Guest Blogger

The Day I Saved a Life

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 25, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, The Movement
Tags: gay youth, Trevor Project

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. Thumbnail image for Kenny.jpg

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 Over the past few weeks I had worked roughly 4 prior shifts, all in which superseded another; in call volume and true help line calls.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.

Fight On.

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Thank you so much for this post, it really means a lot to see LGBT people caring for LGBT youth. I'm still young and stuggled with suicidal thoughts when I was a teenager, a large part due to being LGBT. However, I was lucky in that my family and most friends were extremely accepting and after coming out the depression decreased to the lowest point it had ever been at. Unfortunately, not everyone has an experience like mine and I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to live in a family that does not accept you, and that is why groups like the Trevor project are so important. When our movement is so focused on marriage equality, which while being extremely important, affects only a proportion of LGBT people, I hope we do not neglect youth who so often have no one to speak for them.

Kenny Ballinger | January 25, 2009 3:11 PM

Brian, thank you for your feedback and sharing your story- I am glad to hear that you such support to help you through the struggles of self identity. Many of our young callers, call for just that- to hear support from those like them. To hear that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

But don't let me sound misleading- We do not offer a solution to all their problems- we simply let them be heard, allow them to release energy, but most importantly let them know that they are not being judge, instead we offer support, resources, and our hearts.

Michael Reis | January 25, 2009 2:18 PM

Interesting story!

I am curious - are the Trevor Project able to follow up on these phone calls? Has Marcus been moved to a gay-friendly family for temporary custody till he is 18 years old? What options could Marcus have to improve his life? Find a gay-straight alliance group in high school or a gay youth group in town?

Kenny Ballinger | January 25, 2009 3:05 PM

Hi Michael-

In this case, we did have an opportunity to follow up with local Police Department. Although personal information aside, they did advise us that he was taken into custody for his own protection.

This is one of the factors that make what we do so difficult, although yes, we can and do save lives- We sometimes will never know the end of the story unless they call back-

There are times we may not have to initiate a rescue and our caller is high risk, so we may offer to call them back with their permission at their convenience, usually within 24-48 hours.

beergoggles | January 25, 2009 3:41 PM

What's the process for cases like this? The police take him into custody and then what? They go back to their abusive parents? They become wards of the state? Does the state press charges against the parents for child abuse?

Kenny Ballinger | January 25, 2009 5:20 PM

The problem is there is no set 'process' as each state varies in the actions taken. That being said, The Trevor Project only has authority/access/control to notify the proper state/federal agencies. We can report to Child Protecting Services/Agencies, but they don't keep us in the loop of the outcome.

As a mandated reporter in my professional career as well as part of the Helpline, it was evident that this young person was emotionally abused to the point of neglect, that lead to his fascination of suicide.

But again, we can only help to the point of giving them the options other than suicide- if we can give the slightest bit of a better life by referring to LGBT resource that can physically help them, then I'd like to think we've done our job to the best that we can as a Helpline.

beergoggles | February 1, 2009 4:37 PM

Thanks for the reply. I'm curious as to why such an intervention project cannot provide further assistance such as legal action against the parents. Are the laws written in such a way that only the state can provide such protection?

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 25, 2009 5:46 PM

Kenny, thank you so much for doing this vital work!

I cried reading your story. Off the top of my head, I know five people who have "successfully" committed suicide--six, if you include my maternal grandfather who killed himself before I was born. I deeply wish they would have called someone like you, rather than going forward with their plans. In addition to the terrible waste of a life, surviving the suicide of a loved one is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult challenges a person can face.

I fervently hope Marcus fights on, escapes his abusive family, and goes on to find self-acceptance and happiness.

Kenny Ballinger | January 25, 2009 7:39 PM

Brynn I am sorry for your losses.

I too have experienced family and friends suffering from depression and suicide attempts. Depending on the way you want to look at it, I have gained so much strength from those trials and tribulations. It's what makes me so motivate to do the work that I do.

I agree with you on many different levels, that those of us left after ones' suicide is something some could never overcome. It takes strength from within ourselves and those left with us to move on and make a difference in a worthy cause.

Cameron Young | January 26, 2009 1:42 AM

It's been a long time since I posted anything here...namely because the last time I did I was lashing out at a different op-ed writer for what I thought was a horribly misleading concept and horrible portrayal of it.

I read this piece and have to say I was amazed. Of course, the comments and speech and everything was typical of what many type of suicide hotlines do, I feel that what you did was far harder than anything any other hotline can do. It is one thing to talk someone out of suicide when their place is within the world. It is another to talk a gay person out of suicide in a world where homosexuality is predominately looked at in disgust. I congratulate you on a job well done. If more people had the courage to face what you face then perhaps this Age of Narcissists would finally dissipate. ...Perhaps I shouldn't say job well done...but thank you for allowing your heart to guide your actions rather than the hate-mongering thoughts of the many.

Thank you so much for the wonderful work that you do! I just saw "Tears for Bobby" last night. I'm wondering - if you do reunite GLBT kids with their families, is there any kind of education given to the parents to help them understand what their child is going through? I think a crucial component of this would be for the parents to learn the truth about sexuality and orientation and how it affects their child and their family. Is PFLAG is one of your resources?

Again, thank you so much for saving this young man's life. You are really to be commended!!!!

You all are doing great work. Keep it up!

Thank you for helping so many. Fundamental religious teaching is evil. People who talk about suicide do kill themselves. Jody Foster is a wonderful compassionate person donating to your worthy cause. With the economy crashing daily suicides will be on the increase from adults who have lost jobs, everything.

Vince in LA | January 26, 2009 1:11 PM

Thank you for sharing your story. Over the weekend, I watched the Lifetime movie "Prayers for Bobby." It was very moving. Your story about Marcus hit me the same way. Thank you and the other Trevor Project volunteers for the work that you do.

Kenny Ballinger | January 28, 2009 12:35 AM

Thank you all for your kind words and feedback.

I wanted to share just a little bit of feedback that we found out from the local police department, that our caller was actually detained and held for observation. Although minimal information, it gives me hope that he - that we- - that I, believed in him so much, that he is willing to fight...