Yvonne-Then is seated, in profile to the audience. In front of her is a desk, and upon that a landline phone and a notepad.
Yvonne-Now stands to the side of the desk, her body facing the audience but her head bowed.
Phone on desk rings. Simultaneously, a small indicator light flashes on and off, giving a visual cue for the incoming call.
Yvonne-Then, behind the desk, exhales, sits up straight, deliberately picks up the phone, and says in a steady tone that tries at once to convey calm and attentiveness:
Yvonne-Then: This is Yvonne. Tell me what’s going on – I’m here to help.
Yvonne-Then freezes. Yvonne-Now raises her head. She is just a year older than Yvonne-Then, but her expression is knowing, worn.
Yvonne-Now: That’s me, back in my second day at the crisis line. I did one day a week, for ten months. You probably couldn’t hear it in my voice, but every time the phone rang I… fought through ice. (Shakes her head, smiling ruefully. She gently mimics,) “This is Yvonne. Tell me what’s going on – I’m here to help.”. Hah, I must’ve rehearsed that line two hundred times before I even took my first call, cramming every syllable with as much… reassurance I guess – as much reassurance as it would take. Because some callers will decide to trust you in those first moments. (Pause) But yeah, most of the time it takes much longer. Sometimes it never happens.
Yvonne-Then: (Still on the phone) That’s really rough. But… try to take deep breaths, okay?
Yvonne-Then freezes again with the phone to her ear. After this paragraph of directions, while Yvonne-Now is speaking, Yvonne-Then will replace the handset, and wait for a few seconds gazing at it before it “rings” again (the light flashes but the sound is on mute, so as not to interfere with Yvonne-Now’s lines). Yvonne-Then picks it up. This sequence will be repeated throughout to simulate a constant (but irregular) stream of calls.
Yvonne-Now: Sitting there, each new call was a new world, with different rules. And of course not one had a rulebook.
You just had to navigate each new personality, each situation afresh, trying to be sensitive, trying to listen to this person miles away.
It could be a woman who feels harrassed at her work, who’s put up with it so long that by now it’s mostly fine; but sometimes it isn’t: sometimes it’s too much.
Another time it’s a fifteen year old girl who can’t bear to go to school because she thinks she’s ugly; so she bunks, and she gets in trouble, and her dad is furious, and she wants to die. And then the next call is an old man who is dying, slowly, getting sicker and sicker, and his voice shakes, and he’s tearing inside for the burden he’s putting on his family, on his children. (She spoke to this man several times. His was a world whose rulebook she began to understand.)
You can’t help thinking, “How many worlds can one city support?”. And yet, after ten minutes, or thirty, or an hour, the conversation is over; and there I am sitting in that chair with my hand on the receiver (gestures to Yvonne-Then, who looks shaken but is composing herself; and then the phone rings again and she snatches it up)… Sometimes after a good call, where I thought I’d done well and helped a person: I’d feel so full and proud!
Yvonne-Then is visibly smiling.
Like with the old man I just mentioned, we talked for ages and he told me about his wife who died, but also about the sixties, and the restaurants he worked at, and his first car. He’d remember some funny anecdote about renting a colour TV specifically to watch the Apollo-11 Moon landing, and we’d laugh together. And he’d tell me about his apprenticeships in kitchens and his wedding, and I’d hear him grinning over the phone! Of course, I didn’t solve any of his problems; but I think that while we were talking, he remembered being happy; he got to re-live the meaningful moments of his life – and convince me that they were meaningful. His voice sounded so much stronger by the end of the call!
Yeah, I could hear him smiling (she grins and shakes her head).
I know it’s a small thing, but still, after a conversation like that I’d want to leap up and stretch myself around that cramped little office, like, so pleased to be me.
Yvonne-Then: … (low and urgent) Is he in the house with you now?
Yvonne-Now: (Continuing, deflated) You have to hold on to those joyous moments.
Yvonne-Then: (Same caller) Have you spoken to the police? … Stay on the phone, I’m here. What’s your address, let me call them.
Yvonne-Now: I’d drink cup after cup of tea; there was something symbolic about pissing it all away when I got home, relieving myself of that weight. And then a week of classes and assignments: of marine ecology, intro biochemistry, cellular biology. A week of coffee with friends. I’d go to see whatever was playing off-peak at the local cinema. It was an event, something I did. And when it was over and the patchwork audience dispersed, I’d walk home in the night breeze.
