Compassion Fatigue

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The Drunk

Finally, scoffed the caller, I was on hold for nearly twenty minutes! Do you realize that!

“I apologize for that wait,” Brian started. “It’s a bit of a crazy night, and we are short staffed. I’m happy I got you now. What has brought you to calling in tonight?”

As Brian spoke, he periodically checked over his shoulder to see out the window. The figure had moved in closer, its blank head now positioned directly in the window, so that it could better stare at him. Brian was certain of it now, having a closer look, it had no face. Just a clean layer of skin, pulled over where it’s face should have been. A shiver traveled down Brian’s spine. How was that possible? What was it? What did it want with him?

Oh, so you’re happy? the man on the other end of the line remarked sarcastically. Well, I’m happy that you’re happy that you made me wait for twenty minutes. I am not happy at all. How old are you even? Can I speak to your supervisor?

Brian wanted to sigh, but he swallowed it. No matter how horrific his situation was, it wasn’t worth it to take it out on the callers. They had no idea what he was going through right now, and it wasn’t their job to pretend to understand. That was his job.

“Unfortunately, I am the supervisor tonight,” Brian said.

It was the truth, but Brian had never seen those words garner positive results.

Wow. They really know what they’re doing over there, promoting a kid to supervisor.

Brian was 22 years old.

“If you’d like, we can have a conversation about what I could be doing better to best assist you in this call tonight,” he explained. “Or we can put it behind us and focus on why you called in the first place.”

The man growled.

Is there someone else I can talk to, a woman perhaps? This is already a terrible experience; I don’t see it going well.

Brian looked around the room, almost passive aggressively. He knew there was no one else there tonight. He was the only person in the state answering this hotline right now; that was the reality of the situation. The hotline was never properly funded, and Brian barely made enough money to pay his own rent. Mental health and social services were simply not valued by the government. Brian had discussions with callers, just like this one, almost every night, alone.

No, there was no one else to answer the phone. Brian was the only one there. Just Brian, and the shadowy monster on the other side of the door.

“It’s just me,” Brian said.

His patience was dwindling. In the queue there were three other calls waiting, and it really felt like a waste of their time, and his own, to continue arguing with this guy. But Brian had made him wait thirteen minutes (it wasn’t twenty, Brian could see that on his computer screen), and so he felt he owed this caller a few more attempts at rapport building before he moved on to the next.

“What’s got you calling in tonight, man?” Brian asked, trying to sound more personable. “I’d really like to talk to you about it, if I can.”

As those words left his mouth, Brian had an idea. He slipped his cellphone out of his hoodie pocket and started to text his boss. He was asleep, but it couldn’t hurt to try and ask for his help to address the lurking thing in the hallway.

Hey, John.

Brian typed.

I have a bit of a situation at the call center. Could really use your help if you see this. Thanks in advance.

No immediate response. Brian had expected as much, but it was worth a shot.

I don’t think you’d understand, you sound like a kid. Probably haven’t experienced much life yet. I don’t think you can help me.

“Try me,” Brian said. “I may be young, but I have had a lot of training to help people like you. I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Just tell me about it and see how it goes. If you don’t think I’m helping, you’re welcome to hang up.”

What’s up Bri?

Brian felt a sudden surge of hope. He felt bad for waking John up; he usually took a lot of pride in being able to handle shifts solo. If nothing else, he hoped that would communicate to John that whatever was going on was serious, serious enough for him to reach out at all.

Have you ever even lost someone, kid? You’re answering this phone number with no real-life experience I bet. Never even lost someone close to you, how can you understand what I’m going through.

This was becoming a lot of moving parts for Brian to manage mentally and emotionally. He was trying to have two conversations at once, all while being observed by who knows what that thing was. He almost felt like the creature was mocking him, intentionally. The way it was just standing there even still, watching him work. Meanwhile, Brian didn’t appreciate the remarks the caller was making about him. He knew he shouldn’t take it personally; this man was in crisis and grief… but Brian had lost people. The caller’s words were becoming harder to disconnect from.

There’s someone here, outside of the call center. They won’t go away.

“This call isn’t about me and whom I may or may not have lost. Have you lost someone? Maybe recently? Is that why you are asking me?” Brian said as he texted John.

No, I’m asking you a question. Answer it. Have you ever even lost anyone?

He was drunk; that was becoming very clear. More reason Brian shouldn’t let the man’s words hurt him. But they did. Brian thought about the people he lost all the time. Just because he was young, just because they weren’t dead, the man assumed he had never experienced loss.

Probably just a homeless client. Just ignore them, I’m sure they’ll get tired and go away. If not, you can try talking to them, telling them to leave.

Brian rolled his eyes; this was a very typical response from his boss. When Brian was called in to handle a shift, in John’s eyes, that made the night Brian’s responsibility. Which was fair, Brian liked being self-sufficient. This was different, but he was starting to wonder why he bothered reaching out in the first place.

I think it is a bit more complicated than that. Can you call the police for me?

“Of course, I’ve lost people; that’s life. Who have you lost? It sounds like they were important to you. Has their loss lead you to think about suicide?”

The man was laughing at him.

Got it all figured out, do you? Bet they train you to say that. You ain’t really lost anyone. You’re just a kid.

Four calls in the queue now.

“I have,” Brian spat, it just slipped out. “Now are you going to work with me, or do I have to end the call?”

The police? And put a homeless client in jail? Come on Brian, you can handle this yourself. Is the door locked? Just wait it out, they won’t just stand there all night.

Brian looked out the window of the door. The thing cocked its head at a seemingly painful angle. Somehow, Brian wasn’t convinced that it was going anywhere else tonight.

Oh! He’s a tough guy. Aint such a kid after all, haha.

Five calls in the queue.

“It’s not like that man,” Brian said, “I’m trying to help you, but this call doesn’t seem to be helping you. At this point, I’ll have to hang up. Call us back when you’re sober.”

Ok, fine. I’ll wait it out.

Brian turned off his phone screen and slid it back into his pocket.

You hang up on me, I’ll just call right –

Brian hung up. Before he could react or try to calm down, another call routed into his headset. There was a small beeping noise, as his phone answered the call automatically.

Umm… Hello? Is someone there? Said the voice of an older woman.

Brian took a very deep breath.

“Yes, hello,” he said. “This is the Community Crisis Line. How can I help you tonight?”

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