Editor's Note: "Stories from the Helpline" is a recurring feature on The Bilerico Project, bringing in the personal accounts of Helpline counselors from The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. This installment comes from Michael Vacha Jr., who is the west coast call center manager at The Trevor Project and a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC). He is also a volunteer Helpline counselor at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.
Every day, my e-mail inbox is flooded with letters from young people. They're crying out for help: they're alone, hopeless, and questioning their sexuality. They turn to "Dear Trevor" and The Trevor Helpline because they don't have anyone else. From my point of view, even as a social worker, it seems so implausible that nobody in their lives has ever said, "it's okay, you're not a freak, and you're not alone." So many of these young people are heartbroken; unsupported by their loved ones. However, so many of these young people are also incredibly brave in the face of abandonment.
This was the case when I took a call from a young person named Heather. She was not suicidal, however, the first thing I heard on the line was sobbing. The pain in her voice was profound. Heather reached out to us because she didn't have anyone else to turn to. Hearing the anguish in her voice, I wished I could reach through the phone and literally hold her in my arms. But because I couldn't actually do that, I did the next best thing. I listened to her story without judgment.
Heather told me that her mother had recently found out that she was dating a girl named Jessica. Immediately, her mother attempted to punish her for this behavior. She took Heather out of all extra-curricular programs at school; she had no cell phone and was grounded. Heather's parents are very strict Jehovah's Witness believers, and thus they sent her to a religious counselor. Heather told me that she had to make up a lie. "It was just something I tried," she told them. She did this out of fear of losing any semblance of a normal life. Her family is from Mexico and her parents repeatedly threatened to send her there if she continued to see her girlfriend. As Heather told me this, she emoted softly and said, "I don't want to go to Mexico. My life is here; this is everything I know."
Despite being so terrified of having her life completely uprooted, Heather didn't want to change. She told me about Jessica and how their relationship made her so happy. It was clear that she wanted so desperately to please her parents and be true to herself at the same time. Yet no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't stop seeing Jessica. And that was the final straw. When her mother found out, Heather was pulled out of school all together and put on independent study. Since then her life has been unimaginably hopeless. Everything she knew and loved has been taken from her. The most tragic part of this story is that most of her friends and schoolmates were supportive of her sexual orientation. Her friends even knew about her relationship and they were all generally encouraging. She even had supportive teachers at school. How amazing! This young girl had such a great support system, but now it's all gone. She said: "Now that I'm home schooled, I've all but lost touch with the outside world."
There is one exception, however. Heather still tries to see Jessica whenever she has a free moment. Unfortunately this isn't very often. She only sees Jessica when her mother isn't home and they usually only have the opportunity to hang out for a half an hour at most.
At the end of the call, Heather was seriously considering running away and trying to start a life for herself. She has tried to apply for jobs, but she is too young. At her request, I provided information on a homeless and runaway shelter in her area. I sincerely hope that she didn't end up running away and I hope that wherever she is now, she is safe.
I can't really say that I've ever felt so unsafe as a child that I really wanted to run away. I also can't say that I had a difficult or tough experience coming out. Sure it wasn't easy, but I've had the most incredibly supportive family, and even during my darkest moments as a teenager, I never felt alone. However, this isn't the case for most of the young people who access our services. As social workers, we're taught to separate ourselves: to provide empathy for our clients without taking on their emotions. I understand and agree with this, but sometimes compliance is an insurmountable feat. When a person is given the opportunity to connect with another person on such an intense level, they are going to be affected. I was definitely affected by this caller.
Hers is a story like so many others. And after taking so many calls, it's impossible to remember every story, but for some reason, I will never forget her. During that call I glimpsed into the life of a truly brave person. At the end of the call I made sure to commend her bravery. I admire Heather. Even though she seemed hopeless, not all hope was lost. She was relieved that someone took the time to listen to her story and she thanked me. The brightest glimmer of hope came from her own strength, before hanging up she said something that I will always remember: "If you would have asked me three months ago, I would have told you I wanted to change to make this all go away, but I don't want to change now. I want to be with Jessica."
I think we all have so much to learn from young people. This is why I feel so privileged to be a part of The Trevor Helpline. I learn from strong and brave individuals everyday. If you're interested in learning more about our programs such as "Dear Trevor" or how to be a Helpline counselor, please visit our Web site at TheTrevorProject.org.
Be sure to check out our previous installment of "Stories from the Helpline" from volunteer Wing-Sum Doud and Adrienne Smith.