Diane Ackerman on What Working at a Suicide Prevention Hotline Taught Her About Loneliness and Resilience
By Maria Popova
“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?” Maira Kalman pondered in her visual philosophy. Such is the magnificent resilience of the human spirit. Our culture is haunted by the unholy ghost of suicide; those who succumb to it are mercilessly judged by the media and those who stay behind are at risk of contagion. How, then, do we help those on the brink of self-destruction “get up and say OK?” And what does that act of help reveal about our own trials and triumphs as we learn to be OK?
That’s precisely what Diane Ackerman explores in the gorgeous essay “A Slender Thread” in the anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (public library | IndieBound), adapted from her altogether sublime 1998 book A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis (public library | IndieBound), which recounts her time working as a volunteer crisis counselor at a suicide prevention hotline, performing a “slow tango of life and death” that demands of its dancers impossible “grace and cunning.”
We use only a voice and a set of ears, somehow tied to the heart and brain, but it feels like mountaineering with someone who has fallen, a dangling person whose hands you are gripping in your own.
Ackerman recalls one particularly poignant call, with Louise — a frequent caller with “many talents, a lively mind, a quirky and unusual point of view, and a generous heart” — whom she had reeled back from the brink of suicide many times before. Louise’s anguish, like that of many on the downward spiral of the psyche, stems from feeling, as Ackerman puts it, bereft of choices. (Which is why Kerkhof’s pioneering suicide-prevention technique is so effective both in clinical contexts and in controlling our everyday worries.) Ackerman reflects on this uniquely human dance with possibility:
Choice is a signature of our species. We choose to live, sometimes we choose our own death, but most of the time we make choices just to prove choice is possible. Above all else, we value the right to choose one’s destiny. The very young and some lucky few may find their days opening one onto another like a set of ornate doors, but most people make an unconscious vow each morning to get through the day’s stresses and labors intact, without becoming overwhelmed or wishing to escape into death. Everybody has thought about suicide, or knows somebody who committed suicide, and then felt “pushed another inch, and it could have been me.” As Emile Zola once said, some mornings you first have to swallow your toad of disgust before you can get on with the day. We choose to live. But suicidal people have tunnel vision—no other choice seems possible. A counselor’s job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel.
Talking to Louise, Ackerman contemplates the enormous and vulnerable and terrifying responsibility of the crisis counselor as a torchbearer of luminous choice amid the darkness of the tunnel:
Every call with Louise has seemed this dire, a last call for help, and she has survived. But suppose tonight is the exception, suppose this is the last of last times? What is different tonight? I’m not sure. Then it dawns on me. Something small. I’m frightened by how often she has been using the word “only,” a word tight as a noose.
Assuring Louise that she would stay with her, Ackerman flickers a sidewise beam on the other meaning of “only” — that of the lonesome one, gripped with our civilizational anxiety of being alone:
So often loneliness comes from being out of touch with parts of oneself. We go searching for those parts in other people, but there’s a difference between feeling separate from others and separate from oneself.
When Louise laments her own weakness, Ackerman invokes her acts of everyday heroism, shared during previous calls — like volunteering during the flood, “filling sandbags and making sandwiches” for the victims. “Broaden the perspective,” Ackerman writes. “The hardest job when someone is depressed.”
Because something feels different about the call — because Ackerman feels the tar-thick darkness of that particular tunnel — she alerts the police while on the line with Louise, who had made her promise not to bring in the authorities. When they arrive — faster than expected — Louise swells with the rage of betrayal, screams at Ackerman, calls her a liar, hangs up. Ackerman loses Louise — loses the call, that is, which holds the grim possibility of losing the life. She writes:
Knowing and not knowing about callers, that’s what gets to me. My chest feels rigid as a boat hull, my ribs tense. Taking a large breath and letting it out slowly, I press my open palms against my face, rub the eyebrows, then the cheekbones and jaw, and laugh. Not a ha-ha laugh, a small sardonic one, the kind we save for the ridiculous, as I catch myself slipping into a familiar trap. I did fine. I did the best I could. Maybe the best anyone could tonight.
Ackerman circles back to the question of choice, so human and so riddled with perplexity:
Helping Louise survive is always an ordeal. Tonight she sounded even more determined and death bound than usual. It was the right choice. I think. Maybe. On the write-up sheet, under “Caller,” I write “Louise,” put the letter “H” for “high” in the box marked “suicide risk,” attach a yellow Lethality Assessment sheet, and add a few details of the call. Pressing my fingertips to my face, I push again on the brow bones, as if I could rearrange them, but they ache from a place I can’t reach with my hands.
A few weeks after that fateful call with Louise, the Crisis Center received a postcard from her, thanking the counselor — always anonymous, as was Ackerman to her caller — for, essentially, illuminating her tunnel. After the police had taken her to the emergency room, she had checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania for three weeks of “palatial bedlam.” Upon returning home, she had found a new job to replace the one she had lost and begun volunteering again, reporting that she was finally “in a good place.”
Ackerman’s closing words emanate far beyond the grimly glimmering grace of suicide prevention and into the broader and immeasurable beauty of asking for and receiving help. Beholding that postcard in disbelief, she writes:
She blesses the soul who “took my life in her hands that night,” thanks us all for our good work, is just writing “to let you know what happened — I bet you don’t hear that very often.” We don’t.
People take our lives in their hands all the time — parents, mentors, lovers, teachers, patrons. How often do they hear from us?
The Impossible Will Take a Little While, which also gave us Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission,” is a soul-raising read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who changed his life, then revisit Ackerman on what the future of robots reveals about the human condition and a fascinating look at how the psychology of suicide prevention can help us control our everyday worries.
Published November 14, 2014