I never thought I'd be giving out my phone number on the internet, but there I was, just before midnight, tweeting this message: "Whatever it is that keeps your mind racing, that makes you feel like you're the only person in the world who is going through this text me. I'm here. You're not alone."
It was March 24, 2018, and earlier that day, 800,000 protesters had assembled on Capitol Hill for the March for Our Lives, and another 200,000 of us had gathered in midtown Manhattan to support the survivors of, and families affected by, gun violence. I held my sign, chanting and singing along with the crowd, and when we reached the end of our route, I checked social media from my phone.
The pain in the virtual sphere was palpable. It had been building for a long time. I could see it in the angry rants and heartbreaking posts, in the finger-pointing and the calls for action. In these dark and confusing times, when vitriol and hate were circulating freely on the web, it seemed many people needed help and healing, and I, like many others, felt helpless. My hands were idle, and my heart was full. The least I could do, I thought, was listen.
So that night I downloaded Burner, an app that allows you to create a disposable phone number. Once I had my new digits, I crafted my invite, letting thousands of Twitter users know I was there for them. I posted it, and then I waited.
What Not to Say
By morning, I had almost a hundred messages. I began reading them and soon realized I was holding my breath. What had I done? Who the hell was I to be helping anyone with their problems? Then I reminded myself: My only goal is to make sure they know they're not alone.
"I miscarried last week" one woman texted from a Detroit area code. I had miscarried recently enough that the hurt was still fresh. I told her that I was sorry for her heartbreak. I asked her if she knew if it was a boy or a girl. I asked if she had named him. "Rafael. After my grandfather," she said. She was still typing when the next text came in.
"My husband is cheating on me, and I don't know how to leave him," a newlywed wrote from Sedona, Arizona. She told me about their wedding and their vows, and said she had never felt so betrayed in her life. I told her to put the good memories in the safe; no matter what happened next, what they shared could still be cherished.
As I responded to the messages that kept trickling in, every cell in my brain compelled me to bring up my own, similar experiences and what I had learned from them. I had to check myself repeatedly.
Journalist Celeste Headlee, an expert on the art of conversation, later explained that impulse to me: "Neuroscientists have discovered that what they call self-disclosure—talking about yourself—activates the pleasure center of your brain, the same pleasure center that's stimulated by orgasm and opioids." When you're listening to someone talk about their struggles, you get uneasy, so you tell a story or offer some hard-earned wisdom. "It makes you feel better. But it didn't make them feel better," says Headlee, who wrote We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.
It's natural to feel uncomfortable when you hear about another person's pain, she says, "but that's the sacrifice you're making for them."
Over the next few days, people texted from all over the globe and told me about the family they'd lost by death or disownment, the jobs they'd been fired from or the dreams they gave up on, the relationships that were ending or spiraling, and the illnesses they couldn't fight any longer.
And then came a text from Dallas that made me put all the other conversations on hold: "I do not want to live anymore, no one would even notice if I were gone."
I quieted my urge to tell him he was loved and that everything would be all right; I didn't know if either of those things were true. Instead, I kept him talking. I asked where he grew up and whether he liked hiking or the beach. I asked what he liked to eat and whether or not he knew how to cook.
Eventually, he started talking about his life, the one he wanted to leave behind. And what he told me was not at all shocking. He described feelings we had in common: He was tired, lonely, uninspired, and so often he felt like nothing he did mattered.
I asked him what he would do if he decided to stay for another day, another month, another year. He said he'd go meet his uncle for breakfast tomorrow, plan a hiking trip next month, maybe move out of Dallas and open a BBQ restaurant next year. I gave him the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and I told him to text me the next day, and the next day, and the next. And he did.
By the end of the week, I had responded to every person who had reached out. I felt exhausted, emotionally. That level of connection wasn't sustainable, of course, so one by one, I told people that I would be deleting the number but I wasn't going anywhere. I encouraged them to stay in touch and gave them an email address: email@example.com.
I hoped my words had helped them in some way. As for me, I learned there was so much more value in what I didn't say. As Headlee puts it, "Your advice is not the gift you have to offer. It's having the bravery and the comfort to sit there and share someone else's pain."
Those seven days were like listening boot camp. "You have to think of listening like going to the gym," says Headlee. "It's something you're going to have to work at. It requires discipline. It requires constant reminders."
I'm still working on it. Now when my friends vent to me, I save the comparative suffering and strive to give my complete attention to their stories. I hold them and sometimes cry with them. I listen until they say all that they need to say in order to keep going. And in that moment, it feels like enough.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter