Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997


When problems seem insurmount-
able, sometimes the best listener is no farther away than the dorm room next door.

H E A L T H    A N D    M E D I C I N E

Empathy 101
By Keri Hicks '97
Illustration by Stefano Vitale

WHEN I MET STEVEN* early last September, I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my roommate; we had made the bread ourselves in my bread machine and were marveling at our talent. Steven came up and began talking to Kate about their respective summers, and when he left I said to her, "Who was he?"

I don't know why I wanted to know him better, but I did. He was so funny. "I love to make people laugh," he has since told me. But it was more than his quick wit that drew me to him. It was the glimpses of him when he wasn't "performing." There was something in his face.

Tonight I spot him as I enter Levering for an all-night dance party. The scene is rave, with kids in wide-legged pants dancing to the hard, persistent rhythm of techno music. He is working his work-study job, sitting at the front desk as I walk in. I say hi, learn he gets off work at 2 a.m., and go inside to find the friends I'm here to meet. The music is intense, and I find myself frequently returning to the lobby to rest my ears. Steven and I still don't know each other well, but we make small talk.

I realize it's been more than a week since I've seen him, even though we now share a class. I mention this, and from his pocket he pulls a subpoena. I read it. It is an order to appear in court to testify in a family custody battle.

I'm caught off guard. He is too, I think, so we stand there, momentarily unable to start the conversation that begs beginning. Then I ask him how he is, how he's doing. He can't control the emotion that clouds his face at the question, though he tries with a lopsided shrug. We talk a few minutes, but he seems determined not to let himself feel anything in such a public space. Not on a Friday night when he should be having fun. We decide to dance.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO a group of students decided that Hopkins needed a peer counseling program. With a professional consultant from the campus' Counseling Center, they researched other such programs and created a structure for their own. Thus, A Place To Talk (APTT) was born. They struggled with the name, we are told. Everything seemed either too clinical or too silly. A Place To Talk said just what they wanted--warmth without pressure, support without pretension.

When I was a freshman, I thought the whole thing was dumb, though I knew nothing about it. Who would ever drop by the appointed room and admit to other students that they had a problem? And who were those people sitting there listening? What finally brought me into the group at the end of my sophomore year is hard to say--a natural inclination perhaps, or my ongoing struggles with a clinically depressed roommate, or having friends who were involved in it. I realized that the counselors put in a great deal of time doing what they did. I wanted to know why. I figured that somehow it must be good for them, too.

So I applied, got in, and spent the first semester of my junior year training. I found that I looked forward to the many hours of training every Wednesday. The focus was on "good listening skills"--how to phrase questions, how to guide a conversation without giving advice, how to know when the situation is too intense for you to handle alone. The learning methods are reminiscent of elementary school, with an emphasis on sharing, lots of fun, and lots of candy for reinforcement. At APTT, I had to grudgingly admit, even the hokey was palatable.

Clare King is the professional consultant to APTT. She is a clinical social worker who works in the campus Counseling Center. She oversees training, provides support, and is a resource in all situations when needed. Each counselor carries her phone numbers. Clare emphasizes that our role is to listen and provide support without actually advising students on how they should handle their problems. She tells new trainees that once their skills as a counselor become noticeable, they'll find themselves using them all the time. She tells them that people will begin to seek them out. I didn't believe her, until I had no choice. This year I find myself counseling at the library, my work-study job, on the phone with my family in New York....

COLLEGE ENTRANCE GUIDES always describe Hopkins as being study-oriented, competitive, lacking a social life. It's such a negative description that one incoming freshman this year, in answering a pre-college survey, wrote in the section marked "concerns": "I hear people at Hopkins don't have sex." Once they're here, however, most students find a social life. There really is something for everyone. Some are surprised, after what they had read, that so much partying goes on. But there is a distinct competitiveness too, which extends beyond the curve on biochemistry exams and permeates our conversations. This is a typical exchange:

"I have a test this week."
"Oh I know what you mean, I have three."
"I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Yeah, tell me about it, I only got like three hours."

Monotonous, to say the least. It can also be isolating. That sense of one-upping the next person is so prevalent, in fact, that there is a Hopkins word to describe it: "throat." It's very versatile. You can be a throat or be throating someone or be throated yourself. We even have a comedy troupe called Throat Culture.

The problem is, nobody ever responds to "I feel awful" with "Really, how so?" or even "I'm sorry," but instead with "Me, too." So when someone does respond openly, when someone really asks what's going on, a whole new level of conversation emerges.

THE NEXT TIME I SEE STEVEN is the following Wednesday, when we have class together. I watch him sit in what seems now his perpetual lopsided shrug, shoulders rounded forward slightly, head tilting left. He watches the front of the room and I watch him. The bags under his eyes rest one atop another.

