by Anna R. Hageman
“I don’t know what to do!” The caller’s voice was racked with anguish. “I can’t go on this way, and I can’t go back and do it again.”
“Would you like to tell me what happened?” Diane Steward asked empathetically. Within an hour she had learned of the caller’s financial, social, marital, and other problems.
The caller had decided it was time to end this heartbreaking life. A few hours before, she stood on a chair, fastened a belt around her neck, and looped it over a door. Then she leaned forward and tipped the chair. The belt did its job: She fell into unconsciousness. Somehow, perhaps in her moments of writhing, the belt had slid off the door. She awoke at the bottom of the stairs, bruised and beaten, but with a sudden desire to grasp more of the life she had almost abandoned.
Then the caller looked in the mirror and decided to phone CONTACT. Diane talked with her awhile, then recommended non-profit organizations that could help with her troubles.
With pressures of home life, work, finances, and ill health, people are turning more and more to suicide for escape. Diane is part of a network of people nationwide who reach out through CONTACT, a telephone help line and crisis intervention center.
A listening ear
For twenty-two years Diane has volunteered as a CONTACT telephone worker and support person. CONTACT Gloucester County USA, headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the sixty-three centers throughout the United States that CUSA accredits, are the American version of Lifeline International, headquartered in Sydney, Australia. The idea originated in Sydney over thirty years ago. A distressed young man phoned his pastor while the clergyman was on vacation. Finding no one to help, the man committed suicide.
When the pastor returned and heard of the tragedy, he vowed that his phone would never be without a listening ear. He trained laymen to listen empathetically, without criticizing, and inform callers of their options without telling them what they “should” do. Because it was designed to save lives, the service was called Lifeline.
Lifeline met such a universal need that soon it spread to other churches, then to other countries. CONTACT USA was formed as an outreach of the Methodist Church. Now CUSA and each of its affiliates are independently incorporated, with volunteers from many denominations.
Today Lifeline affiliates in over a dozen nations around the world offer similar help to troubled people of all races, ages, and economic conditions. All affiliates share certain characteristics, though there are some differences. All offer help without charge. All are under oath of strict confidentiality. All offer help anonymously. Callers are not requested to give names or addresses unless it is necessary to save a life.
The real tragedies that upset even experienced telephone workers like Diane are those lives that cannot be saved. One caller said he had plenty of money — enough to travel around the world in luxury — but his life was miserable. He often contemplated suicide.
He said he was a bookie with a life intertwined with evil. He could “buy women,” but he could never marry and have children. He kept a job as a front and wouldn’t go to church because he “couldn’t face it.”
At this point Diane interjected, “You know Christ is ready to forgive?”
He was aware of this but said he must change his lifestyle to be forgiven. If he did this, “They’d kill me!” The caller concluded that it was preferable to take his own life than to have those he knew in gambling murder him.
Fortunately, such hopeless cases are rare. More typical is the case of a woman named Ginger.* She phoned to say she had been contemplating suicide off and on for years and was now ready to do it. She had been fighting a drug habit and found she “could stay off it for a while, but not forever.” Ginger said her worst failure was that she wasn’t good for her kids.
Encouraged by Diane to talk more about how she decided to end her life, Ginger explained that her father had committed suicide. She hadn’t been able to understand how he could do this, but now she understood. It was the only way to get out from under the sense of failure.
“How did you feel about your father’s death?” Diane asked.
“Cheated . . . tormented . . . longed to bring him back.” It took several minutes for Ginger to share all her painful feelings.
Diane responded, “You know firsthand how much you were hurt. Do you want to do the same to your children?”
This was the turning point. Ginger decided she could never hurt her children as her father had hurt her.
Jim Conklin, who retired as executive director of CONTACT Gloucester County after fifteen years, responds to questions about increasing teen suicides.
“The first call I had when I started at CONTACT was a suicide,” Jim tells us. “She started out with the usual cry, ‘I want to die,’ and soon made it clear she had definite plans to take her life.”
As their conversation progressed, Jim learned she had no boyfriend. She had quarreled with her parents and been betrayed by her best girl friend, who agreed with the parents. Her school grades were going downhill. She felt nobody cared.
“I care about you,” Jim told her. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here listening to you at one o’clock in the morning.”
The teenage caller protested that he didn’t even know her, yet Jim said, “I know a light will go out of this world if you do what you are planning.”
Later Jim explained to CONTACT volunteers, “This phrase almost always leads girls and women to see the value of their lives. Unfortunately, it does not always work as well on men.”
In West Virginia Julie Damewood deals with similar problems. For over a decade she has been executive director of CONTACT Huntington. She still keeps in touch with the day-to-day work of the organization, partly by spending one day shift and one night shift on the phones every month.
Julie is a strong advocate of the CONTACT techniques she has used to save many lives. She starts to give callers emotional support by assuring them that they did the right thing to call CONTACT. If at any time the situation seems severe enough to constitute an emergency, she tries to learn where they are so she can send police. Then she encourages them to talk about their problems.
As callers disclose their situations, she listens for things to compliment and interjects praise for previous actions or successful coping techniques they used in the past. She also keeps her ears tuned to their resources, including church membership, sympathetic family members, and a “significant other.”
While listening and responding with empathy and without judgmentalism, Julie tries to sort out the major problems and the lesser ones. Callers are often too confused to do this. She asks them where they have tried to find help. Usually, nowhere. They feel isolated. They may not know of any appropriate social service agencies and usually have no religious affiliation.
Talking is a God-given outlet for internal pressures. Julie encourages callers with questions and repeats their feelings. Sometimes this is all that’s needed. The callers realize someone cares and that someone is paying attention to them.
One problem Julie and other directors hear of frequently is abandoned women. One caller is married and has discovered her husband has been cheating on her. He may have just announced he wants a divorce. Another caller is a mistress who thought her lover was divorcing his wife, then suddenly was told he was returning to her — or going on to his next mistress. The caller may be innocent or guilty. The details are different, but the pain of betrayal and abandonment is the same.
In all cases Julie and other CONTACT persons lead the callers to plan for the future. Where they confide guilt, CONTACTers tell them of Jesus’ forgiveness and suggest they return to church and talk with their pastor. Where there is grief that the former life-work is over, there is hope: “God has another important life-work for you right here on earth.”
One case heard more and more is “I’m out of work” or “I’m broke. My employer downsized and now I’ll never find another position.” This is especially prevalent among middle-aged men who have held middle management positions.
CONTACT counselors patiently listen to all they have gone through and then encourage them to review all their past experience, paid and volunteer. The telephone worker intersperses these recollections with compliments like “That must have taken a great deal of skill.” Often this recollection with emotional support enables the caller to discover new opportunities.
Ask several CONTACT volunteers for their favorite Bible verse that relates to this work, and you’ll get as many or more different verses. Jim Conklin and others favor Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'” (RSV).
These volunteers are convinced that reaching out to suicidal people is God’s work and that every life they help now could be one they’ll see in eternity.
* Name has been changed.