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Clement's Corner: A Call For Help

Owen Clement’s story is a perfect illustration of how not to respond to a call for help.

It had been a quiet evening with only a couple of calls, neither very challenging. I had written my report and took one more peep through the drawn Venetian blind to see if anyone was hanging around my forlorn-looking car parked under a solitary lamp post in the dark and deserted street.

Now, at almost midnight, with my telephone counselling session due to end, the phone rang and the caller asked if I would stay with him until he died. He said that he had overdosed on his mother’s sleeping pills.

Exhausted after a full day’s work plus my long shift manning the phones, it took every bit of self-control to keep my voice level and ask gently, “What can I call you?” It is something I automatically say to give the caller the option of either giving out his or her name or a fictitious one if they wished to retain their privacy.

My client immediately started weeping and yelling at me that I did not give a damn about him. Bone weary, my own emotional state was as fragile as the caller’s, who was a boy barely into his teens by the sound it. His voice brought back the bitter memory of my own son’s suicide five years earlier. That traumatic event had been the driving force in my decision to volunteer my services. An intense six month counselling course followed. And now, somehow, I had to save this young lad and his family and friends from the dreadful consequences of not being aware of his depressed state of mind.

My supervisor Tom Harper, arrived at that moment to take over the overnight shift and, not noticing me on a call, closed the door rather loudly behind him as he came in.

“Is someone with you?” the boy cried out, sounding as if he was about to flee.

“No,’’ I lied, “I accidentally dropped something. Look - um, this is going to take some time. I must go to the toilet and, if I am to keep awake, I’ll have to make myself a cup of coffee,’’

I desperately needed to talk to Tom about the best way to handle this call. “I’ll put you on hold for a few minutes,’’ I said, “I’ll be right back, I promise, okay?”

He did not respond.

“Come on now, you can trust me, please. Will you do that for me?”

There was a long pause before he said in a voice so low I could barely hear him, “You promise?”

“I promise.”

“You won’t be back, I know it,’’ he said softly and began to cry again.

“If I didn’t want to be with you I would have hung up already, wouldn’t I? Oh, I wish I knew what to call you. I promise I will not leave without your approval, it’s up to you.”

“Okay then, if I’m not here when you get back you’ll know it’s too late.”

“Now come on, stop playing games, I’m very tired, I need to go to the toilet and to get something to drink. If you hang up, I’ll know your call is a hoax. I’ll be back in about five minutes.’’ Without waiting for a response I put the call on hold.

Tom came in, and noticing that I was upset, put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “You okay?”

I pulled myself together, nodded and said, “The young lad says he’s OD’d on his mother’s sleeping pills and wants me to stay with him till he dies. The police may have some idea who he may be.’’

Leaving Tom to check with the authorities in another room, I emptied my bladder and made myself a cup of instant strong black coffee with two sugars. In trepidation I picked up the phone and opened the line again.

“Hello again, how are you feeling?” I kept my tone very matter-of-fact.

He did not reply although I could hear him breathing.

“You know,’’ I said, “you’d be amazed how devastated many people who love you would be if you were to die like this; your family, your friends.’’ Still getting no response I continued, “Please talk to me; I want to know how you’re feeling.’’

Tom came in quietly and handed me a note. This was the third centre in a week that had received a similar call with the caller not giving out his name. One counsellor had heard giggling in the background.

I was in a quandary. Was this caller genuine or was he a hoaxer? If he was genuine, how could I help him? If he was not, how would I know? It was now getting very late, I was overtired and overwrought and, not being able to pass on the call to Tom, with the prospect of another full day ahead of me tomorrow, I had to take some action.

“You know”, I said, “I think you are having me on. You won’t tell me your name or your problem. Unless you can prove to me without any doubt that you mean to kill yourself, I’m going to hang up”.

I waited for a full five minutes but there was absolute silence on the other end.

Relieved I turned to Tom, “I don’t think the little bugger will try that one again; for a while anyway”.

I was right, oh so very right, a boy’s body was found by his mother the next morning with a telephone in his hand.

© Clement 2006


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