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The Strange, Tragic Things You Hear While Volunteering at a Crisis Hotline

I've listened to people who were oblivious that they were pedophiles and women too terrified to leave their husbands.

by Milou, as told to Julie Le Baron
Aug 5 2015, 2:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Martin Cathrae

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Before I personally volunteered at a crisis and emotional support helpline, I had very little understanding of what actually went on at such a center. I figured that the job had something to do with spending hours listening to people who were down on their luck and needed a little company or a bit of emotional support—and in many ways it was. But what struck me the most, besides the amount of callers who were oblivious to the fact that they were pedophiles, was how many "regular people" called in. I'm not sure what kind of person I expected to be using the hotline exactly—perhaps I was just naive—but so many of the people that I've talked to could have easily been a friend of mine or a member of my family.

The association I work for has dozens of centers across France. The one I am assigned to is housed in a small Parisian council flat made up of a kitchen, a bathroom and a sitting room that is decked out with a bunch of phones. A few of the center's 20 volunteers—or "listeners"—have been working there for more ten years. At a guess, the average age among listeners is about 30 years old and there are just as many men as there are women.

The first time I applied to work in that center I was rejected. In reality, it's quite complicated to get hired—the job requires a lot more than spare time and willingness. The employers are also quite selective so as not to end up spending a load of time training people who simply seek to satisfy their curiosity or quickly ease their conscience and then just bail six months later. Successful candidates seem to come from quite a broad array of backgrounds: Some are psychology students working with loneliness, depression, and madness, while others simply think it's their calling to save people from whatever situation they have landed in. I've also wondered whether or not I was just a voyeur but, in the end, I assured myself that I was there for the right reasons.

I was interviewed three times by three different people before getting admitted. They asked me why I was applying, what my availability was like, and if I'd ever been depressed—those working for the association seem to possess a hawk's eye for spotting people's weaknesses. After passing the initial interviews, I had to take part in three listening sessions that lasted for four hours each. Before being allowed to take calls myself, I had to observe other listeners and develop my own "listening style." Everyone I work with has their own way of listening.

My first solo call was with a young Tunisian woman whose father had thrown her out of the house for telling people that her brother had raped her—something that was supposed to be kept a family secret. The conversation lasted for about 50 minutes and was intense from the beginning.

We can't adopt any sort of moralizing attitude or antagonize the caller, no matter the severity of their actions.

The association's rules strictly stipulate that the listener can never end the call, so I struggled to steer the conversation away from going round and round in circles. When that does happen, you are advised to try and convince the caller to hang up by saying things like: "If you agree, then I suggest that we leave it here for now." People often try to prolong things by negotiating for a few more minutes or asking for a particular volunteer, even though we are all completely anonymous.

My second call was also strange—it was from a man who couldn't stomach the fact that his daughter was growing up. I later figured out that this was because she didn't want him to abuse her anymore. Those sorts of moments are quite difficult because we're supposed to listen to everyone. We're permitted to ask such people whether or not they know that what they are doing is punishable by law, but nothing else. We can't adopt any sort of moralizing attitude or antagonize the caller, no matter the severity of their actions.

Every three weeks, we have a meeting—supervised by professional psychologists—where we'd discuss any complicated listenings we'd had in that period. We analyze each conversation and try to define a process to deal with similar chats. Those meetings really help relieve some of the pressure and feelings that you took home with you at night.

Occasionally, you get people who express disappointment or just go completely nuts over the phone. I remember one woman in particular: One night, we spoke for an hour about how her children never visited her anymore. The conversation began dragging on so I tried to suggest that we should wrap things up. Then all of a sudden, she turned and began screaming obscenities: "If that's how you are going to be, I'll take off my panties and put my pussy on your face," she said. She also spent a few minutes trying to convince me that she'd somehow gotten pregnant purely by listening to my voice. In the end, she apologized. Which I guess is something.

I think the caller that threw me off the most was this 17-year-old boy from Sarcelles. It was easy to tell that our discussion was the first time he'd used the hotline, because instead of remaining anonymous, he told me every last detail about himself. He explained to me that he was extremely lonely—his two friends had left to study elsewhere and he was seeing his cousins less and less. He was mostly interested in finding out where he could meet new friends. On paper, it was a very classic call, but to imagine a 17-year-old sitting alone in some suburb, so desperate for companionship that he had to call a helpline, made me so sad. It really struck home that these problems affect so many people—literally anyone could find themselves at the other end.

I am also genuinely shocked by the amount of parents calling to talk about how their children don't take care of them and the number of young girls who've been rendered infertile by cancer and are too scared to tell their pregnant friends.

Once, a woman called to tell me that she was standing in front of her apartment but couldn't bring herself to go inside because she was sick of her husband. Her entire life was built around that relationship so she hadn't dared to leave to him. Another time, I spoke with an an old lady who told me that nobody wanted to visit her. She was slowly going blind but had seen her daughter stealing from her. She was afraid of confronting her about it because she thought she might never come back.

Surprisingly enough, I have never found myself overwhelmed by the sort of emotion that accompanies confessions like this. Sure, it's hard to hear these things but it's important to keep in mind how much this sort of call means to the person on the line. Sometimes, myself and the caller even end up laughing together. I have, in many cases, felt close to people and grateful that I was afforded a glimpse of their everyday life.

After each call, we have to write down the time the conversation began and when it ended, precisely what sort of conversation it was, and then sum the whole thing up in a few lines. These notes aren't for anything other than catharsis for the listener. The center is full of files detailing each and every one of the calls and I must admit that I've thought about reading them more than once. In the end, I never do and that's probably for the best.