Friday, January 29, 2010

Hello. Suicide Prevention Hotline...Can You Hold?

Over the years, a long succession of psychotherapists have suggested that engagement in volunteer work — focusing on the misery of others for a change — might make me less prone to the debilitating depressions to which I’ve been prone since childhood. I signed up a few months ago to be a Big Brother, but talking to the 14-year-old with whom they tried to pair me was like trying to talk to the sidewalk, and I couldn’t imagine that frustration having a palliative effect on my despair. I had hoped to fill a void in the life of a kid lacking a male mentor, and not to try to psychologically rehabilitate one who seemed to need a shrink a lot more than a surrogate dad. When I expressed my misgivings, Big Brother said they understood perfectly (one of them had met the boy, and had an experience identical to my own), and then promptly stopped returning my calls.

Thus, I volunteered for the Dutchess County Suicide Prevention Hotline. For the first few weeks — during which I persuaded a paralegal in Fishkill, a personal trainer in Wappingers Falls, a Subaru mechanic in Wappingers Falls, and a Web developer in Hopewell Junction not to end it all — it was deeply rewarding. But then I began to question the fundamental precept of such hotlines — that all prospective suicides should be dissuaded as a matter of course. How did I know for sure, as I coaxed the personal trainer off the ninth floor window ledge from which he claimed to be about to hurl himself, that he wasn’t a belligerent homophobe, for instance, or a racist, or misogynist? What if the Subaru mechanic had grown rich replacing timing belts that had another 60,000 miles on them? What if the purported Web developer were a child molester, or Dick Cheney, trying to hide in the Hudson Valley from his conscience?

It was a good thing they had me on the graveyard shift (which of course we were forbidden to refer to as such), between midnight and eight, with a woman, Caroline, who commonly drank herself into a stupor. Drinking on the job was in extreme contravention of hotline answerer guidelines, but so was making callers answer a bunch of questions that I’d formulated to determine if they were worth saving. We agreed early on to not notice each other’s rule-breaking.

All our calls turned out to be recorded for the ominous Training Purposes we all hear about so often. Herewith, a transcript of the one for which I was fired, to whatever extent one may be fired from a job for which he’s receiving no pay.

JM: Hello, Suicide Preventine Hotline. We’re here for you.

CALLER Thank God someone is. The loneliness has been unendurable.

JM: From where are you calling?

CALLER The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. I’m on my Blackberry. I just pulled over. I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to jump.

JM: Can you describe what’s made you so desperate?

CALLER I was laid off 14 months ago. Since then I haven’t even been invited in for a job interview. My husband left me three weeks ago for his secretary; the kids all side with him. My doctor’s receptionist called this morning to say he needs to talk to me in person about the results of the lab work he ordered last week. The Check Engine light has been on for the past two months. I can’t afford to renew my eHarmony account. I can’t sleep. I can feel a lump in one of my breasts. I just spent three hours sitting at the bar at the Holiday Inn and nobody asked to buy me a drink. I just can’t take it anymore.

JM: It does sound as though a great many things are stressing you. I can understand that life is very difficult at this moment.

CALLER Unbearably difficult! I can’t take it anymore!

JM: Well, if you’ll just answer a couple of questions, we’ll see if we can’t make you feel more hopeful, OK? First, how do you feel about gay marriage? Do you think it should be allowed?

CALLER What’s gay marriage got to do with my being overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness? [pause] I’m for it. Live and let live. That’s my motto.

JM: Great. A good start! How about the separation of church and state? Do you think there should be prayer in the public schools, or that intelligent design ought to be presented as a theory on a par with evolution?

WOMAN For crying out loud! Why are you asking me this stuff? [pause] No, I think the Christian right is a major blight on the American national character.

JM: Perfect! Just one more question, and this is kind of a tricky one. John Edwards has been exposed as a Clintonian horndog. Even so, given that he embraced progressivism far more than any other candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign, would you not, in a nightmare scenario, be more inclined to vote for him than for Sarah Palin in 2012?

Hello? Are you there? Hello?

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