(An obviously poeticised reality. She’s trying to conjure the rest of her life into meaningful focus. She’s still so young.)
Yvonne-Then picks up the phone loudly; Yvonne-Now looks over to her and her smile tightens.
Yvonne-Now: And then it’s Thursday once more. After a while it wasn’t so scary. I mean, it was still daunting, exhausting; but I knew I’d manage.
Yvonne-Then: How long have you been feeling this w-? … Was there a particular event? … (Keeping her cool, but she’s struggling for what to say.) Could you tell me more about it?
Yvonne-Now hands a prompt card to an audience member, an action that will be repeated throughout, ideally with a different audience member each time. The card bears the following question with the instructions “Ask out loud. Wait until I look at you.”.
Audience Member: Has trying to convince people that there is kindness in the world, or helping them to remain calm in a crisis: has this made you more calm and positive?
Yvonne-Now gives an inscrutable smile.
Yvonne-Then: (On the phone) It’s okay, take your time.
Yvonne-Now: Of course. My perspective has changed a lot, I’m more aware of other people, more understanding of other contexts; and my experience has definitely given me confidence in dealing with things. (Her words are vague, lame: she kind of knows what she means, but can’t properly translate. She gropes for substance.)
So many of the calls I took were from people who were struggling with themselves; often in ways that they didn’t understand. I mean who does? But now I’m, yeah, I’m more aware of that, of why it happens and the ways it can become – I mean, you yourself can become the real oppressor. And this definitely helps me to analyse my own behaviour and give myself space to prevent myself from panicking. Small things, you know, like not being so hard on myself about schoolwork. Or not getting upset when people are rude or selfish. I mean, that goes for both strangers and friends.
Yvonne-Then: (Talking to a child) I’m really sorry to hear that. Have you told your parents or your teacher about this? … Uh-huh … No that’s okay, I was just curious. I’m really pleased you called me, let’s try to figure something out.
Yvonne-Now: You know it’s funny, talking on the phone. In a way, I think it brings you closer to people. Some of those prejudices and assumptions you get from the way a person looks, no longer apply. All you have is their words. I mean, you don’t know them, and you can’t see them, so you can’t read their body language or facial expressions; and yet you’re frequently talking about complicated stuff. And it means you really have to listen, you know?
Okay, sometimes things about them are obvious from their voice, like if they’re a child (gestures towards Yvonne-Then) or old; or if they have an accent. (She slightly swallows the last word: she realises how naive she sounds, she realises how much prejudice can be elicited by a voice – maybe the caller has that stereotyped camp-gay-man intonation, or a working-class accent. All of a sudden she’s ashamed because she doesn’t know how influenced she was by this. Pressing on.). But somehow the baggage that comes with all that stuff isn’t so important because you know they’ve called you at the crisis line, and that’s kind of an equaliser. (She wills this to be true.)
Yvonne-Then: Will you call back again tomorrow? Do you think you can do that?
Audience Member: I was struck by something you hinted at earlier, about being aware of your own thoughts and moods. By talking to troubled people, did you start to see a darker side of life? Did it change the way you saw yourself or contextualised your experiences?
Yvonne-Now: Mm-no. Well… Hearing how things can go wrong, or about upsetting events and experiences, it really made me grateful for my own life (glances at Yvonne-Then). Of course I was already grateful, but vaguely, like I didn’t really know why or what for. Working here really brought it home to me, how stable and safe I was. A first-year university student; I always knew it was’t like that for everybody, but now I understood how.
It started to irritate me when friends didn’t acknowledge that. I’d go out with them, and they would just want to have a laugh, or they’d be preoccupied with things like what they want to eat or what to text that guy. They’d construct these whole worlds of fake significance – because they were bored? I dunno. I’d think “Where are they all hiding, the damaged people?”; I’d think, “If only we noticed them more, we wouldn’t be obsessed by this inconsequential crap.”. Obviously this isn’t a new observation, but to feel this as an anger in my belly rather than some intellectual indignation… it was different. Yeah I was angry with my friends; I’d snap at them, or I’d be disapproving, or think I was better. It was stupid, I didn’t want to be like that. And they definitely noticed.
I’d get frustrated with myself too: I’d-I’d get to the end of the day and I’d realise that everything that I’d filled it with was superficial. Yes, I’d think about stuff like what to wear today; but actually it was worst with the “wothwhile” things I did, like reading about global affairs and the refugee crisis, or working hard for my classes; things like that. There’d be a moment and I’d realise how ridiculous I was to take myself seriously. (A bitterness.)
