Sophie Andrews – TRANSCRIPT
After cutting her arm with a broken glass, she fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep on the railway station platform. Early in the morning, when the station toilets were opened, she got painfully to her feet, and made her way over to them. When she saw her reflection in the mirror, she started to cry.
Her face was dirty and tearstained; her shirt was ripped and covered in blood. She looked as if she’d been on the streets for three months, not three days. She washed herself as best she could. Her arms and stomach were hurting badly. She tried to clean the wounds, but any pressure she applied just started the bleeding again.
She needed stitches, but there was no way she would go to a hospital. They’d have sent her back home again. Back to him. She tightened her jacket — well, fastened her jacket tightly to cover the blood. She looked back at herself in the mirror. She looked a little better than before but was past caring.
There was only one thing she could think of doing. She came out of the station and into a phone box nearby. (Telephone rings) ¶
Woman: Samaritans, can I help you? Hello, Samaritans. Can I help you?
Girl: (Crying) I don’t know. ¶
Woman: What’s happened? You sound very upset. ¶
(Girl cries) ¶
Woman: Why not start with your name? ¶I’m Pam. What can I call you? Where are you speaking from? Are you safe?
Girl: It’s a phone box in London. ¶
Pam: You sound very young. How old are you? ¶
Girl: Fourteen. ¶
Pam: And what’s happened to make you so upset? ¶
Girl: I just want to die. Every day I wake up and wish I was dead. If he doesn’t kill me, then, I think, I want to do it myself.
Pam: I’m glad you called. Let’s start at the beginning.
Sophie Andrews: Pam continued to gently ask the girl about herself. She didn’t say much; there were lots of silences. But she knew she was there, and having Pam on the end of the phone felt so comforting. The 14-year-old that made that call was me. That was me in the phone box.
I was running away from home, sleeping rough on the streets in London. I was being sexually abused by my father and his friends. I was self-harming every day. I was suicidal.
The first time I called Samaritans, I was 12 and absolutely desperate. It was a few months after my mother had deserted me, walked out and left me in the family home. And the abuse I was suffering at the hands of my father and his friends had left me a total wreck.
I was running away, I was missing school, I was arriving drunk. I was without hope and wanted to die. And that’s where Samaritans came in. Samaritans has been around since 1953. It’s a 24/7 confidential helpline in the UK for anyone who might be feeling desperate or suicidal. Which I certainly was.
Volunteers answer the phone around the clock every day of the year, and calls are confidential. During my teenage years, when I was most desperate, Samaritans became my lifeline. They promised me total confidentiality. And that allowed me to trust them. Disturbing as they no doubt found my story, they never showed it. They were always there for me and listened without judgment. Mostly, they gently encouraged me to get help; I never felt out of control with them — an interesting parallel, as I felt so out of control in every other aspect of my life. It felt my self-harm was probably the only area where I felt I had any control.
A few years later, I managed to get some control in my life. And I had appropriate support around me to allow me to live with what had happened. I had become a survivor of abuse rather than a victim. And at 21, I contacted Samaritans again. This time because I wanted to become a volunteer. Wanted to pay something back to the organization that had really saved my life. I knew that the simple act of listening in an empathetic way could have a profound effect.
I knew that somebody listening to me without judgment would make the biggest difference. So I caught up with my education, found someone I could persuade to give me a job, and I enjoyed my volunteering at Samaritans. And when I say “enjoyed,” it’s an odd word to use, because no one would want to think of anyone being in absolute distress or pain.
But I knew that that profound impact of that listening ear and someone being alongside me at that desperate time had the biggest impact, and I felt a great sense of fulfillment that I was able to help people as a Samaritan.
In my years volunteering at Samaritans, I was asked to perform many roles. But I guess the peak came in 2008, when I was asked to chair the organization for three years. So I had actually gone from that vulnerable caller in the phone box, desperate for help, to being the national lead for the organization and responsible for 22,000 volunteers. I actually used to joke at the time and say if you really screwed up as a caller, you might end up running the place. Which I did. ¶
But I guess in a world which is dominated by professionalizing everything we do, I really understood that that simple act of listening could have such a life-changing effect. I guess it’s a simple concept that can be applied across all areas of life. So in the 1980s, when I called Samaritans, child abuse was a subject no one wanted to talk about. Victims were often blamed, victims were often judged. And it was a topic of shame, and no one really wanted to talk about it.
Today, judgment and shame surround a different issue. There’s a different stigma that’s out there. And the stigma that’s there today is to talk about loneliness. Loneliness and isolation have profound health impacts. Being lonely can have a significant impact on your own well-being. Recent systematic review of research actually said that it increased the mortality rates, or premature death rates, by up to 30 percent. It can lead to higher blood pressure, higher levels of depression, and actually aligned to mortality rates that might be more associated with alcohol abuse or smoking cigarettes.
Loneliness is actually more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Not in your life, in your day. It’s also associated with higher levels of dementia. So a recent study also found that lonely people are twice at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, there’s many people that live alone who are not lonely. But being a caregiver for a partner that maybe has dementia can be a very lonely place. And a recent landmark study gave us a very good, clear definition of what loneliness is. And it said it’s a subjective, unwelcome feeling of a lack or loss of companionship. And it happens when there’s a mismatch between the quality and the quantity of relationships that we have and those that we want.
Now in my life, the best help I’ve ever received has been from those personal connections and being listened to in an empathetic way. Professionals, and I’m conscious I’m speaking to a room of professionals, have a very important place. But for me, a volunteer giving up their time and listening to me without judgment in a confidential way, had such a huge, life-changing effect for me. And that was something that really stayed with me.
So as you will have gathered, in my teenage years, I was off the rails, I was going every day wondering if I’d even live the next day. But that profound impact of the volunteer listening to me stayed with me. When I finally got to a point in my life where I felt I could live with what had happened, I wanted to pay something back. And in my experience, people who have been helped in a transforming way always want to pay something back.