I recently joined my family in celebrating my grandmother's ninetieth birthday. As I was returning home, I started thinking about how much the world has changed. It's a long train ride home from the Bronx, with plenty of time to be reflective. The world has changed so much for me in the past few years, especially with the AIDS world currently in what Eric Rofes calles "The Protease Moment," that I can barely conceive what it must be like for her.
My grandmother was born in 1908. It is amazing to me to realize that this little old Puerto Rican woman, still alert, still feisty, has lived through such world-altering events as the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, several famous murders (like those of Archduke Ferdinand and the Lindbergh baby), two world wars, and countless smaller conflicts. She saw the '20s, the '30s, the '40s ... all the way up to the end of the '90s. Technology has sprinted past my grandmother. Think about it: planes, television, computers -- and, of course, telephones.
Growing up in the slums of San Juan, she never even saw a phone until she moved to New York City after World War I. What must life have been like without telephones?
AdvertisementNo phones? No talking to my boyfriend late at night? No calling friends across the country? No calling for movie schedules? For Chinese food? No interviews by phone? No calling anyplace any time for information? That's almost impossible for me to imagine. As I sit here at my computer, listening to a CD, I look at my telephone in awe. Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell and James Earl Jones.
There are all sorts of wonderful things that one can say about the telephone. (There are, of course, all sorts of negatives as well, but let's not go there.) Maybe one of the best things, in terms of counseling and social services, is that the telephone provides a unique way to get services to people. It is an invaluable tool for sharing information and helping those in crisis. It cuts across the established counseling strategies by making time and setting irrelevant.
An entire specialty of crisis assistance and intervention has developed because of this piece of technology. The ability to speak to someone safely, anonymously, and confidentially presents an incredible opportunity for individuals to share what they can't share with friends or family. For many people, talking to a stranger about a problem or concern can be a salutary and liberating experience. Probably the closest thing to it is the Roman Catholic practice of confession, where a person can speak to a counselor in a relatively anonymous and confidential fashion. The opportunity to get any kind of real help in the middle of a crisis is not something to take lightly. The telephone offers that opportunity, safely and usually just for the price of the call.
Today, telephone hotlines and helplines are basic counseling venues, providing all forms of support to all types of folks. There are breast cancer hotlines, suicide hotlines, STD hotlines, hotlines that deal with sexuality, drug crisis hotlines, psychic hotlines, and the mother of all crisis hotlines, 911.
I remember working on a drug crisis intervention hotline at a drop-in center in the mid-'70s, where I did counseling and pill IDs for people. (This was in the days before "Just Say No," that incredibly successful drug abuse prevention campaign, about as effective as the War on Drugs.) The calls ranged from "I took three tabs of blotter and I'm freaking out, man" to "If I take this light blue pill, what will happen?" Our clients' ability to talk to someone about drugs anonymously and confidentially -- someone who was fairly objective, empathetic, and nonjudgmental -- made our hotline very successful. Hearing only the counselor's voice gave the caller permission to speak freely, even to project unconscious thoughts or feelings into this instrument.
That's what can make hotlines successful, that sense of freedom. The fact that someone is there to hear you out and provide you with what you need telephonically, not face to face, makes hotlines a necessity in a time when so many of us fear the loss of our privacy.
Articles on telephone hotlines and counseling services in this issue: