Masungit (language: Tagalog from the Philippines): [adjective] unpleasant, grouchy, irritable, unfriendly, crabby, snobby, ill-tempered.
For most of my childhood, this adjective followed me around like a bee to honey. I didn’t enjoy smiling on command, especially if my relatives would add an extra dig about how much prettier I would be if I did. It wouldn’t be until many years that my “sungit” moods took a distinct form, lingering longer with more physical symptoms of insomnia, chest pains, tightness in my throat, or even forgetting to exhale, and weight loss. Eventually, it would come out that I had been a long-time sufferer of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. At my lowest, I’ve prayed the hardest for Death to come and take me, sifting through listless hopelessness and suicidal ideation of being hit by a bus or letting the waves of the Pacific carry me off. These experiences allowed me to say yes to my first job outside of college: night shift manager for a suicide and crisis line.
As the manager, my role was to help onboard new staff, provide coaching and training for reviews and feedback for our counselors, and help expand the program across the United States. Perched in an unassuming building in West Hollywood, California, training and lending an ear for a person contemplating Death builds an odd camaraderie rather quickly. My clunky landline office phone had enough clicking switches to allow me to listen in on the phone calls as they began. Our small office handled the shift from five in the afternoon until almost one in the morning. The phone lines would transfer during the day between another center for the shift changes, but one thing that our time slot guaranteed was that our primary callers were almost always teenagers or young adults, and most were dealing with LGBTQ issues.
“I hate my life….”
“…” The sounds of sobbing and sniffling echo through the phone receiver. “I just don’t think I can keep doing this. I’m so tired of feeling this way…I just want this pain to be gone….”
“I just want to be normal….”
If there was ever one theme through those late-night hours of phone calls, it was the wish for both the pain to stop and a sense of normalcy. Between the adrenaline spikes of sweat pooling at the back of my neck when I’d first get the message that we had a kid who was in danger of attempting to harm themselves, a secret language of hand signals and separate chats would simultaneously fly across the office. The counselor on point with the teen would continue talking and listening. In contrast, the second counselor and I worked to keep everyone calm and gathering information to get an ambulance sent over if need be.
“I’m the victim here….”
“Everybody leaves me. No one can love me. I’m unloveable…”
“I’ll always be alone….”
I’d have to swallow the churning, burning acidic bile along my esophagus as the stakes rise with the panic in their voices. I schooled my features, the years of my “sungit” face coming into play. The topics ranged from thoughts of slitting their wrists, cutting — using everything from shaving razor blades to box cutters to slice into various parts of their skin to release the pain and tension. Some have chosen self-harm through eating disorders, self-isolation, or even bursts of violence or fighting whenever they get the chance.
All those minutes sweating, fingers cramping, the clicks from the keyboard striking as quickly as possible to keep both of my employees as calm as possible. Sometimes they needed me to feed dialogue or the next set of topics to keep their person engaged. Other times it was about trying to keep the counselor steady, reminding them to breathe even when we couldn’t give the fairy tale answers.
“Does it ever get better? How is it ever going to get any better?”
We pushed for everyone to use as much honesty as possible while protecting our own identities in training. People’s dark space often makes the “bullsh*t” detectors seem even more robust when contemplating ending their lives.
How could we tell any young person that they won’t face rejection from their families for coming out? That depression and anxiety management may be a struggle they’ll have for the rest of their lives, and this may not be the last time they hit this low?
We can’t say they’ll really be able to make new friends or that high school will net any kind of glory or popularity or unforgettable memories.
The job I had ultimately came down to this question: Can we offer a spark to change this person’s thinking trajectory? Can we reach a person whose mind is so consumed with despair and the idea of peace in Death?
The words I often typed to my staff in the tense moments when we’d be enthralled with someone’s pain was the simple reminder of what our role was. We served as a listening ear, a metaphorical hand to reach for when someone was at their lowest. The most challenging part of trying to get someone struggling with Death and trauma is often twofold. At its worst, mental illness is an extremely heightened sense of pain, one that can easily twist to being misconstrued as a selfish outlook. Some even get branded as a way of being in a cycle of victimhood.
“Don’t lie…,” I’d type, biting my lip. “Say nothing that’s not true…be honest…tell them we don’t know what’s going to happen with life…but because of that, we don’t know that it won’t get better….”
One of the most significant rules in operating our phone lines was to leave ourselves out of the conversation, both for privacy and safety. We wanted our callers to feel that this was their conversation, their prerogative, to steer in whatever direction they need. But if the levels of hopelessness or desperation reached a peak where our first-tier techniques weren’t working, I’d tell my staff to break the rules to keep our caller engaged. And if they were really struggling, I’d sometimes have to take over the call myself.
“I can’t guarantee that anything gets easier. But I know that I have been sitting in this place before. I have sat and decided that my life wasn’t worth having any more… I still carry the scars from my failed attempts….” I’d say, looking at both my staff members as I spoke as calmly and evenly as my voice could muster. “And while the road out of this hellhole was difficult…it can happen….”
“What if it doesn’t? What if it’s like this forever?”
“Well… but what if it isn’t? Try thinking of this thought… suicide is always going to be there. It is a permanent end. But would there be any harm in waiting and seeing how things go? We’re always here, ready for your call if you need us….”
I can proudly say that I never had a teen go to completion on the phone with us when I was there. But it was often in the immediate aftermath of the call that was the hardest. Contrary to movies and or television shows, most of the time, we never find out if these kids are genuinely okay after our calls. When the paramedics or police arrive, the phone call usually drops or cuts off. We don’t get more than a confirmation that the proper authorities have arrived — nothing more. Leaving at the end of the shift, trying our best to leave the emotions of boiling blood, tears, and ragged breathing to go home and carry on with “regular life.”
At the end of those shifts, I would often close the night by reminding my staff at that moment, the point isn’t so much trying to say the right thing. It’s more about demonstrating that we’re ready to crawl down this darkness with them — right next to whoever needs it. If there’s anything, I can say that’s stayed with me all these years after that job, it’s that being “sungit” only proved to be an asset to helping people.
And the only smile worth anything is a real one.