Campus Life saam says

Dropping the phone

My journey as an advocate

“SAAM Says” is a collection of narratives by sexual assault survivors and victim advocates being published during MIT Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is the second of four pieces in the series.

I was 23 and had only been in the field for a year when I look my first ever call on a sexual assault crisis hotline. I had been trained as a sexual assault crisis counselor, practiced going through various hotline situations with my boss, and talked with survivors in-person, but answering the hotline was completely different because it was just me on the phone with someone in crisis. All that kept running through my mind the first time the phone rang was “Don’t say the wrong thing! Don’t say the wrong thing!” I was so nervous about being on the hotline, that when the phone finally did ring, I answered it and immediately dropped the phone on the ground.

After all of that anxiety and fear, it turned out to be a wrong number.

Later on, when I got my first real call, I was still nervous. I rushed through my practiced introduction and right into how I could help her — pretty much just listing all of the options available and focusing on not forgetting any of them. She interrupted me and told me she needed me to listen. I took a deep breath, and I did.

I didn’t know it at the time, but those first two calls ended up shaping my entire approach to advocacy. My job has nothing to do with me: it’s not about my worries or my agenda. It’s about listening, about being there for a survivor or loved one in whatever way they need. Over the course of my career working with survivors of sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse, I’ve had moments that have forced me to slow down, re-evaluate, and remember the lessons from those first calls.

When I was leading support groups for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Denver, I had a client in her 60s who had never told anyone what happened to her when she was a child, at that point more than 50 years ago. I was the first person she ever told. When she left after our initial intake, I sat in my office and thought about the immense level of trust that she had placed in me and the incredible courage it took for her to share her story after so long.

People often want to know how it’s possible for me not to get brought down or have a negative view of the world when I work with the topics of sexual assault and interpersonal violence every day. Truth be told, sometimes I do end the day sad or angry; it’s hard to bear witness to the pain one person can inflict on another and not be impacted. But those are the rare days. Far more often, I leave amazed at the strength of the survivors I talk with, at the compassion of their loved ones who want to help, at the number of students organizing and attending events to end sexual violence. I’m not alone in what I do, and that makes it far easier and allows me to be more hopeful about this work.

Sometimes I think I do this work for selfish reasons. That may seem strange, but to me, being a part of someone’s journey back to empowerment, back to a sense of safety, onward to survivorhood, is a blessing. It is a privilege to be a part of that process and to be trusted enough to hold some of the weight that comes with this type of pain. It is an honor to be an advocate, and something I will never take lightly.

I’m grateful to be a part of the MIT community and the Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) team. VPR is here to provide support to students, staff, faculty, partners and other members of our community. Our hotline is available 24/7 and answered by trained staff. Our services are 100 percent confidential, which means we never share anyone’s information or experience with any person or office without that person’s explicit permission. Our job is to listen, help each person find ways to take care of themselves, and advocate in whatever way is best for that person.

Please reach out if you or someone you know could use our help — I promise I won’t drop the phone.

The VPR hotline is 617-235-2300.