It was 11:45 a.m. yesterday when the first Christmas crisis call came into the holiday hotline, shifting all attention from the television set where Melody Carrera squealed with delight at Bachelor No. 3 on "The Dating Game."
Michael Williams picked up the telephone and listened for several minutes as a man, depressed and crying, poured out his anger and loneliness.
"I understand, man, I understand. I know you feel real bad. There are a lot of people out there having the same problem," Williams said in a soothing, voice. "I don't really know you, but you seem like a good guy to me."
The man was spending Christmas alone in his Maryland apartment, said Williams, a volunteer for the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse hotline. "He was hurt and crying because he had spent all his money buying other people gifts and didn't get nothing from nobody in return."
Williams, other volunteers and paid counselors for the holiday hotline spent Christmas Day talking to anonymous alcoholics, drug addicts and other persons for whom the holiday season was far from festive. In the last three days they have taken nearly 300 such calls.
"For some people, Christmas is a depressing kind of time. Outwardly everyone's supposed to be happy but inwardly it's not that way," said Joseph Wright, director of information for the Council. "The year's coming to an end and you look at how it didn't turn out the way you wanted it to be."
Shortly after Williams hung up, a woman phoned the hotline and told Jesse Woods, a volunteer, that she didn't want Christmas to come. She didn't "feel good about this Christmas" and was taking tranquilizers and drinking heavily -- a potentially lethal combination -- to get through the holidays.
Woods cooed words of sympathy to the sobbing woman. "Hey, I'm willing to listen. What you're doing isn't safe. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
As he hung up, drained from the encounter, Woods turned to James Norris, a senior counselor for the six-year-old hotline, and said "You listen to quite a bit of this, man. How do you cope?"
Norris shook his head. In the beginning it hurt so much. You can't take on anyone's problems but you feed it back to them and make them look at what's bothering them.
"It hurts," he said. "One woman had me praying with her every night for a whole week. She almost had me in tears."