The Story of a Curious Phone Call

The below is a true story from Auburn Sandstrom that blew my mind and opened my heart. It is excerpted with permission from All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown.

Read the whole thing. Trust me. Take the five minutes and be rewarded.

Enter Auburn…

The year is 1992, Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m curled up in a fetal position on a filthy carpet in a very cluttered apartment. I’m in horrible withdrawal from a drug that I’ve been addicted to for several years now. 

In my hand I have a little piece of paper. It’s dilapidated because I’ve been folding it and unfolding it, to the point that it’s almost falling apart. But you can still make out the phone number on it. 

I am in a state of bald terror. If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, that’s what this felt like. 

I’d been having a nonstop anxiety attack for the last five years. And I’d never been in a darker or more desperate place than I was that night. My husband was out running the streets, trying to get ahold of some of the stuff that we needed, but I knew if he succeeded, he was not going to share. 

And if I could, I would jump out of my own skin and run screaming into the streets to get what I need. But right behind me, sleeping in the bedroom, is my baby boy. 

Now, I wasn’t going to get a Mother of the Year award in 1992. In fact, at the age of twenty-nine, I was failing at a lot of things. 

I had started out fairly auspiciously. I was raised in comfort and privilege. I was that girl who had the opera lessons, spoke fluent French, and had her expensive undergraduate college paid for. I was that person who, when my checking account ran out, would say something to my parents and two hundred dollars would magically appear. 

I know, when the revolution comes, kill me first, right? 

So I had the year abroad. I had the master’s degree. I was, you know, pedigreed. 

But in my twenties, I ended up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I started noticing things like poverty and racism and unconscionable injustice. And that people like me were mostly causing it. It was a huge revelation for me. 

I came to the conclusion that the thing I needed to do with my privilege and all the comfort that I’d had all my life was to destroy it. 

Rip it in half. Spit on it. Piss on it. Set it on fire. 

And you know, every time I’ve come to a major faulty conclusion in life, the man comes right after who will help me live it out. And this time was no different. 

Man, he was beautiful—a radical, revolutionary, fine-ass poet from Detroit. 

I was twenty-four, he was forty, and I was smitten, in love. It was so exciting—who he was, how he talked, the way he looked at the world. And it was beautiful for a while, until he introduced me to one of his old activist friends, who introduced us to the drug I was now addicted to. 

I had tried to change my affiliations and transform myself. I had wanted to shed my class. I would have shed my race if I could have. 

But instead of transformation, you have me going ninety miles an hour down I-94 with my poet, in a car full of alcohol and illegal drugs. The baby’s in a car seat (it’s probably not a regulation car seat). He’s covered in candy and chocolate, because you have to keep the baby entertained while you’re taking care of your business, getting yourself some relief. 

This particular night it was bad because, if we were to have been pulled over, we were both on parole. So we would’ve both been locked up, and our child would have been taken from us. 

Underneath my withdrawal and terrible anxiety was a sure knowledge that I was leading the life that was going to lead to me to losing the most precious thing I’d ever had in my life, which was that baby boy. 

I was so desperate at that moment, that I became willing to punch the numbers into the phone. 

The phone number was something my mother had sent me. Now, mind you, I hadn’t been speaking to my parents or anybody else for three, four, five years. 

But she’d managed to get this number to me by mail, and she said, “Look, this is a Christian counselor, and since you can’t talk to anybody else, maybe sometime you could call this person.” 

Now, I think it goes without saying that I wasn’t hanging real tight with that sort of thing in those days. But I was so anxious and in such a desperate state. I was emaciated, covered in bruises. 

I punched in the numbers. I heard the phone pick up. 

I heard a man say, “Hello.” 

And I said, “Hi, I got this number from my mother. Uh, do you think you could maybe talk to me?” 

I heard him shuffling around in the bed, you know? You could tell he was pulling some sheets around himself and sitting up. I heard a little radio in the background, and he snapped it off, and he became very present. 

He said, “Yes, yes, yes. What’s going on?” 

I hadn’t told anybody, including myself, the truth, for a long, long time. And I told him I wasn’t feeling so good and that I was scared and that things had gotten pretty bad in my marriage. 

