Sunday, 25 August 2013

Samaritaning

Fear, dread and nervous anticipation jostled for poll position as I watched the silent phone. I knew the next person to call would probably be depressed. I also knew they’d be a stranger and not the “friend I haven’t met yet” variety, no, someone who needed my help. For tonight I was not Andi the comedian but Andi the Samaritan.

I’d tried to describe to a friend this uniquely challenging end of the volunteering spectrum. “I’ve thrown myself in at the deep end”. My friend Caroline just stared at me. “Yeah, it’s sink or swim” I continued. After a moment Caroline simply said “Are you sure Samaritans is right for you?” Of course she meant, was I right for the Samaritans?

She had a point. A slip up like that would be disastrous. I’d have to back peddling like an UKIP MP on Question Time.

Or worse, would I run out of things to say? Would I panic and in some bizarre role reversal end up being counselled by the caller? “Don’t worry” They’d assure me “This happens to a lot of new Samaritans”
Aside from listening without judgement, an important aspect of the Samaritans work is not trying to ‘solve’ the callers’ problems. This could be hard. I’m one of life’s fixers. My motto is, “if it ain’t broke, at least take it apart and see how it works”

Instinctively I want to generate practical solutions forgetting that sometimes people just want to be heard, empathised with. Many boyfriends have learned the hard way that it’s cuddles first, ‘helpful’ suggestions later.

I reminded myself, if solutions were what people in crisis wanted there’d already be a Personal Upset Customer Services line. “Hello I’m Paul. Sorry you’re having intermittent happiness. Have you tried turning yourself off and on again?”

I was nervous about getting started so I started pestering my more experienced colleagues with pointless questions.  It’s one of those stalling techniques we use when we’re anxious I suppose. Like when I did my one and only bungee jump, before stepping off the platform I asked, “how far down is it?” Like that would make a difference? Obviously if it was over 100ft I’d engage my ‘falling angel’ pose rather than my ‘flailing moron’?

So there I sat, staring at the phone mouthing my opening line. We’re asked to say “Can I help?” rather than “How can I help?". It may sound like semantics but frankly who knows if we can offer respite to the despair that has driven someone to phone in the first place.

Finally, the phone rang. I flushed hot and cold. This was it. My first call. “Hello Samaritans, Can I help you?”

I stayed with the organisation for a year speaking to many people who were incredibly thankful Samaritans existed. Often, it was the last place for them to turn. However, by the end of that year, I realised that actually, Samaritans wasn't for me. Sadly, aside from the swathes of men calling to get a sexual thrill (yes, that was a very steep learning curve), a large majority of callers, in my experience, had major mental health issues and were locked into a repetitive loop which calling Samaritans was a part of.

Though I appreciated the work they did, I couldn't continue to be part of it. It seems harsh to say but I'd be lying if I felt I'd actually made a difference in anyone's life aside from inadvertently providing masturbation material for a couple of unsavoury characters. (One of the tricks they used was telling you the terrible sexual thing they claimed to have done knowing that part of the Samaritan training is to repeat what the caller says to ensure you've understood them clearly. Unless I'm being massively cynical, I don't think my first three callers were running while on the phone to me).

Since my time with them, I've realised however, I do still want to give back in some way but that just wasn't the right environment for me. One day, I'll have an epiphany about it and figure out what it is I want to do, until then, I wish the Samas well. They're better people than I for being able to deal with what they deal with on a daily basis and for odd few people that do genuinely need their help and get pulled back from the precipice, it's worth it. 

3 comments:

  1. Thanks. That was interesting.

    I thought it was normally a male trait to keep suggesting solutions when their women just wanted someone to listen attentively to their problems.

    Peter C

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  2. I think it's a masculine trait.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought 'their women' was the real problem....but that's another subject (sic.....joke).
      Cheers,
      Peter C

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