Night Lives: Haley Lillibridge works the CrisisLink suicide hotline

June 27, 2011

An alcoholic picks up a knife and a cellphone in his hotel room somewhere in Northern Virginia.

He decides to use the phone first.

He dials 411, asks for a suicide hotline and is connected. His cellular SOS manifests as a quiet trill on a black phone in a spare cubicle in a fluorescent-lit basement in Arlington.

Haley Lillibridge regards the 571 area code that pops up on her computer, lets her phone ring twice, then picks up. The time is 3 a.m.

“This is CrisisLink.”

The voice on the other end sounds quiet and lost. The voice says he’s thinking about committing suicide.

“We’re really glad you called tonight,” Haley says.

The voice tells her about the alcoholism.

“Mmhmm.”

About how his wife left him.

“Mmhmm.”

About how his kids didn’t call on Father’s Day.

“Mmhmm.”

The voice on the other end tells her about other private, painful matters, about realizing that he’s lost everything. The voice tells her about the knife.

“It sounds like you’re feeling worthless, insignificant, that people would be better off without you,” Haley says, setting up a pivot. “What’s kept you going?”

She absorbs the catalogue of woe, one “mmhmm” at a time, her heart rate quickened but steady, her eyes following her note-taking. Haley is 25. She lives in Gaithersburg. She just got her master’s in professional counseling from Liberty University. She has worked at CrisisLink, a crisis hotline for suicide prevention based at the Arlington Urgent Care Center, for a year and a half.

“I’m concerned about your safety,” she says. “It sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”

Suicide-related calls between midnight and 8 a.m. — Haley’s shift — were up 90 percent from 2009 to 2010. America tosses and turns in the wee hours, when there are fewer distractions, when dark nights of the soul climax in last-ditch dialings of 1-800-SUICIDE.

“I’d like you to be alive for your family. . . . I’m hearing how miserable you are.”

After her fellow counselor Amanda Hendricks leaves at 4 a.m., it’s just Haley and the numbing white noise of the AC intake over her head. Haley and the night and the voices on the other end. Haley and a plastic container of diced pineapple and a nearby magnet that says, “LIVES DEPEND ON US.” The job shows her how devastating loneliness can be. The job humbles her, makes her even more grateful for her family.

“So you’re adamant about living and wanting a full life. So it sounds like a treatment facility would be good. I’d be happy to look up a referral for you.”

Sometimes it’s enough for people to know that someone, somewhere, is listening.

Sometimes it’s not.

About six months ago, there was a voice she couldn’t save. He called from Pennsylvania. He said he was a veteran of Desert Storm and a firefighter in New York on Sept. 11.

He said he was wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder, by hallucinations. He said he recently witnessed a car accident. Had pulled a young girl’s body from the wreckage. The lethality of life had swamped him again.

Haley followed the CrisisLink model. She empathized. She helped him reflect. She explored the caller’s intentions, offered to connect him to immediate or eventual mental-health services. He called back several times that night. She coaxed him away from the brink. He promised her he’d stay safe.

He didn’t.

A family member called the next day to say he’d sat in a closed garage with his car running. CrisisLink was the last outgoing number in his cellphone. He’d mentioned the call in his suicide note. He talked about things he’d never talked about before on that call, he wrote. It was a special kindness, he wrote, having a compassionate stranger attend to his wounds.

It was not enough.

“Now you say after talking you feel less desire to kill yourself,” Haley says to the voice with the knife in the hotel. “Now can you promise to stay safe tonight and give us a call back if you don’t feel safe? . . . You know we’re here 24/7 for you. . . . I’m so glad you called. . . . Take care.”

Haley places the receiver back in its cradle.

A 50-minute call. Unusually long.

Was it enough?

The phone rings again.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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