Before long I started telling him other truths, like I might have a drug problem, and I really, really love my husband, and I wouldn’t want you to say anything bad about him, but he has hit me a few times. And there was a time when he pushed my child and me out into the cold and slammed the door behind us. 

And then there was a time when we were going sixty miles an hour down the highway, and he tried to push us out of the moving vehicle. 

I started telling those truths. And this man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me and was present and listened and had such a kindness and such a gentleness. 

“Tell me more. . . . Oh, that must hurt. . . . Oh.” 

And do you know, I’d made that call at two in the morning. And he stayed up with me the whole night, just talking, just listening, just being there until the sun rose. 

By then I was feeling calm. The raw panic had passed. I was feeling okay. 

I was feeling like, I can splash my face with water today, and I can probably do this day. 

I wouldn’t have cared if the guy was like a Hare Krishna or a Buddhist—it didn’t matter to me what his faith was. 

I was very grateful to him, and so I said, “Hey, you know, I really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because that’d be cool, I’ll do it, you know. It’s all right.” 

He laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad this was helpful to you.” 

And we talked some more, and I brought it up again. 

I said, “No, really. You’re very, very good at this. I mean, you’ve seriously done a big thing for me. How long have you been a Christian counselor?” 

There’s a long pause. I hear him shifting. “Auburn, please don’t hang up,” he says. “I’ve been trying not to bring this up.” 

“What?” I ask. 

“You won’t hang up?” 

“No.” 

“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called . . .” He pauses again. “You got the wrong number.” 

Well, I didn’t hang up on him, and we did talk a little longer. I never would get his name or call him back. 

But the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I think I’ve heard them call it “the peace that passes understanding.” I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me. 

And I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day. But it became possible to get some help and get the hell out. And it also became possible as a teetotaling, semi-sane, single parent to raise up that precious, chocolate-covered baby boy into a magnificent young scholar and athlete, who graduated from Princeton University in 2013 with honors. 

This is what I know. In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light . . . all of grace rushes in. 


AUBURN SANDSTROM is a senior lecturer (part-time) in college writing at the University of Akron. She won the Ohio Arts Council Award for fiction, a Citation for Teaching Excellence in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and a Cowden Award for fiction. She is a career college writing instructor with a master’s in fine arts (fiction), and she has an Ohio Language Arts Grades 7–12 Teaching Certification and an Ohio principal’s license grades 5–12. A longtime advocate for urban students, she is currently pursuing a PhD in urban education policy at Cleveland State University. 

This story was told on November 21, 2015, at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. The theme of the evening was “Lost and Found.” Director: Jenifer Hixson.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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106 Replies to “The Story of a Curious Phone Call”

  1. She sounds like a horrible smothering mother. I hope she recognizes it but given her work in teaching etc it sounds like a continuing pattern. I don’t see anything inspirational about this woman.

    1. What is inspiring is how she had been able to come back from the blackhole that she had somehow fallen into; not easy to do in world filled with judgmental people. And how she recognized and appreciated the generosity of that one stranger to help her do it, and that she wrote this piece as gratitude and as a story to help others.

      I personally am grateful that she has written this and shared it with the rest of the world.

  2. Love love love this! Now if humans didn’t need to organize and systematize that kind of love we’d all be soooo much better off. Much mahalo for sharing this Tim.

  3. This is eye opening and timely. Tim, been trying to reach out to share a project I’m working on and will need some voices to share it. I’m a filmmaker / architect, maybe I can do some work for you in exchange for some brainstorm session! Cheers.

  4. I just read this and then I passed it to my friend to read… I’m still sniffling and now she’s sniffling… if we keep passing it along maybe we’ll inspire even just one person to “be that person” for someone else. Thank you Tim for passing it to me.

  5. Thank you for sharing this story. It brought me to tears. I have this book but hadn’t read this story. I will (again) this evening…. Just proves that random acts of kindness, can have a profound affect on someone’s life. So be kind because you never know whose life you have in your hands.

    1. It says right before the beginning of the story:

      “The below is a true story from Auburn Sandstrom that blew my mind and opened my heart. It is excerpted with permission from ‘All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown’.”

