Unlike a lot of people, Patsy Ellington hates the Christmas holidays. The holidays mean more phone calls, more long hours and more stress dealing with more people who just can’t take it any more.

Patsy Ellington works the phones at a Washington area suicide prevention center. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, when the hoards descend on the shopping malls, credit cards in hand, Patsy is at her phone, trying to keep the fourth person of the day from blowing his brains out.

“On a normal week, we get one or two people who are ready to end it all,” Patsy says as she lights the 16th cigarette of the day. “When the silly season starts, we get three or four a day.”

The statistics lay it out: During the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more people take their lives than in any other time of the year. And the numbers grow larger every year.

“It’s the time of the year when people take stock of their lives and just don’t like what they see. They feel like failures.”

But the statistics don’t tell the whole story, the hours of stress that workers like Patsy Ellington spend trying to talk someone out of ending their lives, the nightmares that come from the failures. Most suicide counselors know that they talk most people out of suicide, but it’s still the failures that haunt their dreams.

“I have 20 successful closures for every one I lose,” Patsy says. “But it’s not enough.”

A “successful closure” means the person on the other end of the phone didn’t take themselves out, at least not right then. Failure means they do it, usually on the phone, while the counselor listens.

Patsy still wakes up screaming from a failure two years ago, on Christmas Eve. The teenager on the phone had called many times before, always asking for Patsy. She thought he was making progress. He was getting therapy and seemed to working his way through the problems of adolescence.

“He was depressed because he didn’t have a girl friend to share Christmas with. He had broken up with one just before Thanksgiving. All I needed was a few more days to work him through it and the silly season would be over.”

On Christmas Eve, he called. He saw his old girlfriend out with another young man that day and she looked happy. That made him more miserable.

“We were talking it out, trying to find a common ground. Usually, I can sense when someone is that close to the edge. I misread him. I didn’t see it coming. We were talking one minute and then he said ‘Goodbye’ and I heard the gun go off. It was so loud I had a buzzing in my ear for weeks.”

She quit working the phones for seven months, trying to come to grips with the loss. A six-year relationship with her lover ended. She drank harder and became self-destructive. She even thought about her own suicide. Her therapist convinced her that what she needed was to go back, to work with other people, to save more lives.

“In most cases, the people who call just need to talk about their problems. Most aren’t serious about suicide. Thankfully, there’s many more of them.”

But there still are the seriously-depressed, suicidal-disturbed callers who need real help. Usually, by the time they call, what they want is an audience for their act. In this, her second Christmas season after losing one over the phone, Patsy dreads each call that comes in. Is there another one out there?

“If there is, will I be able to talk them down and give them a reason to go on? I pray to God that I can, but I just don’t know.”

One thing that Patsy Ellington does know is that this is her last Christmas working the phones.

“Christmas Day is my last. I quit. I just can’t do it anymore.”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, D.C.