Two years ago I decided to volunteer for a recognised youth helpline. Despite the early stages of personal realisation in managing low-mood and two planned suicides, the willingness to commit was inspired by absent direction once felt as a youth as well as curious notions in my ability to potentially help others.
Reflecting upon teenage years, ‘helplines’ were often joke-holds of minute difficulties in adolescence; phone calls to The Samaritans referred to dramatically with shouts and laughter about ‘killing yourself’ because your football team lost at the weekend or because someone took the last chocolate biscuit.
There was innocence to such ignorance, but one further example of finer misguidance was talk of an elderly man nearby who was apparently making regular calls to a helpline. Amongst a gang of bemused boys, it was quickly decided that our neighbour was a ‘weirdo’ that never left his house. In this instance, there was blindness in societal understanding and a schooling failure towards children of the 1990’s.
Following initial contact with the organisation, a training period was undertaken in a relaxed setting. There were immediate assurances relating to our own well-being, relieving pressure on anyone feeling apprehensive about taking a call. On the basis that the operation could not function without willing volunteers, there was genuine appreciation to all who made a decision to give up some free time.
I was nervous at the prospect of taking calls; particularly should an individual threatening suicide pick up the phone and dial. I feared of saying something inappropriate that may make someone feel worse and also feared not saying something that maybe should be said. There was considerable doubt on my own state of being, a concern that the probability of subdued demeanour could deter anyone seeking help.
I discovered very quickly that the means behind taking the calls stood not as an advice or counselling session but rather as a private listening service free of judgment for everyone and anyone who felt the need to talk. Indeed, there were calls of a sensitive nature; young callers lost in life and struggling at the brim of neglect mentally and physically, fallen deep into desperation seeking answers and guidance.
They were difficult calls to take. Feelings of sympathetic understanding could only branch so far for a teenager immersed in struggle. I felt anger because all I could offer was an ear to listen; that society should be offering so much more than a phone line which gave no guarantee of the callers wellbeing after the conversation concluded. However, the constant promotion in recognising the callers’ courage in making the initial phone call acted as safeguard in compassion and placed strength in the principle of lending that ear to listen.
The pattern in communication showed that the majority of callers just wanted to talk. Chastened in loneliness and seeking conversation that could easily peak from the highs of counterpoint recognition relating to a favourite song or film to the lows of forethought to facing the next day alone.
It was the tribulations of one regular caller that stirred my emotions, imprinting both worry and inspiritment in the aftermath of volunteering. Jamie (not real name) was bound by the consequence of every decision he/she had made in life to date. He/she was in solitude, fighting to survive day by day.
Beneath the curtain of despair, the teenage spirit was inspiring along with a sense of humour most sharp and endearing. The intelligence in expression of everything the child considered to be right and wrong in life based on what he/she had done was tragically beautiful. In the absence of anonymity and protection law, any decent soul would make headway on an instant rescue mission.
Again, it was the regularity of ringtones that gave hope to every caller’s future. It was the calls that never came that created a void of defeatism coupling internal pleas for anyone struggling to pick up the phone. Silence on the end of a line was just as frightening with thoughts inside screaming: ‘you’re almost there, you’ve made the call, please say hello!!’
I gave one/two nights a month for a year to answering these calls, discreetly and unbeknownst to most family and friends.
I learned the value in the continuum of communication; empowering trust without a visual, just two voices on a telephone. I taught myself that irrationality has no boundaries in everyday life and that everything in terms of physical and mental expression comes from something inside us. Whilst sometimes upsetting and terrifying, on the back of the real life stories I have heard (from fellow volunteers as well as callers) I believe that (unfortunately) everything is normal and its ignorance and lack of understanding that deems life experience good or bad to be abnormal and ‘weird’.
I found balance within myself, embracing the bravery that these young people show in facing their problems as best they can. For the first time in my life, I acknowledged that for every problem I face, someone else is facing 100 more.