… it is time for me to grab my laptop, move into our little study and make myself comfortable on the sofa with the city lights in view. A comfy pillow behind my back, my feet up on the sofa table and a blanket across my legs, I open my laptop and log into the Crisis Text Line platform, ready to help people who are experiencing a moment of severe crisis in their lives. And there are many of them.
Crisis Text Line (CTL) was launched in 2013 as a free and fully anonymous 24/7 text messaging service for people in crisis and will be approaching the 100 million message mark next week. Each of those messages was someone sharing their pain and I am grateful to be one of the close to 5.000 nation-wide volunteer Crisis Counselors who are helping texters move from a hot moment to a cool calm. While it has taken five and a half years to get to the 100 million messages since the founding of CTL, it is projected for the next 100 million messages to only take 11 months.
I stumbled across CTL when I was on the lookout for volunteer opportunities in Chicago via Chicago Cares, an organization and website that bundles all volunteer opportunities in the city. I remember spending hours browsing through hundreds of options addressing all thinkable issue areas (poverty, hunger, health, education, pets, etc.), in search of something suitable for me. I would close the page when my concentration would fade and return later in the day or week until I found what I felt where a few interesting options I could picture myself in.
One opportunity turned out to be CTL, which sparked my interest because it was so different from anything I had ever done or experienced before. I envisioned it as a challenge where not only I would help someone in need, but also learn and grow as a person myself. I formally applied, got accepted and went through two weeks of very intensive online training, filled with theory, roleplays, tests and lots of useful feedback.
I found the training to be extremely effective and eye-opening. It taught me how to stay away from giving advice (which I tend to do when faced with a problem scenario) and instead letting the texter steer the conversation. It taught me how to build rapport if there is just the written word, what to do if a texter is considered imminent risk (meaning: in a life-threatening situation), how to handle the variety of issues a texter could text in for appropriately, how to give the conversation structure and how to engage in proper selfcare in order to stay mentally healthy, despite the stressful task of helping someone through a moment of crisis.
One of the prerequisites to successfully complete the training was to eventually perform my first shift. I procrastinated this task for as long as I could, because I WAS SO SCARED. Yes, I had learned everything I possibly could and was very well prepared objectively speaking, but helping someone in a roleplay is nothing compared to engaging in a conversation with a real person. A real person in a real crisis, which you know nothing about until you hit the button ‘help the next texter’.
My first shift was scheduled to take place on a Wednesday afternoon in January, from 4pm to 6pm. I brew myself a tasty espresso, moved into our study, turned on some light background music and scattered a ton of ‘this is how’ documents across the floor around me. I was terrified, but somehow ready … until I hit that button and got connected to a real person.
I almost froze, let my espresso turn cold, had to turn off the music, clung to my notes, tried to follow the protocol as best as I could, used words and phrases not yet natural to me and … completely forgot about the human being on the other side. Clearly, I did not do well in my first shift and immediately thought: this is not for me. I tried, I failed, over to the next topic.
But wait a minute, I cannot just quit. Do I not owe it to CTL for spending all that money teaching me, and to all those texters who are in a real crisis – as opposed to me just freaking out over a bit of uncertainty and anxiety?
After a few days of licking my own wounds and weighing the pros and cons of sticking or quitting, I made myself the promise that if I sincerely wanted to end what I just started, I needed to at least have given it a genuine try; which meant taking as many conversations as necessary in order to arrive at a valid decision.
It turns out I did not quit after all and to this date have helped close to 30 texters – and many more to come – through a terrible moment in their lives. I am still in the process of finding my own voice, which is important for sounding like a real person as opposed to a robot. But I am much more comfortable in the setting of the conversation as well as confident in my own abilities. I also continue to receive feedback on my conversations from an assigned coach on a regular basis, which helps me perfect my skills.
I dedicate at least four hours every week to CTL and schedule most of my shifts for later in the evening, when my help is needed the most. With every hour on the platform, the number of texters increases exponentially and the later it is at night, the more people need support.
With me on the platform are all Crisis Counselors who are simultaneously taking their shifts as well as amazing supervisors, who are permanent employees and typically hold a degree in a mental health field, such as psychotherapy, social science or the like. It is a fantastic community where you feel welcome, supported and at home the minute you start volunteering.
Whenever I hit the ‘help the next texter’ button, I feel nervous as I never know in advance what type of crisis the texter is texting in for. Nor do I know any personal details of the texter, such as name, age, gender or location. This is all up to the texter to disclose or not and most texters decide to stay completely anonymous. This is perfectly fine and other than their first name, I never ask for anything. It just does not matter. What matters is to genuinely listen, support and meet the texter where they are.
When texters reach out, some want to develop coping skills, others just want to vent, some are looking for referrals to additional external services and many just need someone to lend them an ear (or eye in this case). Few conversations are single-issue, which helps me get better at handling everything and in addressing a broader range of texter situations.
Prevalent issues are depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, substance use, grief, relationship issues, abuse, domestic violence, loneliness, bullying or stress. Conversations typically last between 40 and 50 minutes, sometimes less when the texter has reached a cool calm and feels confident to move on, sometimes more when issues are of a more complex nature.
As I will hopefully be helping many more texters in the months and potentially years to come, I am realizing how much I am learning as I progress. I learn how to actively listen instead of listening and thinking about my response at the same time. I learn how to not assume, based on just a few lines of text. I learn to strengthen my empathy muscle, because sympathy is not empathy (check out this short and awesome video on the difference between the two). I learn that giving advice is not what an issue often requires. And I learn how to cope when things get rough, in my own life as well as the life of the people around me.
My work at CTL is probably one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done in my life. The most rewarding aspect of it is the feedback I get from texters who feel that the time they spent with me made a difference. ‘Thank you for being there’ is all it takes to make my day … or my night.