A handwritten envelope is now an unusual thing to receive through the letterbox.
I wonder if the postman notices. I wonder if he’s curious. Or even if he feels a slight thrill at the thought of the personal correspondence.
It’s a letter from the Samaritans. A request for a reference. Somebody that I know wants to volunteer.
The seven questions they have are very exacting:
“Samaritans service is based around key qualities including acceptance, warmth, genuineness and adaptability. How do you think the applicant would meet these key qualities?”
A few months later, on a bitterly cold Sunday evening, after dinner, I ask her Question 3: What skills does she have that would help in volunteering in that role?
She purses her lips, and then wipes her finger across them as if she were rubbing them out. Her hand then falls to hold her elbow.
“Some people don’t actually think about why people are a certain way,” she begins, uncommitted.
“Every single thing that happens to a person you can see that it’s been moulded that way by some event, or by something. I think it’s one of those concepts that if you get your head around it you can understand it. Whereas for some people, it’s like a theory you can learn but they don’t actually understand.”
Most of us have enough trouble deciphering others when they are stood right in front of our face; lips moving, eyebrows twitching, hands tense. Over the phone the only sense that our relative blindness heightens is our frustration.
Each time a volunteer picks up the phone the caller is unknown to them and often in distress.
“I think the hardest thing is probably that you, obviously, can’t prepare what you are going to say to people; because you never know what somebody is going to say on the end of the phone when it rings.”
There was a time, in the not too distant past, when telephones were an anathema to her. Job advertisements were quietly discarded if that word was mentioned prominently as a duty within the first three sentences. For several months after university her CV may as well have read ‘incommunicado’.
But next it would read: ‘Support Worker, Wythenshawe: role included night shifts in supported housing, working with distressed single parent women and persistently ringing for the police and ambulance service’.
After moving back to her parents’ house in a rural village in the North-East she had time away from city life, to switch off, take care of herself, indulge her interests even. But while searching for work in the local area she heard that the Samaritans were recruiting volunteers again. “Being unemployed meant that I had the time to do something like that,” she recalls. “In the past I’ve always been at work or having shifts.”
Shortly after enrollment a seemingly uninspiring job interview is followed an hour later with a job offer: ‘40 hours per week as an Occupational Therapy Assistant at a secure mental health unit’.
Two weeks later I get a phone call. It’s five thirty five. I press accept and hear crisps rapidly crunching. With a finger pushed into my left ear my right can make out the words: “Where are you?!”
“Train,” I complain. “You?”
“Car park outside Samaritans.” She responds
“Finished work late so there was no point going home to come out again.”
When it floods, when it snows, when the older volunteers get patronising one evening, I remind her that it’s a lot to take on with a demanding job.
“I’d understand if you couldn’t be arsed with it...” I actually say.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re looking after yourself first and foremost...” The autopilot in my brain chirps.
“Yeah, I’d love to be able to go home and get a cup of tea!” She smiles. “But as soon as I get [to Samaritans] time goes quite quickly. It’s alright. I enjoy it. But, yeah, when you’ve just finished work and it’s cold, I always think: ‘Ah no!’ But then it’s alright. I’m pleased to have done it.”
On that bitter Sunday I ask her about how she talks to the callers.
‘You need to be aware that you just need to sit and listen, and encourage them to speak and sound really friendly and non judgemental. Some of them haven’t got anyone else to talk to, [it’s enough] just for them to feel like they are being listened to.
“Some might have problems with their family or with work or something and they don’t feel like they can actually say all of the stuff they want to get out.”
It’s seems bittersweet, that they end up talking to an anonymous young woman sat in a non-descript office.
“I think people probably do talk to other people, but then sometimes the responses they get from [them] might be enough to make the situation worse; if they don’t understand them, or if they get angry because they maybe feel implicitly criticised.
“Or they haven’t got anywhere and they’ve spoken to their only friend they’re like; ‘what else have they got left then?’”
I wonder aloud “why people don’t deal well when somebody comes to them with such a big issue?”
“Because everybody feels like they’ve got to help.” She says with conviction. “Like they have got to say the right thing. Whereas all you really need to do sometimes is to listen to people to let them get it off their chest. And just for that person to know that someone is actually listening to them. And taking them seriously.”
It almost sounds easy. Or at least if not easy then obvious.
“So where friends make the big mistake...” I begin.
“...is because they’re too involved already.” She clarifies.
“Or that they’re trying too hard to offer solutions?” I ask.
“Or that they’ve got their own agenda already.” She adds. “Even if they don’t realise it. Because they’re already involved in the situation.”
The request for a reference also wanted to know if “the applicant has any views or attitudes that would conflict with the Samartians’ Vision, Mission and Values”.
The Vision is “that fewer people die by suicide”. But this Vision is balanced by the Samaritans’ stance on ‘Self-Determination’. Their policy is that “Callers remain responsible for their own lives and do not lose the right to make decisions even if that decision is to take their own life.”
When some people call they are intent on suicide: “[They] start talking it through,” she says, “they vent out. [Sometimes] their conversation changes and before they know it they’re like; ‘actually I feel a bit better now I’ve got it off my chest, it doesn’t feel quite as bad.’
“The Samaritans might offer to ring them back the next day. Have a bit of a chat. And for them to know there’s somebody there who actually cares.
“Even to say ‘we’ll ring you tomorrow is something for them to hold onto.”
But sadly there are times where the conversation doesn’t suddenly change. The caller remains intent on ending their life. Sometimes the Samaritans are “there just to make sure they’re not alone while they’re doing it, so at least it won’t be as miserable for them.”
The final question in the reference asks me to “please give any other information that you feel would be helpful.” They also invite me to “continue on a separate sheet, if necessary”.
But it isn’t necessary.
I intended to complete it. To sign it, to date it and to print my name at the bottom. I planned to fold it into thirds and seal it inside the stamped and handwritten return envelope.
But I was busy at first. Then a bit tired. Then angry that I had left it so long. Then embarrassed. I was evasive when asked about it. Then it got lost.
I called to ask for a replacement but they told me I didn’t need to bother anymore.
The Samaritans have a fact sheet for the media; guidelines for reporting suicide. They suggest sensitive phrases to use and dispel common myths.
Myth number four states: “If a person is serious about killing themselves then there is nothing you can do.”
Everybody told me this. When I argued and when I cried; “there’s nothing you could have done.”
He sent me a message. It was November 17th 2006. We hadn’t spoken in a while and he wanted to catch up. He sounded breezy, light-hearted.
At school we were always paired up by teachers. I was meant to be a good influence on him.
I intended to reply to him, but I was busy. It was my second year at university. He hadn’t applied. I would compose a message in my head. I wondered what I should tell him. I wondered what I should ask.
Soon it was November 24th. It was early in the evening and I had already had a drink. I was young. My computer was beeping. A girl from school had logged on and was typing to me on MSN Messenger. I had set my status to Away as a default. Another beep, and then four, five, six more. I walked over, opened up the alerts.
“We need to talk NOW! Seriously! Call me.”
I will accept that replying to his message might not have made the difference. But what I know is that I didn’t respond. And not responding gives you no chance of helping.
When the phone rings, she picks it up.