3:34 p.m., Dec. 26, 2006
“Life is pointless?…Too much?” L. Adair Langley asks the woman on the end of the line. The caller’s husband lost his job and then left her. She’s already tried cutting herself. Now she has a pile of Xanax and is considering swallowing it. Instead, she picks up the phone. “Is there a name I can call you by? Christina?” says Langley. “And you say you don’t think anyone would miss you, but you say you have lots of good friends.…Mm-hmm.…That’s good.…Not that you cut yourself but that it kept you from taking the pills.”
“Well, do you need to go to the hospital?” Her left hand grips the phone; her right takes notes. “Mm-hmm.…How many rabbits do you have?”
“You have a strong attachment to them. What would happen to them if something happened to you?”
Langley is inside a room in a bland brick office building in Arlington, taking calls from women, men, and teens who’ve called Crisislink over the Christmas holidays because they’re contemplating suicide or are generally in a bad place. There’s no music, since it would be inappropriate for volunteer call-takers to play, say, “Jingle Bells” or “Stairway to Heaven” when they’re trying to talk people off the ledge. There are plenty of books, though, with an active sign-out sheet: What to Do When the Police Leave. Trauma and Recovery. Violence Against Wives. The Bell Jar. I Know This Much Is True. The Grieving Child. When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
When Langley, who won a 2006 Volunteer of the Year award for her work with Crisislink, hangs up with Christina at 3:46 p.m., another volunteer who overheard the conversation wants to know: “Is she OK? Do you think she’ll call back?”
Langley holds one hand to her forehead, then types. “I think she will,” she says. “She had another call coming in.” In her report, Langley gives Christina an overall lethality assessment of 3, or medium. The caller didn’t talk about previous attempts, she had some friends, there was no evident history of substance abuse. But the rating skews higher than it might because Christina has the means—the Xanax—to go through with it. She’s had recent, serious stress and sharp, sudden changes to her life.
Langley checks off: “Hope of intervention not considered.”
She wants it, but she doesn’t want it, Langley tells her shift partner.
Of course, “If you’re planning to take the pills right away, we send help.”
If Christina doesn’t call back, no one knows if she lives or dies. And the phones keep ringing. Calls—nearly 30,000 annually—have nearly doubled in just four years. In Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, as in the rest of the nation, suicides outnumber homicides roughly 2 to 1. In Northern Virginia, probably due to a lower murder rate, it’s more than 3 to 1. Though D.C. has the country’s lowest suicide rate, it posts very high rates for depression, substance abuse, and family violence. There are plenty of crises to go around.
Since its 1969 start in a church basement as the Northern Virginia Hotline for teens, the nonprofit has grown to serve all of Washington and beyond: Calls can roll over to its phones from anywhere in the country. After the 9/11 attacks, Crisislink set up shop at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington and fielded 6,000 calls about potential victims in 48 hours. And in 2003, the hotline won the American Association of Suicidology’s first National Crisis Center Excellence Award.
Call-takers are mostly volunteers. Some 100 of them commute from as far as Frederick, Hyattsville, and Clifton. Though some have been coming for decades, there’s enough turnover to warrant four intense, monthlong training groups annually. Scratch nearly anyone—from the oldest volunteer to the new director of development—and right after “I wanted to help” and “Everyone needs to give back,” you’ll hear “and there’s a history of suicide in my family.” Or “my neighbor,” “my best friend,” “my father,” “my sister.”
Carolene Mayers, 27, is a paralegal who does paid eight-hour shifts at night and six hours on some holidays. Her brother took his life seven years ago. “Teenage angst,” she says. “In the African-American community, we don’t do a lot of mental health. So it took me a long time till I could come to a healthy way to process that, and this seemed like a good way.”
Mayers became a volunteer after reading an ad on Idealist.com. When she interviewed, Crisislink administrators said she’d probably be OK because so much time had passed since her brother’s death. Rough calls are still rough, she says—but, to her relief, not devastating.
“There’s a lull between 3 and 5 a.m., before the early risers,” she says, her bright sweater reflected in the black window. “Most of the time it’s just me and my thoughts. And my Red Bull. I brought a four-pack.”
All day long, volunteers overlap their shifts. The photocopier chatters, Crisislink school assemblies are planned, CareRing check-in calls are made to seniors and shut-ins. In the evening, doors swing open to staff bearing manuals, cookies, and plastic cups. And then comes night.
In the small hours, it’s dark and quiet, “so quiet that the ring of the phone is shattering,” says Arlene Krohmal, executive director of Crisislink from 1994 to 2003. “Suddenly there are only two people on the planet, just you and the caller.”
“There’s an intimacy level with the client that doesn’t exist in daylight. You can hear the person sucking on a cigarette.”
