Cassondra Coleman still remembers the heavy chill of the dial tone. It was one of her first calls at the Crisis Call Center — a suicide call. To this day, Coleman doesn’t know if they were disconnected or if the young girl hung up.
“She was so little,” Coleman, a 24-year-old University of Nevada, Reno alumna, says. “If I just could feel her detachment through the line…this overwhelming feeling of despair.”
A vital point in her training to be a volunteer at the Crisis Call Center coincides with this moment: You have to believe you did your best with the caller. Through 44 hours of training, Coleman learned copious amounts of knowledge regarding what it takes to handle a caller who doesn’t want to live anymore.
The Crisis Call Center of Northern Nevada is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Coleman, now an official staff member at the center, helps train new volunteers every day so that at any hour someone will answer the phone. On the desk beside her, 10 binders are filled thick with training papers on how to help those who call in. The packets include myriad crises including sexual abuse, suicide and alcohol. There is even a special section on how to deal with obscene callers looking for sex.
The Crisis Call Center offers more than just help to stressed individuals—they also take calls for Child Protective Services during after hours, offer special training for addictions and abuse and have a special suicide line.
“People have called in with pills in their hand—sometimes a gun to their head,” Coleman says. “I ask them to put the pills or weapon in another room while we’re talking.”
The way each volunteer answers the phone and handles each call is different. Coleman is confident that the training program is so well orchestrated that by the time they handle a call on their own, they can handle anything. Everything is confidential. Callers and volunteers can even use an alias.
A sobering fact: Every 17 seconds someone tries to commit suicide. Another sobering fact is that in the three hours I spent with Coleman at the center, the phone didn’t stop ringing.
“It takes all my willpower not to answer that phone,” Coleman says. “There isn’t a caller that I don’t relate to.”
That’s because Coleman has her own demons. On the underside of her wrists lie 17 faint scars, each of them etched by Coleman herself in darker times—times when she was on the other side of the line, calling out for her own kind of help.
THE GOOD KID
Coleman grew up in Newark, Calif. and describes herself as the teacher’s pet. Children in the schoolyard would offer her a drink or a cigarette and she dramatically refused them. She had bigger things to worry about.
“My mother told me very early in life that I would have some battles,” she says.
Marilyn Coleman, Cassondra’s mother, was a smart woman. Coleman remembers that she gave the best hugs. Times were scary and Marilyn wanted her daughter to be in a safe environment, so she let her drink on Saturday nights at home. The way she saw it, if Cassondra was going to drink, it would be under her supervision.
Cassondra took it too far, though. At 13 she was already downing pints of vodka in her bedroom.
“I had no idea what I was doing to myself,” Coleman says. “I think the only thing my parents could do for me… was be there when I decided to crumble.”
Coleman did fall. As she got older, she drank more and it wasn’t always at home. There was worry in her mother’s eyes, but Coleman said she ignored it.
One night, as Coleman bent over the toilet puking, her mother came to hold back her hair.
“You will receive the natural consequences for your decision making process,” she said gently.
By high school, Coleman had started smoking cigarettes. Regarding marijuana, Coleman says that thankfully it did nothing for her.
DELUSION AND LOSS
College dramatically changed everything for Coleman.
“Alcoholism breeds and multiplies in college because it’s okay to drink,” she says.
On any given night Coleman admits she could drink an entire a six-pack of beer and two bottles of wine by herself. Drinking usually from Wednesday to Sunday, Coleman was out of control. She would often split a bottle of vodka with friends and go roam downtown.
“There are more nights that I don’t remember than nights that I do remember,” she says.
Her friends had to take her phone away or she would call people and annoy them. Often, she was carried home passed out, slurring and sick. Coleman says she rationalized it because she still had good grades. She had a good job and went to classes.
“When I would go out to dinner, I‘d have a beer with dinner,” Coleman says. “One beer turned into five beers. But I thought it was okay, I was just with my friends.”
She was heavily addicted, to the point where the entire day flowed around cigarette breaks and when she could finally drink that beer.
“I thought ‘when can I go take that cigarette break?’ or ‘When can I go get that bottle of Grey Goose?’,” Coleman says. “I needed it so badly. At one point, I admitted that I had a problem.
Things seemed to be in a constant blur for Coleman. School. Work. Drink. Pass out. Every night was a party. Then something happened that changed Coleman’s life forever.
“I remember I was passed out, in bed, two days before sophomore year started,” Coleman says. “I remember I just wanted to sleep in that day—so I didn’t answer the first time my dad called.”
The second time, she answered and woke up immediately.
“He said that mom was being care-flighted to Washoe and he wanted me to meet her there,” she says. “She had a heart attack while doing the dishes.”
Coleman couldn’t drive because she was still drunk. She called her friend—he was also still drunk—but they made it somehow. Soon, she was sitting in what she calls “the death room”—the “family waiting room.”
