“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.