What I Learned From Working On A Crisis Line

I don’t know how many people I helped, or didn’t, while I was working on the crisis line. I do know that I don’t regret my time there, not a single one of those shifts.

My first night on the crisis line, I was terrified. I duly called into the answering service and gave them the number where I would be and spent the whole night hunched over the phone, too afraid to cook dinner, to use the bathroom, to do anything. What if the phone rang while the water was boiling and I didn’t hear it? What if they tried to call while I was peeing and I couldn’t get to the phone in time?

The phone never rang that night, a not uncommon occurrence on a service that handled a relatively small population. Some nights multiple calls came in to the crisis line, enough to require the backup person to help out. Other nights, your phone would sit silently for the whole night, or you’d get one or two calls.

That, of course, didn’t mean that you wouldn’t jolt upright every time it did ring. In the early hours of the evening you’d take a deep breath and go “okay, it’s probably just someone calling to say hello or to see if you want to do something.” It was the small hours phone calls you worried about, because when you were on the crisis line and the phone rang at one in the morning, there was really only one rational reason for it.

One night a friend got in a car accident, and my phone shrilled me awake at three am, and I fumbled around for my binder and the light and sat upright in bed and shook off my sleepiness and picked it up. I was preparing for the answering service to ask if I could take the call, but instead it was my friend, telling me he’d wrecked and wondering if I could come out and collect him. I wanted to strangle him for waking me up on a crisis line night at the same time I wanted to hug him for surviving.

My time on the crisis line was an odd time in my life. There was much, much more going on than my periodic nightly sessions, where sometimes the phone would ring and sometimes it didn’t, but somehow everything seemed to come back to those phone calls, in the end. Sometimes people just wanted to talk and we would, and sometimes people would get called to the hospital or the scene.

I can’t give you any details about calls I may or may not have taken, for reasons that are probably obvious, but one thing about living in a small town was the way working on the crisis line changed me. While the identities of the workers weren’t exactly common knowledge, we were known in the community, and it altered the way people looked at us, especially when they saw us interacting with people in public.

You could tell they were always wondering; were we talking to someone who had called the crisis line? Where did we know this person from? This innocuous conversation over the oranges in the grocery store, was it really so innocuous? I started to get a lot more interrogations about how I knew so-and-so and I had to point out that as someone who had been living here for a very long time, I knew lots of people; maybe we’d gone to school together, or taken a class at the junior college together, or worked at the same organization.

In fact, if I recognized clients, I ignored them, unless we had an outside connection. We walked right past each other like any other strangers, perhaps with a polite “excuse me” if one of us was in the way of the yogurt or potato chips. We maintained distance not just for their safety but for ours, in a small town where abusive partners might view us as the enemy, even if we did nothing more than talk, one night, late at night.

I heard and saw things that belied the small town mythologies that everything is happy and nothing hurts. Luckily I’d had those myths exploded long, long ago, as they often are for kids who grow up poor in a community surrounded by wealth, so the things I heard and saw weren’t so much shocking as they were a reminder that we live in a dangerous world where there are bad people who do bad things. Where sometimes those bad people are very hard to fight.

I don’t know how many people I helped, or didn’t, while I was working on the crisis line. I do know that I don’t regret my time there, not a single one of those shifts. Crisis lines as a service are incredibly important, a reminder that you are not alone.

And they’re always looking for volunteers.

Working on a crisis line is definitely not for everyone, and I wouldn’t universally recommend it. But organizations that run crisis lines also need help around the office, at events, and in other settings. You’re not a failure if you’re not willing to sit over your phone (or, more realistically these days, to remember to carry your mobile), but if you want to support a local crisis line in some other way, there might be a place for you. Most have volunteer coordinators; give them a call. During regular business hours, please.