Doctors said that Marilyn suffered from undiagnosed Long QT Syndrome and that she had an extreme potassium deficiency. Long QT Syndrome, if undiagnosed, can cause sudden death, just as it did with Marilyn.
“She was on a ventilator for five days and we pulled the plug,” Coleman says. “I knew she didn’t want to live that way.”
The death of her mother crushed Coleman. She dropped out of school and took time to heal. But healing didn’t come easily—Coleman medicated herself with alcohol. She moved back to Gardnerville, Nev., where her parents lived, and helped her dad with the household. She eased bitterness with her brother, who didn’t want to pull the plug on his mother.
Six months later, Coleman moved back to Reno, determined to start anew. She started taking classes again, but was still drinking every night.
On July 12, 2004 Coleman began drinking alone after work. Sitting on her couch, she remembers feeling an overwhelming desire to not live anymore. She felt completely worthless. Surrounded by nothing but her dangerous thoughts and silence, she lit a couple candles and went straight to her work apron, where she pulled out an exacto knife.
“I remember I had almost finished a 750 by myself,” she says. “And I got into this cycle of thinking that I lived for everyone else… So why was I living?”
Coleman took the exacto knife and began carving into her wrists. She doesn’t know when she stopped, but she laid her arms down and waited for death. She remembers that she was sitting in a puddle of her own blood.
“Something happened—I think it was my mother speaking to me,” she says. “But I got up and went up stairs and called for an ambulance.”
At the emergency room, doctors put 17 staples in her arm, blocking the blood flow. Coleman, so as to not risk another attempted suicide, was strapped to a bed and evaluated by a psychologist.
“I remember I was embarrassed—they couldn’t even trust me with my own life,” she says. “Also, this extreme panic was washing over me. I was hyperventilating.”
Two years of counseling saved her life. She stopped drinking. She stopped trying to kill herself.
“I was very proud of myself,” she says.
Coleman says her brother was a large part of her support system.
On July 21, 2006, Timothy Coleman, 19, was struck dead by lightning. Coleman says she still doesn’t know anyone who could warm up a room like her brother.
“I lost my being,” Coleman says. “I needed another escape.”
HALLUCINATION AND PARANOIA
In November 2006, Coleman got access to methamphetamine. Once she got her hands on it, she didn’t stop. She did meth for an entire month.
“I wanted to try all things once,” she says.
Coleman went from 180 pounds to 140 pounds in two months. She easily grew addicted to the drug, which she describes a demon that ran her life. She was living off Slim Fasts and multi-vitamins.
“I could go three days straight without sleep, easily doing anything I wanted,” she says. “Finally at the end of that, I could choke down a Slim Fast.”
She started a $50-a-day habit. Coleman was also thin, something she has always aimed to be.
“You think you’re in control with meth, but it runs you,” Coleman says. “After my brother’s death, I lost my will to live.”
Coleman tried to quit meth, but she would hallucinate. The paranoia struck hard. She dreamed of injecting meth into her body.
In February 2007, Coleman tried to kill herself again. Six gin and tonics, two beers and a half bottle of wine later, Coleman drove home drunk.
“I remember the blood running down my fingers,” she says.
Coleman slipped downstairs, past her friends preoccupied with drinking and playing a board game, Coleman grabbed a butcher knife from the kitchen and went upstairs. Her bed was soaked in blood.
“The only thing that saved me was my addiction to cigarettes,” she says.
Hiding her cuts under a sweatshirt, she slipped out to smoke a cigarette. One of her friends, concerned about her, saw the blood running down her fingers and immediately called for an ambulance.
They had to force Coleman to get help. The emergency room let Coleman go home after two hours. This still astonishes Coleman, who says she still wanted to die when they released her.
“I was still drunk even,” Coleman says. “The hospital is supposed to save you.”
A CHANCE TO BREATHE
Coleman was back in counseling, but this time, she was much more determined to overcome her addiction. She pleaded to her dad for help, who stood by her side in beating her addiction.
“We went outside and smashed my pipe on the ground,” she says. “It was the end.”
Coleman found the volunteer position at the Crisis Call Center by chance. The position has changed her life—she finally has the chance to help those like her.
“I’ve been to hell…in my head I was in hell…and I made it,” she says softly. “And they can make it too.”
Coleman says she finally has a chance to breathe.
“I got my life back,” she says with a smile.
Now, after more than a year of volunteering at the center, Coleman is now the Crisis Lines Program Assistant. She trains new volunteers and helps them help others. She’s going back to the University of Nevada, Reno to get her masters in social work. She no longer drinks or does drugs. She says the Crisis Call Center is a large part of why she is still here today.
“When you are that down at the bottom of your pain, you need to call us and talk to someone,” she says.
To anyone who feels they have an addiction or are in desperate straits, Coleman nods knowingly and says to them: “You’re worth it. You’re worth getting better.”