Held the phone to his good ear.

I have written before about the way we sex workers are a great deal more than simply outlets for sexual desires, the way we must also be therapists and sin-eaters. …This was never more evident than when I was working as a phone sex operator. At least once every night someone would call hoping for psychological help of some sort.

Sometimes they just wanted advice on a small, actually sex-related issue (their spouse was cheating, what should they do?) but sometimes they wanted me to talk them out of suicide or explain to them that their life really was worthwhile and that they didn’t have to waste it if they didn’t want to. I’m not sure why these people didn’t find actual therapists. Obviously money wasn’t the issue: at $1.00 per minute they were paying as much, if not more, than most qualified professionals would charge. Yet they turned to me, a voice on a telephone, to give them the help they should probably have been getting from a real person.

It wasn’t just men who mistook my advertisement on Niteflirt for an advice service either, there were women too. During my time as a phone sex operator I had exactly one female caller who actually wanted phone sex, but the number of ladies who called to ask me for advice was astounding. While most of the questions were about what to do with the men in their lives, there were enough other questions (“I see you have a tattoo. I’m thinking of getting one, do they hurt really badly?”) that I wouldn’t have been too terribly surprised to field turkey-cooking questions in November.

At first, giving advice made me very uncomfortable. I wasn’t qualified to tell anyone how to deal with a cheating significant other! I couldn’t magically tap into the thoughts of all women and tell a man if a suit would be a good choice for a first date if I had no other information. I wasn’t even really qualified to tell anyone how best to get their significant other out of the rut of vanilla sex; though I’m sure I did a better job than Cosmo.

Eventually, though, I came to the conclusion that these people were coming to me knowing I wasn’t qualified. For all they knew I could have been a psychotic killer who hypnotized people with my voice and forced them to jump in front of cement mixers. They were getting off easy if my advice turned out to be not the greatest. I fell into a comfortable sense of complacency, and that’s where I was when I got my first really terrifying call.

“Hello,” I said in the thick Russian accent I used for my favorite profile, “My name is Sonia. How are you doing tonight, baby?”

“I’m not doing so well, Sonia,” said the guy on the other end, “I’m really just not doing so well.”

He sounded miserable. I hoped his life wasn’t so sad that he could only turn to phone sex in order to cheer himself up.

I cluelessly pressed on: “I’m sorry to hear that, but maybe we can have some fun together and cheer you up? What is it that you like to do, baby?”

“I don’t know Sonia, I don’t know. I want to kill myself.”

My first thought was, “No. This is not okay. How dare he?”

I had heard stories of people blowing their brains out on the line with phone sex operators. I didn’t want to be one of those phone sex operators. If he wanted to blow his brains out, he would have to find some other poor sap to pull that shit with. I was not going to be the one to hear it.

My second thought was, “Shit. He called Sonia. Am I going to have to talk some guy off a ledge in a Russian accent?”

I was.

When I was a teenager there had been my fellow goths, other girls who cut themselves and talked about death regularly, who spoke of stepping off “this mortal coil” without a trace of irony, but I had never encountered anyone who truly wanted to die. This guy, this person who hadn’t even given me his name, might actually want to die. Granted, I couldn’t know for sure. Maybe pretending to be suicidal was his fetish?

No, I had a real, live suicidal human being on my hands.

I kept my accent. “Well baby, I don’t know what to say. Don’t kill yourself. You should call, what is it you call it? Suicide hotline. You should not be calling me, I don’t have the right words. They have the words at suicide hotline. They can help you there.”

“I don’t want to call a suicide hotline; I want to talk to you. You’re so pretty, you look very kind.” It was true. The woman in the photographs on the profile I called Sonia was radiantly beautiful.

“I think I am kind but I don’t know that is enough. Please call the suicide hotline. I don’t even know your name, how can I help you?”

The gentleman was not responding to this reasoning. “My name is Gary,” he said, as if he believed I could help him if only I knew his name.

“Gary, why do you want to suicide?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Everything. I get so angry and them I’m so sad. I don’t understand anything, I work so hard but I never get anything back. It isn’t fair. I’m just alone and I don’t want to be like this anymore.”