Yvonne-Then: That’s okay, I think a lot of people feel that way at some point or another. … Don’t worry, of course I’m not going to tell anyone.
Yvonne-Now: Oh yeah, calls are confidential, I should have mentioned that before but it’s probably obvious. So you end up hoarding these stories – well, not the stories themselves… It’s just, you feel bloated with an emotional cauldron. (Gestures apologetically at the failed metaphor. Tries again.) You know those dancing wind socks they sometimes have outside garages? The ones where there’s a big long tube of fabric with an air pump at the base, and the tube flaps about wildly (she motions with her arms)?
Hmm. Okay, it’s not like that; but it’s like, say you tie off the open ends and it’s just a balloon whose limbs move about only because of the pressure inside.
(This is not her territory, she’s too literal. And she’s rambling: she looks back at the Audience Member who asked the question about darkening of the spirit) But yeah, you do start seeing how everything can go wrong to some extent. It… could be hard to invest in life once you start thinking like that.
Yvonne-Then: Do you think someone might get hurt?
Yvonne-Now gives a grim smile and presses on to something lighter.
Yvonne-Now: When I was out in town I’d occasionally recognise a voice in the crowd, or on the bus, and I’d force myself not to look. Whether it was actually someone who I’d spoken to… I mean it would be so unlikely…
Pause. The haunting dissipates. Yvonne-Now looks at Yvonne-Then, who has put down the phone is looking absently at the pad upon which she’s doodling. Silence for a five or six seconds.
Yvonne-Now: I should say that a lot of the time there was no call to take. (Beat) That was a strange feeling. (Pause; the audience contemplates.)
Phone on desk rings (flashes).
(Yvonne-Then performs the sitting-up ritual that we’ve seen many times by now, and answers silently.)
Audience Member: Did you discuss your feelings with your co-workers? If you were having a hard time?
Yvonne-Now: At the end of the shift? Well, yes; and no, not really. I know it seems daft, haha, they’d be the perfect people, right? There were a lot of lovely people there, caring and thoughtful. (She stretches the truth about her co-workers: some were most dislikable. Volunteering does not automatically make you a good person. But she’s getting worn from introspection, and this inconsequential fib simplifies everything. Still, she has to continue her story; she rallies; perhaps she overcompensates.) But it wasn’t the time; we were all exhausted. Even after a quiet night, I was exhausted, and I don’t think I could have brought it up; and I don’t think really they could have helped. It was still too raw and immediate. And how do you start a conversation for which no words exist?
That’s something I should have learned from the callers.
Yvonne-Then: Are you feeling any better about it now, or the same?
Yvonne-Now: What we would do though, well we had to do it, it was protocol, is, when the shift was over we’d go, all of us together, to the little sitting area for a cup of tea. It’s… (glances at Yvonne-Then, and continues at a slightly lower pitch and volume) it sounds terrible, but we’d all start cracking up (giggle). Someone would mention one of the crazy things that a caller had said, and we’d laugh and we’d laugh til our faces hurt. (Beat. Looks at the Audience Member who asked the question) Please don’t tell anyone about that.
Yvonne-Then: No, this is all absolutely confidential.
A beat for the ironic pinch.
Audience Member: Do you think your time working there has brought you closer to other humans, or has it trained you to distance yourself from them?
Pause. Yvonne-Now contemplates; this is the question she’s been unconsciously dreading, and she struggles with how to answer delicately. She glances over to Yvonne-Then, who is absorbed in a telephone call, then looks down at her shoes. She inhales; but Yvonne-Then interrupts:
Yvonne-Then: Hah, I love MasterChef too! Nono don’t say who wins, I still need to watch the last one!
The spell is broken. Yvonne-Now smiles and looks over to Yvonne-Then.
Yvonne-Now: We’d get regular calls from lonely people – people who were bursting and just wanted to talk. People who felt they were going quietly crazy without human contact. One woman, who I spoke with often, probably every other week, she couldn’t leave her home so she only ever saw the men who delivered the shopping. Towards the end of my time at the line, she described it to me: (Yvonne-Now recites) “It’s like your grip on what’s real gets loose. You get more and more cooped up inside your head, until the day, even something that happened a few minutes ago, becomes hazy and suspect. It’s like you don’t believe it actually happened, not really. When you’re with other people it’s fine; but when they’re gone for a while you realise how much you need to share experiences or even just space with them. They’re your touchstone.”. After she said that, I really started to notice how right she was. Before, I was happy to be on my own… but like she said, company gives the world definition. It stops you getting consumed by your own structureless thoughts. (She’s wandering again, reins herself in.) Anyway, I could always help with these calls, which was great.
