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 Daniel Sherman, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. He volunteers at The Randy Stone East Coast Call Center in New York City.
Our teenage years can be an awkward, confusing and lonely time. Gay youth face extra isolation when they receive the indirect (and sometimes very direct) message that their very core - what they feel, and whom and how they love; essentially who they are - is somehow wrong. Even loving and supportive friends and family aren't always able to help. Discovering that so many gay youth attempt or even consider suicide as an alternative to the pain in their lives shocked and saddened me. Okay, yes, it also pissed me off that I lived in a culture that purported to "value our children" yet did nothing to reach those in such dire need.
Then I found out about the work Trevor was doing and I became a Trevor Helpline counselor because I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to help provide hope. And assurance. And connection. Gay kids needed me. They needed to be heard. And valued. I was on it.
And yet, of the many calls I've taken recently, the following three have really impacted me most.
M was a 53-year-old woman from Texas. She called Trevor because she thought her 23-year-old nephew in Rhode Island was trying to come out to her - the only possible lifeline in the family. He recently sent her a link to his Facebook site showing pictures of him with male "friends," he had been drinking a lot, quit his job, cut off ties to most of the family, and wanted to come stay with her without telling his parents to "talk about some things." M had just finished reading Prayers for Bobby, the story of a mother dealing with the suicide of her gay son. She was distraught because the parallels between the boy in the book and her nephew were dangerously close. She wouldn't be able to live with herself if her nephew took his own life. She had no idea what to do, the boy's parents were strict Southern Baptists, she lived in a small town with few resources and was completely overwhelmed. Should she confront her nephew? Tell his dad (her brother)? Call rescue services in Rhode Island?
I told M that I admired her for her compassion and thoughtfulness in reaching out to us to help her nephew. It is too bad that every kid doesn't have an aunt like her. I could hear her choke up as she attempted to say "thank you." Completing a risk assessment for her, I discovered that M had thought about suicide a few times when she was a kid, though never had an actual plan. But she remembered feeling isolated and lost in a small town. After we talked about that for a while, she suddenly had an idea about how she might begin to talk to her nephew. Maybe she didn't know much about being gay, but she knew about being in pain. I looked up some resources for her: told her about OutProud and PFLAG, among others, and once again reinforced how amazing she was for caring for her nephew so much. She thanked me profusely for my time and couldn't wait to check out the online resources we'd discussed.
F was a 32-year-old therapist from Maryland who works as a clinician in a middle school. One of her students - a 13-year-old boy who had been exhibiting violent outbursts and other behavioral issues - told her in a session that day that he was gay. She admitted that she'd never had a student come out to her before and didn't know what to do. She asked advice from a colleague who recommended she advise the student to keep his "secret" because telling anyone would just increase the frequency of teasing from classmates and make the student's and the school's problems worse. That advice wasn't sitting well with her; after his admission, the boy seemed so calm and relaxed, even joking with her. But this was new territory for her and she was at a loss. She remembered seeing the Trevor film during her training many years before, and though she didn't think her student was suicidal, reached out to us because of the impact the film had made on her.
I thanked her for calling and reinforced her instincts about her colleague's advice. I completed a full risk assessment for her, and though she was a bit taken aback at first, she later disclosed that my doing so had made her feel very reassured. She had felt so guilty that as a therapist she didn't know how to help her "patient," she was angry that her colleague had dismissed her concerns, and though scared, she was so moved that the boy had trusted her so much to confide in her. We talked about the National Youth Talkline, TrevorSpace, OutProud, possible GSAs and some other resources. She was so grateful for the support from a stranger on a Helpline that she couldn't get even from within her own practice field, and now really looked forward to the next session with this student.
J was a 22-year-old college graduate from North Carolina. When I answered his call, he told me he had just held a knife to his chest, deciding that it would be easier to just kill himself so he could stop disappointing everyone in his life; that then they could all stop worrying about him. He had found Trevor on the internet searching for "suicide." He asked if there was anyone who could talk to him. I said I could, asked him if he still had the knife nearby and did a full risk assessment. He told me he had already put the knife back in the kitchen drawer, gone back into his bedroom and then decided to call Trevor. I told him I was sorry for what he was going through and that it was incredibly brave of him to reach out to us for help. And J started to sob. And sob. Uncontrollably. He kept trying to speak but was barely intelligible. I told him I was there, and he could take as much time as he wanted.
Eventually, J told me about his best friend - a girl called K - who had recently started dating his best male friend A. A had "always had his back" and K was the only friend with whom he had ever been able to be open or emotionally available to. And now she was dating A. Of course, I assumed that J was about to tell me how he had always secretly been attracted to A but could never act on it and now he couldn't bring himself to come out to his friends. Further, he couldn't find a job, even with his new business degree. He kept having to rely on his parents for financial support and felt that he wasn't being "a man." Born in China, he had recently become an American citizen and told me his parents were very "traditionally Chinese" meaning they expected him to get an education, get a job, get married and handle his own problems - emotional issues were never discussed. Finally, he admitted it: J wanted K to be his girlfriend. He had been dating other girls but wasn't ever interested in a second date. Now he couldn't even talk to his best friend because she wasn't attracted to him in the same way, and being with him was "causing too much drama." We talked for nearly 90 minutes - well into the next shift - and ultimately came up with possible job ideas, counseling resources, alternative support groups/hotlines and ways to talk to K and A. "Wow, thanks Daniel," J told me and asked if he could talk to me again. I told him he could always call us back, and though it wouldn't necessarily be me, any of our counselors could talk with him like I did. He told me he was going to go make some dinner and was excited he had some new goals and ideas to check out starting tomorrow.
Three callers. None of them were gay. None of them were teenagers. But they just didn't know where else to turn. All of them left with an excitement about exploring the ideas and resources we discovered; a relief in their voices, and heartfelt gratitude that someone answered their call. I had all these grand ideas about helping LGBTQ kids, about bridging the gap between people who felt isolated and different, about reaching out to "my own community." Ironically, these callers helped me achieve exactly that. You see, I discovered that "community" is where you make it, bridges are created in the attempt to hear and understand and every LGBTQ kid - indeed, every kind of kid - is helped when we are able to pass on the true meaning behind the words that are the lifeblood of he Trevor Helpline: You are not alone.
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.