Living Without a Net

By Anne C. Woodlen

(Karl Wallenda created his crowning achievement -- the seven-person chair pyramid. Four men stood on a wire 35 feet in the air [without a net], two pairs yoked together by shoulder bars. On top of them on the second level stood two more men, again yoked together with a shoulder bar. At the pinnacle of this pyramid was a woman sitting and then standing on a chair! On January 30, 1962, while performing at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, the front man on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground, the rear anchorman alone remained standing on the wire. Karl and his brother Herman fell to the wire from the second level. The girl at the top level landed on Karl and he miraculously held her until a makeshift net could be held beneath her. Two of the three men who fell to the earth died that night, the third, Karl's son Mario, survived, though he is paralyzed from the waist down). (

I volunteer to answer phone calls on a support line. I do it twice a week for a total of eight hours. I used to get a stipend of $3.00 an hour for my work, but tonight the supervisor called and said the funding’s been cut—again—and now they can only pay me $2.00 an hour. I said I’d still do it.

Most of the phone calls we receive are from regular callers. There’s the guy in Poughkeepsie who lives in his brother’s basement. The woman who never can make up her mind without help. The guy who thinks he’s Hitler’s son. The homeless person on the streets of Chicago. The hospital inmate who refuses to wear her dentures but can’t be understood without them. They call every week, every day, every shift. We know them, and we know what to say to them.

They call from all over the place. Some are five miles down the road; some are a thousand miles away. I’ve had calls from a 13-year-old boy worrying about his girlfriend and an 80-year-old woman sitting by her husband’s deathbed. I’ve had calls from people who are depressed, people who are angry, people who are lonely—mostly, from people who are so alone that they have to call strangers to have someone to talk to.

I’d been answering calls for about six months when I got my first “Wallenda.” His name was Federico and he was talking so low I could hardly hear him. Psycho-logically, he was flat-lining. Hardly breathing for fear my breath sounds would drown out his voice, I listened to him, talked to him.

I’m good at talking. I’ve been doing this psych business for 44 years. I’m a consumer/ex-patient/survivor. The people who volunteer on my line are not like the people on other support lines. We’ve been there, done that. Our knowledge is not book learning. Our knowledge is experience. We are qualified by virtue of our success at surviving diagnoses of mental illness. I know everything—the things they call paranoia and delusions and schizophrenia and bipolar and simply confused all to hell.

I don’t call them anything. They’re just people who need somebody to talk to. I’m somebody. I talk to them for so many hours that I have to wear support bandages on my wrists to hold the phone. I know what to say to them. I’m good.

But not tonight. Not with Federico. He doesn’t have enough emotional energy to fight. He’s dying. He’s been lying on his bed for endless days, not moving. Half asleep, half dead. No friends, no family, no doctor, no job, no money, no therapist, no car, no health, no church, no health insurance, no medicine. I go down the litany, searching for something for him to hang onto. There’s nothing.

I am afraid. The fear races up and down my spine and knots my guts. This guy is walking a tightrope. He wants to die. There is nothing for him to hang onto. I’m all he’s got and if I blow it, he’ll die. This man’s life depends on me. I accepted the responsibility but I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.

I pray. There’s nothing else. “God. Help me. Help this guy. Give me the words. Put the words in my mouth. God, I give you this guy. I trust you. Hold him. Carry him. Help him.”

I talk. I just keep talking, slow and easy. Don’t let him know you’re afraid. Just let him hear your voice, even, caring, say his name, make it personal. The more we talk, the more he let’s go, sinking into his despair.

I tell him I know, tell him how I understand. I’ve been there. You’re not talking to some pretty face, guy—you’re talking to me, Annie, and here’s how it was for me. I describe my version of his version so he’ll know I know him and what he’s going through.

I breathe slow and even, desperately searching my memory: What saved me? When I was this way, how’d I make it through the night? What worked?

Federico tells me that he tries to tell himself it will get better but he can’t anymore, can’t tell himself that.

“Then I will tell you,” I say. “I will say it for you. It will get better.” I tell him how well I am doing now, how good it is for me. I tell him that he is like me and good days are ahead of him, too. There is absolutely nothing for him to hang onto, so I give him me. He has no strength to hang on, so I say, I will hold onto you.

He starts to fade, apparently satisfied, somehow relieved. He has said the worst: I want to die; I can’t go on living; I can’t hold on. And somehow, having said that, the burden has been lifted, has been passed on to me, no longer crushes his shoulders.

He starts to drift off. I tell him, loud and clear, that we’re here all the time [don’t think about the funding cuts, I tell myself] and he can call us whenever he wants to. Keep the number by your telephone. Call back. Anytime.

After he hangs up, I call my supervisor, gasping, sobbing, shaking. You done good, she says. Then she tells me to call the next volunteer on the line and give her a heads-up. Let her know the specifics of this guy in trouble. Pass him on from hand to hand; don’t drop him.

On our support line, we don’t call the cops or the mental health system. We don’t provide directions to doctors and drugs. What we have learned is that police and doctors get you locked up, and doctors and drugs ruin your life. You are who you are, and taking drugs for the rest of your life doesn’t fix you, it just numbs you. Instead of dying all at once, you live half-dead as long as you take drugs.

If I could put Federico on antidepressants and take him off them in six months, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t have the power to get him off drugs. And the system says depression is a chemical imbalance and you have to take antidepressants for the rest of your life. The system is wrong.

I took antidepressants for twenty-eight years, and have been drug-free for four years. I know.

And I will not send Federico into the darkness where I lived. He must make it or break it now—and I will be there for him.

I keep thinking about Federico, thinking he’s on a tightrope, on a wire, a bird on a wire. Then I hear a news story about Mario Wallenda, paralyzed from the waist down. He’s around sixty, and he says he’s going to ride an electric bicycle across a tightrope. Yeah, says his wife, and he’s crazy, too.

A week goes by and I get another one on a tightrope. Her name is Catherine. Drugs, alcohol, guilt, blame, sleeplessness, loneliness, fear. She’s already cut herself, and she’s holding a bottle of a hundred pills. By the time she’s ready to hang up, we have a plan for her to get some sleep. The plan includes ten pills, not a hundred. She may mess herself up but she won’t die—and it’s her choice. One step at a time, she is figuring out how not to die.

I call the next volunteer and tell her we’ve got a Wallenda on the wire. Some of the Wallenda’s caught the wire, some fell, some broke, some died. I can’t decide life or death for them but if one catches my hand, by God, I will hang on.

I volunteer to answer phone calls on a support line. I do it twice a week for a total of eight hours. I used to get a stipend of $3.00 an hour for my work but tonight the supervisor called and said the funding’s been cut—again—and now they can only pay me $2.00 an hour. I said I’d still do it. She replied, “That’s what everybody’s said.”

There’s a Wallenda on the wire, and we will not let go.

Back to the MarkBlum Report

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