I had no idea what to say. I, too was sad. I, too was lonely if not exactly alone. I, too, worked very hard and felt I was going nowhere. My life, as well as Gary’s, was a mess, yet I had zero interest in killing myself. This impulse was alien to me and I didn’t understand what to do with it.

As Gary talked about his life and tragedies, I tried to formulate a plan. He told me how his boss didn’t respect him, how he never got the girl, how when he did she always grew bored with him, how he used to play guitar but stopped several years ago and no longer had time for such things. His life did sound very depressing, but no more depressing than most people’s, certainly no more depressing than mine. He spoke at length about the horrors of everyday life, how it was all just too much for him. He wasn’t experiencing depression as I’ve ever experienced it (unable to get out of bed for days at a time) but it was clear that this poor guy needed some real help.

I decided to ask him how old he was. He sounded young, I hoped he was young. Perhaps I could formulate an argument based on his youth–there still being time for things to start looking up–and the fact that it’s kind of supposed to suck being young. Gary was twenty-seven. It was older than I had hoped, but I could still work with it.

“Twenty-seven?” I asked incredulously, “You are so young, only a little older than I am. Why are you already giving up? When you are young, that is when you struggle, that is when things are not always good and so you go out, you drink… you party… and have fun to forget struggle. You see me, I am twenty four. Do you think I like this job? I sit at home all night waiting for the phone to ring, I see nobody, I just hear voices on the other end of the phone.”

This seemed to mollify him a bit.

“You mean you aren’t happy?”

“No,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I go around with a rope about my neck looking for rafters.”

“But why not?” It seemed incredible to him that someone could be less than perfectly happy and still not want to die.

“Because there are better things coming. If you keep working things will get better. You have to have hope, Gary, you live in beautiful country, you have job, a place to live, food. There is no reason to suicide.”

He still seemed skeptical. Though I wanted to save him (I want to save everyone) I was no longer afraid of his blowing out his brains on the other end of the phone, kicking out the chair and giving me an earful of breaking neck and spluttering, or slitting his wrists in a tub, informing me of what a death rattle really sounds like.

Tragic as it was that Gary wanted to die, I began to see this conversation going in circles for hours, the two of us playing a game of “I want to die”/”Suicide isn’t worth it” until the sun started coming up. The Russian accent was becoming very difficult to keep up, and when Gary called I had been in the middle of watching Possessed with Joan Crawford. I wanted to get back to the fabulousness and away from the dolor.

“Listen Gary,” I said, “I know you say you want to talk to me because I am beautiful, but that does not mean I am smart. You should call suicide hotline and talk to them. They can give you better reasons for living than I can.”

After some cajoling he agreed. We hung up, and I never heard from him again. I hope he survived, or better yet got help, but there’s no way of knowing. Gary was only my first suicidal caller. There were many others, though I’m fortunate in that there were none who actually killed themselves while on the line]. It is disturbing to be faced with such misery, especially when you yourself are miserable.

Before Gary’s call, it had never occurred to me why suicide bothers people so very much. It was just death, I thought, and death happens. It’s tragic, sure, but people die all the time. My suicidal callers showed me how very different it is when someone takes his own life, or even threatens to take it: suicide goes against our natural instinct to survive, whatever the cost. People hack off their own arms just so they won’t die alone, crushed under rocks, just so they can keep going. Homeless people, people who have nothing, go on because, well why? Why do they go on, really, when there are people like Gary who have things and don’t want anything? It is terrifying to see a person, even a stranger, defy their deepest nature in such an awful way and it’s much worse to know that you can’t really do anything.

There have been times since then when I’ve used similar tactics–on people I know personally–to talk them out of suicide. So far it’s worked and I hope and believe I managed to save my callers, at least for a little while, but I can’t know. That might be the most awful thing, the not knowing. The fact that for a moment someone hands you their life, they say, in effect, “here is my life, please protect it” and you can’t ever really know if you succeeded or failed.