“Alliance Empowerment Coalition, Anne speaking,” I say.
The woman on the other end of the line doesn’t say much. She is stuttering, groping for words. I ask her name and she says she’d rather not give it. “Okay,” I say, “not a problem.” Her voice is slightly familiar. I know I have talked to her before, but not often and not recently. There’s a little bit of The Bronx in her voice, or maybe a trace of Brooklyn, but mostly there’s pain. She’s hurting. She says she doesn’t know if she’s sick, or mentally ill. She says it with the awkward formality of one who has been taught “appropriate” language. She does not say she feels crazy, or is terribly sad; she wonders if she is “mentally ill.”
Early on, she asks me if I’ve ever thought about suicide. That raises a flag, but it’s a small pink flag, not a big red one. Everyone wants to know if you’ve thought about suicide; it’s a common question on the support line. I don’t know what I say to her. My answers depend on the tone of the questioner—maybe, “Yes, I’ve thought about it,” maybe, “Sure, lots,” maybe “Thought about it and tried it.”
“What can I do for you tonight?” is my standard opener. I try to ask questions and listen to answers to get a fix on where she’s at.
She tells me her boyfriend’s just left, so I wonder if we have a problem with being rejected, abandoned. I can’t remember what she said. Can’t remember the sequence of questions and answers. What I do remember is the despair. The heartbroken, desolate, despair of the perpetually mentally ill.
She tells me that she’s a vegan, but the day program she goes to won’t give her a vegetarian menu. “Have you ever been to see a dietician? Maybe she could order them to give you what you need,” I say.
“No,” she tells me. “The diabetics and like that—they just tell them to bring their own lunch.”
“Can you do that?” I ask.
“You mean cook?” she asks, sounding puzzled by the concept.
Her parents are divorced. She was sent into foster care when she was fourteen. A neighbor called Child Protective and said her father was abusing her. She says it was just a regular family fight. I wonder what kind of family it was that had fights that ended with a kid being put in foster care.
I ask her if she is a spiritual person. She gets very edgy, defensive: “What do you mean?”
I mean, honey, do you have anything to hang onto? A church? A concept of God?
She tells me bitterly that she hates that stuff, that every night for two years she went to a program and they kept talking about their higher power. “There is no higher power,” she says angrily. “We just made God in our image. There’s nothing.” For this woman there is, indeed, nothing.
She is suffering, crying. “What’s the point; what’s the point?” she sobs. She can’t work, hasn’t been able to—forever? She’s on Social Security Disability and has no money. Her boyfriend—“He’s not, you know, like, in control. He waits for me to figure things out.”
“You wish he’d take charge and make decisions?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says numbly. Anything, anything, just to have somebody else say, “Here, do this; don’t do that. Then you’ll feel better.” She has a terrible need to have somebody know what to do to make all this pain stop.
I ask her if she’s ever felt this way before. “Yes,” she says.
“How did you get through it then?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. (To be continued)