A Drop in the Bucket
by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D. and Ben Kerman, Ph.D.
"NBC 30 support line. Can I help you?"
Within five minutes of arriving at Channel 30 News studios on a crisp and sunny Saturday morning, our group of six psychologists and social workers began to field calls focused on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
There were calls about fear and uncertainty. "Do you have anyone there who has a child in the armed services? My son is on a nuclear submarine on his way to Saudi Arabia. I'm looking for someone who might understand. I'm afraid I'll never see him again."
Callers overwhelmed with rage. "I'm so pissed off. I want to reach over the counter of the convenience store on the corner and strangle the Arab guy who works there."
Calls filled with despair and anxiety. "I can't stop thinking about sadness and darkness and pain."
Calls voicing confusion and dread. "How do I tell my kids about my business trip next week?"
And finally, calls to offer help and support. "I want to go to New York and do grief counseling-where should I go?"
Since the attacks, the support line workers had stumbled through these reactions too. Shock and denial: this can't have happened. Grief and despair: how will we ever survive this? And then the beginnings of recovery: what can I do to help?
On TV, we had watched the rescue workers pass buckets of debris down a human chain. We weren't trained to take on the dangerous task of sorting through the rubble that had been the WTC twin towers. But like the thousands of Americans who had created mini-skyscrapers of bottled water on the streets of Manhattan and contributed hundreds of pints of blood to Red Cross centers across the country, we too yearned to join the line.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the Vice President of Channel 30 news spawned the idea of a crisis hotline. The concept was turned over to LaVerne Jefferys, Director of Community Affairs. Later in the week, the television station connected with the Connecticut Psychological Association to staff the hotline.
And so, we talked with the callers about how these catastrophic events may have triggered buried feelings from their histories. We talked about how reactions of numbness, isolation, rage, and despair are normal in the wake of traumatic events. We spoke about paying careful attention to the needs of their children. We helped identify reactions that seemed to merit more intervention than a crisis hotline could provide. We offered suggestions about helping each other weather the trauma by asking for and offering support, educating ourselves, and moving on with the healthy parts of our lives. Most of all, we listened.
At the end of our four-hour shift, we were grateful for the opportunity to "do something". In a sense, we too had passed buckets along our line, perhaps touching a few lives with compassion and healing. And for those moments, we felt relief.