My name is Brian and I volunteered at the Humanitarian Suicide Hotline.
The standard commitment to work at the Humanitarian Suicide Hotline is six months. Most people work six months, and then they leave, quickly. A few make it a year. Nobody really goes beyond a year. I was there for four years. When I started I thought maybe I could help the world.
I show up one Saturday morning at 8 A.M., and I walk into this building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And there’s a bunch of people milling about, but I see this guy that’s clearly in charge. He’s sitting on the desk . He’s sort of an ex-hippie turned a little corporate. He’s got a flannel shirt tucked into khaki pants. He’s dipping a chamomile tea bag into an NPR cup. I know who this guy is. I get it. He’s a vegan who drives a BMW. I know it. He tells us his name is Glen. He’s like, “Hey, check it out, all right. My name’s Glen.” And then he thanks us all for coming. And then Glen sits down, and even though he’s got this corporate hippie thing going on, he’s also got a little bit of a drill sergeant thing going on, because as soon as he starts the training class, he’s starting to weed people out.
People start dropping. There was this one guy who was sitting in the back of the class drinking what seemed to be alcohol. The class, I should remind you, was at 8 A.M. So he was gone. There were these two teenage dudes from Queens who every time they talked were like, “Hey, fuggedaboutit,” and then they’d high-five. They were gone. One of the most important things Glen weeded out was people who were there because they were either suicide survivors, meaning they’d lost somebody because of suicide, or because they themselves, the volunteer, had contemplated or tried to commit suicide. And as Glen would say, “Yeah, check it out. You’re really not a good fit.” Gone. At the end of two weeks of training, out of fifty-eight people who came to volunteer, there were only four of us left, because Glen was really good. But I will tell you right now, I was better.
Because what Glen didn’t know about me was that about four years before this, I lived in San Diego, California, and I was dating this girl Tracy. Tracy was addicted to drugs, and I was addicted to Tracy. Neither one of us would ever be satisfied. That’s addiction. One day Tracy slept with one of my closest friends.
I’d had it. And I bet you Glen didn’t know that I then jumped in my car, and I drove up to my dad’s house ’cause my father’s a retired cop, and I went into his garage , and I took his .38. And I bet you Glen has no idea that a .38 doesn’t have one of those clips that you put in. You put the bullets in, then you snap it, and it’s really easy, even if you don’t know how to use guns. I grabbed a bottle of alcohol out of my father’s liquor cabinet, and I got in my car, and I drove to the local beach. I took the gun and stuck it in my mouth. Things weren’t going good for me, and I’m just pointing it out, — it felt good to have control. To say, I’m gonna put a gun in my mouth , and I’m gonna have some control over something. And I sat there, and I was trying to contemplate doing it, and then… Alcohol makes me a little dramatic. And I threw up. I threw up all over the gun. And there’s nothing that sort of snaps you out of a suicide impulse more than throwing up on a gun.
It really clears your head.
I took the gun out, and I thought to myself, Well, at least I know I’m not the type of person that’s gonna pull the trigger, which is something I had to find out that way. It snapped me out of the suicide, and I felt really good, and I felt this moment of clarity. I wiped the throw up off me, and I got out of my car. I was at a beautiful beach— and I went into the water. It was late at night. Beautiful full moon. And I went in the water, and it was perfect. I had what, for me, was the perfect life moment. I sat there under the full moon, in the water, just feeling really good, the waves sort of washing over me, and I realized that’s what life is. There are these moments of beauty, like moons and oceans, and then there are moments of horror. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and kicks you in the face. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and a pigsty, because that’s what life sometimes is. But then for a moment it’s good. And for me that was enough.
But I bet you Glen didn’t know any of that, because I never told him. So at the end of two weeks of training class we walk out of the training room, and there’s the hotline room. There are three desks with phones and a couple of plants, and there’s a list of phone numbers hanging on the wall. There’s Glen’s home number in case you need him. There’s poison control, and then there’s 911, in case you forget the number for 911. And then there’s a sign that hangs on the wall that says the motto of the hotline, big block letters: SHUT UP AND LISTEN.
