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 Kenny Ballinger, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. He volunteers at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.
I wanted to share with you about an experience that changed my life, the day I realized that my problems seemed to hold no value compared to those in need or the youth who call The Trevor Helpline.
On January 1, 2009 I arrived at the Randy Stone Call Center in Los Angeles, aka The Trevor Project, West Coast Call Center. Over the past few weeks I had worked roughly 4 prior shifts, all in which superseded another; in call volume and true help line calls.
The phone rang, and knowing that we've learned to expect the unexpected- I answered, "The Trevor Helpline, this is Kenny- what's going on?" My caller, in a calm, confident, juvenile tone replied with a simple question: "What's this line for?" I casually replied with a paraphrased mission-like statement of what The Trevor Project was: "Well, we're the only nationwide LGBTQ Youth Suicide Prevention/Crisis Hotline" I quickly added "What's your name buddy?" He quickly said "I'm Marcus."
Marcus was 16 years old living in the great state of Texas - Houston to be exact. During the first 5 minutes of casual talk with Marcus, he didn't sound distraught; he didn't sound like he was in a crisis - and what I mean by that is that his breathing was well-paced, no emotions were evident, nor was his talking irrationally. When I asked Marcus why he was calling the helpline, he calmly stated he was just checking it out.
It seemed the call was moving at a slow pace, as Marcus did not allow me much opportunity to project the direction of his call, as his thoughts and emotions were very much neutral. I casually reminded Marcus that he was calling a crisis suicide prevention hotline and was curious to know if he was in a crisis. "No," he replied. "Did something happen tonight that you needed to talk about?" I asked. "Nothing in particular," he stated. "Have you ever thought about killing yourself, Marcus?" I asked. "All the time," he said. "Are you thinking about taking your life tonight, Marcus?" I asked. He said ever so casually, "Yes, I've come to peace and I called looking for permission to take my life."
I had to ask myself, "Did I hear him right? He just asked for permission to kill himself, but yet he didn't hesitate in his breath, his sentence, not a tear, no sign of emotion."
I allowed a moment for silence, so he and I could both comprehend his comment. I then allowed an additional moment for him to perhaps clarify his comment. However Marcus said nothing, he was confident in his gesture. I replied in a tone as if he'd asked for a drink of water, and said "Well, Marcus, I unfortunately cannot give you permission to kill yourself, but why don't you tell me about these thoughts you have and where or what they come from?" His simple remark was that "I've had enough- that it was time for me to die." I've worked many shifts, but no caller has ever captured me in a call with very little emotion, let alone none at all, as Marcus was easily portraying.
I truly believed that Marcus needed a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to, a friend to listen, but more importantly not to be judged. I assured Marcus that he could talk to me about what was bothering him so much, but he quickly declined stating that "there's nothing more to talk about," that he was the happiest he had been in such a long time.
Marcus's story was that of years of pain, suffering, neglect, tears, and hate. He felt that he was a stranger in his home with his parents and four younger siblings. He was told on a regular basis that he had demons inside his soul because he was gay. His step-father encouraged his siblings to spit on him, as if he was scum and did not deserve to be treated as a person. His mother treated him as an inconvenience to her life, telling him that she wished he would just go away. Marcus even had the clarity to tell me that they were supposedly a religious family, but he believed they were hypocrites, as they denied him acceptance and he was a child of God, as they are.
Marcus told me that at a young age he felt that he was different. That around the age of 9 he knew he was different, but didn't know how to identify these feelings. When he finally recognized himself and identified as gay, he was only 13. When Marcus told me this, I instantly commended him for being so brave and powerful in the ability to identify who he was and sharing that with others. Marcus felt that his self-revelation had caused more grief and pain than feeling good about himself.
After Marcus had felt that he could trust me, nearly an hour into the call, he continued with his vision of death, his story of why he had no tears left within his soul - his prior suicide attempts with pills and a knife and his experiences with cutting himself for pleasure. I quickly realized that he was truly seeking closure or "permission" to end his life. This was the fine line of determining whether or not this was a high-risk or a rescue call. Marcus was 16 years old and had enough with it all - he didn't need a reason to live, he needed a reason not to die. He had this vision of his afterlife; this life that would consist of happiness- no gods or goddesses, but purity and equality.
I could not believe how rational Marcus was sounding. He was so sure that this was the only option left. He told me that he had tried everything. In fact, January 1, 2008 he made the decision that he'd wait one more year, to fight on. To fight for being treated better than being spat on, or being told he was full of demons, or just to be loved by his own family. Unfortunately, that year had approached; he had planned for this day, he knew that nothing was going to change; he knew that his time had come to take his own life.
I called for rescue support an hour and a half into the call. It took just as long for them to arrive at Marcus's doorstep. I was working with two other Trevor Counselors, who showed that The Trevor Project isn't a one man team. Together they supported me in my every effort and action, and my direction of the conversation, with creative ideas on how to identify the caller's apartment number.
Roughly during the second hour of our conversation, Marcus asked me what I would do if he would kill himself shortly after we spoke. He asked how I would feel if he attempted to kill himself with me on the phone. Could I continue to do the work that I do, knowing that he killed himself?
I was not prepared to answer such questions. But then I felt that I was. I suddenly told Marcus, that yes in fact I could continue the work that The Trevor Helpline is known for. That if he had killed himself, that I would be hurt. That I would be devastated, because it would tell me that we still live a world where families can neglect children because of ignorance and selfishness. I told him that no matter what happened, that I would never forget him. That he had left a mark on my soul- that he changed my life. That it was calls like his that are the reasons I volunteer with The Trevor Helpline.
At that moment I got a message from my co-counselor that Houston Police Department should be there any minute. Then I heard someone knocking on his bedroom door. Marcus asked if I could wait a moment, so that he could check who was at the door. I heard talking in the background asking, "Who are you talking to?" He honestly replied, "The Trevor Project." There was a pause, then "The Police are here and want to talk to you." Marcus came back on the line. He said with the only emotion he'd shown over three hours of talking "Kenny, the police are here and they want to talk to me." At that very moment I told Marcus that I was worried for him, that I cared for his safety and that I wanted him to talk to the police and tell them what he had told me.
Marcus's story is all too familiar with the LGBTQ youth. However, the lack of emotion proved he was tired of fighting, that he wanted to give up at 16 years of age. Marcus used the metaphor during our conversation that some people get the easy road, while others get the hard road. He had felt he got the hard road. He knew perhaps not as hard as some, but he was too weak to keep fighting. I attempted to assure Marcus that with the support of The Trevor Project, we could keep fighting together. A great peer that I have befriended at The Trevor Project has, in my opinion, the two most powerful words that we stand for on the closing of every e-mail: Fight On.
The words "Fight On" are symbolic in the work that we do, the life that we live, the tragedies of today's equality movement. "Fight On" means more than fighting for what we believe in, but to never give up and to never settle; to encourage others to do the same. That each road we may be presented with is only hard when we do it alone. If we Fight On together with the support of each other; together we can make a difference.