In the Crisis Room

Apparently, every five years or so, I write a poem. The last one was about visiting Las Vegas for the first time.

Below is a new one, based on my internship answering suicide and crisis hotlines at a behavioral health agency. I wrote it for a class assignment in which we were asked to reflect on our internship experience.

When Logic performed his song about suicide at the Grammy Awards last June, my supervisors staffed up in the crisis room because they knew call volume would spike. That’s not because people suddenly got more desperate. It’s because they took the song’s message to heart: You are not alone.

If you or someone you know is in distress, there are people waiting to talk to you right now at 150 call centers across the U.S. that answer the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Here’s my poem about what it feels like to work the hotlines.

In the Crisis Room

My phone bleats like a lamb
needing feeding.

Around me my coworkers chatter, snack,
compare shades of nail polish
and then their phones ring
and they are asking:

“Any thoughts of suicide today?”

I am a calm center in the storm of noise.
I am the eye of the hurricane.
I am the hostage negotiator, the expert, the genius.
I am the idiot, the stupid bitch who can’t help,
who couldn’t talk her way out
of a paper bag.

My phone trills like a mockingbird.

Will it be a kid in tears?
An aging warrior, taking off his armor
long enough to dial?

I show my colleague how to conference call.

I ask a caller how he’s kept going, feeling this way
feeling worthless, alone
feeling like nothing
for months, for decades.

I document. I triage. I call the police.

I wait for the phone to ring.

It rings. No angel gets its wings.

But a human voice is trapped on the other end,
like a firefly in a jar.

I pick up the phone: “I’m happy to talk with you.
Are you having thoughts of suicide?”

“No, HELL no.”
“I don’t—I mean, not really.”
“Doesn’t everyone?”
“Like I’m stupid enough to answer THAT question.”
“Gonna call the cops on me?”
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.”
“No, but I’m scared about my friend…”

My phone keeps ringing. I keep answering.

Keep helping. Keep floundering. Keep listening. Keep validating.

My phone keeps ringing. I keep answering.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255


A Poem for Harold Lloyd

Silent film star Harold Lloyd hangs from a clock several stories up on the outside of a tall building.Harold on the Clock

Keep climbing, Harold, even though
it was supposed to be your buddy
and not you
seven stories up
the outside of the department store.

Los Angeles tilts around you
and you cling
to the façade.

Your fiancée runs up the stairs inside
Taking the sane route, you the mad one.
Later, you’ll meet on the roof
Press your pursed lips together
The only kind of screen kiss
chaste enough for 1923.

Moviegoers swooned
to see you stagger on the window ledge,
to see the fragile minute hand of the clock
support your flailing body weight.

Did they have to look away,
as you once did
when you saw another stuntman
make this same scramble?

Did they know
you were climbing the building
with only one hand, the other
half blown off
years before
when a prop grenade
turned out
not to be
a prop?

Almost 100 years later,
my own palms are sweaty
as you face danger after
danger: vicious attack pigeons!
A falling badminton net!

Your glasses had no glass in them.
Your eyes, though also damaged by the blast,
were sharp and clear.

You scaled the building,
almost literally knocking
yourself out.

And then you got the girl.
Onscreen and off.

And she got you.

Inspired by the movie Safety Last (1923). Watch it on Kanopy!
Image from the same film, retrieved from the Music House Museum.