That is an amazing expression to me. That is exactly why I stayed there for four years. Because after six months, I got my certificate , I was free to leave. But I ended up staying for four years because it made me feel good to work there, for two reasons. One, listening to people’s problems on the phone, you start to think to yourself, You know what, I don’t have it so bad. These people have it a lot worse. It’s like if you go to the park, and you sit on a bench, and you look down, and you see a squirrel, and you think, Well, at least I’m not a squirrel. You know what I mean? It’s something. And two, seeing the sign, shut up and listen, it’s how you do prevent suicides— by listening to people.
We don’t listen to each other. We have agendas. Whether it’s somebody you love, or just casual, we all have agendas. We’re all trying to get something, and we like to talk. But the idea of sitting and listening to somebody else talk made me feel good. It made me feel like I was helping. And that’s why I stayed for four years.
Now, the training basically says that what you do is you answer the call. You say, “Humanitarian Suicide Hotline . Thanks for calling.” You then listen. You have to be an active listener. Glen said not to get scared of silence if there was silence on the phone because “Check it out… Silence is a form of communication. Right on.” He also said that you can’t get manipulated by silence, so if it lasts five minutes, you gotta hang up the phone. At the end of twelve minutes, end the call anyway, because that’s the allotted time. But before you end the call, you have to evaluate the person’s level of suicide. And the way you do that is you ask a series of four questions.
1. Do you feel so bad that you think about suicide?
2. Do you have a plan for how you would do it?
3. Have you set a time for when you’re gonna do that?
4. Have you taken any steps today to kill yourself?
Now, in the four years I worked there, 99.9 percent of all calls were YES, NO, NO, NO. A lot of people think about suicide, but most people don’t really go the next step. Glen said the closest thing to a warning sign that you can have for suicide is if somebody says something like “I don’t want to die . I just want the pain to stop.” And if you hear somebody say that—that they want the pain to stop— a bell should go off. That’s a person who’s on the edge.
So four years later, I’m working at the hotline. It’s just me and my shift partner, a guy named Adam.
So me and Adam are working the overnight shift, from eleven o’clock at night to eight o’clock in the morning. You have to do one a month. And it’s busy till like 4 A.M., till the bars close in New York, and then it gets slow. And around four it was my turn to answer the phone, and the phone rings, and I pick it up.
“Hello, Humanitarians, can I help you?”
And this very young, cute, scared voice comes on the phone and says,
“Hi. My name is Amy. I’d like to talk.”
And I say, “What’s up, Amy? What’s going on?”
She says, “Oh, nothing. I was just, you know, calling because I was feeling a little sad.”
And I was like, “Oh, what are you sad about?”
And she goes, “Ah, I don’t know, things are pretty good . I have good grades at school, and my parents don’t get it, but they love me, and, you know, I have a good friend back in Tennessee where I’m from, and NYU’s good. I have good friends here.”
Right away I pictured her, the way you do when you talk to somebody on the phone. I pictured her in her dorm room, and I pictured a quilt, and I pictured her with long hair, sitting on her bed, and Rollerblades, and a Dr Pepper, you know what I mean? I got her figured out.
And so I said, “Well, that sounds good. But you said you were sad. What do you think about when that happens?”
She said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand what happens. I can’t control it. Sometimes when I have a great day, what I do the next day is I try to duplicate it. I wake up at the same time, I try to eat the same food, try to have the same pattern, so that I can control the day, so that I don’t feel bad.”
But then, out of nowhere, she said, she felt what she described as a hand coming from behind her and sort of pushing her down.
And I said, “Okay, well, what, what’s going on when that happens? What are you thinking about?”
And she said, “Ah, everything, nothing, I don’t know. I just feel so stupid.”
She started to sound uncomfortable. And then we started to flirt a little, not in an inappropriate way, but look, a lot of the callers I talked to over the years were crazy. This was different . She could have been a childhood friend if I had met her in some other situation. I was talking to her, and we talked for a little while, and then she said she felt dumb because of depression. She felt this crippling sadness, and that there are people who are clinically or socially or chemically depressed, but she thought maybe a lot of people overuse that word, or use it as an excuse, and she was worried she might be like that. And I could identify. I felt the same way. I don’t think I get depressed. I mean, sure there are times where I don’t get out of bed for four days, but I’m not depressed, right? So we were talking like that. And then I noticed that it was about time to wrap it up, but Amy started telling me this story about going to some place with her family one day, and their father bought ice cream, and it was a great day.
