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“HELLO, my name is Denise. How can I help you?” As the words rolled from her mouth, they sounded canned, spoken too fast, spewed out without thinking. She cringed. It was a hazard of the job. Fifteen years on the crisis phone line had taken their toll. She’d pretty much heard everything, and frequently struggled to keep a fresh perspective. It was call after call, but that was the job she’d signed up for.
Mostly the calls weren’t critical. They ran the gamut of, how do I know if my boyfriend is cheating on me, to OMG, I’m having a third date with this guy. If I have sex with him, will he think I’m too easy?” It reminded her, that one person’s crisis, was akin to another caller’s idea of a really good day. The true crisis calls were few and far between.
Her last caller was a repeater, phoned every day, a lonely lady in her 70s, and mostly she just wanted to talk. Denise had responded with consoling comments, and clichés thrown in, almost like an afterthought. Somewhere along the line, she needed to make them sound more genuine; she planned to check with one of her colleagues in terms of how they managed it. Her performance appraisal was due next month and she could use it as a self-reflective tool. It would sound good to her boss.
A grating noise on the line jarred her back to reality. It sounded like metal, ratcheting on metal. It was irritating, like fingernails on a chalkboard. What the hell was that all about? She adjusted the volume on her headset, checked to make sure her mute button was off, and tried again. “Hello, hello, are you there? My name is Denise, and I’m here to help you.” She even slowed her voice down and managed to inject a tone of empathy this time, pleased with herself for having done so.
At first the silence was welcoming. There was only five minutes left in her shift, and she was already planning the rest of her evening with her husband and kids and made a mental note to pick up milk on the way home.
An explosion blasted through her headset. The sound was deafening, terrifying, like that of a gunshot. Pain pierced her eardrums. Denise had never heard a pistol being fired before, but she’d watched enough movies to know what they sounded like. This one echoed. Its’ reverberations jolted her and continued to ring in her head.
“Hello, hello, are you there?” She struggled to keep her voice calm. Crap, why me? In a heartbeat, she knew this call would be a life changer. Adrenalin flooded through her. Every skill she’d ever learned would be pulled into action. This caller needed her, needed her badly.
“Five minutes, you have five minutes. The next shot is going into my head.”
The voice was male, sounded middle aged, low pitched, a tad slurred. She pictured him, with a gun aimed at his head, feeling there was no way out, but to kill himself. Slurry voice, maybe some alcohol or drugs involved. It was his desperation that reached through the phone line, grabbed at her gut. She could work with this. After all, he had called, hadn’t he? It meant he hadn’t made up his mind.
“I’m glad you called, and I’m here to listen. My name is Denise. What’s yours?” As the words came out of her mouth, she realized for the first time in a long time, she really meant them.
“Does it matter? I’m not even sure why I fucking called in the first place. It’s not like it’s going to make any difference.”
Denise felt the angst in his voice. This was her opportunity to make a connection. She kept her voice calm. “It matters to me, and you matter to me too. I’d just like to know what to call you.” She closed her eyes and waited. This was the time to shut up and listen.
It seemed an hour had passed, but when she checked the call time on her computer screen, it had only been 30 seconds, then thankfully a response.
“It’s Michael, most people call me Mike.”
She hit the mute button to silence her breath of relief. All it took was a quick click of the keypad, and she was on again.
“Is it okay if I call you Mike?”
“Right now, you can call me whatever the fuck you want. I wanted that first bullet to go through my head, but I didn’t want to be alone when I did it. Shit, if I was a brave guy, I’d just go through with it. Why can’t I?”
Denise heard his voice, shouting, screaming into the phone. In her head she was thinking, he’s still ambivalent. I need to find out where he is, get help to him. As she searched for the phone number on the bottom toolbar of her computer, it came up as unlisted. The call couldn’t be traced.
“Let me try to help. Give me a chance. Are you okay with that?” Good line, she thought. Give him some control, some options. After all, if he pulled the trigger, it wouldn’t be her fault, would it?
“Ya right, as if you can do anything to help me.”
“Mike, you gave me five minutes.” Denise purposefully kept her voice low. Make him listen. It all came down to skills and communication. It all came down to her.
“Mike, can you tell me where you’re calling from? Maybe give me your phone number?”
“Not on your life, the clock is ticking.”
It was time, to call a spade a spade, time to get it into the open, say the word out loud. Denise knew from experience, that saying the word let the caller know she understood, acknowledged his distress.
“Okay Mike, I know you’re suicidal.”
“Damn right. I’ve screwed up so bad this time.”