At the break, I strategically place myself outside the men's bathroom and catch him as he exits. We walk the long way back to the classroom and to my questioning look he answers "Yes." And then, "No. I'm a mess."

I take his hand and tell him I want to be his friend, that I would want to be his friend even if he wasn't hurting, that I wish we could talk. I hope he believes me. We hug and he says thank you. I don't like watching him walk away, but I am left knowing that I have done all I can. There must be so much going on in his life that I know nothing about. But I must wait until he makes the move to talk to me.

Cut to my apartment--Saturday, 6 a.m. We have been talking all night. Or rather, Steven has been talking and I have vacillated between counselor and friend. Now I know about the funerals and the courts. At one point I say, "Steven, how was that for you?"-- a well-phrased, focused question. He responds with a story, a memory. The poignancy could have been scripted in. He finishes and is silent. Then he looks to me and he is crying and he says, "I miss her." Unprofessionally, I take his hand and then I am hugging him, standing in the middle of my dining room. And I think, "What am I doing?" Into his shoulder I say, "I'm so sorry." We are both crying. This isn't a stranger in my apartment, and there aren't options or resolutions to explore while we talk. There is only pure emotion to confront--the power of Steven's grief. It has been exhausting, yet I often feel most whole when I feel this connected to someone. Steven sits again on my couch, head in his hands. I face him, helpless and watching. My role in this moment is limited. His palms are against his cheeks, fingers outstretched over his ears. It looks as if he is holding his face on for fear the tears will expose him.

IT IS 1 O'CLOCK ON ANOTHER SATURDAY afternoon and I am about to become a rape crisis counselor. Sometimes I wish that so many things weren't so important to me. I'd certainly have more time on my hands. As I walk into the room, I see my friend Jenn, and I'm surprised. Just yesterday she swore she didn't have time and wasn't going to be here, even though she is one of a few experienced members and could help with training. I give her a questioning look and she rolls her eyes at me and says, "Because I don't know how to say no."

Jenn and I are involved in running many of the same activities, and though we've been friends since freshman year, we see each other now mainly on business. She looks as hung-over as she says she feels, in her teal-colored sweatpants with diet Pepsi in hand. We begin pulling chairs into a circle and she says to me, "I'm going to be sleeping on the street after graduation." I smile.

Jenn is a resident assistant and heavily involved in running both APTT and SAAFE, the peer educator program (acronyms run rampant on this campus). Like so many of us here, she is overextended, working to help support herself and interning at a community family law office. Her hurried ponytail is wisping at the sides as she says, "I can't catch up on my classes, and I'm supposed to job hunt and decide where to live next year? I really will be on the streets." I tell her that I've been checking the shelters, scoping out the best beds in Baltimore. We both smile.

My heart, like in a cartoon, leaped in my chest. I was trained in this, my crisis counseling skills were solid, yet knowing I would be put to the real test panicked me.
The circle begins to fill and soon we are ready to start training for the Sexual Assault Response Unit (SARU). Eleven of us settle into folding chairs. I hope that there will be food, since we'll be here all afternoon. I know this is good and necessary, but it is Saturday after all.

First we explain why we're here. Though all SARU members are peer counselors, not all counselors join SARU, so why some decide to do so is important. Everyone is very open, which surprises me. Three of the eight women share personal accounts of date rape they experienced, one as a high school student. Two of the three men talk of close relationships with women on other campuses who have been raped. Katie, sitting to my right, speaks quietly of accompanying a friend to Mercy Hospital for a rape trauma exam her freshman year. I try to decide if I want these people to know that I have firsthand knowledge of this subject.

We learn of rape trauma syndrome, of immediate effects and longer lasting consequences, of how those effects can be the same whether the aggressor is someone you know or a stranger. We learn the resources available on our campus. Women who decide to bring disciplinary charges, for instance, need to contact the Dean of Students Office. We learn how to handle a call, what procedure to use if suicide is mentioned, whom to contact in the campus Counseling Center for professional help. We learn the differing feelings that may accompany acquaintance rape, by far the most common kind on college campuses. (Some studies show that in the 18-24 age group, one in four women have experienced date rape, though only 10 percent ever report it.) Counselors take one-week turns wearing a pager. When carrying it, that counselor is on-call 24 hours a day.

The afternoon drains me. By the end, I have told my own story of sexual assault, of calling the SARU hotline, of the effect it had on me as a freshman. This is the largest group to which I have told my story, and I hadn't planned on doing it. But I felt my experience might offer insight into what we were discussing. The emotion of my life and the business of what I have chosen to do often interweave. I suddenly feel the responsibility I now have when carrying the SARU pager. It is the same one that some guy named Eric had when I paged him my freshman year.

