Many years ago, I volunteered for a suicide hotline. Although we were trained to take suicidal calls, callers in our four-hour shifts were not always at immediate risk of suicide. Many called simply in distress, some were chronically ill and called to “check in,” while others called because they felt lonely or isolated.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas, I volunteered for the morning shifts. Because the holidays are oriented around gathering with family and friends, I assumed loneliness would be a more common theme than during non-holiday shifts. Surprisingly, in my years of taking holiday calls I never received a single complaint of loneliness on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not one! The general complaints I did receive went something like this: “It’s as if I’m not really welcome. Nobody listens to a word I say” or “I don’t really like my family and I don’t think they like me.” Commonly, they lamented they would have to spend the day with their family and they just couldn’t stand it. I listened and as the calls ended, sometimes I was praised as a great communicator although I had said almost nothing.
Where were the lonely and isolated callers? After reflection, I came to think that perhaps these were the lonely callers. Perhaps the anger I was hearing and feeling from them was on the surface, while the underlying feelings were of loneliness and rejection. Perhaps the lack of a “good” internalized family connection left these callers feeling lonely as they anticipated being with their families. In retrospect, I saw myself providing a modicum of what they sought from their families. I listened and accepted what they said and the feelings they expressed. We could have a “good” connection and they could end the call feeling less lonely and isolated.