Everybody needs someone to talk to. I still have the Cookie Monster puppet that was a confidant during my kindergarten years, or at least I think it was. My mother insists I had many imaginary friends I consulted and conspired with, none of which I remember. I don’t question Cookie Monster and the other invisible friends. The only close friend I know for sure from that time is long gone: Mewang, our cat. A Siamese cat, named by my mom. She has a thing for them, providing their Hollywood-ethnic names.
I drove people crazy the past few years with long, tortured phone calls on the nature of guilt, selfishness, what is right or wrong. That they remain my friends is a testament to their innate goodness and has nothing to do with me. (Most have children, though, which must provide a some practice.) I felt strangled and overwhelmed, lost and without direction. Everything conflicted and cancelled itself out, and talking it out, talking it out, which I had never done, must be a way to certainty and resolution. So: do you have some time to talk this weekend? About the same things I keep talking about? They did, almost always.
One fulltime side benefit I had was an employee assistance program. Calling the 800 number connected with someone who could help with your drinking problem, your money worries, your STD shame. Since finding this number some jobs ago in the massive folder of new-job benefit booklets, I’ve called it off and on. The people are helpful, if sometimes distracted. They are not in a call center but somewhere very quiet, listening for a few minutes, always starting by asking if you’re safe, are you going to hurt yourself or someone else. No, I always say. I wonder how often someone says yes.
The kind people are a first-line filter. They have lists and guides and can suggest someone to talk to for your serious matter, sometimes for free. They’ve never talked with me for very long: just down the list, checking boxes in the Soothing Medical Or Services Professional Voice. I presume it’s something they take a class for. A few minutes later there is a local number, a name, the suggestion to call the crisis line if you need to, or 911. It is made clear the call is concluded.
My last fulltime job switched providers, and calling the new 800 number I expected the same: are you thinking about hurting yourself? all right, that’s good, so what’s the issue that has you calling us today?
I have troubles. I have a hard choice. I have gone over and over it and I don’t know what I think any more. I just wanted to talk to somebody.
Well, you can talk to me. How long have you felt this way?
I told her it had been a while. She asks about the issues I’m struggling with, what are the questions you have, give me some background. For some reason there is no reticence to describe in great detail my most strident, wrenching struggles to a stranger. The talk goes on and on. I am outside walking in a typical Northwest urban night: grey-black with pixel drizzle, the trees black stick mats, streetlights clouded with pink halos. I switch ears and keep walking different blocks.
Some things are your responsibility. Your health and well-being are your responsibility. Her health and well-being is hers. Ultimately we are all responsible for ourselves. I have a problem with that. It sounds selfish, conceited, self-absorbed. She keeps talking it through, angling back to other things I said: are those things not true? You’re coming to a point where you have to make a decision. You can gather yourself and go over it, and you want to be sure, but at some point there is no more sureness to be had.
We talk a long time that first night, but only after the call do I see it’s been two hours. She didn’t put me on hold, tell me to call someone else, say she couldn’t help. She kept listening and kept responding. It was a hard talk, as all talks with good therapists are with their sly refusal of your weaseling away. My ears are cold. My legs hurt from walking and my head swims, unsettled, working on all this and everything else said by anyone else. But I am grateful for the sense of sureness, how the phone picked up and the time was totally devoted to me. (Talk about selfish.)
I called her many times, always on the weekends when she worked. (I tried a weeknight and got a very kind but standard-issue sort of helper. Well, we really can’t provide much more than a referral for you. You already have a therapist, is that right?) The calls always started with Hello, my name is ____. I’m a counselor. What’s going on today? She never asked for insurance or employer information, never hinted I was taking advantage of anything. I remember asking her once if she would get in trouble for spending so much time with me, if she was supposed to be doing this. She laughed and told me not to worry about it. This call is about you. I had the thought that two hours without interruption might indicate she didn’t get many calls. She could be happy for some sad sack to call with his problems.
At one point I realized I had talked to her before, perhaps a year before, very briefly. I remember walking through the neighborhood, some snow still in pockets from one of our abortive sea-level snows, Christmas lights glowing and inflated Santas and polar bears wheezing and groaning on the groomed lawns. I had a plan, I said, for the coming year. I would make some decisions. Does that sound reasonable? Well, it sounds like you’re in a good place. You know who you are and you have a timetable, a set of things you know you need to do. I think you’ll be fine. The snow crunched and the sky held close to the colored lights, a new year breathing in the shadows. This year, I told myself, but I wasn’t any more sure. Remembering that, I wasn’t sure what year it was.
I didn’t call her during the hardest weeks. I’m not sure why. I had people with faces and names to talk to, a local counselor with abrupt and powerful energy. I was grasping at hard, immediate things in the present. I reserved phone calls for those few I’d known the longest. I kept them as short as possible. Things were changing but I knew they must have limits.
To be honest, I forgot about the employee assistance voice. Seeing the contact flick by planted the thought I should call her, but the weekends were full, or had passed. The desperate panic that had driven me to spend so much time on the phone had changed, become immediate and present but also dissipated and changed. In Hawaii there were other distractions, Monkey’s loud mouth, the time difference.
Last weekend I remembered. I stood looking out a window past shirts I needed to iron and listened to the ring, then: Hello, my name is ____. I’m a counselor. What can I help you with today? I had considered she might be gone, the number diverted, a machine or a standard-issue person there. But it was her, and I believed in small sucker’s luck. Hi, I said. I’m not sure if you remember me, but my name’s Derek. We last talked about a year ago I think. I was struggling with getting a divorce. Not even a pause: Oh yes, I remember very clearly. How did that work out?
No need for a long call, I’d thought before making it. My conscious reasoning was counselors must wonder what happens to people who abruptly stop coming, and there was no cost to let this person, who had helped me from sheer kindness, know how that story arc ended. I summarized moving out, living in Oscar’s attic, Hawaii, Kevin’s spare room, returning to work, the empty house heebiejeebies. She listened. It’s important to work through these things. It sounds like you have friends you can rely on. It will take you a while. It sounds like you’re doing all right.
I told her why I had called. Well, we always hope for the best. But it’s nice to know for sure.
When the call ends, a held, nestled space softens the walls. I breathe a few times as if something is done, and the sun peeks out. A woman three time zones over who I have never met has finished something with me, and the grace is momentum, and free.