Portals into the Lives of Strangers

Written in August 2015:

I’ve worked for a full year now, full-time, at NYC’s mental health crisis and suicide prevention hotline. On average I answer between twenty and thirty calls a day—a survey of suffering in the city. These are conversations I never would have had, people I never would have “met”, otherwise. While they make the call and disclose what they wish, it feels like a strangely voyeuristic peek into the lives of strangers who in the safety of anonymity tell more.

Some voices are in tears, questioning if the pain of life is worth it. Something may have happened, a death, a rape… or it’s been a lifetime struggle against incapacitating emptiness, restless disinterest, acute sensitivity to the pointlessness of existence, or vague suffocating dread. Others need to be heard by another human voice to soften their intolerable loneliness.

Many are frequent callers whom I’ve come to know well. Martha relays with drama (multiple times a day) the interminable misery and tragedy of her life. All of us at the hotline are reliable witness to her suffering, and perhaps complicit in its perpetuation. She is “Martha” here because I picture her looking like Martha Graham (in her later years) maintaining a stern expression with conviction.

Another regular seems confused about the purpose of our hotline and reports daily what he ate for dinner and lunch.

At times a call, colored by the mood of night, feels strangely intimate with silences of understanding. Then we say goodbye, without ever knowing who we were.

Another category of call is the 311 transfer. If someone calls city information in NYC and sounds intoxicated, incoherent, crazy or belligerent they are automatically transferred to us. And it seems without being informed. They still think they are reporting to the city that the landlord is sending poisonous vapors through the vents or that the neighbor downstairs is routinely removing items from their apartment and replacing them with identical, inferior items.

At the hotline we have the power to intervene and much of my uncertainty lies in whether or not to. How do I do the least harm? Is the person with paranoia, suffering the persistent persecutions of the mind, better off sedated to the point of feeling nothing, or left alone?

In some situations you have to act. Recently a woman told me she was in the middle of an intersection, in a wheelchair, trying to get run over by traffic. Whether she actually was or not, you can’t just let that happen. I had my coworker call 911 while I listened to the caller’s rant against the world, muffled in street noise. When the police arrived she was understandably pissed off.

In less urgent situations we can send people to the home to make an assessment and connect the person to “treatment”. This is usually for those with “poor insight” into their illness—for whom the thought of seeing a psychiatrist would not occur as for them it has nothing to do with the problem. While I do make these referrals, my free spirit leans in the direction of allowing self-determination. I’m not interested in participating in the business of social control. Let the person be eccentric, let him cause problems… just not serious harm.

For a stretch I was reading Beckett in the down-time between calls and I found it went quite well with our more “disorganized” callers. After spending time with Malone, Mahood, and Worm I was already in a space where the caller’s creative use of language sounded about right—no concern over contradictions or need of a linear plot. I stopped trying to make them make sense to me.  

I’m not sure how many people I’ve spoken with so far. Thousands I guess. I find it fascinating to think that speckled over the five boroughs of NYC, I “know” people. I’ve heard intimate and peculiar details of their life, know their losses and fears, have a sense of their suffering, have been there at their lowest low—without knowing who they are—these curious portals into the lives of strangers.