  6. This is so epic and has brought me significant joy. In a time of so much hate and disagreement a little humanity goes an extremely long way; can even change lives. Thank you from Austin, TX, cheers!

  7. This story leaves you to wonder what kind of person is willing to listen to and help a random stranger in the middle of the night. It also brings into play the question: Am I capable of being that type of person. Lord, I hope so.

  8. I haven’t shared a link on FB for months. But this one deserves it so I’ve gone ahead and done so.

    Not only is it a compelling and beautifully written piece, but inspiring, in a rugged and raw way.

    I will always try to become the type of man on the other end of that phone call.

  9. OMG this is exquisite and truly awe-inspiring. I’m working on a book : Adventures of a Cold Caller that speaks to these kind of miraculous moments that are absolutely possible when we least expect it – and this story epitomizes that possibility. simply breathtaking. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  10. May we all demonstrate the humanity and love to those in need, whether we know them or not. The compassion and love made me weep. Thank you Tim.

  11. Thanks, for sharing this. It brought tears to my eyes. There have many times that strangers have helped me. No questions asked and never to be seen again.

  12. Lovely- reminds me of ”darkness is the absence of lightI- like being in a room and all the windows are covered in black dirt. So you get a rag and wipe away a little to let light in” paraphrasing your friend Kamal Ravikant

  13. The real tragedy is that Auburn thought her ‘privilege’ was something to destroy and not cherish and build something meaningful upon. These days, too many young ‘privileged’ people feel they are not deserving of love or self respect when they see others without their advantages in life who are struggling. You didn’t ‘cause’ anyone’s suffering because of who you are and your advantages in life, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their situation. If you feel passionate about helping others, it’s necessary to help yourself first. Looks like Auburn figured out that Truth eventually. Beautiful story of redemption. Thank You Auburn.

  14. Oh, thank you. Ann arbor certainly provided me the opportunity to become aware, learn to care, and grow…many years before you. Never got to where you were (never touched a single drug, but my way forward was enhanced by so many who cared. Thank you. I hope I help in the selfless way of your anonymous late night friend.

  15. Breathless. Tears streaming down my face. Beautiful. When we are heard (and hear ourselves), when we are present with our pain, we can walk through the fear, confusion and uncertainty into a brand new world. One thought, one belief, one conversation, and the whole world is changed. Thank you for sharing this amazing story. 💕

  16. This is powerful. Really, really powerful. Unfortunately, it’s quite impossible to get this kind of kindness in some countries.
    Life is tough.

    1. No one has to be in it alone. Just a glimpse of light! A wise friend says all the time, don’t profess to walk in another’s shoes!

  17. Tim, thank you for sharing that…the story beautiful. Empathy and really listening to someone without judgement pour themselves out to you is divine grace for both.

  18. If the universe could just throw me a little hope, like it did for this author, I’d grab it with both hands. I’m not dying, and my problems are all fixable, but only with that evil invention called money. Oh how I’d love to elaborate, but with the negative vibes I seem to be exuding I don’t think anyone even wants to hear them.

  19. omg, I am so glad for Auburn, It makes me think how many times perhaps I could have been a better listener and less judgmental and giving of my advice.

  20. This is a huge heart opener. Thank you Tim for sharing. This story changed something deep for me. What a beautiful person on both ends.

  21. Indeed, proof. Human spirit can be as easily repaired as damaged. Neither just randomly happen, they have to be sought. Great read. Thanks
    Guy

  22. The first thing I read this morning. It gave me chills; the positive, inspired kind. An excellent way to start my day! Thank you.

  23. I feel like I’ve just release the tension I’ve been holding on to all morning. Thank you for sharing, and the reminder to trust…

  24. Counting on those pinholes right now. Tears of release. Gotta hold your breath reading that stuff – sooo glad you’re still out there sharing this work.
    Wishing a Beauty day.

  25. Two things struck me the most. One was the line about a pinprick of light being the only opening grace needs to come rushing in. The other was how listening without judgment allowed a broken person to admit the truth and seek a better way forward. Thanks Tim. You are right. This moved me, too.

  26. Awesome read indeed and that random love part was quite resonating. Random is pure , as it isn’t adulterated with contaminated, conditioned, limited planning a gift from unknown in reflection of unknown.

