| Risk Factor |

The Silent Caller

"I know others who have also wanted to give up, but I want you to know they made it out"

 

I was walking out of a café when someone stopped me right at the door. 

“I was listening to your shiur and I don’t agree with something you said,” the guy said, standing way too close to me. He poked me in the arm. “Your pshat on that Maharal makes no sense.” 

I was fantasizing about what I could reply when my phone rang. I glanced at the screen — blocked number. 

I don’t usually pick up blocked calls, but this situation definitely called for an exception. “Sorry,” I told the guy who was not only standing too close and poking me but also mistaking me for my brother Ari, “I really need to take this call.” I really did.

I swiped the screen as I walked to my car. “Hello?”

Silence.

“Hello?” I said again. I stopped walking and listened more closely. 

There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end and a long, slow exhale. Whoever the caller was, he was in a bad place and trying to calm down. 

I didn’t have much information to go on, but sometimes you just have to work with what you have. Whoever was on the line didn’t want to speak, but clearly wanted to be spoken to, or he wouldn’t have called. I guessed it was a teen. Most of the calls I get are from teens or parents; parents always talk because that’s why they called in the first place. Teens will talk very little and only when they want to. But this was a different category: the silent caller.

When you’re talking to a silent caller you need to remember three things. First, actions speak louder than words — they may not be saying anything, but they called, and that’s very telling. Second, the sooner you get them to talk, the better. And third, you might be the only one talking, but talk for as long as you can. With jokes, if possible. 

I waited a beat just in case someone with an Indian accent wanted to know if I was interested in switching phone companies. 

It didn’t happen. I got another deep breath, this time with a small sob. 

“Okay,” I started. “The truth is, I’m really happy that you called. I really need to talk to someone, I’m having one of those days, know what I mean?” 

No response. 

“Of course you do. The only difference is you don’t have anyone to talk to,” I continued. “It’s funny, most people don’t have anyone they feel comfortable opening up to, but everyone thinks they’re the only ones who are alone. The world is funny like that, I guess.” I paused, hoping for something, anything, even just a clue that would give me some indication of age or at least gender.  

Dead silence.

Panicked breathing.

I started talking again. “In my experience, the only reason not to talk is because talking hasn’t worked until now. It can be really frustrating, I get it. Lucky for you, I would be talking to myself whether or not you were on the phone. Actually,” I continued, “I think that’s part of the reason we sometimes feel that talking won’t solve anything. It’s not only that people aren’t listening to us — we aren’t even listening to ourselves. Look at me right now, I would have just kept going about my day without getting in touch with how I feel or acknowledging what a difficult week I’ve had. But then you called, and now I get a few minutes to reflect.” 

I paused for a beat. We had been on the phone for ten minutes already, and I hadn’t learned a thing about the caller. There were two ways this could go. Either the silent caller would eventually start talking; to accomplish that, I needed to build rapport and trust. On the other hand, the caller could hang up at any moment, in which case I want to get in as much positivity and sense of connection as possible. Everything I was saying was an attempt to support both outcomes. But first I had to give the caller a reason not to hang up.

“I’m feeling down about an old student of mine,” I said into the phone. “He was in my shiur a few years back. His name was Eli. You two actually have a lot in common. He also hated to talk.” I closed my eyes. “Anyway, he did something stupid, and I’m trying to figure out how I could have talked him out of it. You know,” I said, “I can’t tell if you’re male or female, so I’m going to call you Eli — that can be for a boy or girl. And I can practice for the next time I need to convince someone not to do something they’re going to regret.”

I waited. No objection. The caller was still on the line.

“Okay, Eli,” I said, picturing him as I had last seen him. “I know you don’t want to talk and I respect that. But just because you’re done talking doesn’t mean that everyone is done listening. I know sometimes it feels like giving up is your only option and that the heavy sadness you feel every waking moment will never go away. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I see how sad you are, I see it in your eyes when you walk into my class. I wish I could just snap my fingers and make it all go away. But I can’t. All I can do is tell you that I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. The darkness will not last. Even though it feels endless now, it will pass. Not by itself. It takes work. Hard work. But I’m here for you every step of the way. I know others who have also wanted to give up, but I want you to know they made it out. Step back, take a deep breath. No matter how bad it is in the moment, promise yourself that you won’t get swallowed up by it. Let it pass. And reach out for help. You’re stronger than you know. It’s not too much to handle. You haven’t gone too far. You can take control right now and let yourself live.”

I could hear crying and sobbing. Gradually it subsided. Deep breaths. 

Then the call ended.

I let out my breath. I had been holding onto that for a long time. Two years. 

Two years since I watched Eli being gently lowered into the ground. I had spoken to him the day before. Four hours before he had taken his own life. I wasn’t worthy of being the one to talk him out of it. 

I made a promise that day, and today I kept it. 

To Eli, the silent caller: If you’re out there, so am I.


Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 803)

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