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 Tiffany O'Hara, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. She volunteers at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.
When you answer the phones at The Trevor helpline, you never know who is going to be on the other end of the line. We get calls from young men, young women, gay, straight, questioning. We have people in their 40s and 50s call us. You also never know what type of call you are answering. Some people call The Trevor helpline because they are exploring their sexuality and they just want to talk some things out. Others call because they are lonely and scared and want to know that there is someone out there that will listen to them. Some people call just to say goodbye before they attempt to take their own life. Having worked on the helpline for some time now, I can honestly say that there is no pattern to the calls or any typical call that we get over and over. The only thing you know when you answer the phone is that there is someone on the other end that needs your help.
One of the calls that really stayed with me was this young woman, Elizabeth. I was relatively new to the helpline at the time and was still nervous about picking up the phone. But I did what I was trained to do. What all the counselors do. I picked up and said, "Trevor Helpline." Immediately, I could hear sobbing on the other end. Loud bursts followed by deep sighs, then more crying. My stomach tightened. This had never happened to me before on the helpline. I tried to remain calm and remember it wasn't about my nervousness - but about the person on the other end of the phone. I took a deep breath and said that it was okay, "You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. I'm here. My name is Tiffany and I'm here."
I didn't know what else to say, so I didn't say anything more. After a long minute, the sobs subsided and the voice on the other line told me, through deep breaths, that life was becoming increasingly difficult and that she was seriously considering taking her own life. She sounded almost calm about it, calm and profoundly sad. It was like she had resigned herself to the fact that suicide was her only option. More than the sobbing, this scared me. She was in such a terrible place emotionally, that suicide seemed rational to her.
I knew that I had to get her to talk about what had happened that brought her to such a state. At first she was hesitant to give me too many details. To this day I'm not sure if Elizabeth is even her real name or not. But after awhile, she began to open up to me. She told me of her troubles at work, how it had become an increasingly hostile environment for her. She told me of her mother who had always told her that she didn't deserve to live, that she'd be better off dead. And she spoke of her fantasies of ending all her pain and suffering by taking her own life. She knew how she would do it; she had envisioned her own funeral. She would be at peace once she was gone.
The more Elizabeth spoke, the more I could tell she had really given this thought. In fact, she'd been thinking about suicide for years, but only now did she feel like she was ready to do it. Her only hesitation was that she had a live-in girlfriend that loved her very much and a large group of friends who would not understand why she would take her own life.
I gently encouraged her to tell me more about her girlfriend. How long had they been together? Five years. Did she love her? Oh, yes, very much. Did she like spending time with her? Of course. She's beautiful and gentle and funny.
The more Elizabeth spoke about her girlfriend, the more I could hear the tired resignation lift from her voice. She even giggled from time to time. She told me how her girlfriend was very different from her - very practical and saw things in simple black and white. Elizabeth herself was more sensitive, she could see multiple people's points of view and the world was made up of many shades of gray. This was in fact what was so hard about being alive she said; she could feel everyone's pain and it was too much to bear. She had tried therapy and medication for depression but didn't want to be another person in the world dependant on drugs. Exercise seemed like too much work and she wasn't a fan of journaling. She said her only comforts in the world were her friends, reading, and her girlfriend. So we talked about those things. Any time I heard that resigned sadness come back into her voice I knew I was moving in the wrong direction.
Elizabeth and I spoke for a little over an hour. I could tell she was this smart, articulate, funny and exceptionally compassionate person that was just having an incredibly hard time at life. Sometimes she was so depressed and bleak in her outlook, I was sure she was going to hang up on me and take her own life right then and there. At other times, she was laughing like a young child and talking about her favorite television characters. After it seemed as if her spirits had brightened for awhile, I asked her again about her plans to kill herself. It was very important to me that she live another day and share her uniqueness with the world. Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to know that she would continue to work at life and not give in to its sometimes overwhelming heaviness.
She took a deep breath before answering. She was no longer giggling. But she said, "I have things to look forward to in the next week. And I don't want to do anything here in the house that my girlfriend would have to deal with." She told me that she had enjoyed speaking to me and that it made her feel good that someone out there understood her and understood why it was so hard for her to get through the day. She was glad she didn't feel judged. She agreed to accept a call back the following day just so we knew that she was okay but she made no promises on her future.
When I hung up the phone, I was drained. I had given Elizabeth my all. And still she was thinking about killing herself. But I was also hopeful. She had decided to give life another week. And if she could give it one, maybe she could give it two or three or 10 more weeks. The important thing was that I was there on The Trevor helpline and I had picked up the phone.
Be sure to check out our previous installments of "Stories from the Helpline" from volunteer Wing-Sum Doud, Adrienne Smith, Michael Vacha Jr., Dave Reynolds, Brooke Carlson, Aneesh Sheth, Caroline Bird, and Kyle Suchomel.