Year O' Healing: Camp
Last year, when I headed off to nature camp, I didn’t realize that I was kicking off what was going to be a year of healing for myself. I graduated from college coming out of a partying, sorority girl phase. Almost two years out from graduating college (March 2021) I found myself riddled with anxiety to the point of not being able to breathe properly and feeling more or less lost, both in life and amongst myself. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was unhappy, but I was far from content.
Going to nature camp was something I looked forward to every summer from the age of eight to 15. A day at camp looks like waking up to the wake up bell at 7 am, breakfast, clean up, morning workshops (where we learn about different aspects of nature such as trees, insects, herps, etc.), lunch (where funny skits and song singing was a regular occurrence), rest, swim/free time, afternoon activity (where staff offer fun (and sometimes ridiculous) activities for us to do out in the vast 611 acre campus. Then coming back for reflections, a time where we have to be away from the lodge to spend quiet time, alone, in nature. Dinner follows (as well as the bird list, where we keep track of the birds we see each day), and then comes Evening Program (a whole camp activity that consists of things such as night walks, square dancing night, folklore night, etc.). The nightly toothbrush party happens and then you go to bed to the sound of a dorm dean reading aloud.
Camp was a place where I could be silly and weird (the weirder, the better). Camp gave me a place where I could reset in nature after a year of school. I loved all the staff members and friends I made there immensely. When I got back to school every fall, I would pride myself on not being scared when a bee flew near me and being able to name the birds singing. When I was young, I always dreamed of working at camp when I was old enough, and one day even getting the unofficial official camp tattoo.
Unfortunately, I had a terrible experience working there the first time around in 2013 as a 16-year old. I had felt trapped and alone, being one of the youngest on a staff with experienced older staff members. I felt stupid for asking questions, there was constant work being a dishwasher on top of wrangling campers and I was overly tired. I felt like I was always doing everything wrong and I didn’t get along with my fellow dishwashers. I clung to who felt like my only real friend but that quickly divulged into romantic entanglements…which only made me feel more isolated amongst my fellow staff members. It was there that I experienced my first panic attack.
After getting back from camp in 2013, I had a series of challenges. My first love and I split up, I had friendship break ups, my dad was diagnosed and passed away from lung cancer in the span of three months and to top it all off, I was asked by the camp director to wait a year to come back to work at camp so that I could “mature.” I never fully understood why I was asked to wait a year to come back, but it didn’t matter at the time. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and I never wanted to show my face there again. I pushed all of those feelings, the grief and confusion and shame of losing my dad, friendships, lovers and my favorite place, deep down somewhere inside of me for fear of being swallowed by depression. As cliché as it sounds, I closed a part of me off by pushing those feelings down. That nature-loving, weird, 12-year old part of me really felt like it had died. Sometimes I would get glimpses of this side of myself; I still liked to go on hikes and I still didn’t flinch when a bee came near me. But it wasn’t the same until I went back to camp, eight years later, in the summer of 2021 as a 24 year old.
In November 2020, the camp director who had been working there had passed away and two of my old camp friends and one former (favorite) staff member of mine, women who I love and have always admired from afar, were named the interim directors. I remember watching from online the transition of directors slowly unfold. Everyone in the camp community grieving the beloved director’s passing while simultaneously offering support to these new leader ladies.
I desperately wanted old staff members to come back to work that summer to fill camp with that same wacky, weird and fun loving energy that I remember camp being filled with when I was a camper. I wanted camp to still be a happy and fun place for future campers and I was worried it would be different without our fearless director. I felt bad for the future campers…what if they don’t have a good time this summer? And then what if there weren’t enough people enrolled next summer? And then what would happen after that?
My 11th grade History teacher’s words suddenly floated through my head interrupting my anxiety spiral, “you get out what you put in.”
