Editors' Note: Guest blogger John Palmer is a volunteer counselor on The Trevor Project Helpline. He volunteers at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.
"Are you thinking of killing yourself?"
We ask this of every person who calls The Trevor Helpline. While it takes a little practice to say it comfortably, it's an obvious and important question and one to which, for the safety of the caller, we hope the answer will be "no." Of course, sometimes the answer is "yes," and in those moments, I always feel both a jolt of adrenaline over a life at risk and a wave of relief that the caller decided to pick up the phone instead of something more dangerous. More often that not, I hear heartbreaking tales of homophobia, abuse, pain, and desperation.
"Isn't that depressing?" That's the most common question I'm asked when people learn that I am a Helpline Counselor for the Trevor Project. I understand the thinking behind this; it makes sense that talking to young people who are in crisis and/or considering suicide could be a bleak and daunting task. But I always enjoy the surprised expressions when I share the fact that it isn't depressing at all. In fact, I leave the Call Center feeling peaceful for having checked out of my own life for a few hours while helping others, grateful for the work that Trevor does, and fortunate that I am able to be a part of something so meaningful.
I have been answering calls at Trevor now for close to a year and a half, and I've heard the unfortunate "yes" many times. While each call is different and leaves its own impression on me (and hopefully, the caller), my first "yes" stands out the most. It's a scary word for any new counselor to hear, and I had made it through several shifts without such an answer. On my fourth shift, I was working with a great group of counselors and feeling pretty confident every time I picked up the phone. Then, a very upset young woman called, and after several minutes of listening to her cry, I asked if she was thinking of killing herself. Through her tears, she replied, "yes." My heart sank.
"Lesley" was bisexual, and from a fairly large city on the East Coast. She had been planning to kill herself on her 16th birthday, which was a few weeks away, but she had decided that her pain was too great to wait and was ready to take her life that night. Lesley was extremely emotional, and obviously hurting a lot. Her mom had a supply of Oxycontin from a recent surgery, and Lesley had them near her bed with plans to overdose. She had also been cutting, and still had her razor blade in hand. She had made four previous suicide attempts, but said she was ready to follow through with it that night. She kept telling me that she "f**k[ed] everything up," that she was "really annoying," and that she was "sure no one wants to deal with [her] drama anymore." Lesley's mother was conservative and Christian, and very disapproving of her bisexuality, and her best friend "Alicia" had distanced herself at school after learning that she was bi. She did have one other close friend, "Rob," who was gay and accepting of her, but he had moved last summer to the West Coast. Lesley was feeling alone and rejected, and had nowhere to turn.
I asked Lesley to put down her razor blade and return her mom's pills to the medicine cabinet, and to refrain from cutting or retrieving the pills while we were on the phone. She agreed, but despite this our call was shaping up to be a difficult one. Lesley was very worked up, and we were having a tough time connecting on a personal level. She was answering all of my questions and opening up about her feelings, but she seemed to be growing more and more upset. Even still, I could tell she was an intelligent and mature young person. Her "f**king everything up" turned out to be the fact that she was bisexual, and this obviously was neither a conscious effort nor anything of which to be ashamed. Her claims that she was "annoying" didn't seem to be true; she was in fact quite charming and funny. And it sounded like her "drama" was actually a complex set of unfortunate circumstances and valid emotional frustrations. When I pointed these things out to her, her tone began to change, as though no one had ever contradicted her self-loathing with simple, true observations.
As Lesley started to trust me a bit more, she told me how she didn't fit in at school to begin with, and being bi had only made things more difficult. She said being bi made her feel separate from everyone and that she liked things that no one else around her had even heard of, and that her classmates were forever labeling her "a dyke" or "a freak." When I asked what kinds of things she liked, she mentioned vegetarianism, the musical artist Peaches, and Jeffree Star of MySpace fame. Although I'm indifferent to Jeffree Star, I myself am vegetarian and enjoyed Peaches' first album. I mentioned this while telling her I didn't think she was a freak, just an original person with discriminating tastes and ideas. I rarely share information about myself with callers, since the focus of the call should always be on them, but this felt appropriate, and it delivered a pay-off. She was ecstatic that someone, an adult no less, shared some common interests and cared enough to ask about them.
She began talking about her plans for the future, which included making lots of MySpace friends and moving to New York City and opening a vegetarian restaurant. She talked at length about her friend Rob, whom she adored, and who also planned to move to New York as soon as they were out of school. She said that talking to Rob on the phone always made her feel better, but that she hadn't wanted to bother him with her depression. When I asked if she would want Rob to call her if he was feeling down and/or suicidal, she said, "Of course I would. I guess I hadn't thought of it that way." When I asked if Rob would be upset if she died, after a silence she said, "Yeah, you're right. I don't know if I could do that to him."
As we wrapped up our call, Lesley said she was feeling much better, laughing even. She said knowing that someone out there cared whether she lived or died, and being able to talk about the future, made her realize that she did want to live and that life could and would get better. She agreed to call Rob and talk about her feelings and our call, and to call back if she was ever feeling like she needed to talk to someone. When I hung up the phone, I sincerely felt like I made a difference in a special young person's life.
The Apparent Truths
Upon reflection, I am struck with several points that were made obvious during my call with Lesley. Living in big cities and being surrounded by loving, supporting friends, it's easy for a lot of us to think that hatred and bigotry are relics of the past. Unfortunately, there are still many young people out there who know differently. Even people who know this assume that most of our calls are from rural towns in the South and the Midwest, and while a lot of them are from those regions, we receive a lot of calls from Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City as well. Lesley had called from a big coastal city, and still she was confronted with rejection from her mother and classmates, with no identifiable community support.
In discussing Jeffree Star and MySpace, I also realized that technology and media provide unprecedented access to positive and accepting models of the LGBTQ community to young people who might otherwise have no such outlet. Knowing that there is another world out there can give an isolated youth hope, even if as children and teenagers they have little power to change their location or the closed minds of the people around them.
Also apparent is the true power of what we do at Trevor. We listen. Teenagers and young adults can sometimes come off as emotional and self-absorbed, and adults tend to tune them out as a result. Even their peers tend to shut down when they sense differences in personality, identity, etc. So many young people need someone to listen to them, not just to hear them talking. As counselors, we steer away from giving advice or trying to solve our callers' problems. We let them do most of the talking, and the task of coming up with solutions is theirs. More often than not, they have the strength and maturity to take this on, provided they can talk about their thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental environment with someone who is respectful and empathetic. We simply listen, and ask questions that empower our callers to work at solving their own crises.
Each time I volunteer, I am reminded of how important the Trevor Project's resources are to the young people who use them. In case you aren't familiar, in addition to the helpline, Trevor operates other programs including Dear Trevor (an online Q&A forum for questions about sexual orientation and gender identity) and TrevorSpace.org (a moderated, safe online social networking community for LGBTQ youth and their friends). The Helpline in particular provides young people in crisis an outlet to talk through their problems, explore options and alternatives, and obtain resources to help move forward. It's amazing to consider, but many of the Helpline's callers are saying that they are L/G/B/T/Q out loud for the first time, and/or talking to the first accepting person in their lives.
While an ideal world would consist only of "no" responses when young people are asked if they are thinking of killing themselves, I'm glad that the Trevor Project is there for everyone who says "yes," "no," and everything in between. I'm proud to be a Trevor volunteer, and honored to work with so many amazing co-counselors and staff on the Helpline. Trevor's tagline is "Saving Young Lives," and I can say with a smile that there's nothing depressing about that.