On the overnight Christmas shift, a single car frosts over in the parking lot.
Between calls, the clock ticks audibly; the minifridge emits a distinct hum. In the trash just outside the door is a small pile of crumpled napkins, spoons, coffee and tea wrappers. There’s a paper taped to a wall listing “Carols for Disorders”:
» Schizophrenia: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
» Multiple Personality Disorder: “We Three Kings Disoriented Are”
» Paranoia: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Get Me”
3:28 a.m., Dec. 25
The woman calling from North Carolina tells Mayers she has barely slept in three days. She lost a child last month and went back to work too soon; now, Christmas morning, she’s debating staying alive for her other children or taking them with her.
“Promise me,” Mayers asks her. “Promise me you’ll try to sleep.…Promise me you’ll keep yourself going for the children.…Promise me you’ll call back if you feel like you can’t get through.”
The woman wants someone to listen to her, to pray with her. Crisislink discourages that, but, Mayers explains later, “she started anyway, and I figured, OK, for a while.”
4:10 a.m. “You’re really struggling with this,” Mayers says to her. “Yes, you want to get the presents under the tree.…Do I need to worry about you tonight?…OK, do I need to be worried that you’ll hurt yourself or the kids?” Mayers seems relieved at the answer and keeps talking.
“Remember that plan we made? If you change your mind, you’ll call me back. Otherwise, you’ll wait for a call from us tomorrow?”
When she finally hangs up, she looks exhausted, maybe as exhausted as the caller. “I had a good rapport with her,” she says. “Everything I reflected, she said: You got that exactly right.”
5:58 a.m. Anita Gillis comes in, yawning. After chatting a bit and typing up her report, Mayers leaves to open presents with her sister, sleep, then have brunch with her boyfriend’s family. Her successor doesn’t have time to settle in before the phone starts ringing.
That’s fine by Gillis, who works in a Gaithersburg vaccine lab. “I seem to do pretty well when I’m busier.” In slow stretches she knits or reads for her classes in maternal and child health. She can watch clouds pass by the moon and the occasional lightning flash the sky.
It gets cold in the office at night, she says, and when you’re just sitting and you’re tired and it’s too late or too early, it gets colder. “You learn to dress in layers, so we look like little sweatshirted Eskimos.”
9:50 a.m., Dec. 25
Gillis looks up the notes from Mayers’ dark night of the soul in North Carolina. “Wow. Looks like an intense call,” she says. She sighs and taps her pen a couple of times. “Seventy-nine minutes. Oof.” She plans to phone, as instructed, around 11 to give the woman this morning with her kids.
11:07 a.m. “Ah, yes, is this Norma?…Earlier tonight you talked to someone here. We said we would give you a call back and see how you were doing.…Sounds like you got through the night OK. You’re there with your kids?…Norma, let me ask you, what are your plans for the rest of today?…Well, I’ll let you go get ready, because it’s already 11:10.…It sounds like things are really going good for you. I’m so glad.”
A new call comes in. “You seem really concerned for her safety and well-being,” Gillis says. “Mmm, you’re worried that she stole money from your parents.…What might happen if you asked her about the heroin?”
11:57 a.m. Snowflakes cling to Karen Sandoval’s coat. “I went to midnight Mass in Gaithersburg,” she tells Gillis. Sandoval, who works with the Montgomery County Abused Persons Program, is new this year. She’s here noon to 6 tonight, then back at midnight for another go. “We’re short-staffed,” she shrugs.
She picks up the phone and sets it down 10 seconds later. “That was odd. [The caller said], ‘I just wanted to say Merry Christmas and thank you for being there.’”
Gillis tells her she will get a lot of those today, “and a lot of our regulars haven’t called yet.”
“Merry Christmas” calls, those are easy. The week before, Sandoval had to send an ambulance out to one woman. “The first thing she said was, ‘I cut my wrists.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m sending for help!’”
“Yeah,” Gillis says, “that’s pretty much an indicator.”
Newcomers wonder how to handle not knowing a call’s aftermath. But, says Vicki Flynn, a trade analyst by day with the Department of Commerce, “I almost don’t want to know what happened. If I knew every time, it would make me a basket case.”
The worst call of Chanel Scott’s life came in from a man in his 30s or 40s who phoned from his car, which he parked with the motor running. His tone was flat and emotionless; he simply wanted to hear a comforting voice before he died. Could she be that voice for him?
Scott, a 27-year-old executive secretary at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute recently accepted to grad school, says he refused to give a location but did describe how he felt: helpless, hopeless, drained. “He was totally vacant, like he didn’t have any feeling left. Like he was empty,” Scott says, still shaken at the memory.
She and the man talked calmly for roughly a half-hour. “When we were done talking—when he was done—he thanked me for being that voice and hung up.” Click.
