I’ve made some crappy decisions in my life, and I’ve made some great ones.
My decision to join Lifeline as a volunteer telephone counselor was one of the best decisions of my life.
This purpose of this post is to give you a snapshot of my eight years as a Lifeline counselor, as the experience not only profoundly shaped my understanding of human nature, but who I am today.
I’ll start by telling you about a few memorable calls.
One was with a university student who expressed deep concern about a friend. Callers often don’t present with the real problem, and this caller was no exception. As the call progressed I realized that this intelligent, compassionate young man was telling me all about his friend’s troubles, and nothing about his own.
When I pointed this out, he did tell me about his troubles.
He told me, in a very matter of fact way, about the physical and emotional abuse he was experiencing with his family, at home.
His matter of fact recounting of horrific abuse chilled my blood. I told him I was so sorry he was going through that.
He verbally shrugged. Indifferent to his own suffering. “I’m used to it” he said.
I never ever want to hear people say they are used to being abused.
At the end of the call, he told me he’d planned to kill himself that night, but – after talking to me – he’d decided not to.
I still think about that young man and hope he’s doing OK.
The second caller I’ll tell you about was an older man, a sometime regular caller to Lifeline.
He was in a bad way. Deeply neurotic and suspicious, he was very challenging to talk to. He frequently snapped “What do you mean by that?!” in response to questions.
However we managed to establish a fragile rapport, and he was able to acknowledge that he was desperately lonely.
I told him that the where many other callers to Lifeline who were also desperately lonely.
He was shocked.
I’ll never forget the pure relief in his voice at the simple realization that he was not alone in his loneliness.
Another memorable caller was a woman.
Initially I thought she was having an acute mental health episode. She was hysterical – crying, and all but screaming at me down the phone.
Although I struggled to understand her words, I clearly understood she was suffering terrible emotional pain.
I reflected that I could hear her pain, and the rapid transformation astounded me. Within 20 minutes she was still distressed, but had dramatically transformed into a calm, sane, well-educated, & intelligent woman.
I felt quite disturbed at the power of simple, intangible, words to make such a difference, so quickly, to another person’s state of mind.
For me these calls illustrate a critical therapeutic aspect of Lifeline.
98% of the time, as a phone counselor, there is nothing practical you can do to help a caller.
But I was awed, again and again, at the powerful therapeutic effect of giving someone your undivided attention and truly HEARING them.
I believe that in this moment of connection with an empathic fellow human being – the Lifeline caller feels validated as a person worthy of love and belonging.
I believe this connection helps them dispel the illusion that they are alone in this world.
And I know, from times that I have heard back from particular callers that feeling of belonging and worthiness can persist after the phone goes down.
So I think that helping people realise that they are unconditionally worthy of love and belonging, and helping them to realise that they are not alone, is the single most profoundly practical thing that a Lifeline counsellor can hope to do for a caller.
And it is probably one of the most profoundly practical things that any of us can hope to do for a fellow human.
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Comment below: What do you think? How have other people profoundly helped you? How have you profoundly helped others? Often it’s the apparently small things that make the most impact. I’d love to know your opinion on this topic. Leave a reply below