I said, “Oh, that’s great.” And I looked at the clock.
But then Amy started to slur her speech a little bit.
I said, “Amy, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
And she goes, “Yeah. Look, I know it’s selfish, and I know it’s stupid, but I can’t do it anymore. I just want it to stop.”
And I said, “What do you mean? What do you mean by ‘it’?”
She goes, “I don’t know. I just can’t. I just want you to talk to me.”
I was like, “Well, when you said ‘it,’ what did you mean?”
She said, “Look, I don’t want to die. I just want the pain to stop.”
And I woke up.
I said, “Amy, do you feel so bad that you think about suicide?”
And she said, “Yes.”
I said , “Do you have a plan for how you would do it?”
“Have you set a time for when you’re gonna do it?”
“Amy, have you taken any steps today to kill yourself?”
And she said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Amy, what have you done?”
And she told me she took twenty high-strength painkillers.
and I said, “What kind of painkillers?”
Because that’s what you’re supposed to ask, and she told me, and I wrote it down. And I threw a pencil at Adam who was nodding off, and I handed him the piece of paper so he could call poison control, and I could have some information about what would happen, so I could pass it on to her. I tried to keep Amy talking. I was trying to ask her about other things, and she was again talking about that day her father bought her ice cream, and it was very confusing, and then Adam came back with the piece of paper. He’d called poison control.
I said, “Amy, given the fact that you took twenty high-strength painkillers, and that you drank, and that you haven’t thrown up”— which she had told me—“ do you understand that you could die, within an hour?”
And she started to cry.
And I was like, “Amy, look, do you want help? Do you want me to do something? I can do something, but I can only help you if you ask.”
Our policy was not to intervene unless people asked us to.
I said, “If you want help, I can do something.”
And she goes, “I do. I don’t want to do this.”
And I said, “Great, what’s your address ?”
She gave me her address , I handed it to Adam, and he went to call 911. And I kept Amy talking.
I was like, “Uh, Amy, what kind of ice cream was it that your father bought you? You mentioned that your father bought you ice cream. What kind of ice cream was it?”
But it was silent. And it was silent for two minutes. And it was silent for five minutes. And I’m supposed to hang up the phone, but who could hang up the phone? So I didn’t. And then around thirteen, fourteen minutes, I heard noises at the door, and I heard people knocking, and then I heard the door crash open. I heard footsteps, and then I heard the phone being picked up, and a voice said:
“It’s okay. We’ve got her.” Click.
I went home. I was supposed to go to class that day. I had classes at Queens College . But I didn’t go back to Queens College. I never went back to Queens College. I never graduated. I was supposed to go back to the hotline for a debriefing based on that phone call. I called Glen and told him I quit, that I wasn’t coming back. And then I did all the things you’re not supposed to do in that situation. I obsessed about it. I stayed up, and I drank coffee, and I searched.
It was before the Internet, but I looked through the papers and listened to the radio, and finally, after three days, I found it. In the Daily News, page 23, a small paragraph that said that they had found the body of a nineteen-year-old NYU student named Amy Walters who had died of an accidental overdose. And I know why they call it accidental. I get it. There’s insurance reasons, respect to family reasons. They don’t want an epidemic to start in a college. I get all that.
But what I didn’t know until that moment was that she was dead, and I was the last person to talk to her . Not her mom in Tennessee, or her best friend, or some boy at NYU that probably had a crush on her but never talked to her. Me. And I wanted to call her family, and I wanted to try to go down to the funeral, but I knew it was inappropriate, and so I didn’t. And the thing of it is, I have had bigger personal tragedies over the years. I spoke to her for less than an hour twenty years ago. But I think about it every day . She’s me, in that car. If I had pulled the trigger, that would be me.
She never got to find out what I got to find out, which is life is really painfully, tough sometimes, but then you get these perfect life moments thrown your way when you least expect it.
And for me, those moments are enough.