I worked at a suicide hotline for seven years. From 2001 to 2008, I spent hundreds of hours on the lines intervening in crises ranging from domestic spats to suicides in progress.
Notice I said intervening. Not preventing. It was never our job to talk someone out of suicide. It was our job to listen.
What did we listen for? A lot of things. Feelings. A precipitating event, which could be anything from lost keys to a lost family member. Whether the caller had eaten, slept, taken his or her meds. With suicide calls, we listened for living and dying clues.
Dying clue: I can’t go on any more.
Living clue: My only friend is my cat.
At some point in the call, the counselor repeats back to the caller all the reasons he or she wants to die. Then the reasons why the caller wants to live. “It sounds like you really care about your cat. That part of you wants to live, so you can take care of him. Part of you wants to live and part of you wants to die.”
Then you pause. You wait for the caller to acknowledge the ambivalence. Because all suicide callers are ambivalent. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be calling you. They would be dead.
Some callers have very few living clues. Most, in fact.
Sometimes the callers acknowledge ambivalence. Sometimes they don’t. Then you’d get them to agree to a plan and a follow-up call. The plan could be as simple as I’ll drink a cup of tea, call my brother. The follow-up call could come 10 minutes later, the next day, the next week. Whatever interval felt right to the caller– that is, whatever interval felt survivable.
“Do you promise not to hurt or kill yourself, by accident or on purpose, until we talk again?” you would say before hanging up.
You sometimes believed the callers’ lives were in your hand as surely as the bullets were in theirs, the bullets you heard clicking as they rolled them in their palms like Baoding balls, slow and ruminative.
But their lives are never yours to save. It is never a counselor’s job to try to prevent a suicide, to take away a person’s jurisdiction over the only thing that’s truly theirs. Nobody can make that choice except the bearer of the life. You get the privilege of listening to a person grapple with whether to live or die. Then telling them, honestly, what you’ve heard.
And then you hang up, and leave them alone to make that choice again, minute by minute, day by day, for the rest of their lives.