SUNDAY EVENING AND WE ARE AT OUR BIMONTHLY APTT consultation with Clare. Consultation is a chance to update all 50 counselors as to what is going on in the counseling room, to share insight as to how best to handle certain situations. We sit shifts in pairs, so what do you do if someone will only talk to one of the two counselors? What happens if, for some reason, there is only one counselor in the room and she or he is busy? What do you do when you hate the person you're talking with? Tonight we review some of the situations in which immediately contacting a professional is necessary, such as talk of suicide or severe eating disorders. We reemphasize the need to call Clare when anything feels out of control. Then Clare asks, "So what's going on in the rooms?"

Aden begins to talk of a freshman woman who frequents his shift. She comes in all the time, he says, usually alone. She is nasty and talks of nothing. He is most concerned about how long she stays in the room. "What if someone else comes in with something real, sees that the room is busy, and leaves?" he asks. Another voice chimes in, saying that she thinks she knows who Aden is talking about, that the young woman visits her shift also. "She's developing a profile."

"Is she difficult to deal with?" Clare asks.

"She's an absolute pain in the ass," says Aden. Many of us laugh.

"What does everyone else think about a person who comes in all the time with little problems?" says Clare.

"It may just be that she's annoying everyone else too," says Liz from behind me. There is more laughter, until Liz continues, "No, really, she may not have anyone else to talk to."

Frustrating as the situation is, Liz's point is well taken. So we discuss strategies to meet the young woman's needs while still maintaining a free counselor and an inviting room.

I'VE WORKED IN THE CENTRAL PAYROLL department now for four years- -a job that mostly involves filing. Filing leads to conversation with the four other student workers, much to our boss's dismay. She doesn't seem to realize that only monks or mutes could file for hours in silence. This year there is a new freshman in the ranks, a hard worker and so sweet.

For a couple of months now we've chatted over the #200 forms, with me imparting the knowledge of my years--how to drop/add a class, the number to call for weather. But one day Jessica doesn't look so great. She is put together as usual, make-up and hair done. But she looks unusually weary.

"You look tired."

"I am."

A few seconds pass. "What's going on?" I ask.

She starts to say something. Then she's crying. "It's just that I can't sleep..." she begins. We talk for a long time, still filing (she's in the 'T's, I'm in the 'W's) about a situation with a friend of hers and her general feeling of unhappiness. She keeps saying, "I can't believe I'm telling you this here."

OUR CURRENT APTT COUNSELING ROOM, in the dorm known as AMR1, is deliberately placed just outside the freshman study room. It holds a couch, three chairs, a little round table, some coloring books, Legos, and a coffee pot. Adding people complicates the picture. My partner Josh and I, in that sense, are lucky. Though the traffic by the room on Sunday night from 8 to 10 p.m. is heavy, very few people stop in to see us. Even when we have Blow Pops.

Tonight we talk about Josh's family, the new training class of counselors, what I cooked for dinner. We've had a few drop-ins, but they just took lollipops and left. Just as 10 p.m. rolls around, Dave and Jessica come in to relieve us. They seem to be with someone, a lumbering guy in a heavy brown coat. Josh and I exchange a look as the awkward guy stands in the doorway. We cannot decide if he is with the new shift, or if he is actually here on his own. Finally he slumps in a seat and we realize he is here to talk. "How's it going?" Josh says to him.

The guy shrugs and sighs. "Working."

"How's that?" Josh asks.


Lots of times, a two-hour shift goes longer if you need to keep counseling. But good partners have a way of knowing what the other is thinking. "Well..." I begin.

"You caught us just at the changing of the guard," finishes Josh.

"We're sorry," I say, "but Jessica and Dave are right here."

We grab our coats, get out the door, and Josh says, "Whew."

"I know."

We believe that everyone's problem is important. But sometimes it's such a relief when you're not the one who has to listen to it.

TINA, A SENIOR AND A COUNSELOR, still wonders every time she enters her building. The Bradford is owned by the university and so has the feel of a dorm, even though it is off campus. Posters are scattered on the walls. Tina skims them, hoping for a clue, still worried, but becoming resigned to knowing she did all she could.

"It was the Sunday of fall break," she recalls. "I went down to the laundry room to do some recycling. There are these three little tables, like you'd find outside McDonald's, and there it was--just a note sitting open."

On lined notebook paper in blue pen with handwriting that seemed masculine, and wasn't neat, it began, "I've reached my breaking point." "I thought to myself, 'Can I ignore this?' I picked it up and decided to read it. The writer never came out and said, 'I want to kill myself,' but the note said things like, 'I feel numb all the time.' It talked of being sad, hopeless."

Tina continues. "My mind was going a mile a minute. I thought, I can do something to stop this. Clare always says to beep her when we need her, and I kept wondering, Is this one of those times?"

Tina did beep Clare, who for 15 years has made the APTT counselors her second family, and between them they decided that Tina would write a note. In it she would say how much the letter had affected her, leave her number and Clare's beeper number, and write, "To the author of this note" on the top. So she did. "Then I left it there," she says, "right on top of the first letter."

