“Compassionate Voices” by Hub Meeker

Posted on Jul 15, 2010

This is writing by Hub Meeker, a retired journalist and crisis line counsellor.  Hub volunteered for over 20 years at the NEED crisis and information line, now defunct due to budget cuts within the Vancouver Island Health Authority.  By posting this, I hope this provides the wide world a perspective of what it is like to volunteer on a crisis line.

It’s 3 a.m.  The phones are quiet.  My body aches for a bit of sleep, just five minutes… then the phone rings and I am instantly awake.

“Hello.  You have reached NEED.  How can I help you?”

Her voice is such a tiny whisper, I can barely make out the words: “I can’t go on like this.  I want to die…”

For the next hour I listen to the miseries of someone I will never meet.  And yet I am sharing this caller’s deepest burdens, her innermost feelings.

This woman has a loving husband, teenage children, a good job, a fine house and many community responsibilities.  Everyone sees her as the Rock of Gilbraltar.  And that’s the problem: no one must ever know how empty and disheartened she feels.

No one but me.  And so I listen to her story, and give her the understanding she so desperately needs.  If only she would speak loudly…

“I can’t,” she says.  “My husband…”  She is whispering into her bedside telephone, just inches away from him.  She doesn’t dare move, for fear of disturbing his much needed rest!

I have never forgotten this call from so many years ago.  It typifies what crisis line counsellors do.  Anonymously we go into the most secret places of our community.  We listen to the darkest moments in people’s lives.  We help our callers find reasons to go on living.  We connect them to other community resources.  Sometimes we have to send an ambulance.

For 39 years, day and night, the NEED Crisis and Information Line was a lifeline to Greater Victoria and the Gulf Islands.  NEED trained more than 3000 volunteers in the skills of compassionate listening.  These volunteers took more than half a million phone calls.  But perhaps just as important, they took the spirit of NEED into their hearts and into the world at large.  Former volunteers often call or write to tell us how their experience at NEED improved the quality of their relationships, changing their lives.

How does one describe the healing essence of those heart-to-heart connections that happen on the phones?  Always, those two voices, entwined in intimate conversation…

The spoken word goes back some 50,000 years, long enough that language basics are encoded in our genes.  Every child in the womb, as it listens to the music of its mother’s voice, starts the long journey to this unique human skill, the ability to reveal our innermost lives to one another.  Our words not only point to things around us our voices also carry the many colors of our fears and hopes, regrets and worries, our caring and courage.  Crisis line counsellors are trained to hear it all, and by the fullness of our listening, we encourage our troubled callers to tell it all.  There is no greater privilege than this kind of sharing, soul to soul, enriching both.

I will never forget the caller who survived a childhood of a dozen major surgeries, only to end up in a wheelchair for life; and yet this brave man finds ways to make himself useful to others, every day.

Or the elderly widow whose family and friends have died or drifted away, leaving her alone with her memories of growing up in a Nazi death camp.  “There is so much ugliness in the world,” she moaned, followed by a long sigh.  And then, after a pause: “But you know what?  I grow violets now.  My window is full of them.  These are my children… so beautiful!”

Crisis lines blossomed in the mid-20th century, when the telephone was essential to the connective tissue of society.  The telephone screens out all distractions and allows us to concentrate on the wealth of the human voice alone.  If we listen carefully, the voice carries so much of who we are.  I spent a lot of years in dim therapy rooms, both as a patient and as a therapist, where it became important for two people to put aside their faces and their immediate personal relationship, and let voices alone carry them into the soul’s most intimate places.

It’s been the same at the NEED Crisis Line, except that here, we reach many, many individuals who never make it to a therapist’s office.  Loners battling addictions.  The elderly struggling with the strangeness of a nursing home.  The severely handicapped who lead unimaginably restricted lives.  The mentally ill entangled in profound fears and distorted perceptions.  Highly successful people worried about failure.  Young people coping with drugs, grades, and social insecurity.  Prisoners doing heavy time, wrestling with their consciences.  Street people ground down by poverty.  A depressed housewife trying to get her day started.

Not every call goes well.  We often leave a caller in the midst of their troubles, and never know the outcome.  But in my 21 years as a crisis line counsellor, I have seen the effectiveness of this kind of personal engagement countless times.  It is not magic.  It is basic human nature, the healing power of deep social connection.  In a 30-minute phone call we cannot cure people or change them.  But for that moment we can raise the emotional quality of their lives, reminding them of their own strengths and their ability to endure.