I am a volunteer telephone crisis supporter. Sometimes I counsel suicidal callers through their darkest moments, and sometimes I laugh with lonely callers about the antics of their dogs.
There is a certain shape to the intimacy of talking to sad strangers on the phone. It is both gruelling and transporting. Other people sometimes regard this job as theologian Henri Nouwen describes it: “Anyone who willingly enters into the pain of a stranger is truly a remarkable person.” But I think Clive James is perhaps closer to the truth: “Like most people who organise their lives badly, I just love giving advice.”
I began volunteering at Lifeline in 2019, the year that half of Australia caught fire. This disaster was followed shortly after by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we all wrestled with the strange new shape of things, the volume of calls reflected our collective trauma.
During lockdown, only essential-service offices were open. Lifeline fell into this category. At work, we crept around the corners of our small tearoom while keeping the requisite space between us like a game of “don’t touch”.
I liked to prank my boss, D. “Watch this,” I’d say to a colleague, before taking a step towards D so that she propelled herself, panicking, backwards across the carpet in her rolling chair to keep that sacred 1.5-metre distance. We would all grin at each other, eyes crinkling above our blue masks. The biggest upset in normal programming, though, was that Tim Tams were unavailable until we managed to get them wrapped individually in plastic. The tearoom at Lifeline is a critical part of our system; the Tim Tams themselves like little talismans of self-care.
It is a skilled job. Lifeline training is extensive and supported by professional development and ongoing supervision. Over time, a crisis supporter builds a back catalogue of experience that allows them to pick up the phone and manage, with calm and understanding, whatever surprise is on the other end. It’s like opening the door to a party and being prepared for any crowd. Giant squid? Amorous mathematicians? BookTok influencers? Give us a micro-second to gather the outfit, and we’re there!
The work requires us to develop emotional resilience, and a kind of psychological “selective permeability” that allows us to stay open to joy and gratitude without taking on anger or negativity. We talk a lot at work about “reflective practice” and the notion of thinking about one’s own biases, triggers and sore spots.
Its hard work, and important work, and sometimes there is a price to pay. Listening to other people’s trauma can dysregulate your nervous system, and we take care to recognise and attend to that. On a hard day, we might experience compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, empathy hangovers and adrenaline comedowns. Sometimes, two Tim Tams are required.