One year ago today I completed six weeks of training to volunteer with Crisis Text Line and hopped on my first shift. Every time the high-pitched DING of a new conversation chimed, I panicked and waited a few seconds until someone else snatched it out of the queue. "Oh, oops, I guess I wasn't quick enough," I bit my nails and muttered to myself. However, since nothing ever gets easier until you trudge through the awkward flailing moments of trying something for the first time, I started grabbing conversations. At least while I was freaking out, I was also participating.
When I first started I remember panicking at least once every shift. I'd reach out to a supervisor with "HELP!!!!" (that was my actual message, complete with a shit ton of exclamation points.) Someone is suicidal and the clock is ticking and I'm trying to save this person's life and I can't screw up and say the wrong thing or they're going to disengage from the conversation and oh my god I'm SO not qualified to do this why am I even doing this they should be talking to an actual professional right now and not me sitting here sipping coffee and eating cute little cinnamon cookies WTF am I actually doing?!
One year later and I've learned, over conversations with nearly 200 people, that I am not a lifesaver but a lifeline. They've done a big brave thing by reaching out, some of them sharing things they've never spoken out loud to anyone. I listen, and I empathize, and I validate that their feelings are truly, incredibly, boringly normal. That they are not alone. That they are not crazy. That they are worth giving themselves one more chance. One more night. That I believe in them, and I care about them even though I'm a complete stranger. I sometimes give suggestions, but mostly I just listen. I listen and understand and don't judge, and often that is the one thing that people are lacking: a safe space. Understanding. Validation. Humanity. If only they could see how many people have texted in for their exact same issue that very night.
Most of them already have the answers they need within; they just need someone to empower them to make the decisions or do the thing they already know is the best for them.
Some of them just want someone to hear about their shitty situation and their deadbeat parents and their loneliness from lack of real quality friendships in their new town and how they feel they don't fit in anywhere. They know it will get better, and they very much want to live, but they want someone to know and to recognize how difficult it is to walk in their shoes and how hard they're trying.
A few have no idea what they're passionate about yet and so they don't know what to do for their self-care, and they've never been told that it's OK not to know, or it's OK to explore a hobby or try a new thing, and that this is an awesome time to do so.
I'm a top candidate for the World's Most Sensitive Person award. I mean, literally. And not literally like we usually use the word to mean figuratively, but actually literally. Those weird bright white lightbulbs that they sell nowadays give me headaches. If I haven't eaten breakfast within two hours of getting up, I want to punch things. And three seconds into a puppy montage video I'm all "OH GOD THE HUMANITY IN THIS WORLD I CAN'T HANDLE IT." I cry talking about sad stories. I cry when I'm really happy. I cry when someone else cries. I think three days could go by without crying and I'd be like "WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME I'M A POD PERSON?!"
Creative types, man.
Yet somehow, week after week, I show up and stay calm. And when it's over, I shake it off and get on with my life because I have to. But the people I've had the honor of speaking with, every single one of them has left a mark upon my heart.
I'll never forget the conversation with one gentleman in a dire situation, asking me to send help, completely despondent, feeling like he'd been forgotten by the entire world. People made him feel less than human. Disposable. He was screaming out for help, this brave man, and getting ignored completely.
I flagged an active rescue, ended the conversation, logged off my shift, and then bawled like a baby.
And the young teenage girl who wanted me to send help, but she was afraid her parents would get angry. They thought she was self-harming for attention. They didn't believe in mental illness (an issue I run into on every shift). She was hearing voices; they wanted to cure her with prayer.
The girl grieving her brother.
The man afraid his wife will leave because he feels worthless.
The girl who was raped and no one wants to talk about it because they think by not talking about it it'll go away and she'll be fine.
The woman who's been sober and drank for the first time in x number of years and has three kids and feels like a horrible mother.
The boy who has a crush on his friend who's a boy and is terrified.
The girl who is worried about her best friend because she's depressed and talks about suicide and she don't know how to help her.
The boy in college feeling crushed under the weight of his student loan debt and what that means for his future.
Then there are times when it gets serious, fast. Desperation. Escalation. Active rescues. People disengaging suddenly and I'm left hoping they fell asleep. Not knowing the outcome. But I'm left knowing that I did what I could as a listener, as an empathetic human. In the end, you can't save people from themselves. You can be present and witness their pain and show love and share resources and remind them of their worth and assure them that there is help out there and that this particular feeling will pass eventually...and sometimes it's still not enough. You have to be at peace with not knowing.
Sometimes people are dealing with so many heavy, heavy things. Mental illness. Physical disabilities. Grieving. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Bullying. Sexual orientation and gender issues. And some people are young and dealing with their first heartbreak and feel like the pain will never end, or they are miserable in high school and they don't yet have the perspective to see beyond that little slice of their existence to know that it will get better. Some people are dealing with things that might not seem all that crisis-like, but it's heavy to them, and so it's treated with no less importance by us.
And sometimes when things are so bad and people are questioning the meaning of life and its purpose and whether there's a God and why it is they should fight so hard to keep living, it's so hard to know what to say because sometimes I feel that way too. But sometimes just saying that, saying, "I don't have the answers either, but I know that hope for a better day is the most important thing, so we can't lose that, OK?" and letting them know that someone out there is right there in the trenches with them, is what they need.
It's what we all need.
I volunteer because I want to end the stigma of mental illness. I want to let as many people as I can know that their depression and anxiety and OCD and suicidal ideation and Bipolar Disorder and schizophrenia and self-harm and eating disorder and struggles over gender identity and sexual orientation don't make them broken people because holy shit you guys, being a human is HARD. (Hi, my name is Renee and I have struggled with some of these things myself, and I can manage it because I have love and family and friends and creative outlets and lots of mental health wellness strategies in my back pocket.) It's even harder when you are struggling and you don't have the support of family or friends, or you can't get much needed resources, or most of all, you don't feel empowered because you're a teenager and you're told you don't matter or you're exaggerating or you're trying to get attention.
Maybe I am lucky because of my generation, or because of the openness of my friends and our chats around mental health, I find it so incredibly normal to talk about the scary stuff, to ask someone who is suicidal if they have a plan and a timeline and means, to discuss alternative ways of coping with self-harm urges; and because this is normal for me, I feel as though it's my responsibility to show up and be that person...one of many, nearly 2,000 counselors now (and growing!)
So I'm celebrating my one year with Crisis Text Line by lighting a candle for all those who continue to text in, to reach out, to be vulnerable in a space with a total stranger who is just as confused as they are sometimes, who doesn't always say all the right things, to share their feelings when they're scared of being judged.
I see you. You're not crazy. You're not beyond saving. You are worthy of good things.
And for those who lost that last shred of hope, those who were exhausted, those who loved so hard and hurt so deeply and felt like a burden, who couldn't see their worth or find their reason to keep fighting any longer.
I understand. It is hard being human. Depression lies, and sometimes it wins, and I'm so sorry.
But please, please don't stop reaching out. There are people who will listen. You are not alone. You are not forgotten. You are so incredibly beautifully human and you're still writing your story.
And in the meantime, if you need us, we're here 24/7.