“It sounds like you think there is no way out right now.”
At least he wasn’t shouting anymore, and Denise welcomed the waver in his voice. It sounded like he may have been this way before. It was time to press on.
“Is anyone there with you?” She needed to know, if there were other persons at risk. Again she reminded herself to keep her voice calm. Her questions would be direct, but her responses needed to be nonjudgmental.
“No, I’m by myself. I can’t hurt anybody else again. I don’t want to hurt them again.”
His voice had shifted, now sounded weary, tired, as if his mind was made up. But again, Denise picked up on the ambivalence.
“You don’t want to hurt who?”
“My wife, my kids, I’ve totally screwed up. It was the gambling, out of control, and now I have nothing.”
Denise seized the opportunity. “You gave me five minutes, and now I need five minutes from you. Help me understand what happened. What has led you to this place?”
“It’s not easy. I don’t know if I can do it.”
“I’m trying to understand. But before we go any further, I need to make sure the gun is on the floor, away from you.”
The sound of a metal object hit the floor.
“Good, now kick it away from you.” There was a pause, then a skittering noise of metal across a hard surface. This was good. It meant he was listening.
“Thanks Mike, for doing that. It’s important for me to know you’re safe for now. Talk to me.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
Denise heard the tremor in his voice. “Let me help. It kinda sounds like you’ve been down this path before, and it sounds like you have family that supported you in the past. Tell me about them.”
“I’ve been good, tried hard. Five years clean,” he said, sobbing. “But, today, it all came down to a couple of drinks, a chance to win some money on a long shot, and a chance to take my wife and kids on vacation. I owe them so much. Now I’ve lost everything. Damn, damn, damn, now I can’t even pull the trigger.”
Denise adjusted her mindset. She’d made the connection. The drinks explained his slurry voice. Now it was time to tease out the positive from the negative statements he’d given her. This was the hardest part, but the one that would count most.
“Did your family help you before? Did they understand?”
“Oh, God yes! The kids were too young to know. But it’s my wife. I can’t put her through this again. I can’t believe it’s happening again. I’ve let her down.”
“But you did it. She helped you before.”
She heard the scraping of chair legs on a tiled floor. Denise searched through her head, frantic, pictured him picking up the gun. What could she say to stop him? There was no clichéd response in the world that would solve this. She reached deep inside and the words tumbled forth.
“Mike, can you find hope, anywhere in your heart, can you find a reason to live? Not just for your family, but for you?”
“Lady, you have no idea. The gun is close, and right now it’s back in my hand, pointed at my head.”
“Mike you’ve helped me.” Denise injected a quiver into her voice. “I feel like you’ve made me a better listener. It sounds like you have people who love you. Those people need you. Please, please let me get help for you.”
Bang, the sound of a gun.
Bang, another shot.
Bang, a shot ricocheting.
Denise heard the volley of gunfire. At least if he was still firing, he hadn’t put the gun to his head. How many bullets does a gun hold? Did it matter? All it took was one.
More silence. She hesitated before speaking. She could hear his breathing through her headset. It sounded ragged, raspy and fast, then the sound of metal clanging on the floor. “I know you’re there. I pray you’re there. Talk to me.”
“I don’t have any bullets left.”
“You kept yourself safe. I can’t begin to understand how hard that must have been for you, but thank you. Thank you for doing that.”
Denise welcomed his next words.
“Help, I need help. I know I need help,” he cried.
“Mike, stay on the line with me. I can transfer you directly through to 911. I’d like to give them a bit of background about your situation. You okay with that?”
“Yes, yes, just do it.”
“Mike, you’ll be on hold for just a minute. And thank you, thank you for helping me.”
Denise hit the conference button and pressed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The dispatcher’s voice was calm, controlled.
“My name is Denise. I’m transferring a male caller from the crisis line. He’s suicidal and has a gun. I’ve been on the line with him for the last 15 minutes, heard some shots. He assures me he wants help, gun is on the floor, and he says he has no more bullets, agreeable to the call transfer. No other persons with him. I’ll stay on the line until I’m sure you have the demos.”
She pressed the connect button. “Mike I have emergency services on the line. They’ll help you from here.”
It was a smooth hand off to the dispatcher. Denise waited on the line until the phone number and address were received, then she tore her headset off and tossed it on the desk.
It was the aftermath that caught her. Shaking hands as she packed her stuff into the tote bag she carried to work, and gun shots echoing in her head. This call would be replayed in her head for a long time to come. She needed to compose herself for the 30 minute drive, but at least she was going home.
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