Back in the days of yore when four-head VCRs were the shit and cassette tapes were still the height of transportable audio technology, I was home late one night after watching an episode of “Hill Street Blues” that I’d successfully taped (after several failed attempts), and at the very end before the tape went to snow, a PSA came on that was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen on TV. On the screen was a picture of a phone sitting there on a table and ringing repeatedly. I was riveted in wonder until a solemn voice asked “Who’ll be there to help if there’s no one to answer?” And immediately afterward the screen went black and the words “Volunteer With The Suicide Prevention Center” appeared above its phone number.
The next day I called and said “I’ll answer that phone” and after that went to an orientation and then committed to the intense months-long training involved. Upon completion I began fulfilling my obligation of one six-hour shift per week. The SPC is now in Culver City and part of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center, but when it was a sole entity it used to be located in Koreatown a block east of Vermont, on the first block south of Olympic in a long-since-gone Victorian that had been previously owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on a ranch-type property that was bordered by Alvarado and Vermont to the east and west, and Olympic and Pico to the north and south. Must’ve been amazing. But I digress.
The old mansion had become a combination halfway house/methadone clinic with the Suicide Prevention Center located in a couple first-floor rooms in the back. As a “crisis counselor” I took all sorts of calls. People with pills either in their hands or in their systems. People with knives, razors, guns, open windows and long falls. But the vast majority were people depressed, sincerely bumming for any number of reasons, and just needed a nonjudgmental ear to hear them and offer empathy and assistance. We even had long-time regulars who were allotted a few minutes each week to call and chat. My regular was a lady who asked for me because she liked the sound of my voice. We’d catch up with each other for a minute or two and then she’d bust out with the heavy breathing and the sexy talk and I’d politely conclude the call.
Regardless of the call or caller the first question is always “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” You didn’t fuck around with that phrase. There was no “Are you feeling bad?” or “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” or “hurting yourself?” We always got those two words — KILLING YOURSELF — right out in the open. Bam.
Despite the debriefing that always took place with the shift supervisor after each call, there were always going to be those you took home with you. Dwelled on. Mulled. Second-guessed. It’s been more than 20 years, but there are two calls I’ve never forgotten. One was from a woman hiding alone in her house. All the lights were out. She barely spoke and the call was very short, but what I got was that she was terrified of her abusive husband. So much so that when she saw the lights of his car as it pulled into the driveway she hung up fast with a mortified “He’s here!” I still feel the terror. The second one was from a man who’d said he was from out of state and that he’d driven as far west as he could go. Parked in a beach lot somewhere, he was calling from a payphone with a gun. Said his life had gone to shit and other than agreeing to put the gun in the car so that it was out of hand and sight while we talked, no matter what I offered he wouldn’t consider it. He kept saying his mind was made up. That there was no other way.
After exhausting whatever options there might be, the last question we’d ask of unresponsive callers such as this guy was “Why did you call me?” It’s kind of a last-ditch rhetorical whose answer is “Because you don’t want to kill yourself, that’s why!” but before I could get there his response was “To say goodbye to someone,” and then he hung up. I believed him and avoided the papers and news for a few days after that because I just didn’t want or need to know the outcome.
If I’m painting it as all doom and gloom, it wasn’t. I had many calls with positive outcomes. Occasionally the center would get letters from callers expressing deep and sincere appreciation for a counselor and the center. They were kept posted on a wall behind the phone bank and re-read proudly and often.
Now you might wonder why I went on and on and on with this episode of my ancient history, and I’ll tell you, although you don’t need me to: Right now there are a lot of people hurting. They are losing jobs, homes, hope. In a matter of two days I find my bike commute route taking me past Crescent Heights Elementary School previously attended by the dead children of Wilmington’s Lupoe family. They haunt me. And a few blocks south is the Kaiser Permanente facility where their dead parents worked. I also pedal past the Culver City Police Department where Sgt. Curt Massey worked until he died on the 10 Freeway yesterday. It’s entirely presumptive of me to allege that the wrong-way driver was on the freeway to intentionally kill himself, but in this day and age of Santa shooters and entire families being destroyed, it wouldn’t surprise me.
In this continuing difficult and unstable time most of us soldier on, but some will lose their way and will instead consider manifesting their feelings of pain and hopelessness in the worst ways. So if I have a point to this rambler, it’s just to remind us all to help each other and that help is out there. There are people and organizations that can and will extend a hand — or an ear, such as the Suicide Prevention Center (877/727-4747). Certainly there are plenty more where that came from, so by all means if you know of one or more use the comments to give out a shout to any places that might be of service.