Sharing your most desperate thoughts and feelings could save your life. Former Samaritans helpline volunteer Katy Georgiou remembers the voices of the isolated and ‘invisible’ people who called during her night shifts.
Life on the line
It was the early hours of Sunday morning and I’d been on night shift for an hour when the phone rang.
When I answered, all I could hear at the other end was the sound of a newborn baby crying. I waited. And then it came. The faint whisper of a woman, sobbing. “I just can’t do this.”
I was 27 when I trained as a Samaritan. What led me there was a transformative experience with a therapist whose manner and support helped me beyond words. My gratitude to this woman – a stranger with no real obligation to care about me – left me with a longing sense to pay my appreciation forward.
My helpline journey was peppered with powerful memories: some positive, others eye-opening, many harrowing. In my first month, I took a call from a woman mid-overdose who was falling in and out of consciousness. In between her swearing and being violently sick, I’d catch snapshots of her story: references to abuse, something about her childhood. And then silence.
When I asked if she wanted help, she told me to fuck off. Because she wanted to die. My impulse to take action was overwhelming, but I was trained to remain calm. So I stayed with her, asking open questions.
But no matter what you do, there’s always a risk that someone will still take their own life. “Don’t you dare feel guilty,” she kept saying before the call finally went dead.
Nights of exhaustion
Some shifts were less eventful. Hours could go by with no calls or, worse, prank calls. During night shifts I’d often struggle to keep my eyes open, taking turns with my shift partner to make cups of tea. Sometimes we’d look out of the window together onto the quiet, lit-up streets and get talking about our own lives.
The way the narratives of our own unfolding life dramas got interwoven between calls was surreal. For six hours, we became an overarching backdrop against the flow of stories from strangers, our sentences suspended in mid-air upon a sudden call, punctuated by the jolting ring reminding us of why were actually there.
Somehow, the difficult thoughts we can trap ourselves into aren’t so isolating when you hear who else around you shares them, if only we dare to say.
In truth, these late nights were the toughest, but also the most profound. I’d hear from prisoners who couldn't sleep, reflecting on their crimes, or the elderly who'd soiled themselves in hospital beds with no way to help themselves. The calls were long – anywhere from two to three hours. The length of the shift allowed for this, and there was always something about the peace of the sleeping world outside that made everything more intense.
That still silence, mixed with my own exhaustion, would take me to a place of deep reflection that continued on my journey home among the morning commuters, emerging oblivious to the night’s proceedings.
I became confronted with the invisible in society, with just how messy the world is, and how many people are on the edge that we never get to see. It was striking how many calls came from those who were disabled, housebound, paralysed; new mothers with inconsolable babies attached to them; victims unable to escape the throes of domestic violence; prisoners; the homeless calling from payphones; people under the influence; those overdosing, in acute suicidal crisis, in psychosis; neglected children crying.
Most of those calls were from people who were physically unable to access statutory services in their own moment of crisis, whether because of limiting life circumstances or societal neglect. I became so conscious of how helplines can support sections of society that would otherwise get ‘lost’ in a system. And yet, so many people don’t realise what a support they can truly be.
Some shifts I’d be the only person my caller had spoken to that day, and they’d have me in fits of laughter as they described their life with wit. Sharing humour and simply talking with another person helped, and I was often thanked for giving them the space to do just that. I would go through periods of dreading my work. But then I’d get a call that reminded me it was all worth it.
“I just can’t do this”
My caller that night was home alone and couldn’t get her baby to sleep. Night after night it was like this. Nothing was working and she was exhausted. She felt guilty, she said. Like she should be better. “I feel like I’m screaming and screaming inside. I feel like a terrible mother, I feel like a terrible wife.”
We kept talking. She kept opening up. What life was like for her; her feelings about motherhood, her perceived inadequacy, her relationship, her fears. Soon she was laughing and even made some jokes. By end of the call, she was back in tears. Only this time they were tears of relief: “You have no idea what a difference this has made.” But I did have an idea. I felt humbled in her darkest hour. It was 03:00. Were a helpline not available, who could she have called?
I remained a Samaritans helpline listener for four more years. The commitment was weekly, and, over time, the impact hit me. I became so acutely attuned to the signs and risks of suicide, I’d see them everywhere. I couldn’t get on a train platform for some years without fearing that somebody might jump; I’d walk past houses and wonder who was in them, and whether they’d called Samaritans. I looked at friends and strangers differently.
But likewise, it strangely liberated me. Fundamentally, we’re in this world together. Somehow, the difficult thoughts we can trap ourselves into aren’t so isolating when you hear who else around you shares them, if only we dare to say.
I sometimes think about acquaintances who have suffered, and just how common suicide is. I remember being shocked when I heard the news that my friend had tried to take her own life. She was one of happiest people I knew and her positive energy was infectious. But everyone has their story and it’s what isn’t said that often counts.
We take for granted that the people ringing up helplines or going to therapy are somehow ‘other’ people. But the truth is, they are our friends, family, neighbours. They are us.
About the author
Katy Georgiou is a qualified Gestalt counsellor who has worked with the charities Mind and Samaritans. Her journalism has been published in the Guardian and the Times, among others, and she created and hosts the mental-health-related podcast Sound Affects.