What is it that’s said about volunteering?
Ah, yes – that it looks good on a resume. That you’ll get references for future jobs. That it provides experience in a field that may be unattainable without some experience. Mostly, though, it brings you purpose and value, as you are giving your time freely for a cause that you hold dear to your heart.
But what if that very thing destroys you inside? How can you look someone in the face and say…
I hate volunteering at the crisis hotline?
Well, I did it. And it was the hardest thing I had to do. However, it wasn’t as bad as volunteering for that horrible place.
I remember the first time I had to answer the phone. It was my second observation shift, and the jaded, blasé volunteer supervising me wanted to put me on the phone as quickly as possible so he could shirk his duties for the rest of the shift.
I can never erase this sequence of events from my brain.
Phone rings. Pulse starts racing. Sweat pools on my hands. Voice gets caught in my throat. Press the rubber button. Mind goes blank.
The call went fine. A lady in a hospital bed felt like killing herself, but I knew she wasn’t in danger because of the nurses all around her. Despite my nervousness, I steeled myself and thought back to what I had told myself earlier that day: you are good at everything you attempt.
The next call didn’t go so great.
I went home that night and cried like I had never cried before; my body wracked with sobs, tears finding their way down my collar bones. I looked at my boyfriend and I told him what should have been a glaring sign that this volunteering gig wasn’t for me: I can’t do this.
For the next six months, I dug myself deeper in a well of anxiety-ridden night shifts and Sunday afternoons. I felt torn between accepting that I sucked at something and moving on, and honoring the one year contract I had signed.
Meanwhile, I’m hearing about schizophrenic sons running into the streets hoping to get killed by passing cars, women secretly suffering from borderline personality disorders wanting to abandon their children, regular callers using the volunteers on the phone as a coping mechanism for their chronic loneliness and hate. Lots and lots of hate: for society, for absent families, for asshole husbands, for me.
I, admittedly, feel horrible complaining about my own anxiety dealing with the callers. They are the ones that truly suffer; their life is an everyday struggle. The least I can do is lend them a helping ear for a few minutes, shake it off, and live my life to the fullest.
That’s what I kept telling myself, as the days got shorter, the meals I ingested fewer, the smiles I flashed rarer.
It wasn’t so much the callers I was having such a hard time with. Most of the time, the calls ended on a high note, a testament to the resilience and strength people conjure up daily. What really killed me was the apprehension of what was coming next. I jolted at every phone call, afraid of the unknown.
I finally broke down, set up a meeting with a supervisor, and wrote down how I felt. As I was reading her my letter, I finished with this:
It’s really hard for me to open up like this. I’m not used to failure and I’m really disappointed in myself.
I felt this weight lift from my shoulders, and that was it. No more shifts, no more phone calls.
I learned many things. Nobody is good at everything. Nobody is meant to do everything. You can’t stick with good intentions if what you are doing is killing you inside.
It was a lesson in humility, and I bow down to all the crisis hotline volunteers out there.
Because what you’re doing? Listening to all the soul-crushing human stories of loss, hurt and suffering? It sucks. It really, really sucks.