Everyone wants relief. Forest Grove Psychiatric Hospital has a suicide prevention call center where I volunteer my time to alleviate, to relieve. I sit in a cubicle and follow a script. My fellow colleagues are Frank who has a hereditary history of mental illness; Ruby who is an adult obsessed with Hello Kitty and is severely, acutely depressed; Latisha who has tried to jump off bridges in ten cities; and Mike, who went to college and is working on his master’s degree in child psychology, but is living back with his parents after a stress-induced suicide attempt. Frank says, “But everyone has problems, even the wealthiest, most well-to-do. And that’s another thing, 50% of the calls we get are about people’s money worries. Everyone always frets about money. People who don’t have money believe money can solve their worries, and in some instances that is true, but in most instances it doesn’t matter how much money you have across the board, there is a cut off. Eventually money doesn’t make you happy.”
Happiness. This is our training for the hotline: make sure to instill happiness into every phone call. If you sound grave, they will sound grave! Try to lift some spirits while also practicing active listening and participation. Everyone also wants to feel loved. Everyone wants to feel heard. “Money and love,” Frank says, “and relief. 50% of callers are trying to kill themselves over love. Why is it the thing that will kill us dead?” He doesn’t wait for my answer. “Hold on,” Frank says, “I got a call.”
I run into my newly ex-girlfriend at the bar later in the evening. I buy her a beer because I am stupid. She should be the one buying me beer for all the times she was such a douchebag. She has a new phone, something she couldn’t quite get the money together for when we were a couple, but now she has this shiny new toy and she says, “Can I get your number again? I’m sorry, I’m embarrassed, I know I should have it memorized by now but you know, I only remember my mother’s phone number.” I give her the number for Forest Grove Psychatric Hospital’s Suicide Prevention Call Center.
Many shifts go by and I only take a few calls, all pretty mild in comparasion to what I was trained for. Mike says, “They really train you for trauma here.” Ruby says, “I’m glad because I don’t want to have to deal with anything real.” They all nod their heads in agreement. Anything real? Isn’t someone calling a hotline about suicidal ideations real enough? I think about this through my entire shift, through the one call of a teenage girl whose boyfriend broke up with her before prom and her guidance counselor told her to call us. After the call I think, I can handle teenage girls and proms, but yes, what is it about that call that is less real than say someone who has already made the physical attempt, pills in throat, a slashed wrist, noose. The teenager on the phone said she thought about drinking Drain-O. Mixing it with Sprite. She said she blended a little cup of it to see what it smelled like last night and it smells like rotten eggs. “Drain-O will kill me, right?” she asked for reassurance in the plan. I said, “Yes, and it will literally burn your insides out.” She was quiet and said nothing for a while, while I kept the conversation cheery and repeated my rehearsed script.
Before my shift is done, I get a call from my ex-girlfriend. All calls are recorded, says the digital voice, for safety and security purposes. She says, “What the hell, is this some kind of sick joke, Nina? Why am I calling a suicide prevention line?” Before I can say a word, she unloads on me about respect and how this is why we broke up: I don’t respect her as a woman. “Why do you hate me, Nina?” she slurs. When she asks this, I realize she is drunk, probably on pills, probably at some stupid cliché bar with frosted glasses and frosted lighting and kidney shaped couches that are uncomfortable and some sort of Lite House Music. The thought of it all makes me want to scream into my headset. “Nina, are you there?” she asks. “Give me your real phone number,” she says, “stop playing games, I’ve had it with these games.” I hang up the line and shut down my computer for the evening.
Part of my volunteerism is to deal with donations. I thankfully do not have to call people and beg, but I do have to rotate out with everyone else in logging all information, sending out thank you cards. Ruby is training me; she is fiddling with the computer trying to open the spreadsheet and I can’t watch her because I want to say OH MY GOD JUST CLICK THE TAB, CLICK THE TAB. I look at the ceiling and at my shoes and anywhere but over her shoulder. She finally arranges all of the documents and spreadsheets on the screen and says, “Here, I will walk you through one. It is a donation for $25.00 dollars.”
“Oh,” she says, “we get this one every single month without fail, have for the three years I’ve been here, who knows how long we have gotten it for but boy am I glad we do, saved us a few times when there wasn’t enough money.”
One week later, a Thursday morning, after a staff meeting, my first call of the day is my ex-girlfriend. She says, “I have called this number and hung up so many times this week, you have no idea, Nina, what kind of stupid game are you playing? Why are you so stupid? Yet another reason why we broke up, Nina, all these stupid games, give me your real phone number instead of this stupid hotline, what are you even doing there anyway?” I drop the call.
I sat in my bathtub after my ex-girlfriend broke up with me, drunk in my favorite floral dress, and repeatedly smoothed out my skirt while rocking back and forth, my black tights getting wet behind my upper legs and my butt soaked through to my underwear. Smoothing out my skirt over and over is the last thing I remember. I woke up on the bathroom floor, in my own puke, not remembering if I took pills or not, not remembering how much I drank, so scared I tried to commit suicide, even though I wasn’t even thinking of suicide when I was in the bathtub. I was thinking about how I hated her, how she destroyed my life, how I was finally rid of her forever, good riddance, even though my heart hurt so much.
The ex-girlfriend doesn’t know about the bathtub because nothing actually happened in the bathtub. I was drunk and got my clothes wet because my roommate had stepped out of the shower moments before. The next day was simply alcohol-induced paranoia. Something dark was happening inside of me, however. Heartbreak, but something even darker. My therapist said, “Talking to other people with different kinds of suffering will be helpful to you to gain some perspective on your own.”
It is my turn to handle the donations, the spreadsheets and documents open and laid before me on the screen. $25.00, there it is. I am curious and want to know more about this reoccurring donation, especially how long it has been happening. I do not get much information. All I can see is a comment in the “comments” section and it says, “To Audrey, love mom.” I do not think too much about it right away. In a few mornings, I talk to Latisha and she says, “Yeah, that was Audrey’s allowance,” and nothing more.
In the staff meeting the next week, I tell everyone that my ex-girlfriend keeps calling and harassing me here because she does not have my personal phone number anymore so what do I do? Frank is now the boss and he says, “Dispatch it back to me, I’ll handle it.” One week goes by without a word and finally I think she has forgotten, moved on. I dispatch the call to Frank as soon as I hear “You are so stu…” I don’t even let her finish. I do not ever receive another call from her again. Such relief.
Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of two books, most recently The Arson People (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015). Other work can be found in or is forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Washington Square, The Feminist Wire, Booth, and elsewhere. She serves as co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM and creative nonfiction editor of Banango Street.