Scott was gasping. She and her shift partner frantically traced the call. He’d blocked the number. Finally Scott went home and sobbed in her mother’s arms—“I couldn’t help the way I wanted to. I couldn’t help him see there was another way. Maybe if we kept talking…”
After a rough call, shift partners debrief one another, and all are encouraged to use the on-call system. Margaret Mathis, director of hotline services and training and the mother figure of Crisislink, has been paged at the movies, in the shower, in bed. She talked to Scott several hours after the man in the car hung up.
“‘You were there for him. He needed that friendly voice, that concern, that listening, and you were there for what he needed,’” Scott remembers her saying.
“If I hadn’t talked to Margaret, I’d be in a mental hospital right now. I’d still be a total mess,” she says. “Everyone was very supportive, but Margaret’s the one who got me through it. I love her.”
8 a.m., Dec. 26
As the sun breaks through the trees outside Crisislink, most of Washington is sleeping off its holiday. Sandoval, 28—finishing her second long shift in less than 24 hours—is relieved by Jamie Carter, the first of today’s 10 or so call-takers. Weekdays are generally filled with students, retirees, and some staff; evenings and weekends have more day-jobbers.
Around 12:30, Mathis stops in with her two grandkids. “I was supposed to be off today,” she says cheerily, “but….” The girls play on a computer for an hour while Mathis returns calls and collects paperwork to make a deadline.
Not long after Mathis buckles the kids into her blue Volvo, Langley arrives, hanging up her coat on the hall rack. Her availability—retired on disability from the Postal Service and living only a half-mile away—makes her a sought-after swap when others can’t be there.
Four winters ago, when storm after storm crippled Washington, Langley walked to Crisislink for day, evening, and overnight shifts, at least once in knee-deep snow. The staff made her a certificate of appreciation with a drawing of a snowshoe.
This afternoon is slow. Carter, 25, leaning on the door frame, tells Langley and shift partner Maeke Ermarth about a few of the callers over the holiday—so many down and desperate, including the near-intervention Carolene Mayers had before dawn yesterday.
“Usually Christmas is not the time we get a lot of these calls,” says Langley, who’s been at this six years. “It’s more late spring.”
Calls peak around April; the theory is that once people survive their darkest times, once they’re able to function a bit again, they find the strength to make a suicide plan and carry it out.
The three share stories in a “can-you-top-this” manner. One time a woman began her call by asking about leaving her silver to her son, then mentioned that she’d tried to kill herself that morning by turning on the car in a closed garage….
Carter: “Ugh! Why do people keep trying that method?”
Langley: “She said she vomited.”
Ermarth: “No kidding.”
4:50 p.m. Ermarth takes the call. “So your wife wants to leave you? If you were thinking of doing something to harm yourself, would you call 911? Hello?…You would call us back? You wouldn’t?…You’re standing on a big building? Can you tell us where you are? ’Cause we’re very concerned about you.…”
Through the phone line, the whole room can hear: “Aaaaaaagh.”
Langley allows a half-smile. As Carter mouths the words behind her, Ermarth gives the standard response to prank calls: “It sounds like you’re wondering how we work around here—” With a snort, the caller hangs up.
The kids are out of school on holiday break. “Those are the fun ones,” says Langley.
“Do you take them seriously? Anytime someone threatens suicide, you take it seriously,” she says, “but when you hear the giggling in the background and you test them a little and the whole story falls apart, then you say, ‘If you have a real problem sometime, feel free to call us back anytime; we’re here to help.’”
It’s near the end of Langley’s stint, when she’ll sign off the computer and head home to her two dogs. Someone new will take calls from Washington’s hesitant, its curious, its lonely and angry and ill. Before she goes, she takes one last call.
4:56 p.m. “Crisislink hotline, how can I help you?”
All but one of last year’s nine overnight and holiday workers have moved on, among them Carolene Mayers, Anita Gillis, and Karen Sandoval. Another night worker has switched to a three-hour volunteer shift.
Chanel Scott, still working full-time, is studying for her master’s in counseling at Argosy University. She cried when she quit Crisislink after two years—“People leave, I think, not because they want to but because they have to”—and hopes to return when time allows.
Of the 18 who began training in fall 2006, 13 finished, and nine fulfilled their yearlong commitment. Crisislink has expanded its five-desk phone room to absorb Virginia’s incoming 211 information-and-referral service. New, paid staff will handle those nonemergency calls.
The Tuesday-afternoon team of L. Adair Langley, Dylan Aponte, and M.K. Yeargin won a 2007 Hotline Hero Award for saving a young woman who’d threatened to jump into highway traffic. In an hour or two of multiple calls punctuated by the roar of trucks, they established her location and stayed on the line until police arrived to take her to a hospital.