The voice of a grandmother interrupts the illusory tranquility of that January night.
“Here, I am calling you because I am very anxious because of the curfew and the confinement that is coming.
She admits, however, that she is not too much to be pitied, enjoys a good retirement and a comfortable apartment with garden, in the Paris region.
But she feels “oppressed” at the idea of once again having to cut corners on her meager social life, which boils down to tasting cakes with two friends and the ever less frequent visits from her children.
So in the evening, more alone and fragile than ever, she feels the need to speak.
“I think of young people, of their ruined future, of businesses that are closing.
It scares me very much.
"At the other end of the line, Lorraine, 49, tries to appease the old lady:" And tomorrow, what do you plan to do?
For the past four years, this Parisian, senior executive in the council, has devoted one evening a week to consoling souls in pain.
But in recent months, the task has become more difficult.
The phones of SOS Amitié are overheating.
The association receives 8,500 calls on average every day, against 6,000 before the start of the Covid-19 crisis, or 40% more.
Above all, their content is imbued with a new seriousness.
The shock of the first confinement was replaced by the weariness of the second, then the fear of a third.
In many conversations, the same difficulties in dealing with uncertainty are discussed, weariness in the face of gloomy news, the fatigue of not seeing any prospects.
And then, the loneliness, omnipresent, always more devastating.
Generalized moral exhaustion
Many of these calls are made by regulars, who already needed support before the pandemic.
Difficult to establish typical profiles.
The callers are cripples of life, of all social classes, of all ages, from the college student bullied by his comrades to the old man with amnesia.
With, all the same, an over-representation of people suffering from psychiatric pathologies, great anxiety, insomniacs or lonely seniors.
"The Covid exacerbates a fragility that these people already had", underlines Jean-Jacques Pirez, president of SOS Amitié Paris Ile-de-France, one of the 44 local entities of this federation.
Like this woman who says "bored" in the evening, in front of her TV.
In fact, she seeks a presence in the dark, an ear to listen to her, perhaps to understand her.
Her story is simple: she tells about her day, the little walk in the morning, reading the local newspaper in the afternoon.
Because she has no one to confide in, she calls every evening, and uses SOS Friendship as a child would hug her soft toy before closing her eyes.
There are also the newcomers.
The "first callers", to use the term used by the association, those whose forced isolation made them feel for the first time a cruel feeling of loneliness, abandonment, and uselessness.
Like this restless man whose breath you could almost smell charged with alcohol: "This corona is driving mad!"
You understand, me, I no longer have a social life, nothing.
I'm stuck in this bloody time!
Or this student, reclusive in his tiny apartment, who says at the outset "to be on the verge of [getting] fucked up".
SOS Amitié has also noticed the significant increase, in recent weeks, in calls from young people, and tries to alert the public to the emergence of a generational malaise.
Covid-19: loneliness, the other epidemic
The coronavirus does not just saturate hospital services.
It also worsens isolation and freezes lives.
The days go by and look the same.
Couples who are already worn out find themselves confronted with the obligation of living in an unwanted promiscuity.
In addition to the emotional and sexual misery of which many men complain, there is the impossibility of meeting people.
As for the most precarious, the anguish of finding new invoices in their mailbox is more acute every morning.
At the start of the year, listening to the calls received by the platform gives the feeling that a significant part of society seems to be sinking into generalized moral exhaustion.
"A commitment that is not neutral"
There are still some grounds for hope.
The coronavirus generates a wave of solidarity, the structure of which benefits fully.
In 2020, 870 candidates sought to join its ranks, up from 570 the previous year.
A welcome reinforcement for the 1,700 volunteers involved at the national level, who regret being able to take only one call in four during the day, and one in seven in the evening.
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Despite this lack of ears, SOS Amitié, always on the lookout for new recruits, does not compromise with its demanding selection process.
To become a volunteer, you have to pass two interviews, then complete a training course of about five months, during which dropouts are legion.
Only 10% of registrants end up becoming a member.
“A lot of people imagine that you just have to pick up the phone and say:
it's going to be better tomorrow
But no, that's not it, warns Marie, 74, responsible for training.
It is a very particular listening, and a commitment which is not neutral.
On this January evening, Marie, 74, will pick up her phone a dozen times during her four hours of duty.
Axelle de Russé
When she is on the phone, Lorraine scribbles some notes on leaves placed near a steaming cup of herbal tea.
She curls up in her chair when she feels a difficult point coming, swings back when someone comes back to the same obsession.
She smiles, breathes, frowns.
To hear him, it's impossible to guess the range of his emotions.
In all circumstances, she keeps an enveloping and maternal voice, slowing down her phrasing so as never to raise the tension.
She lets long silences set in, which she knows how to interrupt with a few questions: "What could help you?"
"," What advice would you give a friend in your situation?
"," How do you imagine the rest?
Listening must never be directive, never give advice, let alone pass judgment.
Because callers are well aware that their problems won't be resolved with a phone call.
Because they seek above all to feel, for a time, a little less alone.
All of them open up with confusing sincerity.
Confidence made possible by the complete anonymity guaranteed to each caller.
The number of this one never appears.
