is: to cut her body or kill herself.
Angie lives with her elderly grandmother who has been her sole caregiver since she was very young. It is apparent that Angie's grandmother wants the best for her and is an amazing woman in her own right. Strong, independent, virtuous and with a wisdom that can only come from seeing so many decades pass. It is easy to see why Angie looks up to her. Angie tells me she hasn't been able to sleep at night because she keeps having nightmares. The same horrifying dreams where her grandmother is frighteningly fragile - like her skin is porcelain and her organs are balloons. In the dreams, "the tiniest thing will kill her," she tells me.
Angie doesn't want to be alone. She can't imagine existing without her grandmother, and wants to make the most of the time they have left together. She and her grandmother "didn't used to live like hermits," she tells me. She tells me about how they used to take trips together in the Cadillac and how it was their favorite thing; to go for a drive, to go out shopping, to go out to eat.
She tells me about an accident when she was 14 years old, and explains that the Cadillac is gone now, and that there won't be another one. She saw her grandmother hunched over the steering wheel and thought she was dead. She saw her grandmother asleep in a hospital bed and said that then she began to understand, for the first time, that her grandmother could die one day soon. This makes her worry that she will be alone someday, and that's when she begins to hear the voices in her head.
Angie tried to tell her grandmother about the voices echoing in her head. She wanted to tell her that she felt like her brain had a radio inside it. She did try to tell her grandmother, but it made her grandmother extremely upset. Her grandmother is a deeply religious woman and told Angie it sounded like the devil was trying to get a hold of her and that they should try to do some more praying. Angie didn't want to let her grandma down, so she did try praying. She told me how she prayed all day, every day but the voices still wouldn't stop. Her grandmother told her to pray even harder, but Angie felt like she was losing. She kept trying to tell her grandma this:
"Grandma, it's getting worse. I'm scared."
"Grandma, God is not listening. It won't go away."
"Grandma, I can't do it any more."
At one point, Angie swallowed some of her grandmother's pain medications, trying to get the voices to go away. She somehow survived. But her Grandmother became so worried that she and Angie would stay up all night together, praying and reading The Bible.
The voices first started when Angie was 14, and she has been all alone with them, and her illness, for the three years before she called Trevor. We got Angie the number and address of a Mental Health Clinic in her area that could help treat her. Without a car and without her grandmother's support, I was concerned it wasn't enough. But Angie was enthusiastic. She told me she would try to get there, somehow.
Angie called back later that night. She recognized my voice immediately and the first thing she said to me was, "I just did something really stupid." My heart stopped. She explained to me that the voices were so loud she couldn't bear it and that she had cut herself with a razor. I tried to asses the extent and nature of her wounds, while my co-counselors contacted our on-call clinician, who authorized sending out rescue services to help her. Thankfully, the wounds seemed superficial but because of the escalation of the situation and because there was no proper way to asses the depth and severity of the damage she inflicted on herself, we continued the process of sending her help. I made my best effort to keep Angie on the line until rescue services came for her. This was easy because the once shy girl was telling me everything she could about her life and her hopes for her future.
She told me about why she was living with her grandmother, and I learned about the family she once had. She said she had lost her mother and little sister. She said that her stepfather was abusive toward her and her little sister when she was little. She said that the abuse was so bad that when he mother found out, she killed her stepfather. Then, her sister was adopted by an aunt, and she was sent to live with her grandmother.
Angie said she became a really good writer because of all of the letters she writes to her mother in prison. She tries to make me understand that this is why it is so important her grandmother stays healthy. Because when her mom gets out of prison one day, the family is going to be together again. She dreams of the day that they are going to fill that tiny kitchen and they are going to bake all day like she thinks she remembers. Her mom, her grandmother, and her baby sister are all going to celebrate. They are going to hold each other, and rejoice, and get down on their knees and thank God together for bringing them all home again.
When Angie told me she heard pounding at the door, and she thought the police were there, I felt I was betraying her. I wanted to tell her what was going on. I wanted to warn her and try to explain myself. When she said, "just a minute," and put the phone down I knowingly didn't expect her to ever return. And when her voice did come back on the line, I expected her to be angry and screaming.
She was not. She said calmly, "I'm so sorry Kyle but I have to go now because the police are here, but it has been so good talking with you." Sensing she knew that the police at her door had everything to do with me, I asked her, "Well, do you think they might be able to help, do you think you might get a chance to talk to someone who understands the voices, and can help you feel better?" She said, "Yeah, I do. Thank you. Thank you."
Athough Angie's call was the most urgent and memorable call I have taken since I have been on the helpline, the call in many ways does not represent what one might first imagine as Trevor's demographic. Angie does not, at this time in her life, identify as gay and seems unaware of the LGBTQ focus of the number she has called. She represents Trevor's openness to listen and support all youth. At Trevor, we do not require a political, religious, or sexual sameness as a price of admittance. Our distinction as a helpline is precisely that we listen to all young people who need our help without stigma, judgment, or bias.
But to my surprise, despite Angie not identifying as LGBTQ, she is precisely who I intended to help when I volunteered to be a counselor. A 17-year-old kid, all alone and frightened, being told to pray to fix who she is. Someone who felt extremely misunderstood. Someone who was made to feel ashamed and embarrassed, and felt trapped in the bondage that sharing revelations about herself and her innermost feelings is somehow immoral. Someone who was told to deny the truth of her state of being, fundamental knowledge of her body, and the science of her health.
In my heart, she is exactly Trevor's demographic. Angie is why we do what we do. And I believe that the efforts of The Trevor Helpline may have saved her life.
Be sure to check out our previous installment of "Stories from the Helpline" from volunteer Wing-Sum Doud, Adrienne Smith, Michael Vacha Jr., Dave Reynolds, Brooke Carlson, Aneesh Sheth, Caroline Bird.