I didn’t have any plans for work that summer, and I knew I couldn’t keep letting my anxious thoughts beat me up for not having a job anymore. All the staff members I had worked with as a 16 year old were getting married and having children and wouldn’t be working at camp. There was a completely new generation of staff members. What’s more, I remembered so strongly the magic of camp and knew I just *had* to give it back to new campers. And if the staff I wanted so desperately to come back, because they had made the magic for me, couldn’t show up now because of life obligations, then I knew that I had to come back. With a completely new staff and new directors and honestly, a new me…it felt like this could be a second chance to work at camp. Maybe even to have a better experience than I did the first time around.
I applied to work at camp but had also applied to work at a PR company (something I have a degree in) because telling people I worked at a PR company sounded better in my head than telling people I’d be working at camp. I hadn’t heard back from either job yet, but I had made it through a testing round and interviews with the PR company. I was nervous because I thought the PR company was going to hire me but I really wanted to work at camp. I kept thinking to myself, when would I get a chance to work at camp, being outside all the time in nature, again?
I went to church one evening in March and received prophecy.* The Holy Spirit told me that I would be receiving a job offer and that I should take it because it would be a blessing. That night I told myself whichever job offer came first I would take because that was God’s plan. The next day I got an email from camp telling me that they would love to have me on staff.
*At my church, prophecy is when someone who has the gift of the Holy Spirit, places their hands on your head and then speaks a message to you from the Holy Spirit.
I was really nervous the months leading up to camp. I was worried I wouldn’t make friends on staff and that I would feel lonely, scared and stupid again. I was worried I was willingly putting myself in the same experience all over again. In May, one month before camp started, a small handful of staff, myself included, were getting belay certified all together and thankfully one of them needed a ride to camp. We bonded on the drive up, talking about psychology and music. I listened to him tell me about the saga of his love life. I was feeling more comfortable because I had made a friend. When we arrived on campus, I was relieved and hit with a wave of sweet nostalgia that the camp was exactly the same. The same ‘don’t slam the door’ signs were there, the quotes inside the lodge were the same and the smells were the same. I was back home.
After getting our belay certifications, another fellow staff member needed a ride home, so she joined me and the boy as we headed back to the DMV area. Because I had listened to the boy share all about his love life, it was my turn to tell my story. I told the two of them all about my various relationships and wild misadventures. I told them about my dad dying, going to therapy, and what a miserable time I had working the first time at camp. I told them about how worried I was that I wouldn’t have any friends again because I was so much older than everyone else. They listened to me. They didn’t argue with anything that I had said, and even validated my experiences. They reassured me that this year would be different and that I already had two friends at camp now. I am so thankful for that water sign car ride (two Pisces and a Scorpio).
I also don’t know if I could have gone back to camp without my sister. As much as I felt a calling to be back there, I really needed a built-in buddy. Being the oldest sibling, I have always been the one to try things out first (camps, schools, new dentists), and I remember always doing this alone and hating it. I remember when I was young, being envious of the kids whose parents had signed them up for camps with their friends. Thankfully I had my sister by my side this time at camp; I didn’t have to do it alone.
Working at camp last summer was the best thing ever, I don’t even fully know how to put it in words. It was long and hot and I got strep throat, but it was all worth it. It was exactly as magical as I imagined it to be when I was younger.
I worked with some really great people in my favorite place. No one was mean, I had friends and I felt safe. I could breathe freely. I felt reset. The reset I had been missing for eight years.
I remember telling my best friend on the phone that working at camp felt like I was reconnecting with the part of me I thought I had gotten rid of; that weird, nature-loving, awkward 12 year old self. And what I realize now as I’m writing this, is that I reconnected with myself through camp. Every summer when I would go to camp as a camper, I was reconnecting with myself on my purest level. Coming back to camp every summer always allowed me to see myself as I am, rid myself of parts that no longer serve me, and leave feeling anew. The summer of 2021 was no different. I showed up how I was, with eight years of baggage piled up, and somehow amidst the cleaning, child wrangling, bonding with staff and being surrounded by nature in a familiar place, something changed within me. Slowly my internal baggage started to soften…I suppose it could have been due to feeling seen, by myself and others. The baggage softening allowed me to feel more free and light and I felt my mind begin to relax. I started to feel happy again.