He does not have to identify himself either, even if the range of his voice and the story of his life provide some clues.
He can therefore speak without fear of all the subjects that he does not dare to broach with his relatives, and thus make waltz family unspoken or religious taboos.
This is also the main difficulty of the exercise: in a few minutes, the volunteers enter the deep layers of the intimacy of their interlocutors.
They must be able to hear distressing tales, unmentionable things, for example from a father who acknowledges incest.
The listener must know how to remain calm, even in the face of a cart of insults from a feverish caller, and not panic when a woman tearfully recounts having fled her abusive husband.
He must finally know how to manage these dreaded calls, which have been redoubling since last September: those of suicidal people, sometimes already in the process of taking action.
Clear your head after a listening session
Originally, SOS Amitié was primarily aimed at them.
The association was founded in 1960 in Boulogne-Billancourt, Hauts-de-Seine, by businessman and philanthropist Georges Lillaz and pastor Jean Casalis, well inspired by another pastor, the British Chad Varah.
Devastated by the suicide of a teenage girl, the latter made a strange ad in a newspaper in 1953: "Before you end your life, call me!"
»Followed by his phone number.
The philosophy of SOS Amitié is based on this belief that the word is an outlet and that the caller can find in himself the resources to solve his problems.
In its Parisian premises, there is this quote from Albert Camus displayed on the walls: “To speak of one's sorrows is already to console oneself.
"Talking liberates", founding principle of SOS Amitié.Axelle de Russé
This consoling mission is trying.
Volunteers often end up exhausted after four hours of listening - or a dozen calls on average - as this activity requires intense concentration.
We must weigh every word, avoid any expression that could be misinterpreted.
And to be able to support the fantastic remarks or the disjointed accounts of interlocutors able to go very quickly from "there are too many taxes in France" to "I will explain to you how to prevent your opponent in Scrabble from making a word triple count ”.
Listening is also a solitary practice.
In Ile-de-France, it takes place in eight centers, from simple apartments to the address kept secret.
Volunteers often find themselves alone.
As the lines are open seven days a week, at all hours of the day and night, the listeners must be distributed throughout the week.
They just cross paths.
To make matters worse, SOS Amitié had to convert to “distancing”.
Forced to close its centers during the first confinement, the association then asked its members if they agreed to take calls from their home.
And a habit seems to have settled down: at the start of the year, a good number of them are staying at home.
Post-Covid depression: loss of desire, aggressiveness ... the signs that should alert
Marie is one of the refractories, because she considers the way back as a necessary decompression airlock.
When she returns home, the sweet septuagenarian prepares to eat and arises in front of the television.
“I watch stupid programs, but whatever, I need this to clear my head a bit.
»She knows it well: after having heard hours of lamentation, a volunteer can have the unpleasant impression of being surrounded by the misfortunes of the world, as if he were stuck in a novel by Michel Houellebecq.
Others repeat a striking call, wonder if they really knew how to find the right words.
It is sometimes cruel, but the listener cannot have news of his interlocutors: he therefore never knows the effect he has produced.
The "listeners" often take notes during a call so as not to lose the thread of a discussion where the tension can be extreme.
Axelle de Russé
The psychological state of volunteers is therefore closely monitored.
The executives of the organization are always reachable, in the event that listeners in turn need to be listened to.
They also often remind them of some essential rules: never take a phone call if they have not recovered from the previous one, accept their powerlessness to relieve sometimes irremediable suffering, and never pretend to replace the follow-up of a psychiatrist.
Every three weeks, all the members get together for a "time of sharing" around a psychologist.
The opportunity to discuss the outstanding calls and discuss the best reaction to adopt in a given situation.
More and more suffering employees
Despite the heaviness of the task, Lorraine speaks fondly of her commitment.
“It makes me more forgiving of the human species.
More patient too.
She says better put her own problems into perspective.
And above all, she discovered a whole part of the country that she did not suspect.
Lorraine refers to the appellants as "invisible to society".
“Sometimes, when I take the metro, I look at the travelers and I tell myself that I must have had some on the phone.
She also recalls a figure: in France, 10 million people live alone.
“But don't imagine that the feeling of loneliness is reserved for isolated people.
You can be a mother of a large family, have a social life, and feel, one evening, the need to join us.
SOS Amitié is a strategic post for observing society and its ills.
A member for eleven years, Jean-Jacques Pirez noted the emergence of work-related suffering: stress, burn-out, moral and sexual harassment… “Before the crisis, employees called me when they left the towers of La Defense because they needed to tell me about their day, ”reports the president of the Paris Ile-de-France association.
The break-up of families has also become a source of much torment.
As well as the situation of the elderly, who live longer, but still feel less considered.
“Grandparents are complaining because their kids have replaced their monthly visit with a ten-minute Zoom call.
The "listeners" must complete a five-month training course before being able to work within the association.Axelle de Russé
After having meditated on the pangs of existence, Lorraine tries to conclude each call by emphasizing a positive aspect.
"Do you think we'll be able to leave each other?"
In return, she often receives a "thank you for listening to me", slipped in a voice a little more peaceful than at the beginning of the conversation.
Here is the most beautiful reward: to have managed to mop up a little suffering on the phone.
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