It was summer in Austin, Texas and the temperature was hovering close to three-digits. Mary, an advocate at The Hotline who has been with the organization for five years, was sitting in her cubicle. The air conditioner was blowing but she could still feel the heat blaring in from the full-length windows to her left.
She had been at work for the past seven hours and was counting down the minutes until the end of her shift. By then, she’d answered close to 30 calls from people seeking support, information and aid. She was tired and emotionally drained.
She looked at the print of a landscape that she has pinned to her gray cubicle wall and put her head in her hand. She imagined that the white noise (created by a discretely hidden machine across the room) was the sound of the river pictured in her landscape.
Her phone rang and she was pulled back into reality. She took a deep breath. She answered.
The caller was an adult woman in her mid-thirties. She lived somewhere on the upper east coast in a home that she bought and paid for herself. She had a good job and was proud of her life. She described herself as being strong in her faith.
The caller explained that she had been dating her boyfriend for several months. “Well, kind of dating,” she said.
Mary asked what she meant by “kind of.”
The caller told Mary that she would describe their relationship as dating, but that her partner often minimized the relationship. He told her that she wasn’t his girlfriend and that they weren’t together. The caller told Mary that even though her partner said these things, he asked her to spend the night on a regular basis, got jealous when she talked to other men and called her all the time. She was confused.
Mary asked the caller why she thought that her partner was saying these things to her when he was clearly acting in a way that contradicted them.
The caller explained that she refused to sleep with her partner and that had angered him. She said that she felt uncomfortable, like she was violating her faith, engaging in sexual relations with a man that she was not committed to. She didn’t know if she should sleep with him because they are dating – if doing so would change his attitude – or if she should continue to abstain.
Mary told her that her feelings were completely justified and that she shouldn’t do anything that she was uncomfortable with. She explained that what the caller was describing sounded a lot like controlling behavior. She told the caller that her partner might be minimizing the relationship in order to convince her to sleep with him. She then took time to explain the dynamics of relationships – abusive relationships in particular – and talk with the caller about other things that were happening in the relationship.
After spending 15 minutes on the phone with Mary, the caller sounded more confident and comfortable in her relationship. She told Mary that she understood that her partner was attempting to manipulate her by making their relationship seem less than it was. She understood that that manipulation was a sign that her relationship was unhealthy.
She thanked Mary for speaking with her and then ended the call.
Most calls that Mary takes aren’t straightforward or easy. She deals with pain and anger and sadness on a daily basis. She fights shrinking domestic violence program budgets and long waitlists at shelters every day as she tries to find aid for callers. After all of the adversity that she faces, hearing a caller tell Mary that “she is awesome” is something that she will hold on to.