(She looks at the Audience Member who asked the question. Subdued:) But I know what you’re getting at. You’re asking, do I feel more warm towards other people because I understand them better now; or am I terrified of their pain?
Audience Member: Were you prepared?
Yvonne-Now: (Exhales.) What a question. Well… okay. So, one thing that I struggled with for a while was, how to ask sympathetic questions when I had no idea. For instance, someone calls because they’re stressed about their financial situation: they have bills and mortgage payments and they didn’t get a raise… I have no idea about mortgages! And my questions and reassurances, they just reek of naivety, and that can sound really insincere even if they’re not. These people didn’t call to explain loan markets to some undergraduate; they came for help. I felt useless.
They tell us, I mean the bosses tell us that it isn’t our job to give advice: there are trained specialists for that, you know. We are there to listen on a human level, to show people they aren’t alone, so they can feel some kindness and sympathy, or just so they can vent. I know all that and I get it. What I could offer was really important. It just, took me a while to be okay with it. (Sigh. She is not okay with it.)
Yvonne-Then: Please slow down… What? No… I-… Is there anyone else around that I can talk to? … Just breathe.
Yvonne-Now looks away from Yvonne-Then and the audience.
Audience Member: Which were the hardest calls to take?
Yvonne-Now: (Wearing out. A deadness creeps in.) Hm. Each call… was enormous. (She breathes deeply once, makes an effort to stay focussed.) And each one was different: of course it’s nonsense to categorise the calls or choose one. But there’s a certain kind of logic that people in these situations, I don’t want to generalise, but say people who are having suicidal thoughts. At first – well this can happen with any call – sometimes it takes a while to understand what’s going on; I’d dig and dig as gently as I could and maybe I’d find a lead and maybe I wouldn’t. So often people in this situation, even those who call up, are hiding. They’d even seem cheerful, and I’m like “Why are they calling? Why aren’t they telling me what’s wrong?”.
And when they did talk about the self-destructive thoughts they’d been having, they could be so rational about it. Once a conversation is framed in this… nihilist logic, it’s hard to get out. “There’s nothing anyone can do”; “I’m better off dead for this and this reason”; “What is there to live for if I’m feeling like this?”; or, “I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything.”; and on and on. Of course I want to yell “fuck that, that’s bullshit!”.
But they’re right. They aren’t stupid, they’ve thought about it. They have reasons and from their perspective it’s all so clear, and they’ve anticipated most of what I might say and to them it sounds so feeble. And that’s dangerous because it gives them confidence in their convictions. Everything I say ends up being counterproductive. You have to tread a fine line between talking and saying nothing. And you can’t give advice that you don’t believe because that is so obvious, and you can lose all the trust you’ve tried to build. But sometimes you fuck up, they’ve put you in a corner and you lie: you lie because you have to, because you cling on to hope and “the right thing to do” in spite of all the evidence. “They have to give themselves another chance”, I’d tell myself, even though they were way more convincing than that. I kept thinking, who am I to value the life of a stranger? To tell them to keep on with the torture? I can just go home afterwards.
Yvonne-Then: (Gently, low) Please don’t think like that.
Yvonne-Then: Once the conversation was over, things would get clearer again. But it was those ones, with the steely rationality who dragged me into their way of thinking. They were the hardest.
Audience Member: Last question. What would you say to Yvonne sitting there?
Yvonne-Now looks over with a tight cheerless smile-grimace; takes out her own mobile phone and dials.
Phone on desk rings – making a sound this time.
Yvonne-Then exhales, sits up, and picks up the phone. She opens her mouth to speak but no words come out.
Yvonne-Now: You are Yvonne. You are doing a good job. You are allowed to ask for help.
Disclaimer. I have never worked at a crisis hotline, I don’t claim to know what it’s like; and I don’t think I have it in me to find out. I am deeply grateful to those who do.
Please consider finding out about your local or national support line: the potential benefits to yourself and your loved ones go without saying. Many are run by charitable organisations in need of financial support, so donate something if you can.