37: Just Words on a Screen

37: Just Words on a Screen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Just Words on a Screen

The words of kindness are more healing to a drooping heart than balm or honey.

~Sarah Fielding

I started volunteering with the hotline because of the recession. I was fresh out of college, liberal arts degree in hand, and living next to one of the biggest job centers in the country — Washington, D.C. It didn’t matter. It took four months, twelve interviews and fifty applications for me to find a job.

That June, with no end in sight to the long silences and rejection letters, I decided if I couldn’t work, I still needed to do something, if only to keep myself sane. I liked the hotline because (aside from the in-person training) I could volunteer entirely remotely, which meant I wouldn’t have to worry about gas money and could schedule my own hours.

An online hotline for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence — I knew it wouldn’t be the cheeriest work, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into, even after the cultural competency training and PowerPoint presentation and the jittery roleplaying exercises with my fellow trainees. How could any of us really know what it would be like?

Three weeks after signing up, I sat down at my computer for my first session. I logged into the portal for volunteers. I created my pseudonym for the site — we weren’t allowed to give any personal information — and checked in with the session supervisor, Anne Marie. She welcomed me and, less than a minute later, the site chimed to let me know that a visitor was in the waiting area.

“Do you want to get that?” Anne Marie asked. I gulped. “Yeah, okay,” I typed. My hands were shaking.

All at once, my inner critics started howling. What did I think I was doing? How was I at all qualified to help someone who’d had such a traumatic experience? What if I made it worse? What if they hurt themselves?

It didn’t matter. The chat box opened. My visitor was there, just a blinking line on a screen, but I pictured her — or him — sitting in front of a computer, just like I was, nervous and waiting.

“Welcome to the online hotline,” I typed. There was protocol to go through — things each visitor had to know about safety — before we could address what brought my visitor to the site that day. As I went through them step by step, I started feeling like less of a fraud.

I won’t say my anxiety immediately eased that afternoon, but by the end of the first hour my hands had stopped shaking. “Good job,” Anne Marie wrote. “Ready for more?”

It helped, I think, that there were a lot of rules guiding us on the hotline. We weren’t counselors or legal experts. The most important thing was for visitors to feel supported and listened to, but we couldn’t spend more than an hour on a conversation. Repeat visits were highly discouraged — the hotline isn’t a substitute for therapy. It was always good to provide resources, but only if the visitor agreed. We weren’t supposed to use the word “rape” unless the visitor did first. Visitors were never “victims” but rather “survivors,” even if they didn’t think of themselves that way.

The majority of our visitors were women, many of them well into middle age. Some had been assaulted or abused years ago, even decades ago. Some of them came looking for support groups or advice. Some simply wanted someone to listen to them. Many were depressed. Others had recently experienced a “triggering” event, which is to say they saw or heard or felt something that brought their experiences back vividly and painfully. Occasionally, they would sign in at the beginning of an anxiety attack and we would jump into averting it. “Put your feet firmly on the floor. Tell me about the walls of your room. Are there pictures? What are they?”

Then there were those who were only weeks or days or hours from the event. They needed information above all else. These visitors were shakier and often vague about why they were on the hotline. “It wasn’t your fault,” I typed every time. Sometimes they would argue. I was stubborn about it: “You don’t know what would have happened if you’d done something different. No one can know that.”

The worst sessions — the scariest ones — were the minors. Many of them still lived with their abusers. We brainstormed about adults they could confide in, ways they could stay safe. Sometimes they were in immediate danger and emergency services had to be contacted. These visitors were frightened and they were alone. “I’ll talk to you until the police come.”

I volunteered with the hotline for two years. I stuck with it even after I got a job and went on to grad school. It wasn’t the kind of volunteering that ever seemed fun or easy, not like walking dogs for your local animal shelter or collecting school supplies for disadvantaged kids. It took attention, and most days the hotline was busy, one visitor after another for two to four hours. Sometimes I’d sign off feeling emotionally and psychologically bruised. But at the same time, I felt productive.

It felt the most tangible one night on December 24th. I had been working on the hotline for almost eighteen months. I didn’t deliberately sign up for Christmas Eve — I was just trying to finish my hours before the holidays. It was a late-night session. Everyone else in my family had gone to bed. There were only a couple of us on the hotline. It wasn’t a high traffic block. I put on a podcast and picked up a book. Twenty minutes in, the site chimed.

“I’ll take this one,” I told the supervisor.

After we went through the formalities, my visitor told me she was dreading the next day because everyone would be celebrating with their loved ones and she felt so alone and abandoned. Her story was common enough: When she shared what had happened to her, many of those close to her didn’t believe her story and her confession caused conflict among her friends and family. They blamed her, she said, even though she had only told the truth.

We talked a bit about support groups and how she might reach out to her community again when she felt comfortable. I helped her make plans and goals, an oddly common activity on the hotline. It seemed like a productive session, but then she said: “I still don’t know what to do tomorrow.”

“Maybe you could volunteer somewhere,” I said. “Is there a homeless shelter in your town? I’m sure they’re shorthanded.”

She thought of a soup kitchen that would likely need help; it seemed to make her feel better. I went into the exit formalities, reminding her about safety even though she had said she was safe enough.

“Thank you,” she said at the end of the session. “Thank you for being here tonight.”

I felt embarrassed. In a way, it seemed like so little. I’m a night owl; I would have been up anyway. All I had done was type words on a screen. But if it had helped, then that was something, wasn’t it? “Have a happy holiday,” I said.

“You too.”

~JK Patt

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