That was the last Tina saw of it. The next evening both her note and the original were gone, though in the interim another concerned student had also left a note of encouragement. "I don't know if maintenance cleaned them up or what," Tina says, "but I like to think that the person got it." She then postered the lobby and the laundry room with APTT flyers and Counseling Center information, hoping to reach the letter writer subtly. Still no one has called her.

"I haven't forgotten," she says, "I really wanted this person to get in touch. I wanted to let them know that someone was there."

IT IS FINALS TIME and it feels, to quote my roommate, "like a pocket of instability." For three of the last four days I have counseled three people with suicidal feelings. I've joked, and I shouldn't joke, that I must have a neon sign on my body flashing "Crisis Hotline Here."

The SARU pager went off at 3 a.m. on Wednesday. When I checked the voice mail and heard a crying young woman leave her extension, my heart, like in a cartoon, leaped in my chest. I was trained for this, my crisis counseling skills were solid, and yet, knowing I would be put to the real test panicked me.

I called, said, "Hello, Alexis. This is Keri," and thought to myself, 'Can I do this?' The beginning went by the book--I checked on her immediate safety, gathered the time frame of the incident, learned she had already gone through medical and legal channels, and realized that this girl just needed to talk. After the initial protocol, so much of crisis counseling relies on a solid foundation and a whole lot of instinct. I had my manual in front of me and never used it after the beginning. We spoke for over an hour. At times as she was talking I could hear myself thinking, Now what do I do? But every time it was my turn to talk, to guide the conversation, to help her clarify what she was feeling, I knew what to do. When she cried and cried and said she felt scared of leaving her room, that maybe the rape was her fault, she sounded so young and hurt. There was a part of me that was angry. There was a part of me that was so sad. But there was no part of me that worried about saying the wrong thing. If I focused on her feelings and let her come to her own decisions, then I was helping. When she was talking to me, she was less alone. She was calmer an hour later and thought that now she could sleep. I knew it had gone well.

Alexis called again two nights later, again at 3:00 a.m. She was having suicidal thoughts, feeling terrible about herself--a common reaction for victims of a sexual assault. We talked for another hour. I had to assess the level of threat she was to herself. She had been in touch with a professional already, and planned to continue to do so. But for tonight I felt like she needed the kind of listening she could get from another student. We made a contract. Alexis would not hurt herself, and she would contact me anytime she felt she might. We talked about the rain and how it made her feel. We talked about her friends and how they made her feel. She asked me why I did this, why I listened to her. I told her because I cared. She told me that I was the first person who really helped her know what she was feeling. I told her I was so glad I could be here for her. Hearing her say Thank you has made this week worth it. I hope she is OK.

I WONDER ABOUT ALL THE PEOPLE whom I've known, and hopefully had an impact on, only because of my involvement with APTT. I wonder how the one who's "wrists itch" to be cut is doing. And the one who was hospitalized for fear of hurting herself. I think about them in between my papers, meetings, and job hunting.

I've learned over the years that problems don't bypass pretty, exclusive college campuses. That try as we may to "focus on our futures," life, like John Lennon said, happens while you're busy making other plans. I've also learned that when I stand on my balcony overlooking Charles Street, especially as the sun is setting just over the lacrosse field, that this is where I want to be.

This Friday is the start of a long weekend for Hopkins students who are over-involved. It is the weekend when every organization has its "thing," whether that be an intensive training retreat or a planning meeting. I am sitting at the APTT retreat, our largest of the year, where our new counselors are officially welcomed after their fall semester of training. We are sitting in a big circle, all 52 of us, telling a story or sharing an object that is important to us.

I was the third to take my turn. My object was this story in its earliest draft. This story, I told the group, is about people important to me and a group that has been central to who I am at Hopkins. This story represents my growth, I say.

Now I sit listening to all the other stories. Brett tells of airline delays on Christmas Eve and the misadventures of getting to Montana in a blizzard. Mike brings a piece of rock from his archaeological dig in Israel. Then it is Dan's turn. He has brought his hair.

Dan's hair recently went from shoulder length and scraggly to short and looking fresh from prime time television. "Cutting my hair is part of how I've changed over the last four years," he says, "and I'm looking forward to going on." He talks of how he's either trained with, or trained, everyone in the room, and how important it is to him to have that connection with so many people. All 52 pairs of eyes are on him.

"You know," he continues, "most people come to college and are ready to change the world, and then they become bitter over four years. Me," he says, "I feel like I'm just the opposite. I feel like I've found my idealism here."

I nod my head and say to myself, "Yeah."

* Student names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of those counseled. Return to top.

Student intern Keri Hicks, who majored in The Writing Seminars, graduated from Hopkins in May.