Five years ago, I joined Lifeline for the same reasons as many others. A desire to help people, to make a difference, and the belief that everybody deserves to have someone to call in their moment of need.
There were also more selfish, practical, and career advancement reasons. As a student studying psychology, Lifeline offered nationally respected training in counselling-based skills, ongoing professional development, and invaluable experience that I desperately needed. I was 22 at the time. A young, naïve kid who didn’t have enough life experience to fill a thimble or a shot glass.
I have vague memories of sitting in a room full of people nearly twice my age during the training. Weirdly, it felt a bit like being a kid dressed in my dad’s clothes trying to play at being an adult. I kept expecting a tap on the shoulder telling me there was a mistake and to come back when I’m older. Instead of seeing my youth and inexperience, they saw someone willing to be there for others.
The foundation of taking on the CSWT Training to become a Lifeline Crisis Supporter is the willingness and empathy to be there for others. You are given weeks and months of training, practicing skills, learning how to listen, roleplays, facts, and knowledge about suicide. Each part of the training only helps shape what was already there, which is an empathetic and caring desire to be there for people in times of distress and need. It was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done but it was also lifechanging for me on a personal level. Throughout the training I found I was communicating better with people in my personal life, taking the time to listen more, taking more time to check in with people and ask if they’re doing ok. Just being at Lifeline felt like it was helping mould me into being a more capable and caring adult even before I’d been anywhere near the phones.
My first call at Lifeline has always stuck with me. The room felt hot and stifling from my own anxious nervousness as I sat there watching that phone waiting for it to ring. I remember the silent room and the deafening thumping of my heart. The feeling that I was cramming last minute for a test as I went over and over the training in my head, trying to prepare for everything and anything all at once. The ring ring of the phone startling me and my heart leaping into my throat. There was a pause at the other end when I answered, then a doubtful voice told me that I sounded very young. The caller was onto me, she knew I was too young. My thoughts were racing and, in my head, I had this insane thought that this is life and death, that I’m still a kid and this person clearly needed to talk to a real adult. My heart was pounding, I was shaking with adrenaline, eyes bugged out wide. I froze. Everything in my body speeding up with anxiety as the world slowed down around me.
When I finally took a breath, the training kicked in. I admitted that yes, I did sound young, but I could listen if she needed someone to talk to. From there it went smoothly, she thanked me for listening and told me how much it helped her. It was all anticlimactic after how much I built it all up in my head. Relief and elation flowed through me. Turns out that I can do this. The training really did pay off, I was there for someone in their moment of need. The only way I can describe it is it feels gently warming like when you’re holding a hot cup of tea on a cold day. That feeling is one of the things that keeps bringing me back for more.
I’ve had 5 years of calls since then and it does take a toll. Compared to that first call, I feel older and wearier, spread thin across thousands of calls I’ve answered. For five years I’ve volunteered my time in the middle of the night, on Friday nights and weekends, during holidays, on Christmas and New Year’s. Finding time to give during the week between studying, working, family, friends, and life in general. I’ve listened to countless people calling in distress, feeling like they are lost or alone. I’ve heard people suffering, people struggling, feeling at the end of their rope and in darkness. Hearing that distress, the struggle, and the loss of hope in people’s lives, it takes a toll. Some days I feel weary and old well beyond my years. There’s always an urge to give more because people need help but there’s only so much of yourself you can give. Lifeline is a pretty tough gig at times.
When you ask any of us at Lifeline why we do it, there are always moments, feelings, and stories in calls that we come back to. It’s the calls that have a moment where you can hear something in the call that has helped them. I’ve heard it described as a kind of magic, an honour, a privilege, a powerful indescribable feeling of humanness being in that moment of distress with a person who is reaching out. These are the reasons we point to when explaining why we do it. But after a difficult call ends and before the next shift, in those moments of self-doubt and wondering if you’ll keep coming back, I’ve always found that it’s not about me. The reality we live in is that the phone keeps ringing. Each ring of the phone is another life on the other end of the line, another person reaching out, another person in need. The phone is still ringing right now, it’s the sound of a person calling out in distress. There’s not much that I can do to change the world so I’m just going to keep answering the phone and hope one day it will stop ringing.