  27. Thank you for sharing this. What I pulled from this… be the person that picks up the phone. Talk to strangers, help people in need, and most importantly it’s not what you say that helps people, it’s how you listen. Tim, you constantly enhance my view on the world and I can’t thank you enough for giving us a mediums to listen and to learn from you.

  28. God this hit so hard. I came from privilege and had the same feelings and experiences. Didn’t get addicted to illegal drugs but became an alcoholic. In recovery for over 30 yrs. I had three beautiful, precious children. My youngest daughter is addicted to heroin. She’s out there somewhere and I know there are beautiful souls that will listen to her. Please, universe, send one her way now.

    1. Hello margaret0474. I was lost to MY mother. But after I got clean, I brought that baby home and she and my dad played a huge role in stabilizing us and helping me be a single mom in recovery. Mom and I had a good 20 years of me in recovery to rebuild a relationship. However, the pain she endured watching me descend into darkness and her years of only being able to sleep when I was, say, in jail — these things injured her permanently and her sense of betrayal was never fully healed. She has passed away now. I cannot fathom the pain my addiction caused her. I’m thankful you are in recovery — you have five more years than I. My mother never sought a solution to her side of the alcoholic family illness and died fighting everything and everyone.

      I will keep your daughter in my heart.

      Bless you.
      Auburn

  29. It’s a beautiful planet we inhabit and lots of good people around. Only the news thrives on drama, wars, etc. I was once at Pisa airport going to Milan and i was crying because i was going to miss my friends whom i will only see again after one or two years, and this woman stopped me and asked if i was alright and if i needed any help. Beautiful people, just like this anonymous man on the phone with auburn. But he kind of tops it.

  30. It’s great that she got her life together and that she and her son are happy and successful. That is GOOD and I mean that sincerely. But, if I am honest, this story made me angry.

    First- WHY do wealthy people hate the things that other people are working so hard to get? STOP DOING THAT.
    I would have LOVED to have taken opera classes, become fluent in French and had the whole world at my feet. ALL of those are good things.

    Instead of throwing them away, how about appreciating them, enjoying them and helping others have the same opportunities you had? Which to her credit, it now sounds like she is doing that and she did admit she made bad choices. But hating yourself for the gifts & opportunities you have been given is an ouroboros of stupid.

    When I want men to stop being misogynistic a-holes, I don’t want them to destroy their lives themselves or careers they worked so hard to get ( or were handed to them, (cough, Jared Kushner, cough)- I just want them to, a) STOP being misogynistic a-holes and b) help the rest of us get there too. Poverty is NOT noble and wealth is NOT evil- it’s what people do with it.

  31. As someone who feels like they are rushing from point A to Z with barely a glance at the ones in between, I had to wonder what I would do if I got that call at 2am. It’s a great reminder to figure out how to make space in our lives to listen and be there for others, even perfect strangers.

  32. Wow. At my church this is called Divine Order–just beautiful. May we all give that great a gift to a stranger.

    Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

  33. Sharing our human experience is why we have consciousness. Life is painful, horrific, magnificent and euphoric. Occasionally, within the same rotation of our planet we find these truths. Finding our individual Oneness was a contradiction I was made aware of during my death sentence heart failure diagnosis.Three NDEs and a transplanted heart allowed an epiphany. https://fox8.com/news/health/heart-transplant-recipient-gets-ready-to-run-on-thanksgiving/ FOX broadcast the interview and this happened; https://fox8.com/news/heart-transplant-recipient-runs-turkey-trot-meets-donors-family/

  34. This was a literal burst into tears moment at: “ He pauses again. “You got the wrong number.”

    And I needed that. Through this whole global crisis I have felt so many things but I haven’t cried yet…

    What drew me in so intently to this story was that the first part of this story is my story, except in 2008. Going down that same exact highway, sick; headed for Detroit in pursuit of the same fix. And even with a baby in the back seat at times. (Thank goodness I hadn’t brought any children of my own into the world yet)

    What a powerful story that sheds light on the worst, and the best parts of the human experience.

    Thank you for sharing. ❤️

  35. Amazing story. All it takes is one person who truly sees you to turn your life around. I count myself blessed to have experienced such deep kindness from people I hardly knew.