IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Worked As An Advocate On The National Domestic Violence Hotline

I learned to feel with a sick, sad, intuitive, devastating certainty if a woman I was speaking to was likely to be killed by her abuser.
Publish date:
November 25, 2013

Recently the National Domestic Violence Hotline answered its 3 millionth call since the Hotline opened in 1996. I know many of the women and men (but mostly women) who do the sacred work of answering those desperate calls for help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To say they are my former colleagues does not do the relationship justice.

I believe the feeling I have for the women I call “hotline divas” is more like that of war buddies. The hotline divas are the only ones who understand what I have been through. They have been through it as well. They are the ones who still pick up the phone every time it rings -- and it does ring over 20,000 times a month -- and say, “National Domestic Violence Hotline. Are you in a safe place to talk right now?”

For several years, I was an advocate on the National Domestic Violence Hotline. I answered an average of 35 calls a day (or 175 calls a week). I spoke to callers in English and in Spanish. In the time that I worked on the Hotline, I answered over 20,000 calls.

When I was offered a job on the Hotline, I underestimated the difficulty of being a Hotline Advocate. At the time I was working at a domestic violence shelter in the Southwest. There I did intake interviews, counseled the residents, changed sheets, answered the crisis line, cooked dinner, scared away bears that came down out of the drought-stricken mountains to eat out of the dumpster, broke up fights between residents, looked away when residents smoked pot in the backyard, didn’t look away when residents smoked meth in the bathrooms, etc.

So when I finished my interview for a job as an advocate on the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the coordinator interviewing me asked if I had any questions, I said, “What else do I do besides answer the phone?”

“That’s it,” the coordinator said. “You just take calls.”

“Piece of cake,” I thought. By then I knew that the average woman* leaves an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good, and I understood the barriers that keep women with an abusive man. I knew that domestic violence is usually about power and control and that the violence often escalates when women try to leave an abuser.

And while most of the residents who lived in the domestic violence shelter where I worked were of extremely modest economic means (Would you live in shelter with a bunch of strangers if you had money to go anywhere else?), I understood that violence against women is an epidemic that affects women of every age, race, religion, and class.

I knew that domestic violence affects one in three women. I knew that 40% of murdered women are killed by a husband or boyfriend.

I knew that I was resilient. I knew that I worked well with women. I thought this was a job that I would rock out. It never crossed my mind that it would nearly crush me.

When I walked into the Hotline for the first time, I saw a large, open room, divided into workstations where women wearing headsets sat in front of computers. At first glance, it could have been any sort of call center. But the room was mostly filled with women and they spoke in soothing tones. A Latina woman with a screen saver that said, “I am the Goddess and the Goddess is me,” made a colorful Fimo sculpture of the Virgin of the Guadalupe as she talked into her headset. Next to her, an African-American woman with a photo of Jesus pinned to her computer spoke calming words to her caller. Next to her, a tattooed Caucasian girl knitted a scarf. In a cubicle across the way, a beautiful Iranian-American woman spoke to a caller in perfectly lilting Spanish.

I realized it then. This was an extraordinary lighthouse of a room where women of all backgrounds and beliefs and interests came together to beam out love and hope and guidance to callers from all over the country. This, I thought, was a place where I could work.

Within a few weeks I had quit my job at the shelter in the Southwest, packed up, moved home to Austin, and started work on the Hotline.

The first thing that hit me was how much I had to learn. I had to learn the ins and outs of a very large database with over 5,000 agencies and resources in communities all across the country. I had to learn the very basics of immigration law for callers who were not in the country legally, but who might have recourse to seek permanent residency because their spouse was a permanent resident or U.S. citizen. I had to learn how to talk a suicidal caller down in 10 minutes. I had to learn how to understand extreme rural southern African-American accents, as well as urban Caucasian Boston ones. I realized I really, really needed to learn fluent Spanish, because speaking to Spanish-language callers through an interpreter was painfully slow and often ineffective.

I eventually learned all of those things. But then, as the months and years went by, I also learned a thousand things from the hotline callers that I hadn’t expected to learn, that I wish were not true, that I sometimes wish I could forget.

I learned that thousands upon thousands of women seeking shelter in domestic violence shelters across the U.S. are turned away every day due to lack of available bed space. (According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in one day in 2012, 10,000 women in the U.S. asking for a counselor or a bed were turned away from domestic violence shelter programs due to lack of resources).

I learned that many women who are abused lose custody of their children to men who have sexually abused those same children.

I learned there is a dearth of free or affordable legal resources for abused women who are going to family court for custody of their children.

I learned to feel with a sick, sad, intuitive, devastating certainty if a woman I was speaking to was likely to be killed by her abuser. And I learned how to do the very best I could when safety planning with those callers.

I learned that domestic violence truly affects women of all classes and levels of education. I learned this from speaking to women who work at the World Bank, who are doctors, and attorneys, and strippers, and accountants, and teachers, and stay-at-home moms, and cashiers at Ross Dress for Less.

I learned that a lot of women are hilariously funny, even when in terrible situations.

I learned that sometimes a caller would feel like my soul sister in five minutes, and I would know that in a parallel universe we might be besties.

I learned how good it felt to help a caller find a shelter with space available for her, then have her call back later that same night to tell me that she and her children had arrived safely at the shelter program.

I learned that the hotline divas sitting around me, taking the same kinds of calls I was taking, understood what it was like to be an empty vessel filled every night with the grief, and sadness, and terror, of the world.

And as I became better and better at the work, and as the hotline divas taught me about a resource center for Muslim women in Anaheim, or a Safehouse for runaway teens in New York, or how to identify the signs of sex trafficking, I also began to wear thin.

Sometimes I felt like each call was a drop of water and I was a stone, being worn slowly away.

As the effects of secondary trauma set in, my perception of the world changed. And this, too, the hotline divas understood. Once I told a hotline diva named Terry about being at Barton Springs swimming pool on my day off. It was a beautiful day. The sun was glinting off of the water. And I had looked around at the other swimmers and wondered how many of the men there beat and raped women.

“Oh, I get it!” Terry said. “When I’m at church on Sundays, I look around and think the same damn thing.”

I have not worked full-time on the Hotline for several years now. I have not worked there even part-time for over a year. The depression that weighed me down when I did that sacred work has mostly lifted. What has not lifted is my affection for the hotline divas, the women who did that work with me, the women who do that work still. What has not lifted is the knowledge that so many women are still terrorized by their intimate partners, and that the resources to help them are so few.

When I remember my time on the hotline, I think about a thank you card that a caller to the hotline had mailed in, along with a donation to help keep the hotline going. One of the hotline divas had taped the card to the cabinet over the sink in the kitchen so that we could all see it when we rinsed out the coffee pot or our Tupperware.

Inside the card were the handwritten words, “Without your voices, the void would have been even blacker. God’s graces.”

*Note: When I write about intimate partner violence, I write about “victims” as female and “abusers” as male. I do understand that some men in intimate partner relationships are abused by their wives, girlfriends, husbands, or boyfriends. I also understand that abuse can occur in lesbian relationships. However, in my vast anecdotal experience working with over 20,000 survivors of domestic violence and their friends and families in an anonymous and confidential setting, the vast majority of “abusers” in intimate partner relationships are men and the vast majority of “victims” are women.