Memoirs of a Helpline Worker
As our dear colleague Natalie Talbot moves on to pastures new, she shares her story with us about her time at Respect.
Hanging up my headphones
After almost 8 years working on the Helplines team, I am hanging up my headphones at the end of August 2015.
Whilst clearing out my desk (from the best seat in the office), I came across an article I had written for the Respect Newsletter (after being in post for just seven months) back in 2009. The article was about my perspective of working on the Men’s Advice Line.
In the article I talked about my initial feelings, when joining the Helplines team I thought that working on the Men’s Advice line would be easy and “a walk in the park”. I went on to say that I had discovered just how wrong I was! Working on the Men’s Advice Line has been a huge challenge to my beliefs, emotionally draining, sometimes really distressing and it has also been at times very rewarding.
During my time on the Men’s Advice Line two calls have stuck in my memory. Ali (not his real name), a male caller, spoke to me and told me that he had married in Pakistan and arrived in the UK on a spousal visa ten months previously. He had no recourse to public funds. He said that it was the first time in 10 months that he had been allowed to leave the shop he lived in. He had been ill for six weeks with a very bad cough and he had begged his wife to allow him to see a Doctor. His wife had taken him to the Doctor’s surgery (she had to deal with an urgent telephone call so she had allowed Ali to go into the consulting room alone). The Doctor called the Men’s Advice Line and I spoke to Ali. He told me that from the day he had arrived in the UK, he was treated like a slave, given meagre meals, had to work in his wife’s family business for up to 18 hours a day. He told me that he had to sleep on top of the freezers in the back of the shop because they would not let him into the family home. I gave advice and signposted him onto other relevant agencies. One of the difficult problems of working on the Men’s Advice Line is that when a call ends you have no idea what the outcome for the caller will be. About 18 months later I received an email from Ali. He had taken our advice, got the right support and the Home Office had granted him leave to remain on the grounds of domestic violence. He said that he had a job and a bedsit and was enjoying life. Ali was very grateful for the support he had from us and said that he felt he would have died if he had continued to live in the conditions he had lived in.
Another caller that stands out in my memory was a male “victim” who called to say that his wife was abusive to him and that she was trying to get him deported. He was on a spousal visa, he was distressed and crying and also extremely insulting about his wife. He told me that his wife had beaten him and locked him out of their home. He was concerned for his baby. He told me that he had suffered “terrible” domestic abuse. I was unsure that he was a victim of domestic abuse. He hung up and made two other calls to me within a period of about 3 weeks. During the calls he continued to tell me what a terrible woman his wife was, talked about his concerns and said he would not be able to go back to his country of origin. His leave to remain in the UK was coming to an end. His told me that his wife had made false allegations to the police about him and she would not agree to support him in renewing his visa. He said he was scared of her. He then called again about a week later, he sounded distressed and said that his wife was going to stab him and he was scared. I advised him to leave the property and to call the police. A few days later I received a telephone call from his solicitor asking if we could furnish evidence on the abusive behaviours from his wife towards him. I told her that we could not do that as we are a confidential service and she told me that he had been arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife. A few months later the police called and came in to interview me with regards to my calls with the man. The police officer told me that he had murdered his wife, stabbed her in the back, in front of the baby just before making the last call to me. It was very distressing and I felt awful to have been part of his carefully constructed plan to claim self-defence, after stabbing his wife in the back and killing her. He was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He will then be deported to face another murder charge.
There are, of course, also the odd men who like to call just to breathe heavily and for some unknown reason get completely out of breath!
I have always enjoyed working with perpetrators on the Respect Phoneline. Supporting men and women to learn to understand domestic abuse and recognise that they need to take responsibility for their behaviours and do something about it.
I have never worked anywhere where my ethnicity has been such a big issue. From pretty much day one I have been asked if I am an Australian; it always amused me that people were calling for help and then became more interested in where I came from. Mostly, people are polite when I say no. Interestingly, in the run up to the recent General Election (and for a few months after) it became quite a nuisance, some days four or five callers were asking where I came from. Calls were starting with “Hello, am I calling Australia?” Whilst it might sound funny it got a tad annoying especially after saying “No, you are calling the UK” they would then cross question me about where in Australia/New Zealand I came from! Thankfully this went back to a couple of manageable calls a week.
Now it’s time to say goodbye and hang up my headphones, it has been almost 8 years of laughter, despair, joy, astonishment, sometimes ear bashing and often rewarding.
Special thanks to the original helplines team (we were together for 6 years): Ippo, Clare, Ali, Simon and Jai; we had some very special moments and I will never forget our tears, laughter, hugs and your support and love.
To the new team Ntokozo, Mervin, James and Pilar: it was good working with you over the last year, I enjoyed the cake and the laughter too!
One last mention to Sarah, Respect’s Admin/Finance Officer: thank you Sarah for all your help and support.
So, are you retiring now Natalie, I hear you say? No chance, I would die of boredom! I am still a Respect Approved Trainer and there are some other exciting options opening up for me.
P.S. Just in case you are wondering: No, I am not an Australian, nor do I come from New Zealand. I am proudly South African and have been living in the UK for 36 years.